You mean I don’t have to buy greens again? Forays into foraging

A few weeks ago I didn’t have a clue that there were edible weeds growing on our property. I came home one day and found Omari and one of our house painters preparing themselves a meal. I did a double-take at some small, bright green leaves in a bowl waiting to be cooked. “What… what are those?” I asked. The painter laughed. He had harvested them right off our property and was cooking them for lunch.

I had never tried to forage before, either in the States or here in Tanzania. I guess I was too scared I would accidentally poison myself and anyone else I had over for dinner. But once I learned about one edible green growing abundantly and freely on our property, I started getting interested in what else was growing out there, ripe for the taking. I can now identify five different local greens that can be cooked and eaten in various ways.

(Above: this amaranth plant has already put out seed heads.)

Those delicate leaves the painter cooked are called mchicha pori – wild amaranth. They grow rampantly in this part of Tanzania, where cultivated varieties are also grown. Both the seeds and leaves of amaranth have a wide variety of health benefits, having high levels of protein, iron, and vitamin A, among many other vitamins and minerals.

(Above: this purple amaranth is similar to the cultivated varieties here in Tanzania. This is a volunteer growing on our farm.)

Once you know what you’re looking for (and where you’ll be looking for it!), the actual collection process is pretty easy. This is what I did:

Snip off young, healthy-looking branches or leaves of the plant. Many wild greens (at least in my area) have a tendency to be bitter. The youngest growth will typically be the best-tasting. Also, don’t decimate one single plant; take a little from many different plants, if possible.

Once you’ve collected enough greens, remove the leaves from their stems if necessary. To “stretch” the greens, you may be able to peel or de-string the stems or stalks so that they cook quickly. But remember, you’re eating weeds. You’re getting something for nothing. So don’t make yourself crazy. If you just cook the leaves and throw out or compost the stems, that’s fine.

Rinse well in cold water and drain.

Saute or cook however you want. I saute onions and garlic in sunflower oil first, then add the greens and salt and pepper and cook until the water is all gone. Cook to taste; and if it tastes awful, remember, you didn’t buy those greens anyway! You can try again another day.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert. I know what grows on my property, but not on yours. If you’ve never foraged before, please go with someone knowledgeable about the edible plants growing in your neck of the woods!

That being said…

How empowering does it feel to be able to walk out your door and into the backyard, alleyway, or fencerow, snip a few wild greens, and go back and cook them up for your next meal?! So cool. 

What can you forage for in your area, and how do you like to cook it?

Seeking new tenants: feathers, not scales

Inspired by an article I read recently about how songbirds are struggling to adapt to climate change, I set out to build and install a birdhouse. Scrap wood was hammered together and a perfect tree was painstakingly selected. (Okay, maybe not so painstakingly; there were only two viable trees to choose from.) Then I opened my wildlife guidebook and realized that it looked like I was building a perfect home for the fifth most venomous snake in the world.

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Black mambas are native to Tanzania. I have never definitively seen one in real life, nor do I want to; the venom from a mamba bite can dispatch you to the next life in about fifteen minutes or so. They like to live in termite mounds, abandoned animal burrows, and hollowed-out trees.

And what is a birdhouse imitating, after all? A hollowed-out tree. I went back outside to size up the birdhouse; instead of cheeping baby birds I started having visions of gunmetal-grey snakes curled up in a cold mass inside.

But I remembered the ozone layer and the climate change and those poor birds who are showing up too late to the insect bounty every year, and no black mamba will stop me from trying to help these garden friends. So the acacia with its grassy, snake-friendly environs was scratched. The birdhouse will be installed on one of our tall fenceposts, in a very open and non-snake-friendly location.

I based the dimensions loosely on an American titmouse-sized birdhouse, but I have no idea what kind of Tanzanian birds might make it their home. I consulted my East African bird guidebook to help me guess. My grandmother gave it to me; it dates back to when my grandparents lived in Somalia for a few years. It has already proven indispensable for helping to identify the many different birds I see every day.

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We will see what takes up residence in this new birdhouse. All I hope is that it will have feathers, not scales.

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Divide and conquer: what I did about the chicken coop

I have seven hens and had read somewhere that two nest boxes would be more than enough. It wasn’t.

Let’s just say I don’t think the author of that advice ever dealt with your typical Tanzanian village hen. These chickens only lay eggs once in a blue moon, but when they do, it’s like they move in to the box. They spend so much time rearranging wood shavings and feathers in there, then lay an egg, go away, and come back and look at it again. And forget about when they go broody. These hens would rather set outside in monsoon weather than miss a precious opportunity to hatch out their spawn.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their neurotic tendencies, these village chickens make great mother hens. I hadn’t let any hens set this year (okay, one snuck by me… I told you they were crafty, right?!) because of our move and crazy schedule of events, but I finally got some cross-breed eggs for two of my hens to hatch out. However a hen needs to set somewhere where she will not have other motherhood-crazed chickens clambering all over her. So I figured the time had come to improve upon our one-room coop that clearly was just not cutting it.

During the past couple of weeks, I had been slowly figuring out how to best make a mama-and-baby sub-section of the main coop. I was able to use all scrap wood that remained from our house construction, with total expenses being the cost of 3 meters of chicken wire, two plastic five-gallon buckets, a piece of sheet metal, and nails, hinges, and a latch. It may not be the prettiest thing, but it gets the job done:

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The top lifts up for easy feeding and cleaning:

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The nest buckets are removable and easy-to-clean:

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We finished it yesterday, thanks to Omari who saw I was a bit out of my league when it came to cutting sheet metal. Those edges can get razor-sharp!

Once we hammered in the last nail for the roof hinges, we had a good laugh about the tiny chicken door, and felt pretty accomplished with ourselves.

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Where do you let your broody hens set and raise their chicks?

Spilling the beans: harvesting and cooking beans, made simple

It’s hard to think of a food more universal than beans. The United States is the fifth largest producer of dry beans in the world, producing about 1.5 million metric tons in 2010. Tanzania is, incidentally, the seventh largest producer, producing about 1 million tons per year. From delicious burritos at the bus stop’s taco truck on the Pennsylvania turnpike, to experiencing beans on toast as a breakfast food in the UK, to being fed makande (a dish of beans cooked with cracked corn) in Tanzania, beans have been a part of the diet everywhere I’ve lived.

Nevertheless, cooking fresh beans can be intimidating, especially when harvesting and shelling them yourself. The beans we planted on our farm have been blighted by a range of pests, so I have been harvesting them little by little to cook most days, before the insects munch their way through every last pod.

If you’ve planted beans in your garden or farm, harvesting them before they completely dry is a great way to get fresh and delicious beans that cook faster than dry, stored beans. You can also keep shelled beans in the freezer… if you have a freezer….

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Harvest pods that have started to turn pale or dry out. If the pods are still as green as the plant (like the one on the left in the picture above), the beans have not firmed up enough and it will be a pain to shell them. You should be able to see or feel the beans through the shell, which should have started to turn pale green, yellow, or tan, and may have a papery feel to it.

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Don’t wait too long to harvest or the pods will shatter. Unless you want to be hunting around on the ground for your beans, make sure you catch the pods before they dry out completely and drop their beans to the ground. I (unwisely) planted several different types of beans all together, some of which evidently have matured much faster than others and have begun to shatter.

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“String” the beans from the stem end, along the outside of the curve. Then slide your thumb down the inside to push the beans out of the pod. I’ve found this is often the easiest way to do it. You’ll get into a rhythm once you start.

Rinse the beans in cold water. Strain them from any dirt or sand that may have dropped off the pods. Also throw out any wrinkly beans; all should be filled-out and smooth.

Bring to a boil in plenty of water, then simmer. Make sure the water doesn’t dry up – it sounds obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally burned beans. The water will eventually get a reddish-tea look to it. The beans will turn wrinkly, then smooth again. The skins will start to look loose on some of them. Taste periodically until they are the consistency you prefer. The process usually takes less than two hours for me. (I also always make sure to cook my beans a little longer than I think they need; they get creamier the longer you cook them.)

At this point, you could let the beans cool, then store them in their stock in the fridge or freezer for later use. If I’m eating them right away, my favorite simple method is this:

-Chop up two or three small- to medium-sized onions for every two cups of cooked beans.
-Saute the onion in oil (I use sunflower but any cooking oil will work). Add a few cloves pressed garlic and cook a few minutes more.
-Add the beans along with the cooking water. Watch for hot oil splatters.
-Add chopped or grated carrot. One or two per two cups of beans is enough.
-Once carrots begin to soften, add one or two chopped or grated tomatoes (grating tomatoes?! Yes, they do that here in Tanzania).
-Add salt, pepper, and chili powder (if desired) to taste.
-Cook until the mixture thickens and turns creamy.

And that’s it! What do you do differently when cooking beans? What are your favorite bean recipes?

Wanderlust to homestead-or-bust: where did these roots come from?

How does one go from being a non-tied-down travel lover to a homeowner, homemaker, and homesteader?

For me, it had something to do with a two-year Peace Corps placement and falling in love in (and with) that country.

In college, I discovered the joys of traveling alone, couchsurfing, staying in hostels, and in general backpacking on a shoestring while meeting intriguing and eclectic people all over Europe. Also during college, I was able to go on a service trip to Tanzania for a few weeks, which was my first exposure to a developing country. The atmosphere and people instantly interested and inspired me; my fellow volunteers joked that I would never leave.

I did leave… but I came back. I had the good luck to be placed in Tanzania with the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is a natural choice for people who love the things I mentioned above: travel, unfamiliar cultures, new and unexpected experiences. New and unexpected experiences… like falling in love with a Tanzanian, I suppose….

However I quickly came to realize that this new commitment happened in the right place, at the right time. I hadn’t planned on trying to stay in Tanzania after Peace Corps. After meeting Omari, however, I came to realize that it was the obvious choice (especially as I watched in horror as the US political climate erupted in 2016).

But how does a girl who loves to travel so much settle down?

Peace Corps service is a two-year commitment. You are placed in a village that requested a volunteer, and you help the community with projects related to your assignment (for me, it was agriculture). You are typically given your own house to live in and to make your home for two years.

Two years is a long time to “sample” a new place. As your language skills develop and you start forming bonds with your community, it’s not travel anymore. You become a resident, and you start to think long-term about changes you want to see in your environment. In some ways, you start to put down roots, only to pull them up once your assignment ends.

I will always love travel, but once I tasted having my own home, my own garden, and my own chickens during Peace Corps, that definitely sparked something in me. Getting started with land, building a house, and homesteading are all more affordable to do in Tanzania than in the US. With Omari on board, it was the perfect opportunity to explore something which was always in the back of my mind and which I now realized was possible.

The word journey originates from the old French word jornee, which can mean “a day’s travel” or “a day’s work”.

Let’s see where the day’s work takes us. It’s just a different type of journey, after all.

What’s for dinner? Something somewhere outside

The sky drops mist and a light scatter of rain in the mornings. It tings against the metal roof of our house with a noise that sounds like a rainstick when you’re inside. In Tanzania, rain is a blessing, but now it just serves as a bitter reminder of the end of the rainy season. We will not see rain again until October.

We have two acres of corn growing, with beans and cowpeas mixed in as well. At harvest in a few months, those two acres should, God willing, render about 5 gunia bags, or about 500 kilograms, of corn – maybe more, maybe less.

Considering Omari, the dog, and I have been slowly munching our way through less than two gunias from last year (and still have half a bag left!) I think all that corn should be enough for the coming year.

In Tanzania, corn is king. Hard white corn is grown, predominantly for human use as corn flour, which is cooked into ugali – a starchy, stiff porridge not unlike polenta (but white). One of my favorite meals is ugali dagaa – ugali served with a dish made from small, anchovy-like fish (dagaa) cooked in a tomato sauce. (We add chili powder because it’s delicious spicy). If I were to have a comfort food here in Tanzania, that would be it.

The beans growing on our farm have been hard-hit with a plethora of insects, as well as intermittent rain that encourages rot. I have been harvesting beans little by little most days to cook for dinner, because if they are left in the field, most will not dry out or set up properly.

So far, in terms of food groups, that takes care of grains and protein (supplemented by the hens’ eggs, and the inevitable extra rooster to slaughter). We still have to buy vegetables at the market; we moved in right at the end of the rainy season and do not have running water, so planting veggie beds would be rather impractical in terms of water use. There are, however, many harvestable greens growing on the farm, as I found out a week or two ago. (Whatever would I do without knowledgeable neighbors to point out the edible weeds?) Wild mchicha (amaranth) is everywhere, and is delicious when sauteed. Tender cowpea leaves are also often commonly harvested and cooked.

What’s left – fruit? Well, that’s a long time coming. We planted banana “trees” at the end of our long narrow farm, and I have been slinging water buckets every evening to keep them from drying out. Maybe in a year or so we will have bananas.

What’s left to buy? Salt, oil, sugar, tea leaves, rice, wheat flour, spices.

Milk, fish, and meat when we need it (not very often).

And the veggies – until the next rainy season, that is.

Project: Homestead

The environment is similar enough and different enough to know that it’ll make a good home here. The nights are chilly, around fifty degrees. The mornings are rainy. There are wailing children, crowing roosters, bleating goats. There is a giant mountain as the backdrop to it all.

In April I finished up two years of service with the Peace Corps here in Tanzania. I was in the Dodoma region, which is a dry and central area which boasts lots of baobabs, ancient rock art, and the best milk chai in all of Tanzania (in my humble opinion). I was an agriculture volunteer, the first ever placed in my village. I don’t think I was very successful at implementing change, but I think that the community is finally getting momentum, enough to work successfully with the volunteer who has replaced me.

I have moved north. Mount Meru towers over Arusha town, obscured by clouds more than half the time. Not always visible but always perceived. She towers over our house, over the chicken coop, over the corn. She towers over the low and crowded town of Arusha. She even towers under the rainbows that grace the rainy evening sky.

During my service, I met the man who in May became my husband, and we decided to buy two acres outside of Arusha, build a house, and try to make a go of it here in northern Tanzania, which is Masai territory, unlike the village where I served with Peace Corps. Omari is Mrangi, a tribe which has historical ties with the Masai. Warangi are traditionally crop farmers, whereas Masai are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists who raise cattle, goats, and sheep. The pastoral lifestyle, however, is rapidly becoming impractical and difficult, and many Masai also now own land and farm and don’t move with their herds.

And as for me: I’m 26 years old, a girl born, raised, and educated in suburban New Jersey. The closest I have ever come to growing my own food was watering my mother’s porch tomato plants during hot and humid New Jersey summers. I studied animal science in college, but my track record of keeping animals healthy hasn’t been flawless: my chickens have taught me more about infectious disease, parasites, and nutrient deficiencies than I ever learned in school. I was never great with languages; I didn’t even get a score worth anything on my AP French exam in high school.

So why am I now trying to homestead, grow my own food, and raise my own livestock, surrounded by non-English speakers, you might wonder?

In the Peace Corps, agriculture volunteers advocate simple and inexpensive means of improving farming and animal husbandry techniques. After two years of learning about how to do Tanzanian agriculture better, I figured, you know, why not put my money where my mouth is? You spend two years living in a community of people of whom most are subsistence farmers. If they can do it through thick and thin, I think I could try too. I may not be farm-smart, but I’m pretty book-smart, and hey, people have even taught themselves to swim before, just by reading a book.

So with a little help from God, Omari my husband and man-helper, and perhaps some friendly and concerned intervention by our new neighbors who know better than I do:

I think I can learn how to homestead.