A Gala Night at Engadine Community Centre
Until recently, my experience with African food had been limited the odd tagine stew, usually cooked by me, from a recipe I found on the internet one long and lonely night shift. It was probably far from traditional, and it certainly involved a fair amount of ingredient substitution, something which I am famous for. In all honesty, it was probably about as African as beef stroganoff.
I am saddened to say that my experience with African people had been about as broad as my experience with the food. I grew up in an area of Sydney that is not exactly known for it’s multiculturalism. It was a pretty sheltered existence, and one that I have consciously decided is not what I want for my own children. It is a big part of why I am embarking on this project. So on April 18, my family and I got ready and headed out to experience as much of Africa as one can in a community hall in suburban Sydney.
The evening was a fundraiser for the Taste of Africa Asami foundation, which is the brainchild of event organiser, Harrison Lusitche. Harrison immigrated to Australia on a skilled migrant visa in 2008. Originally from Kenya, his ties to his home country remain strong, and he has devoted much of his time to his goals of alleviating poverty through empowerment and education. A Taste of Africa aimed to raise money for the foundation while simultaneously showcasing some of Africa’s food and culture.
We arrive, and I am underwhelmed at the lack of people outside the venue. I start to worry that it had been a flop. We pay anyway, and walk inside. Suddenly, the party begins. There are people everywhere! Some dressed in “regular” clothes like we are, but many dressed in brightly coloured traditional African clothing. We are introduced to Harrison, who I have never met before but have spoken to over the internet for a couple of weeks. He greets me as an old friend, crushes me in a bear hug, and kisses each of my children. He is a ball of enthusiasm, and we are all mesmerized by him.
We are late, and dinner has started. We grab a seat next to an old friend and a family in traditional dress, and join the buffet line to fill our plates. I start with Samaki Wa Nazi, “Fish in Coconut” and a South African spiced rice Biryani. The sauce is delicious, I love coconut in anything! I have also piled my plate with fried potatoes which 3 year old, Daniel, is stealing from my plate so fast that I have to steal from my husband’s plate just to get a bite. Phoebe and Jared are tucking into Irio, a Kenyan side dish that consists of mashed potato, peas and corn with spinach. Joe and I share some marinated meat on kebab sticks and cassava stewed in a rich tomato based sauce.
The food is hearty, with rich sauce and spicy flavours. It is social food, designed to be shared, stolen off the plate of your neighbour, and laughed over. We eat and talk while the kids run around and steal morsels off our plates. We eat until we are full, and then sit back until we can eat a little more. It is thoroughly satisfying and very enjoyable.
As we finish our meals, the entertainment starts. We are treated to performances by a solo dancer from Kenya, and a traditional performance by the Inkumburwa Dance troupe. My kids go nuts clapping their hands and stamping their feet to the sounds of traditional African drumming by I Feel the Rhythm. From Massai jumping demonstrations to African fusion fashion, there was something for everyone to be interested in.
As the formal entertainment ended, we found ourselves chatting to strangers as though they were old friends. The atmosphere was so cheerful and welcoming, it would have felt strange not to be so friendly. Harrison was in his element, working the room and posing for photos. People were dancing in small groups, kids were pretending to be rock stars on the stage. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the entire function formed a giant conga line, and we danced around the room, hands on the waists of strangers, for about 20 minutes. It was ridiculous fun. The conga line broke up, but the dancing continued. For us though, it was time to go. We packed up three tired kids and five full bellies and headed for home.
When we arrived home, I was on such a high. It was a night full of fun. Harrison and his team were so welcoming. The entire night was a celebration, proud people celebrating their heritage and culture, and sharing it loudly with those around them.
I have spoken to Harrison since the event, and he told me that it had been a success, and that his goal to raise funds to support communities in the country he grew up in had been met. He is considering another event. Possibly more. If A Taste of Africa do decide to follow this up with another night, I will be there will bells on.