There was something completely unique about our friendship. I remember the day I first met her. She had an African smile with such warmth, it was impossible to forget. I had just arrived at a safari camp in Botswana which would be my home for the next three months. Kebofilwe was the camp chef and I was the new volunteer from Canada. When I walked up to her for the first time, she was wearing a colourful Kikoi wrap, a bright pink and black sweater, and a scarf tied around her short, stringy, black hair. Certainly an interesting choice in clothing, but I had the feeling she thought the same of me with my frizzy, blonde curls, shorts revealing my pasty white legs and a white T-shirt stating, “Hug a Canadian Today!” We greeted one another awkwardly, our hands fumbling around a Batswana handshake I had not yet learned. Kebofilwe spoke broken English, all I could say in Setswana was, dumela (hello). It was a challenge at first to communicate, but we did our best.
As a volunteer I was assigned certain duties around the camp, but a sense of belonging in this foreign world seemed impossible to me. I was an outsider in every sense of the word with my blonde hair and blue eyes, funny accent, strange behaviours and a seemingly lavish lifestyle from a country that was known for being too cold. I wondered how such a barrier could be broken.
One day I walked into Kebofilwe’s simple camp kitchen and asked, “Can I help you cook?”
She glanced over at me and slightly smiling, she said, “Take the maize from the shelf.”
I had no idea what maize was. Luckily for a large silver tin labelled “Maize”, I was saved.
“We will make papa for dinner,” Kebofilwe said.
I sheepishly replied, “I don’t know what papa is, Kebofilwe.”
“Mma”, she said. “You will learn. I will teach you how to make papa.”
Over the next three months I spent countless hours in the kitchen with Kibofilwe. She was the mentor, and I the apprentice. I learned how to cook with minimal supplies, in a kitchen far from civilization in the middle of the African wilderness. To bake the daily bread was a craft in itself. The dough was made from scratch and then the baking tins were placed in metal boxes. The next step was to dig holes in the dirt ground and build a hot fire. The metal boxes were then put inside the holes, and a shovel was used to systematically place red-hot coals above and below the box. Ten minutes later, warm, golden-brown loaves would emerge. The first few times of baking bread this way my loaves came out either burnt or undercooked. When I finally got it right, Kebofilwe smiled. “This is good. You will bake the bread on your own now.”
I beamed with pleasure that she now trusted me with the responsibility.
“Tomorrow I will show you how to make magunas,” she said.
The days in the kitchen flew by. I learned how to make everything from marinades and home-made soups, to apple crisp and pears in red wine. With each recipe our relationship grew stronger, and I even taught Kebofilwe how to make my favourite dessert from home. We didn’t always speak much, but there was no need as we shared a bond within the little kitchen that could not be broken. While we worked side by side, I became immersed in her culture, language and lifestyle.
“Kebofilwe. How do I say "thank you very much" in Setswana?”
“Ke itumetse tata,” she said.
“Ke itu…..oh that’s hard,” I said.
“Ke itumetse tata,” she repeated. “The onions, you chop them this way,” she said, motioning in my direction.
“Ok, thanks. I mean, “Ke itumetse tata.”
“Ey Mma, it’s good,” She replied gently.
One day we were in the middle of making a potato salad and having a discussion on marriage.
“In our culture, people go on a honeymoon after their wedding,” I stated. “What do people do in your culture?”
“Well, Kebofilwe said, “We kill and we kill and we kill, (a look of horror grew on my face) and we kill lots of goats and cows and we eat and dance for days and days.”
My face softened, “That sounds fun.”
“Ey Mma,” she said as she tasted a spoonful of potato salad, “This needs a bit more mayonnaise.”
Kebofilwe and I were able to get out of the kitchen on many occasions and have fun as well. At a party in the safari camp one night, all the staff (both local and international volunteers) turned on traditional African beats and danced the night away. They taught us how to dance “African style” – our hips shaking and our feet stomping to the floor. “Go down to the ground!” yelled Kebofilwe, and we followed her lead as we danced to the floor. We all laughed. Whatever culture we came from, no one could deny the contagious African rhythm.
Faster than I knew it, my time at the camp was coming to an end. Shortly before I left Botswana I had the privilege of visiting Kebofilwe’s house in a nearby village. Dusty, dry dirt covered her property and small sticks jammed into the ground, symbolizing the boundary from her land to the next. The one-room house, constructed from mud and a thatched roof, was barely big enough for a bed, dresser and small table. The scene depicted an image of poverty, a life of hardship where you make due with less than the bare minimum. It was a life I would never have or experience in Canada. Kebofilwe invited me inside. Sitting on the table sat a plate with two magunas, one of which she offered to me. On the simple, barren walls hung one embroidered picture that stated, “My home is small, but the welcome is great.”
This simple quote I will always remember. It perfectly demonstrated the kindness and generosity of a person who has nothing, yet so much to give. She invited me into her kitchen, a stranger from a foreign country she knew little of, from a culture she did not understand. We both accepted that neither of us would ever truly know how it felt to live the life of the other, but we found commonalities that led to acceptance, laughter, and a friendship neither of us thought was possible. We were content in our kitchen, and nothing else mattered.