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My cooking experience in Zaïre / Congo

In 1989 I had the opportunity to go on a trip to the Congo that was organised by the head of teachers in Switzerland. They selected five people who were able to go on the trip as mentors to show local teachers how they can teach kids in a very nice, natural way. The focus was also on getting familiar with nature and food. The theme we chose was water, so all of the lessons were based on fish, washing, drinking, and so on. Each academic subject was also centered on water, whether it be writing, mathematics for example.

I was one of the 5 people but was not really involved in teaching except organizing some exercises with the kids and the other teachers.

My top job was to cook for all teachers including the local ones and, especially to make sure the food was healthy and that there were no bacteria present.

The water had to be filtered and cleaned with tablets, everything needed to be well cooked. It was really an experience to see and learn that the people from the Congo often got sick because they didn't have fresh water. Local women collected the water from the river. It took them almost half a day to get a bucket and bring it back to the ‘village’. W

e had the option to make sure everything was safe, and this was mainly my job.

There were sometimes up to 20 people for me to cook for. The locals built a ‘kitchen’ just for us. It was a kind of tent. In the middle, there was a fireplace and a huge pot. That’s all I had to cook with. To stir the food, I used pieces of wood. I had to go to the market every day, which is actually another big adventure: Kikwit, the ‘city’ had about 10,000 inhabitants, but you couldn't imagine that really as it was so far spread out and the families lived in their self-made little cottages. We had the option to stay in a house next to the church. Here we also did not have running water, locals carried the water for us from the river. Instead of a shower, we had to use buckets to pour water over ourselves. Of course, the water was cold!

In the market, we were kind of famous. Everybody knew we were there. The bush-talk was working, there were some Swiss people in Kikwit! There were always huge greetings when I came to the market

, (bonjour mama, hello mum). It took me ages to get my food as everybody wanted to talk to me, (most locals could speak French, otherwise we just talk

ed with our fingers. I had to make sure I was home in time to be able to cook for the evening and before it started to get dark as there was only candlelight after 6 pm.

I had a local helper who actually introduced me to food which I had never seen before. He also helped me in preparing and cooking. Maniok was the main ingredient, a root, which we prepared like a kind of mash. However, the flavor was very different from potato, well It actually did not have any flavor at all! There were also different types of vegetables, especially ‘epinac’, a kind of spinach. Obviously, there was hardly any meat. However, one day I got a present from somebody who was visiting us. It was a duck, still alive and I was

supposed to kill it. But thank God I had my helper. Another day we cooked a rat, and it was a wild rat. But it was still a special experience to cook eat such an animal. Sometimes we were invited to some people's places. They tried to spoil us with special food, which was not always to our taste. One day we were served caterpillars that were still alive as a starter, just as we would serve a bowl of peanuts. I just couldn’t do it and had to make up a story. I pretended I felt sick that day.

One day all the female teachers and some of their friends came to our place to prepare and show their “specialty”. Each of them brought their whole kitchen which was basically just a pot along with their ingredients and maybe some utensils. Cutting boards did not exist that’s what hands were used for.

It was an amazing experience.

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