James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Communal Breakfast That Is Sugary, Warm, and Filling

A Communal Breakfast That Is Sugary, Warm, and Filling

Mealie Pap in Kaokoland

He drives me there himself in the end. He says he would have lent me a car, but he wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow his instructions.

I pull a face. Try me.

Ok, turn left six miles before you reach Angola, then right at the tree, drive 150 feet, see the rock, don’t turn there but take a right at the next one.

All right then. We set off together at dawn, bouncing along with sleep in our eyes listening to the only CD in the car: Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour. I brood to the music, medicating my morning melancholia and hunger pangs with peanuts and a small carton of supernaturally orange Exotic Juice. It’s the tail end of the dry season in Kaokoland and all of life looks extinguished; ragged palms loom through the dust like fronded quotation marks waiting for something to appear in between.

When we zig-zag past a rock into a dry forested area I wouldn’t have found myself, he points through the glade. Peaked rondavels sit behind a wooden fence. We head over with our gift of maize for the morning meal of mealie pap, a corn porridge.

Himba women from Namibia’s Herero people live here. Their braided hair is beautifully colored with smooth red mud, which sprout at the ends into fans of fluffy black hair. Their skin is dyed with heavily scented ochre; powdered leaves mixed with butter to protect the skin from the sun.

A beautiful girl leads me over to the fire and her hut, where her mother is starting to prepare the breakfast. On a circular metal platter, a metal pot is balanced on large stones while twigs are lit underneath. Goat milk and the white, powdered maize are added to a metal pot and stirred with a wooden stick until it ploufs and puffs like creamy rice.

I’m invited to join the women in the family; the men eat separately. We dig in from a plastic bowl with our fingers. The pap is sugary, warm, and filling. On the sidelines, a ten-year-old boy appears to have developed a crush on me. He gives me dreamy looks as he fiddles with his braid.

When it’s time to leave, the beautiful girl follows me into the forest and examines my hair between her fingers. It’s clean, but looking at her elaborate locks, I think I’ll make more of an effort next time. She smiles at me before padding back through the glade.

My guide and I get back in the car. Sam Smith picks up where he left off. We turn right at the tree, left at the rock, and swerve out onto the red earth before heading north towards Angola.

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