I have never been to Africa. I listened, entranced, to the stories of wonder my parents’ friends told about working on the dams in Zambia, or building the roads in Zimbabwe, tracing afterwords on the globe the meridians that led me to those exotic countries. In elementary school I followed with adrenaline-induced intensity the escapades of the two kidnapped children wandering through deserts and jungles in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness. In high school I suffered through Harry’s inevitable moribund monologues in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and made a pledge to change the world when the horrible injustices of Apartheid made my heart constrict with sorrow in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.
I listened to the stories of safaris in Kenya and explorations of the Serengeti, and yearned to see the red sky on the horizon of the savannah. I watched every episode of the BBC Survival series, dreaming of the African sunrises and the majestic waterfalls. When my piano teacher left for Mauritania with her husband and daughter, I was heartbroken and sad, but curious and jealous at the same time.
I wanted to go to Africa when my friend John joined the Peace Corps and departed for Tunisia, but I was reluctant to skip the meridians again. Besides, I had a two year old daughter who was a bit too big to fit into a backpack. So I stayed put in a western suburb of Detroit and buried myself in the painful intricacies of The English Patient. My heart, already torn to slivers by divorce, became broken again and again, while I envisioned myself in the cave, the Saharan winds covering me with layers and layers of soft, seductive, and deadly sand.
I rejoiced when the mailman brought a postcard from my sister’s trip to Northern Africa, and cried laughing while she later described their adventures in Egypt and Morocco. I could envision her sitting under the enormous Saharan night sky next to the communal fire, surreptitiously rubbing her hands with an antiseptic just before a wizened Bedouin women of undetermined age offered her some flat bread and a tiny piece of some desiccated animal protein wrapped in dried camel dung. I chuckled as I imagined her chagrin when she discovered that she would be the one riding a donkey, while the rest of the group would ascend on the royal camels on their way to the pyramids, even though she would be the one leading the caravan.
I watched Hotel Rwanda embracing my knees with all my strength and sobbing inconsolably, unable to sleep for nights, asking myself what I could do to help. And I admired my friend Srdjan who spent months in the worst regions of Sudan on a UN mission to help the children.
Another friend is leaving soon for another UN mission, and Africa is again on my mind. Africa of Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion of my grade school years, Africa of Alex Haley’s Roots, Africa of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Africa of Somalian babies with stomachs distended by hunger, Africa of merciless child-soldiers wielding AK-47s, Africa of majestic buildings in Addis Ababa, and Africa of victorious Nelson Mandela.
I cannot go to Africa. Not yet. But I can bring a part of Africa to my home. I can introduce my children to a world that they yearn to discover as much as I do by cooking a dish that represents at least some aspects of this wonderful, mysterious, and so exploited continent. And as a background, I will offer them the books and the movies that seduced me and enticed me to learn as much as I can about Africa, enveloped in romanticism and destroyed by greed.
- 1 pound (500gr) boneless chicken legs. chopped in cubes
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 piece ginger (1 inch), peeled, grated
- 1 Tbsp garlic chili paste
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp smooth peanut butter
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 big sweet potatoes peeled and cut in big chunks
- salt, pepper
- Combine the chicken, garlic, brown sugar, ginger, garlic-chili paste, salt, and oil, and marinade for 30 minutes.
- Heat the skillet on medium-high heat and add the chicken and the marinade.
- Stir for 5-8 minutes until the chicken starts to get brown.
- Add the onion.
- Stir for another 5 minutes.
- Add tomato paste and peanut butter.
- Stir for a couple of minutes until everything melds together.
- Add the chicken stock, sweet potatoes, and the seasonings.
- Cook for another 20-30 minutes, until the sauce thickens and the potatoes are fork-tender.
- Serve as is, or with some boiled rice.