Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
After eating a plateful of mazondo or slowly cooked ox trotters and a mountain of sadza, my cousin Reuben patted his stomach and said he needed to eat less meat. This daily eating of meat and more meat was unhealthy for him. As a result, his stomach was really getting big. No doubt, his cholesterol was also up. That means his blood pressure could be rising as well.

He complained that the combination of beer, wine and meat was making him feel fat and not so good looking any more.

Since his arrival in Zimbabwe from Australia where he lives, Reuben said he had neither gone for a run to exercise nor was there a day when he did not eat meat or drink alcohol.

“We have the tastiest meat in the world. Our cattle feed on good grass and they graze in perfect weather. Try the fillet steak, hmmm, that meat, I tell you is real meat,” Reuben said last week despite his earlier complaints the week before, of eating too much meat. We were standing by the car, watching the sunset, waiting for our meat and sadza at Mereki, the open air barbecue in Harare’s Warren Park suburb.

The whole sky was filled with smoke. Each woman and her assistants in aprons stood next to the fire and roasted meat. Others cooked more meat in big pots. Sadza accompanied by a plate of onion, tomatoes and chilli sauce was being served to several people.

It was a smoke-filled atmosphere with a village like smell that we were so familiar with.

“There is not one single plate of vegetables on any of the plates I have seen going past. Guys, this country eats too much meat,” Reuben said.

“And why should anyone not eat meat if the meat is there? Iripo zvayo?” Piri asked, reaching for the big piece of T-bone steak with her hands. We were all picking from a tray full of pork chops, pork ribs and big round sausages, charcoal grilled on the fire. We were here to seek the village taste of meat roasted on an open fire. The noise, music, smoke and the laughter took us back to the past and we savoured the village style food cooked by Mai George, Mai Fungai, Mai Gonyeti and others at Mereki’s.

Because Reuben felt unhealthy or perhaps guilty last Sunday, he decided to cook for all of us including my cousin Piri, my brother Sidney, my niece Shamiso, her husband Philemon and a couple of other relatives who dropped in on Sunday afternoon.

“Who said a man can cook while women wait to be called to the table?” Piri asked, sitting down on the chair around the big dining room table. Shamiso and Philemon smiled with embarrassment. They whispered to each other that it was not normal for a man to cook. Everyone took their place around the table. Reuben, standing at the end of the table, wearing an apron over a white T-shirt and jeans, decided to give a speech.

“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to lunch. I know you are used to eating food prepared by the ladies. But the world is changing. Roles must be shared between genders. I for one, got converted from my male chauvinistic attitude and believe we should all help each other around the house,” Reuben said. He wore one of my aprons over a white T-shirt and jeans.

“Amen brother. Amen,” said Piri.

“So, today, I decided to make a special meal with a very strong village touch. You may recall eating a number of these dishes when we lived in the village. These days, it’s hard to find such good organic food,” Reuben said.

“You can now leave the speeches for later because we are hungry,” said Piri. Reuben handed the serving spoons to us then he sat at the head of the table, watching everyone dish out food for themselves.

Piri picked at pieces of lettuce in a bowl, looking for meat. Then she opened a couple of the dishes and found no meat. Reuben pushed a plate full of cooked egg plant stew towards Piri. Thinking it was a meat dish, Piri smiled and said, “Ah, hamuoneka! Mhoro nyama.” Piri greeted the ‘meat’.

Piri placed the spooned the egg plant from the bowl and the egg plant slipped. She tried again and managed to scoop a few pieces. Before she could place it on her plate full of rice, the smile on her face disappeared . With a look of exasperation she turned to Reuben and said, “What kind of soft black meat is this?” Then we all laughed. Reuben went to the fridge and brought one raw egg plant. Holding it up in the air, he then described it, saying it was a highly nutritious vegetable full of iron and good for the body.

“Egg what? I see this ugly vegetable everywhere and in my mind, I always think that this is the food for European people. How can anyone eat that?” Piri said, pushing it away.

Reuben had cooked varieties of vegetarian dishes including muboora, pumpkin leaves, derere, okra, red millet sadza, zviyo, mukaka wakakora or sour milk for desert. I had helped him make derere, okra. It was a feast of many vegetarian tasty dishes including rupiza, the village chick pea.

“Take one day a week and eat only vegetables,” said Reuben. “It’s good for your health.”

“But this is hard. Why punish us with vegetables like we are rabbits like this?’ complained Philemon. Others complained too. “We do not afford to buy meat everyday at home,” they said.

Ever since we moved from the village to the city, we like to eat a plate of sadza with meat or chicken every day. Sometimes, we eat fish but meat eating is a daily occurrence for those who can afford it.

And yet, there was a time, back in the village, when we lived more like vegetarians. A chicken only got slaughtered when we had visitors, when a new child was born or when we wanted to celebrate Rhodes and Founders Day, Christmas or Easter time. My grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa had plenty of cattle. Once a year, she ordered the slaughter of a beast, mombe yemadiro for us all to eat and enjoy fresh roast and cooked meat. Everything thing was eaten. Oxtail, liver, brisket and offals were very special. Mbuya hung fresh strings of meat above the fire to smoke. Then she boiled some of it a little , added salt and chilli, and placed the long pieces of meat on a flat rock. We then took turns to sit next to the meat, guarding it from birds, dogs or baboons. Every now and then, we stole small pieces and chewed the tasty biltong.

In those days, we ate vegetables almost every day. Mbuya, my mother and all the village women cooked various types of mushrooms ( whose English names we did not know) from chihombiro, nhedzi, huvhe, tsvuke tsvuke, nzeve and matindindi. And there were varieties of vegetables too; mudyakari, mowa, derere remashizha or okra, munyemba, muboora or pumpkin leaves.

When she was in the mood, Mbuya woke up very early and spent all morning preparing rupiza, the time consuming roasted and ground split chick pea with peanut butter sauce.

Reuben’s food was tasty but Piri ate very little. “We must change with the times and eat less red meat,” said Reuben.

“When the meat is there, it must be eaten. If I do not eat meat for a day, I feel unwell,” Piri said, leaving the table after eating sadza and okra only.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic.