Getting back to basics with a cooking class in Zanzibar

I move slightly from one butt cheek to the other, as subtly as I can, hoping my face does not reveal my deep discomfort. I’ve been sitting on a solid wood stool only six inches high for the last two hours.  It is the best seat in the house, and as the guest getting a one-on-one cooking lesson from cook Afura, matriach of the household, I don’t want to look rude. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and trickles down my backbone in this midday heat. Afura’s home is in a very basic village on the outskirts of Stonetown, and we are cooking on a charcoal brazier in the packed earth internal courtyard, between the three small concrete-block rooms which form the house.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

I get to choose four african dishes from a list, and I select curry, chapatis, samosa and masala tea – and if that sounds more Indian than African then welcome to the island which has been a trading post for Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and Portuguese for over 1000 years. We have already made the curry and are about to start on the chapatis. Daughter Sophia brings Afura a flat round tin tray with about 5 cups of flour on it, in a ring with a hole in the middle. We dissolve a couple of tsp of rock salt in a cup of water, and I add it drip by drip to the flour as Afura starts mixing and kneading it with her fingers. I stop adding water while it stills looks like a flaky dry mixture, and Afura adds about 100gms of soft butter, and kneads through thoroughly, using her thumbs for power, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. We separate it into five apple sized balls and knead each again until smooth.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

More flour is sprinkled onto the flat wooden board and Afura rolls out the first globe of pastry until about twelve centimetres in diameter, and then rubs a tbsp of oil across the top to keep it soft. She folds it over and over into a strip about 2cm wide, tugging it gently longer as she does. After resting the dough for a few minutes, she stretches it gently again until it is about 25 cms long, double its original length. Lying it on the board, she rolls both ends into the middle, and when the two coils meet, she folds one on top of the other , like a double decker cinnamon roll, and then rolls it flat yet again. Finally it is thrown onto the hot oiled pan on the charcoal and cooked to brown flaky perfection.

Cooking class in Zanzibar village
Cooking class in Zanzibar village

In the meantime, my legs and rear have gone numb, making me unsteady as I try to rise to my feet for a stretch, giving the family a good laugh. Today is going to be delicious, but not so comfortable.

Kliptown, Soweto – the Lost Generation


kliptown
The structures you can see in the left of the picture above are not outhouses or sheds, these are the houses of Kliptown, tiny shacks constructed of corrugated iron and bits of fibreboard and any other materials they can get their hands on. There is no (legal) power, and a communal water supply tap in the street is shared by a few hundred households. They fill up buckets to carry back to their houses, or bring their washing down to the tap and wash it there in the middle of the street. When I say ‘street’, I mean ‘dirt track’. But it doesn’t matter as no one can afford a car around here. The government has recently provided modern portaloos, which the council come and empty out weekly, but the locals are not sure if this is an improvement, as they used to have a daily service to empty their previous outhouses. The houses provide no protection from the heat in summer or the cold in winter.


kliptown
Kliptown is a Soweto township community without most of the basic needs such as schools, health clinics, electricity, or proper sanitation.  And thats just the infrastructure issues. There are apparently all sorts of complex reasons why these issues are so concentrated here. Then there are the people issues. There are approximately forty four thousand people living here.  This is not a new community full of recent immigrants, Kliptown has been here for decades and some families have been here for generations. Unemployment runs as high as 70%; teenage pregnancy about 60%; HIV/AIDS infection at 25%. The current young adults in Kliptown are often referred to (sometimes to their faces) by the government and the media as the ‘lost generation”, as their circumstances have not improved in the 19 years since the end of apartheid, and they will describe themselves as being without hope.

In spite of this, Kliptown is not without historical influence –  it was here in 1955 that an unprecedented Congress of the People was held, and the Freedom Charter was created, which set out the aims and aspirations of the opponents of apartheid. So it helped end apartheid, but is there any way to help Kliptown?


kliptown
Against this bleak outlook, I was humbled to be able to visit KYP. The Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) is run by 16 volunteers from the local community, many of whom could be holding down “corporate jobs” elsewhere in the city but choose to stay and help their neighbourhood. Have a look at their website, they can explain what they do so much better than I can. But basically their mission is to give hope to the children of the area, focus on the next generation, and try to break the pattern of hopelessness. KYP feeds 350 children daily, for many it will be their only meal of the day. The program is not a school, the participants are all expected go to their normal schools (but there are no schools in Kliptown so they have to walk a considerable distance to get to school, if their parents can afford the cost to send them anyway). KYP supplements school with remedial training, and with extra pre-exam swotting, particularly for the older students getting ready to matriculate. They give extensive sports coaching, and dance training, along with classes on ethics and leadership. KYP have also been a recipient of the One Laptop Per Child program. For the last three years, 100% of their senior students have passed their matriculation exam, an amazing result in any environment.

For me, travel is usually all about fun and excitement and all things interesting, immersing myself into an exploration of culture and scenery and food and markets, relaxation and adventure. Occasionally it throws up something very different to that, and this is one of them. A small amount of money goes a long way here – there’s no charity bureaucracy, no highly paid foreigners driving brand new jeeps and filing project reports and expense accounts. All funds donated to KYP are used very directly and practically on their programs, so if you feel like doing something good for a tiny corner of the world this week, go have a look at their website and donate if you can.  Thank you.

Sleeping in Soweto

Here’s an idea! I have to stop overnight in Johannesburg, South Africa between flights – yes, the city with a scary violence reputation. So what do I do? Bypass Johannesburg and stay for two nights in Soweto of course. That’s right, in the infamous “townships”.
Soweto

Stay in a Soweto B&B.


Soweto
Now this might seem counter-intuitive, but Soweto has a well established network of B&B’s, especially in Orlando West, and they are, well, as safe as houses! And not surrounded by barbed wire fences and security guards. In a place where I can walk down the street to the local pub and wander back again later that night, and feel perfectly safe. And my B&B booking also happily arranges my transfers to/from the airport, only 40 minutes away. Now this definitely doesn’t apply to all parts of the townships, but in this area of Orlando West, the community has been determined to create a safe environment for themselves and for visitors, and they have succeeded.

Orlando West appears to be one of the “up & coming” neighbourhoods in Soweto. The houses are nearly all original “matchbox” houses, so called because they were, literally, a small box. But many have also been renovated, extended, or even replaced. And some have built a row of B&B rooms on the spare land at the back of their section, and created a thriving business. I am staying at Linle’s B&B, and I am accommodated in a near new, very comfortable room with a good ensuite. And they feed me a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, cereals, juice and a huge fry-up that would rival any of the best B&B’s in the UK. The family are so welcoming and friendly, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Soweto, Vilakazi St.

Linle’s is just around the corner from Vilakazi Street, the “tourist street” of Soweto, as this is the only street in the world which has housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Soweto
Bishop Desmond Tutu still has a house there, and the Mandela House is now a museum. This is the house Mandela lived in before the final incarceration and immediately after his release. Vilakazi St also has the well known restaurant & bar, Sakhumzi’s, a very pleasant place to wind down on a Sunday evening, under the umbrellas with a cold beer. Given it’s location I expect it might be full of white tourists and therefore lacking any local atmosphere, but I am pleasantly surprised – there are plenty of tourists, but on this evening I am the only white one. Most are South African tourists from other cities, or visitors from other African nations. And there is a fair smattering of locals too. I am befriended by a group of three friends visiting from CapeTown for the weekend, and two locals who have grown up in Soweto but now live in other suburbs, and we drink too much super dry cider.

Soweto Tours and Attractions.


Soweto
]During the day I take a tour of Soweto in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the new Apartheid Museum which sits between Soweto and Johannesburg. The tour covers a lot of ground, including a few World Cup football stadiums, and the Twin Towers, the stacks next to an old decommisioned power station, painted in beautifully colourful murals. It also covers a fair range of emotional ground, particularly for those of us old enough to have been aware of or involved in the anti-apartheid movement from far away in our own countries.

I start to get an idea of how diverse Soweto has become. Here is a suburb nicknamed” Hollywood” where there is no sign of the original matchbox houses, and the architecturally designed mansions would not look out of place in any major city around the the world. Just across the stream from here is a much poorer area, where the government is currently rehousing the residents into new, better, bigger homes. But as people move into their new homes, the old shacks, earmarked to be demolished, are immediately filling up, illegally, by new immigrants from other parts of Africa. Its an ongoing problem as the influx of people from rural areas as well as from other countries has increased dramatically in recent years.

Soweto Neighbourhoods.


Soweto
We stop at a local market (fruit and veges, electronics, clothes, even a “witch doctor” table of herbs and medicines), and also visit a local resident in an original and well maintained “matchbox” house – it’s humbling to realise his ‘two room with outdoor toilet’ is smaller than my bedroom and he has raised an entire extended family in here. It does however now have clean running water, (legal) power supply and a flushing loo, so can be considered “middle class” for the area. Then the owner points out that the walls and ceiling are asbestos, which is why all the householders keep them heavily painted, to seal them and try to prevent any asbestos escaping into the air! (at this point I have to confess I stop breathing and try to hold my breath until we leave – I fail!)

It is a very different story as we go into Kliptown, one of the oldest and most deprived areas of the townships. It’s an area which seems to have gotten no benefit from the end of apartheid, a true slum, a place easy to put into the “too hard” basket. See here for the separate post I have done on Kliptown (coming soon).

Soweto – History of Apartheid.

Our final stops are a roll call of the anti-apartheid movement – Vilakazi St with Bishop Tutu and the Mandela House museum, and just a couple of blocks away the Hector Pieterson square, memorial, and museum.
Soweto
These commemorate the 68+ school children – school kids! – shot dead while protesting over a new rule that required them to take their lessons in Afrikans, back in 1976, an event that captured the attention of the world and was instrumental is creating worldwide public awareness of apartheid. I’ll warn you, this is a museum that is going to make you want to cry, as it has extensive tv footage, witness accounts & photographs from the time that bring the events all too well to life, and immerse you in it. This is officially the end of our tour, and most of us get dropped off at the Apartheid museum to browse by ourselves for the afternoon. I am very impressed with the museum, it is a world class, informative, interactive, multimedia museum covering much of history of South Africa, not just the apartheid years. It needs a good two or three hours to do the museum justice and I am glad there is a lovely garden cafe attached for a bit of sustenance.

So go to Soweto and stay in the middle of some incredible recent history, it is an amazing, stimulating, positive experience – I promise you!

A view of my Antarctic dream

I should’ve realised before, but I never did until now – when flying from Sydney, Australia, to Johannesberg, South Africa, the quickest way there is under the bottom of the world and back up the other side again.
Antarctica

Which is why, part way into the flight, the steward told those of us who were awake to look out the left window – we were passing over the South Pole, and it was mainly clear skies, no clouds obstructing the view (except this one!)
Antarctica

Actually I think he was exaggerating when he said “South Pole” but it was definitely the edge of Antartica – I checked on the Flight Path screen. His credibility was shot when he tried to point out the polar bear for us :)
Antarctica

Top of my travel wish list is to go to Antarctica, so even getting a view of it from on high was a fantastic bonus, I was so excited I had to have a champagne.
Antarctica


Antarctica

Photofriday: Round: Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi


sculpture - round

I love the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in October every year, with the sculptures all displayed along the Bondi to Bronte cliff walk, with he gorgeous ocean as the backdrop. This sculpture from 2006 was one of my favourites.

This will be my last blog for 2-3 weeks, I am off to Tanzania, to parts without wifi and internet access – talk about taking me back a decade or two!

Pakistan needs our help – still!


karakoram
“flood aid slows to a trickle” is the (small) headline in The Australian this morning. “The situation in Pakistan is rapidly getting worse” says today’s email from oxfam. The flooding has been going for a month now and it hardly even makes the news anymore. I am still staggered by the scale of this disaster, it’s not the number of people who have died, it’s the 18 million who have been badly affected, 8 million of whom currently cannot survive without extensive aid, who currently have no drinking water, no shelter, no food, are succumbing to disease outbreaks. And the flooding is still occurring. These are people who may live if the right aid gets to them, and will die if it doesn’t.


hunza
I understand that Pakistan doesn’t exactly have a positive media profile these days. But I was fortunate enough to travel through Pakistan twenty years ago, and had an amazing trip through many of the areas that are now suffering so much. To me it does feel as personal as Bali or Thailand or any other destination I have enjoyed. I know Pakistan has changed in the last twenty years, and there is no doubt that it is a more dangerous place today, but I also remember that I travelled there during the first Gulf War. Our governments were warning us not to travel there then too, again because it was “too dangerous”. Yet our experience was of incredibly friendly, hospitable locals and stunning scenery.
hunza
It was also here where I belatedly discovered that all my favourite “Indian” meals in London were of Pakistani origin – the fact they were meat rather than vegetarian dishes probably should’ve been a giveaway sooner for me!

So I’ve pulled out the old photo albums and included scans of some of my old photos in this blog – a couple have marks on them where the negatives have deteriorated over the years.

I travelled through Pakistan as part of a classic London to Kathmandu overland truck trip. We entered western Pakistan from Iran, travelling through the scorched earth of the Baluchistan desert to Quetta, the border with Afghanistan always just off to our left. As a dusty desert town, Quetta was quite an oasis for us – a sleepy spot where we could sit for hours and drink tea with curious locals, or watch the bread be made in the fire pit under the floor. Here we also got outfitted in our own salwar kameez, so that our dress standards respected the local conditions.


afghanistan
Then we moved on, following the Indus Valley all the way up to Peshawar. Even back then it felt dodgy, a classic border town, although twenty years ago it was reflecting its role as the drug running capital between Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than its current infamy as a porous border for Taliban, terrorists and till drug lords as well. We couldn’t leave Peshawar without driving up the Khyber Pass to the Afghanistan border post, but as that route was rightly considered dangerous even then, we had to hire an uzi-toting guard to sit in the front passenger seat to supposedly protect us – although he seemed so nervous I am not sure he would’ve been much help if anything had gone wrong. We couldn’t cross into Afghanistan, so we literally stood on the border, took photographs in both directions, and then headed back into town, without any incident.
View of Afghanistan from border:
afghanistan
View back to Pakistan from border:
afghanistan

We continued right up into the Northeastern corner of the country, following the Karakoram Highway far into the western edge of the Himalayan ranges, following the Indus river towards China. It was a spectacular multi-day drive through the Swat Valley to Karimabad in the Hunza Valley, the reputed Shangri-La, the cradle of longevity.
hunza
 It was an oasis of greenery along a highway of unrelenting grey and gravel and dirt. Many of the houses had that year’s apricot crop drying on their rooftops, and we happily consumed a few kilos of dried apricots each that week.
hunza
Tourism was fairly common back then, albeit in small numbers, but we found that the kids were very curious about us, and were also very shy. Some of the younger ones looked as scared of us as if they had just seen aliens for the first time.
hunza
I remember these young girls we met on the Karakoram, and I have to wonder how they and their children or even grandchildren are affected by the current disaster. All I can do is keep donating to charities I hope can help, and if we can all do that then maybe we can help them survive.
hunza