Susan was our maid and my nanny when we lived in Kenya. She was from Uganda, and had fled Idi Amin‘s regime, like so many others. And like so many of her fellow country-men and -women, she was very well educated. I owe her my first grasp of the English language, learnt listening to her stories and her commentary of the news when my parents were out in the evening (I was 8 years old). And the news was often fascinating, albeit heavily censored, as this was from 1980 to 1982 during the border dispute with Tanzania.
Kenya was the 1st of many African countries we lived in, starting in 1980. We used to move every 2-3 years, which frankly always makes it easy for me to remember specific ages, where I was at what age and who my friends were. I have never associated any bad things with moving so often. Of course, like everything else, I have my parents to thank for that, which I appreciate even more now that I have children of my own.
Kenya was a magical place to begin a life on the African continent. Many weekends were spent on self-drive safaris and (irresponsibly, now we think about it) pitching our tents in any old national park, making sure there was no food in the tent so the elephants wouldn’t carry us away during the night (known to have happened). One morning we found fresh lion ‘calling cards’ outside the tarp. One evening we went to collect firewood and a green mamba made it into the back of the car with the dry branches. And us kids (we often went with one particular family of close friends) would have to scare away the monkeys who were ogling our stores of food (which is what we are doing in this photo). Is it any wonder I find camping in Europe a tad pedestrian? And wet and cold?
Susan (of the Peanuts) came to us with her 2 children, one evening, looking for a job. Djungu, her eldest son, was the picture of what many then (and still now to a certain extent) think of as a starving African child, with a bloated stomach and legs that could not carry him despite his 3 years of age (never mind that African countries have come on in leaps and bounds since then). My dad gave him some UNICEF powder mixed with Fanta every day, and within 10 days, Djungu was running around like the rest of us. This was the ancestor of PlumpyNut, I guess. Which brings me to my 2nd Madeleine: Susan’s lovely hot, boiled peanuts. Plumpy Nuts, indeed!
It’s hardly even a recipe, it’s so easy:
Take as many peanuts in the shell as you wish to eat, put them in a big pan of water with lots of salt and boil them for 2-3 hours, then leave them to cool slightly in the water. Drain and serve with a nice beer (for the adults) or … Fanta (for the kids).
And here are the kids. The occasion eludes me, but it looks like we are having fun:
I made some Susan Peanuts this evening, and the memories started to flood in, as I had hoped they would: eating ugali (maize meal) in Susan’s hut. Not something I did a lot, as I found it decidedly bland. But I loved when she cooked sukuma wiki, an indigenous type of kale. Sometimes she would treat my parents and I to the best Ugandan food, but as I was only 8 years old, I did not think of taking notes of the recipe. But I do remember tilapia filets cooked with tomato in banana leaves and helping to knead chapatti bread (something to do with twisting it around my thumb, although I’m not sure why). I think that is exactly what she is preparing in this grainy snapshot.
Susan also had a little girl. She must have had a proper name, but we all called her Shillingi – “Treasure” in Swahili – because it was derived from the local currency, the Shilling. In my memory, Shillingi was always ‘dressed’ in the same thing: well-oiled and with a string of blue plastic beads around her plump tummy. I have an old photo of her in this perennial outfit, but things have changed since 1980 and I no longer feel comfortable publishing such a memento. Instead, here she is in her Sunday Best, with her mother Susan.
Thinking of Susan also reminds me of our house in Nairobi and how the black cotton soil in the garden would prevent the water, which was pouring down during the rainy season, from being absorbed by the earth. The whole garden was transformed into a slippery mud bath, which was hilarious to navigate bare-foot, while ‘helping’ my dad dig trenches to drain away the water.
Some less funny memories come back as well, uninvited. Hiding beneath the windows and crawling around the house, during the attempted coup in 1982 against the president Daniel arap Moi, who lived just around the corner. Just around the other corner was also Africa’s biggest slum, Kibera, where much of the unrest understandably was happening (for a glimpse of Kibera, I recommend watching the movie The Constant Gardener). This would be my first encounter with the violence and political turmoil of Africa, but by no means my last. How my parents succeeded in making me at the same time feel safe, while also explaining things so I could understand them, is still a wonder to me and something for which I thank them.