Friday, June 7, 2013

LETLHAFULA: A movable feast from Gaborone to Germany

“Further, German settlers to the Eastern Cape in 1858 often elected to wear the blue print that was widely available as a trade cloth and echoed the Blaudruk that they were familiar with in Germany," History of Shweshwe, Da Gama textiles.

And this ladies and gentlemen is one plausible explanation of why the Botswana national dress for women is made out of a fabric often colloquially referred to as German print. I’m writing about this because I’m in Berlin and it took twenty-four hours from my door in Gaborone to the hotel door in Potsdamer. So of course my first thought was how and why in the world we chose this particular fabric to don for our cultural ceremonies all the way in Southern Africa.  Of course I know from my primary school social studies class that the Germans have a history with Namibia, which borders Botswana to the west, but I wondered what the connection might be between my temporary digs and back home.  

Just last weekend I attended a food and culture festival in Botswana, known as Letlhafula. Letlhafula is a Setswana word meaning ‘harvest’ and can be taken to mean a/the time of harvest. In its 13th year the Letlhafula festival was started by the owners of Botswanacraft which is my favourite stop for traditional cuisine in the city (when I’m not buying it on the street off an unidentified lunch-vendor).

The festival is held every May probably because our winter begins around then and ends in July - give or take a couple of weeks on either end. This is arguably the best time to reap what we have sown before winter well and truly kicks in. I am what could be called an unreliable narrator because I’ve spent my entire life in the city and the seasons pass differently in urban spaces, more as a reference to fashion than food. The only quality time in a village setting that I got for eighteen years was 3 weeks every Christmas holiday, not enough time to properly pick up what a number of my village-raised peers know backwards. What I do know is this, that the way we traditionally marked the harvest time was by feasting on all of nature’s bounty (sounds like an ad for frozen veggies) and so this festival is a kind of urbanized celebration of that agrarian practice.

Up to 25 pots each with their own chef, cooking up lots of yummy food including phane (also known as mophane worm although its a caterpillar if we are going to get all technical), menoto (chicken feet) and leleme (cow tongue), I’ve gone for the shock factor there and named what’s most likely exotic sounding but all of it is, I assure you from first hand experience, fantastic tasting.
Plate laden with lephutshe (pumpkin), menoto, bogobe jwa madila (sour porridge), koko ya setswana (free range chicken),  seswaa (pounded beef) and phone. The brown and white fabric underneath is an example of the German print fabric

The cooking takes place in black cast iron, three legged pots over an open fire. The food tastes mildly woodsy which doesn’t mean what you might think, just better. It hardly ever burns (I’m not the world’s best cook but even I can work one of these) and there’s something about the final dish that makes you want to eat with your hands. So of course we wash our hands before we eat, doesn’t everyone you ask? I hope so but the way we do it traditionally is, the water is usually brought in a jug to the seated person being served, they wash their hands into a bowl and immediately tuck in.  Sounds simple enough but in context it really adds something to the whole vibe. Everything you eat is organically grown or open farm raised. From the seswaa pounded beef - not unlike pulled pork in its look - to the goat stew and tripe, all manner of lentils and dried bean leaves, phaletshe (a palenta-like corn staple), sorghum and millet cooked with sour milk or pumpkin.  Don't get me wrong breakfast here at the hotel was fantastic but my mouth is watering at the memory of the festival feast.

Setswana traditional cuisine is healthy, I suppose our idea of dessert would be fruit. The food is filling, often protein heavy but prepared in a way that hasn’t for whatever reason given the entire population gout given how much of it we eat. As one of our top 3 Miss Botswana beauty contestants recently said, - Botswana has more cows than people. In fact over 50% of the country's households own cattle.

Back at the festival, there is a sizable stage where a number of artists including traditional instrumentalists, dancers, poets reciting in Setswana and comedians regale the masses with words and sound and such stuff. All of this served in the great outdoors, well in a courtyard with tables over-layed with the leteise which my elderly aunts still call *Jeremane (a kind of lehnwort, although probably more of an adaptation rather than a direct loan of the word Germany).  It is basically indigo fabric but these days it is available in a myriad of colors not just the original blue that our mothers always wear to weddings and cultural ceremonies such as the sending off of a bride to her in-laws the day after she is wed.  
As you can see from the free advertising that I’m giving a certain telecommunications company, the event is sponsored by a multi-national private entity.

*Je – as in jerry
  re – as in renegade
  mane – as in, well as in mah- nay

1 comment: