Photos and text by Maxine Delaney
Smoke stings my eyes before they adjust and focus on a face the colour of forest honey, barely visible in the windowless hut. A woman startled by my appearance sits in stop frame; her hands hold a wood handled knife and a freshly dug sweet potato still heavy with clay. Behind her two open fires burn, mounded by stones. Everything is black. The wood slat walls, the corrugated metal roof, the table on slanted legs held in place by an end wall are all darkened by years of smoke. She glows out from the darkness; Grace, moist from the heat beams the whitest of smiles.
Rocks positioned within the fires’ boundary support large cauldrons whose simmering contents compete with that of burning wood, teasing the air with bursts of aromatic steam. Beans and maize, Kenyan staples, form the base for the day’s githeri. A bit of salt and vegetables sent from sparse gardens of parents contributing toward feeding their children a mid day meal; often the only meal; creates a bounty that today includes orange fleshed sweet potatoes, onions, kale and a handful of pungent cilantro.
A bell clangs and together we carry the first steaming cauldron to a stand near the door. Children race toward us from each of the eight classrooms. Tiny preschoolers look up at my white face with wide eyes and shy smiles; one retreats when our eyes meet. A boy reaches out to touch my arm and quickly pulls back as other hands stretch to stroke my red hair. Grace ushers them back. They each have a bowl, some just a cup. They jostle into position. Elbows laughter and protest when the smallest boldly approaches the front. I scoop. Two hundred children get fed. Two hundred children are happy to be in school.
A week later the new kitchen opens. It is the fourteenth cookhouse built from proceeds and donations in association with The Village Feast held each summer in Souris, PEI. The cookhouses are build from locally crafted brick and have chimneys rising from the back of each of the wood fuelled stoves. There are windows and counters and a pass through for service. There is a sink, gravity fed with rainwater collected by gutters into a large donated water tank.
A garden is being built, surrounded by netting and guarded at night against baboons and hungry humans. Piles of wood chips sit ready to torch, discouraging elephants who rightfully feel the garden is part of their foraging territory. A gardener is hired and parents offer their labour in rotation. Cookhouses mean schools with increasing attendance, improved grades and balanced enrolment between girls and boys.
The cookhouse women laugh as they chat and prep the day’s meal. Their eyes and lungs are no longer so stung and filled with smoke. There is pride in the job as they don their Village Feast aprons. Joy from a kitchen that contributes toward the growth of their children, their community and thus the future of their country.