I once had a boyfriend who in the evenings when I asked him how his day had been invariably responded in delicious detail by telling me what he’d had for lunch.  In a similar approach to reportage, I’d like to share my recent experience at the “Peace Corps and Africa” conference in Madison, Wisconsin, through a luncheon lens.


Picture this:  the Great Hall of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Union building, filled with dozens and dozens of large, round, cloth-covered tables (each seating eight); hundreds of people (300?  400? I was too busy filling my plate to count) snaking along the buffet tables featuring specially catered African cuisine; a peculiar sense of community with hundreds of total strangers.



Up to this point, I’d been questioning my sanity.  Why had I come this far, for such a short time, at an expense I couldn’t afford, to read for twenty minutes to about twenty-or-so people in a tiny auditorium?  When I did the math, it didn’t make any sense at all.



And then, on the second day, when I had lunch in that Great Hall, I suddenly saw the sense in it.  This trip wasn’t about math (that is American left-brained thinking), it was about the Peace Corps and Africa – which to me spells “love.”  The people in this room, I thought, as I scanned the tables, RPCVs of all ages who spent their years of service in Africa, are my “tribe.”  They, like me, have lived long enough in Africa to feel her drumbeat-heartbeat.  Their lives, like mine, have been altered irrevocably by Africa’s warmth and soul.  They, perhaps, like me, cringe when they hear or read the disparaging reports about Africa in the U.S. media – about those “poor” [read: “pathetic”] African people who must live “on only one dollar a day.”  (Again, American dollars-and-cents thinking.)



Yes, I confess, I’m often homesick for Africa, and I often feel that nobody could possibly understand.  But at lunch in that Great Hall, talking with others who love and miss Africa too, I knew I was among understanding compatriots, and I knew I needed to be there.




One of the offerings at the conference lunch was this hearty, home-style national dish from South Africa.  The bobotie recipe below is adapted from Marcus Samuelsson’s gloriously beautiful cookbook, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa.  As Chef Samuelsson says in his introduction to the recipe, bobotie is found on tables throughout South Africa, though the recipe changes from family to family.  (Note:  I have simplified his recipe — omitting the complicated custard topping — for the purpose of this blog.)


1-1/4 pounds ground beef

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon curry powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon crushed coriander seeds

2 tomatoes, chopped, or 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes

¼ cup bread crumbs

¼ cup crushed peanuts or smooth peanut butter

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon salt


Sauté the beef and onion with the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the garlic, curry, cumin, coriander, and tomatoes; reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 15 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve with rice.  Makes 6 servings.