Chapati Camaraderie

Clothes cram up against clothes, up against walls, and people cram up against walls, and stalls, with stalls cramming up against stalls, and baskets, bags, and babies fill in the spaces between. After a venture past baskets, bags, and babies, and a careful avoidance of mysterious most likely toxic puddles, one may happen upon the Chapati Lady in the Mzuzu market. This morning for breakfast I had two chapati, two eggs, shredded cabbage salad with tomato, and chips all pleasantly coated in grease.

As markets seem to take the worst from any shopping experience, I tend not to enjoy the crowds, the concentration of stuff, the pressure to find something amongst so many stalls, and of course the need to pee with no clear answer as to where one would do this. Shielded and protected from the intense bustle, the Chapati Lady sits on the outskirts of her stall facing into her restaurant flipping chapatis, acting almost as a protective motherly barrier against the spilled debris and push from the outside.   Legs crammed under somewhat of a make-shift counter coated in cracked floral tablecloth, the Chapati Lady harnesses that feeling that I used to feel in diners or certain bars in the states. That feeling of “everyone here is in it together.” I never could pinpoint what per se we are in for, but whatever it may be, some establishments have this power of making a rule that all who sit and eat pancakes together with endless cups of coffee in vinyl booths, or drink beer in slightly dirty glasses, or cram in for chapatis and chips often share an unspoken bond. Maybe it’s about the atmosphere or just an overall feeling that you made the right choice of where to stop in, or perhaps it just ends up being about who goes there. Whatever the reason the Chapati Lady has along with harnessing skills to cook a mean chapati has also captured that “diner camaraderie” and safety that I often find in booths that will be available all night holding safe both you and your fried eggs. 

As I was enjoying my safe pocket of market with greasy potatoes, cabbage, egg, fried bread, and questionable water, I realized that the Chapati Lady was one Malawian establishment that I loved without it having any pieces of American familiarity. There are lots of places in Malawi I like, but often its’ because they remind me of home. I love sitting at a particular store outside my village, but mostly I think it’s because it reminds me of being at an outdoor coffee shop. I love particular restaurants where I can get pizza, most definitely not a Malawian food, but one that I love at home. But the Chapati Lady doesn’t remind me of home at all, it’s surrounded by a concentration of Malawi and filled with a slightly lighter concentration, mixing sounds of timbuka and chewa, smells of burning and fry, and broken chairs with new ones. Framed by lace curtains that boast many a hole, the chairs hold onto all their chapati eaters, whether they know home as close to a market or have yet to find exactly where her home is.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.