Life and Culture in Butembo

I was in Butembo from June until September and it was the longest visit I have had there. My previous visits were only for two days! In this post I want to give an idea of the day-to-day life here as it is very different and beautiful in its own way. I wasn’t able to participate fully in their way of life as I was working two full-time remote jobs that kept me very busy throughout the day. Although it was very different for Othy’s family to see a wife and mother working at home on the computer all day, they were very supportive and happily cared for Moses and did the household tasks for us. So here is what our days looked like.

In the mornings Moses would climb out of his own bed and come to us with his shoes in hand. Since we lived in a two-room annex behind the house, shoes were a must. A typical morning saw us gather in the kitchen, also part of the annex building, in front of a newly lit fire sipping hot porridge made from mais and cassava flour. The kitchen is the heart and life in their home. The fire is a narrow space beneath a large thick metal sheet where Othy’s mom is always in the process of preparing a dish for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The mortared walls are blackened from years of exposure to smoke particles. Two logs bridge above the hearth and hold split logs that are dried there before being put on the fire. Off the kitchen there is a raised porch that overlooks the house and the compound and was my favourite place to sit. There is always a lot to see as friends, family, and neighbours are constantly coming and going throughout the day. The house is enclosed by walls but amazingly it feels like they are not even there. The walls that resulted from city life and insecurity has not stopped what feels like the culture of village life and close community. The same neighbours who Othy grew up with are still there which is something that does not often happen in Canada. Moses would often spend afternoons at different neighbours’ houses which would lift some of the childcare burden from Othy’s mom and sister. I didn’t always know where Moses was and had to trust that he was in good hands. Moses also got very used to being carried on people’s backs. Women carry their kids to their back with a single large piece of fabric. They have no fancy carriers like in the west but there really is no need because their method works so well. I would have tried it myself if I wasn’t pregnant. At first Moses didn’t like it but by the end of our time there he was following his grandma, Tati, around demanding to go “au dos”.

My favourite vantage point

The same porch full of visitors!
Outside the compound
Cooking dinner while carrying an unhappy Moses

Hospitality is very important in Nande culture and so I took breaks from work occasionally to welcome and sit with visitors in the living room of the house. That was really the only time spent in the living room! Guests are always asked to sit down and offered drinks (typically sodas) and sometimes food. Guests also rarely leave without a parting gift of whatever is available, be it a basket of beans, a bunch of bananas, or a live chicken or rabbit! We also received many such gifts as we visited others. In the first two weeks alone I probably met more than two hundred people! We were gifted many things like rabbits and chickens and even a large turkey.

Homemade juice served in the living room
Bananas from the farm
Rabbits, turkeys and goats, oh my! Moses was always a bit hesitant

Cooking is quite a process here because fish and meat is prepared straight from the source! They are usually prepared in an onion tomato garlic sauce. It is common to eat carbs of either potatoes boiled or prepared as fries, rice, or ugali made from mais and cassava flour. A third dish often includes peas, cauliflower (both not found in Kinshasa), cooked beans, or cooked greens. Nandes have very healthy diets and the only processed food they eat is tea from milk powder sweetened with sugar, or soda which I generally tried to stay away from. Moses really loved the food and got particularly adept at taking pieces of ugali and dipping it in the meat sauce before eating it. Othy and I usually ate in the dining room, Othy’s dad in the living room, and the women (Othy’s mom, sister, and grandma) in the kitchen where they shared from the same dish. Moses sometimes ate with them along with his cousin Emma and sometimes with us. Othy’s mom normally took charge of the cooking aided by Othy’s cousin who lives with them while she is studying. She also did all of the accumulated dishes every morning before heading off to school. The dishes station is an outdoor tiled counter with sinks and taps, but because of a city water shortage it is rare for water to come through the taps, especially in the dry season. Sometimes they gather rain water and sometimes Othy’s sister and cousin have to carry water from a location a fair walk away or the men fill up a big reservoir on the back of their pick-up truck. The family gets their drinking water from a more distant spring that they store in jerry cans. Othy’s sister and cousin carry water by leaning over with a full jerry can on their back that they hold behind them with additional support from a piece of fabric that is tied to the handle of the jerry can and wrapped around their forehead. I admire their strength with this task but hope that Butembo can develop a solution to their water supply problems in the near future. Othy’s sister’s main task is doing laundry which is also time consuming as it is all done by hand.

Dishes station
Laundry day

On weekends I sometimes cooked or baked something special. One of Othy’s uncles is a farmer and took up the challenge to find me broccoli. He succeeded and so one day I prepared broccoli by blanching it and then sauteing it in a bit of oil with garlic and ginger. It turned out great and they liked it but it was too foreign to be something they would adopt and prepare for themselves. Othy’s mom used to bake bread and cakes in large brick ovens on the compound but they have been out of commission for sometime. An alternate way she did it was to bake in large steel pots filled with sand and fire placed on top. A neighbour sold Othy an electric oven and so I showed his mom how to use it and prepared banana bread one time and pumpkin cake another time. I had to buy butter imported from Uganda because butter is not a thing here and so they use oil for their cakes and breads. They have some cows at one of their farms and sometimes send along fresh milk and so next time I hope I can show them how to make homemade butter! Another thing that permeates life here is farming. Othy’s family has several farms that they mostly cultivate for themselves these days. During my stay they had harvests of fruit (the best passion fruit, mangoes, and pineapple I have ever had), beans, and cassava. For the beans they cut off the vines, bring them back to the compound, and let them dry in the sun on the concrete. Then after a day or two they thresh them so that the beans fall out of the dried pods. It was fun to watch Moses and Emma inspect the different things that were drying in the sun. The family has people who manage the farms for them, but for harvests and planting they do day trips with several family members. I did not get the opportunity to join them, but they brought Moses along once or twice.

Baking bread
Drying the beans
Sorting the beans

In the evenings we are usually back in the kitchen in front of the fire. I either bathe Moses in our room in a small tub or else Othy’s sister or cousin bathe him in the kitchen at the same time as Emma. For showering we heat water on the fire, mix it with some cold water, and take it to the shower stall that is next to the latrine for a bucket bath. I am very familiar with showering this way as we had to do the same thing in Kinshasa (minus heating water on a fire). Using a latrine day by day was a bigger change! We usually ate dinner at 8pm and so Moses bedtime was closer to 9pm. Moses and Emma would still have abundant energy after dinner and be running around the compound. Since Moses didn’t have many pajamas I came up with a method of layering clothes over top of his pajamas after his bath, so that at bedtime I could take the outer dirty layer off and he was ready to climb into bed! I was never long behind him! I hope that this description gives a sense of what life and culture is like in Butembo!

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