I call him Zorba because I don’t want to use his real name, and he reminds me of an extra savvy Zorba the Greek from the movie. But I should call him Ex-Zorba, because of the strange way people in this country were named over the previous few decades. When The Big Man took charge of the country, he made it illegal to wear western clothing or use western names. So anyone born prior, with a non-African name (such as Zorba, or Joe or Mary) had to get rid of their old name and use a new African name. By way of protest, folks like Zorba (or whomever) thus call themselves ex-Zorba (or whatever). Which really means, “ex-Stick it in your face, Big Man-Zorba.”
(This is a continuation of THIS story)
Zorba, Lawrence and Renee were three local guys who lived in the fishing village across the Semliki from Ishango, hired to run the kitchen and carry out other key day to day activities at Senga camp. When the crew was at full size at Senga, there were about eight to a dozen researchers (including graduate students), about 20 excavators, and about ten visiting Earthwatchers. That’s a lot of people to keep happy with a crew of three. Later, the Earthwatchers would leave, the excavators would leave, and most of the scientists would leave, and so it became a group of four, then three, then two scientists, one park guard, and the Zorba Three. During this six or seven month period, I got to know these guys pretty well.
Over time, it became apparent that the organizers of the expedition had never figured out how to a) speak the local languages or b) go to the market to get food. Indeed, I remember the previous year, when I visited the sites, I was told by one of the big chiefs: “Don’t come without food. We never have enough food.” So, naturally, I piled fifty kilos or so of plantains and cassava on top of my truck before driving down into the rift. Shockingly, I then discovered that the scientists (mostly Americans and Europeans) did not eat this local food. No wonder they were starving!
Anyway, I quickly took on the responsibility of interfacing between the locals and the visitors, and of going to the ‘market’ to get the food. The market trips involved driving a big six wheeler Leland up north an hour or so, then east to the no man’s land at the international border. Going through the border checkpoints was not a problem as long as we gave rides to people. So we would drive up to the market, stop at the border checkpoint, fill the truck with thirty or forty women, children, goats, and produce, and drive down to the market. There, three of us (Zorba, an additional helper, and me) would take turns guarding the truck while the others went around and bought stuff, until we had enough to feed fifty people (we were buying for Ishango and Senga both) for two weeks or so. When you think about it, that is a lot of food.
For instance, the Bazungu (white people) wanted eggs for breakfast. So between the two camps, we needed to get enough eggs to cook up two dozen every day for 10 days or so. The eggs came in necklace-like arrangements with each egg wrapped in a piece of banana leaf, and a twisty knot thingie in between each egg. We needed to get rare and hard to find things like fresh fruit and veggies, oils for cooking, sugar, and vast quantities of staples like rice, beans, potatoes, plantains, and so on. Over time, I trained the Bazungu to appreciate some of the local food. Or starve.
The big problem was coffee. There was some debate as to whether coffee would be available on this expedition at all. Death threats were made, the debate ended, and coffee was included on the list of things to have no matter what. I had no problem acquiring coffee, as this region is, well, where they grow coffee. The problem was in making the coffee at camp. In previous years, the Brit in charge of this project simply switched to tea in the field, because he figured it was easier to make. The fact that all tea in this country is imported never seemed to bother him. So when I got there, Zorba and his crew were not really set up for morning coffee production.
Knowing this would be an issue, on the first ‘normal’ morning set up at Senga camp, I woke up with Zorba and his crew … at about 3:30 AM. This is when they would start the process of cooking breakfast, and in fact, at the same time, preparing some of the lunch food. Why so early? Well, with no running water, you have to get the water. With no stoves, you have to light and temper the fire to cook everything. Nothing is pre-processed in any way… every single food item has to be processed from raw form to final product. And in the end it all has to look and taste good. This takes time.
Zorba had been doing this for years. He had been the cook and assistant for numerous expeditions, tourist groups, hunters, contingencies of poachers, smugglers, pirates, and park security teams. He knew everything about living in the bush, and he knew how to handle his clients. And just as importantly, he knew how to make the best use of his crew.
His crew consisted of Lawrence, a distant cousin of Zorba, and Renee, an in-law. Lawrence came from several generations of fisherman. I would eventually come to learn that Lawrence was one of the local shamans, though his very quiet demeanor would never indicate any kind of special societal role at all. He was an excellent cook, trained in some local post-colonial restaurant by cooks who were, in turn, rained in France. He could do amazing things with a leek.
Then, there was Renee. Renee was a make work project, as is often the case with in-laws. That first morning, when I joined Zorba, Lawrence and Renee at 3:30 AM, I discovered that Renee’s job was to peel the eggs. This would be the dozen or so eggs that were to be turned into a rather thinly spread omelet (of which each Muzungu would get a bite). And Renee would indeed peel each egg individually. He’d make a little hole, then proceed to remove bits and pieces of the shell until finally the contents of the egg would fall into the container over which he held it. Then he’d start on the next egg.
Seeing this, I immediately picked up one of the unpeeled eggs, and said “Renee… watch this.” As I broke the egg, using one hand, on the edge of the pot .. the contents cleanly spilling into the pot … I saw Zorba gazing at me in alarm and heading my way…
Urgently, in an annoyed voice … “Gregoire … kua pembeni … tunalazima kusungumuzu….” (“Gregori…. come over here to the side, we’ve got to talk..”) as he dragged me off into the shadows cast by the kerosene lamps by which we worked.
“What is it, Zorba, did I do something wrong.”
“Oh man, did you ever!” he replied. “We give Renee the eggs because it takes him forever. It is harmless. He peels and peels and peels then he spend the next hour picking the bits of shells he drops out of the pot. Otherwise he would want do help us do things. And he’s totally useless with kitchen work. Over time, he’ll break all the plates. And our plates are all made of metal!!!”
“Oh… I see.. Well, I’ll not teach him how to break eggs then…”
But it was too late. As we walked back to the kitchen area, we could see that Renee was already experimenting with breaking eggs with one hand. He actually seemed to have a knack for it. From now on, the egg-breaking job would take Renee five minutes instead of two hours. I had to think fast. I needed to not only fix this problem of Renee’s liberation, but I also felt I needed to pay some penance so that Zorba would be less annoyed at me. Then it struck me.
“Oh, Renee…” I said. “I’m so glad you now know how to finish off the eggs so quickly. Because … I have a different job I’d like you to do, if you are willing.”
And I proceeded to teach Renee how to make the morning coffee.
This did take several mornings. Renee was a slow starter but a good learner. Fortunately, our coffee was already roasted (which is a little unusual in these parts) so that did not have to be done. That isn’t so easy. But it did have to be ground. I had copped an excellent old fashioned coffee grinder … the kind with the big crank on top and the wooden drawer into which the ground coffee fell. So I taught Renee how to keep that machine adjusted, and how to make the right amount of coffee (which was quite a bit, really) for the morning installment, and again, for the mid morning installment. We selected pots, screens to use as filters, and figured out a procedure. The coffee had to be put straight into the boiling water … as the water was taken off the fire … stirred in, some time measured out, and then the grounds and water passed through a strainer into a series of thermoses.
After about a week, Renee had it down pat, and coffee was part of our daily routine. It turns out that Renee’s new found ability to make coffee was almost as impressive as his love for fishing which, in turn, was almost as strong as …. his fear of snakes.
Oh yes, I remember … I had warned you that there would be snakes in this story, but I got distracted by coffee and I think we’ve spent too much time already. Next time, there will be snakes,I promise. Two snakes. Big ones. You won’t be disappointed.