You might think that when traveling to Africa you may lose a little weight. You certainly aren’t concerned about gaining weight. It’s not like going to Italy, where you know you’re going to gorge yourself on pasta and gelato, washed down with copious amounts of wine. But thank goodness we were engaged in daily physical labor and long walks in the hot sun, because in the heart of Zimbabwe we ate like kings and queens.
What’s the forecast today? Rice, potatoes, some vegetables (probably carrots and peas, or maybe creamed spinach), chicken or beef (or chicken and beef), salad, and some dessert.
Just a few decades ago, Zimbabwe was known as the breadbasket of Africa. With an abundance of arable land and farmers who knew how to work it, the country produced enough food to feed its population and export the remainder to the rest of southern Africa. Not so today. With land resettlement policies having dispersed farmland to new owners, and most of those new owners lacking the interest, skills, or money to buy supplies, food production has come to a standstill. Zimbabwe now imports almost all of its food and other goods which explains the extraordinary high prices in the supermarkets: $11 for a box of cereal, US$6 for a four-pack of toilet paper, US$5 for three small cucumbers. And remember, Zimbabwe has 94 percent unemployment. Salaries of the hard-working Antelope Park lion handlers are US$150 a month. How in the world do people pay for food here?
And so it was with some annoyance that we heard a few of our fellow volunteers occasionally gripe about the incredibly tasty and abundant food we were served at AP. Yes, there was redundancy in the daily offerings and the overall menu was fairly predictable: hence, “the forecast.” Walking to the dining room, the question that would make the rounds was, “Do you think we’ll have beef or chicken today?” Knowing that every day the answer would be, with rare exception, beef and chicken. But that’s the point: there was meat available every day. There were fresh vegetables available every day. All this in the middle of a country that produces little food.*
The volunteers eat the same meals the clients eat. The staff at AP does not. And not just kitchen and housekeeping staff, but everyone – including the lion handlers, volunteer managers, and even those working directly with the clients. They have rice, sadza, and vegetables. They might have meat a couple of times a week. They have less food and fewer options. Craig and I often commented that the volunteers should eat the way the staff eats at least once, if not the entire time. It would be a more authentic experience, and probably still better than most Zimbabweans.
The cooks at AP really do their best to mix it up by changing the sauces and seasonings. Everyday the preparation was different, and it really was tasty. So what did we eat in a typical day? Breakfast consisted of cold cereals and yogurt, in addition to more traditional English breakfast fare: eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage, grilled tomatoes, toast, and usually a selection of fruit (bananas, apples, and sometimes oranges). I’m sure all the vegetables and fruit are organic because the cost of pesticides would be much too high, if available at all.
Lunch and dinner offered up rice, potatoes, sadza for those willing to try it (it’s like polenta without any flavor), vegetables (most often peas and carrots, spinach, or butternut squash), chicken and beef (fish on a couple of occasions), a vegetarian option, rolls, and salad. The salad was typically lettuce and a few tomatoes, but sometimes there was a bowl of fresh beets, which always made me happy. Desserts might be a simple cake with a fruit or chocolate sauce, ice cream with canned fruit, jello, and once or twice we even had profiteroles. I usually skipped the jello (they called it “jelly”), but aside from that after a few days of trying not to eat dessert (I was trying to reduce my carb intake somewhere) I finally gave in until having dessert was a given.
There was always water, coffee, and tea available. The coffee was instant, and that didn’t sit well with some of the volunteers. You might think Craig and I would be coffee snobs living in Seattle, but when in Zim you drink instant coffee. I actually kind of liked it; it had a bit of a chocolatey taste. They had soft drinks for sale, Coke and Fanta in bottles, along with African beers, South African wine, and various basic cocktails. I learned I couldn’t expect ice for my gin and tonics, so I usually went for beer when I wanted something cold, and at a buck a pop it was a bargain to boot!
I was always surprised at how hungry I was at each meal time. I would eat a huge meal thinking I couldn’t possibly be hungry by the next one. It’s amazing what a few hours working outside in the hot African sun will do to you, as opposed to sitting at a computer in a temperature-controlled environment. But I often felt guilty. We were offered so much food, and I knew that the staff serving us wasn’t eating like we were. And yet, if they offered you potatoes and you politely said, “No thank you, but I will have some butternut squash, please,” they almost seemed disappointed you didn’t want a little of everything they worked so hard to prepare. So, I felt guilty either way.
Some of the volunteers talked about the food they missed from home. I didn’t think about what I was missing because I really didn’t miss anything – until one day. I can’t remember the exact day, but Craig and I were going to lunch during our second week at AP. I knew we would be having our standard hot lunch and I really wanted something crisp and cold. So what did I want of anything I could possibly think of? I wanted a cold tuna sandwich. Nothing fancy. Just some bread, whole wheat would be nice, and some tuna with a little mayo, and maybe some celery or pickle relish. It’s the only thing I craved while at AP. And of course, once I got that tuna sandwich stuck in my head, I couldn’t let go of it. The funny thing is, even though I’m back home and have tuna in the cupboard, I have yet to have that tuna sandwich.
*Antelope Park does grow most of their own vegetables on site in large gardens located behind the breeding program enclosures.