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Frustrated in her search for a stimulating meal in Tanzania, a medical missionary comes to appreciate the simple beauty of the traditional diet.

I packed with military precision. Every inch of space was filled and every ounce of weight was used. Yet, a few weeks into my stay in Tanzania, I realized it was all in vain: Why oh why didn’t I fill my luggage to the brim with dried fruit, chips, granola bars, and Jell-O packets?

After eating rice and beans for 37 meals in a row, I was growing desperate. So, when a friend mentioned a restaurant in the next town, I knew what I had to do.

Early Saturday afternoon, I tightened my sneakers, put on my most breathable long skirt, and set off down a narrow dirt trail. The scenery shifted from towering corn stalks to a thick forest as the path plunged down towards the river. Two tree trunks stretched across the water, providing a shaky bridge.

Then, the climb began. I panted and sweated as elderly women passed me carrying timber on their heads. With a bruised ego and heaving lungs, I finally reached the top. It was 45 minutes into my journey, and I wished I had brought some water. As the next village approached, I mentally rehearsed all the normal restaurant phrases in Swahili.  

Farther down the trail, I saw a few small mud huts with colorful displays of fruits and vegetables, but nothing that resembled a restaurant. A friendly woman pointed it out to me. The restaurant was a small, dirt-floored, cement-walled, tin-shingled building. No sign advertised its presence. You had to be in the know. 

I pushed aside the tattered cloth hanging in the doorway and saw two tables and four chairs—all plastic, mismatched, and well used. I asked for a menu. Blank stares. Maybe I mispronounced the word? I cleared my throat and tried it again. A kind soul asked in Swahili if I wanted to eat. Relief flooded over me as I replied, “Yes, what food is there today?” Rice and beans. There was no menu because there were no options.

Somehow, the walk home seemed twice as long. Once I reached my home village, I detoured to the local market. If nothing else, the brightly colored kitenge cloths always lifted my mood.

A familiar friendly face greeted me at my favorite food stall. The shopkeeper had wrinkled skin and a broad smile. He was patient with my broken Swahili and often threw in an extra scoop of beans as a gesture of friendship. 

I peered inside his mud-and-stick constructed booth. Something on a back shelf caught my eye: Is that a watermelon? What a find! The shopkeeper loaded it in my backpack and told me its Swahili name: Tikitimaji. I hardly noticed how much it weighed me down as I walked home with my prize. Should I hide it from my husband so I won’t have to share it? There’s no way I could’ve kept that amazing secret.

The vibrant pink flesh looked so beautiful on my plate. It was neither brown nor white! It was neither carb nor protein! What joy, what unadulterated joy I felt during those first bites! The rush lasted a mere minute before I started wondering what I would do when it was finished. I could not fathom the return to rice and beans for days on end. My husband and I hatched a plan: We would make this watermelon last all week, so help us, God.

Each day I woke up thinking of that watermelon. Each mealtime, I was thrilled to feast upon it. After a few days without refrigeration, it took on a certain tang. I ignored it. The next day it seemed to fizz slightly. The week was almost over, and we didn’t want to waste any. I talked my husband into finishing it. He scarfed down the remaining fruit. 

The great watermelon rebellion began a short time later. His stomach didn’t want the privilege of eating rotten fruit. It’s the sickest he ever was during our entire tenure overseas. This moment, as painful as it was, served as an important turning point. I made my husband physically sick trying to cling to the ways we ate in America. Perhaps it was time to truly embrace the Tanzanian diet.

Embracing Tanzanian food meant approaching the hard-working farmers who labored over it. So, the day after the great watermelon rebellion, I asked a friend to work on her farm. She laughed and agreed. Then, she saw my feeble attempts at wielding a hoe and the laughter grew. No gym membership in the world could’ve prepared me for the workout involved in bringing food from field to table. My arms ached and my skin was burned, but the earth called me back day after day. 

The farm transformed in front of me: Red earth dug up to reveal the fresh, life-giving possibilities underneath. The sunset found me still planting. Manure under my fingernails, dirt on my clothes, a smile on my face. 

My questions seemed to baffle my friend with their inherent absurdity. I must’ve been the only person in the village who didn’t know how to space out pea plants and how often to water the beans. Yet, I was hungry for that knowledge. The gleam of the supermarket grew dim, the loam of the earth pulled me in.

Do you know how a garden grows? Magically, overnight, abundant bursts of life! I monitored and measured, as proud as any new mother could be. The ugliest of produce were my favorite possessions. My friend showed me how to drape fern fronds over the crop to protect them from bugs. I chased away the birds and dogs. As my plants came to life, their thin roots clinging to the soil, I found myself more grounded there, too. 

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Alyson Rockhold

Author Alyson Rockhold

Alyson Rockhold is a freelance writer who formerly served as a medical missionary in Zambia, Tanzania, and Haiti. Sign up for her encouraging monthly newsletter at www.alysonrockhold.com.

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