Nancy’s only mistake was using plantain and not apple bananas. I don’t know why I didn’t give her that detail. I just told her bananas. I thought she would not even try to make them.
She had said she would. But, really, who asks a guy from the furthest of countries in Africa what his favorite snack from home is and actually goes ahead and makes it, just to ensure there’s a Ugandan feel in the newsroom?
Well, Nancy Martin is such one person.
Being my mentor at the Miami Herald during my stay as an Alfred Friendly Fellow, Nancy organized a brown bag discussion so I could share with colleagues more about my country and myself — the politics, the journalism, the food, the people and the culture, and why I was at the Herald.
She wanted the room to have a Ugandan atmosphere. She wanted the people to feel a part of Kampala the moment they walked into the conference room.
We agreed that I would play Ugandan music as people trickled in and as background music during my talk.
So, I lined up my all-time favorites:
Frank Mbalire’s Silimusula, a 1970’s classic song about a man luring a girl into an intimate relationship by promising never to lose her and that he will always wear her like a coat; Afrigo Band’s Eyaune Emali, a 1990s traditional hit that praises a man who brings wealth to a girl’s family; and Peter Mutebi’s 1975 folklore song, Kagutema. The song thanks the great hand of a brewer, and asks the King’s subjects to gorge themselves with the local food because they will not be able to do so after they die.
But here was the winning move:
Nancy showed up with a dish of Kabalagala, complete with the condensation that forms and keeps trickling down the walls of the dish due to the steam those circular, golden brown cakes produce when sealed in a container.
When she eventually opened the container, the sweet scent that exclusively belongs to Ugandan pancakes swam in the wind and within no time there was a Ugandan feel in the room.
“Wow, Nancy, you actually made pancakes for my big day,” I told her, my eyes becoming watery, a bit, with joy. “I do not know how to thank you.”
The scent sent me back more than 15 years, to my primary school canteen. Standing facing Nancy, I was thinking about myself with bare feet in my khaki shorts and short-sleeved yellow shirt pushing my hand ahead to buy pancakes before break time elapses.
She made the pancakes, and made them really well, and the smell was spot on.
“They are too chewy,” Nancy said. “I feel horrible. People may not like them because I used plantain.”
“But they taste real,” I said, as I dipped my incisors into two of them at once. “What do you mean they are chewy? They are supposed to be chewed.”
She had taken the trouble to Google the Kabalagala recipe, spent time making the stuff so that I, and people in the newsroom, have a taste of Uganda. I was having pancakes in the U.S., and I was not going to allow slight mistake to ruin the excitement.
Let’s get this straight. In Uganda, pancake (kabalagala) is not as flat the thin American-style cake cooked on a griddle.
They are round, approximately one-inch-wide cakes prepared with apple bananas and cassava flour and deep-fried to given them a golden brown look.
And yes, in Uganda, Rolex is not a watch. As the Miami Herald staff learned that day, rolex is an assembly of chapatti (an improved and generous version of Indian roti) and Spanish omelet. It is a popular snack in Uganda.
It was thrilling to share information about my country.
Everyone was attentive as I talked about the meager salaries journalists in Uganda get paid, the hardships and threats that political journalists face, the fact that the media in Uganda is too young and big media houses are not even 30 years old.
I related stories about the men in the media and the judiciary who have stood up to the government and made a mark on the growth and survival of journalism. There were stories of the daily hustles of a young journalist who, despite the odds, ensures that he gets the story, or gets that photo sent to the editor.
Here everyone drives. Yes, owns a car. So stories of how Boda Boda rides are the only alternative in Uganda if one is to beat the traffic jam and get to an assignment on time were really compelling.
“What’s that, what is Boda Boda? One asked.
“It is a two wheel bike,” I replied as I showed them photos of the wonder bike on the screen.
“Aaaww,” they said in chorus. “So cute.”
This was the perfect point to shift from the misery of a Ugandan journalist to the awesomeness of Uganda’s flora and fauna.
The great River Nile, the climbing lions in Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth National Game park, the mountain gorillas in Western Uganda, and the wonders of Namulesa, my home village.
Then I invited them to visit Uganda; many promised to think about it.
As we high-fived and hugged, at the end, many assured me that they now understand why I am at the Herald and that they will help me get the best experience.
I highlighted earlier in my talk that I was at the Herald to learn about how journalism is managed and accomplished at the newspaper, along with the business and advertising aspects, so that when I get back to Uganda, I can mentor young journalists, and I can contribute to the growth of journalism in my country.
I look forward to leaving the Miami Herald a better journalist. One who is not only good at writing, but also one who understands the media business in the era of new technologies.
My mentor Nancy couldn’t have put it any better:
“Isaac is here to learn. To learn everything. He would like to shadow reporters to different beats so that he experiences how they do it. Please give him the cooperation.”