Uganda: The garden of Edna

Ugandan cooking lesson Booma Women's Group

Steve (l) learning to cook on a banana stem matt with energetic Edna 

Edna berates me a second time for peeling the firm green bananas away from me instead of towards me. “If you peel it away from you, the women will gossip about you.”

She watches me for a few moments to ensure I’m peeling correctly, not needing to even look at the surgically sharp knife in her hand mechanically stripping the sticky fruit.

She peels five or six to my one.

Perhaps the village women are already gossiping about me because I am sitting with Edna on a banana-stem mat that lies under the shade of a juvenile paw paw tree on the compacted earth of her home compound.

She is demonstrating how to prepare the staple foods of this area of Uganda: matooke (mashed savoury banana) cassava (a white root vegetable) and sweet potato.

Cooking in Kigaragara is as earthy as it is possible to be. Half an hour ago, we were ‘shopping’ for the raw produce in her extensive garden, about 50 metres away.

Shopping here requires a tad more physical effort (and a few more tools) than just tootling down to the local supermarket in your people-mover.

We came armed with a hoe, a machete, a serrated silver knife and a 30-cm wooden stake (to mine for sweet potatoes).

Edna, 52, looking more like she’s heading to church in her orange headscarf, tiger-print blouse and pearls – a fruit flavoured wrap over her clothes her only compromise to the dirt – energetically but methodically demonstrates the gathering techniques: hacking, peeling separating, digging. Everything is then plopped in her cane basket and transported African style (on her head) back to the open-air kitchen.

She slashes through the trunk of a banana tree with a couple of severe blows from the diminutive knife – easy, I thought, until it took me about six attempts.

She bends at the hip, as though she’s hinged there, to yank out cassava roots. She languidly uproots the thick long vegetables, four at a time, with a grace that I certainly didn’t share.

Her garden ‘supermarket’ looks more like a forest: dense, wild and well-stocked, if you know where to prod.

Edna has issues with the occasional ‘shoplifters’: a roaming troupe of baboons, migrants from the nearby Murchison Falls National Park. She plays security guard effectively, shooing away the clinically inquisitive primates with flapping arms and hooting sounds at irregular intervals.

African cooking is intrinsically communal; time to talk, to share, to be together; the very definition of ‘African time’.

Despite her leisurely façade, mild-mannered Edna is indeed a woman of action, with a heart that beats for her community. She tells me about the history of the Boomu Women’s Project, an initiative she began in the late nineties.

Her compound is the focus for the woven handicrafts of about 20 people in the village, 15 of whom are women that find scant other opportunities in this principally agricultural area.

And she has built several bandas (traditional houses) to accommodate people such as me visiting the popular tourist attractions of Murchison Falls who also want to learn about African cooking or go on the community walks she arranges.

Funds from the sales of the handicrafts and the money I have paid Edna for the demonstration (less than US$4) are ploughed back into the community to help with school fees and basic household items like soap and porridge. Items that subsistence farming communities like Kigaragara often struggle to find money for.

It’s a simple yet effective programme, not unlike the food we are preparing.

This is one-pot cooking, where nothing is wasted, nor over-complicated by herbs.

Edna has an extensive herb garden; every tree in the compound has a use, but they seem reserved for bush remedies.

For instance, the mortilika tree can help bring out and treat measles and the mugadee’s tree bark and sap (mixed with sorghum) can ease chronic diarrhoea. She even confides that the root of the paw paw tress can be pounded into a potion to abort unwanted babies, a secret she doesn’t share with local girls, less it should encourage them to “go with John one day, Peter the next”.

All of our peeling, chopping and pounding efforts end up in one charred pot. The few scraps that do remain are peskily tussled over by twelve compound chickens that have been stalking our every movement all morning.

The banana leaves wrap up the food and separate the matooke from the cassava from the sweet potato and the rice, all ready to be steamed.

Edna proudly explains that this way of cooking saves water, saves firewood and, crucially, saves time.

Maybe this is why she has so much time on her hands to help the Bunyoro people to help themselves.


Steve Madgwick


For more information visit Located about 200m outside the Kichumbanyyobo Gate of the Murchison Falls National Park.