The Harare barbecue chefs shattering patriarchal food traditions - Equal Times

2022-04-24 07:32:32 By : Ms. Tina Zhao

Amai Chingoma, one of 28 female barbecue chefs at Mereki Market in Harare, grills meat while her close friend Amai William mans the gates and chats to customers.

Amai Chingoma, one of 28 female barbecue chefs at Mereki Market in Harare, grills meat while her close friend Amai William mans the gates and chats to customers.

“Hi folks. I’m Amai (also spelt ‘Mai’, meaning “The mother of”) William. For just US$2, I will grill your pork ribs on hot ambers,” she says, ambushing us as we walk past a butcher’s stall at KwaMereki, or Mereki Market, arguably Zimbabwe’s most popular open-air barbecue and leisure spot. It’s a difficult offer to resist. Braaiing, or barbequing meat, is a popular pastime across southern Africa, where livestock is plentiful, the weather is good and eating meat is popular. And here at Mereki, an estimated 10,000 patrons from all walks of life converge – particularly on the weekend – to eat reasonably-priced, flame-grilled meat with fresh vegetables and sadza (a thick maze-like porridge that is a staple food in Zimbabwe), drink beers with friends and play music loudly from their cars.

Situated in the low-income township of Warren Park, about 20 minutes south of Harare’s city centre, Mereki is also famous for being the only such barbecue venue in the country run almost exclusively by women. At other open-air barbecue and leisure spots around Zimbabwe, male grill chefs rule the roost, but Mereki has been run by women for nearly 30 years, as Amai William, a 50-year-old mother of two, explains: “We are 28 women barbecue chefs at Mereki. No man operates here except for one who steps in when one of us to take time off work.”

These self-employed women are part of Zimbabwe’s vast informal economy. Each stall owner works independently, sourcing their own meat, attracting their own customers and pocketing their profits. But some aspects of their work are cooperative; for example, all of the stall owners pool money together to hire cleaners (there are currently no regular municipal waste collection or street cleaning provisions) and labourers. They also contribute to a cooperative fund to cover insurance for things like accidental death, funeral costs, fire-related accidents and critical illness.

That women dominate here has much to do with Ivan Mereki, the now deceased male founder of the famous leisure spot. He opened the braai section nearly 30 years ago after local township women pleaded for him to open a women-only grill spot next to the male-dominated pubs that already lined the venue. Denford Chigova, one of the earliest traders to open a butcher’s shop at KwaMereki says:

“This part of Warren Park is quite poor; it is a bit far from Harare’s city centre and there are very few manufacturing industries here. So, when it comes to jobs, women tend to suffer the most.”

But just around the corner from Mereki lies one of the biggest public cemeteries in Harare, where a few local women were already cooking food for the mourners attending funerals there. “If I remember correctly,” explains Chigova, “they grouped together and asked the founder of KwaMereki if they could take over the barbecue spot at his leisure centre.”

At Mereki, which is roughly the size of two rugby fields, there are pubs and bottle stores nestled in front of small township homes and lush, green hills. Customers can go to a butcher’s stall to buy the cut of meat, chicken or sausage of their choice before paying one of the barbecue chefs to cook it for them. An entire ecosystem of informal trade revolves around the food vendors: impromptu street performers and comedians thrill revellers for a dollar bill; township kids pump water from a nearby borehole to serve the barbecue chefs or the people washing the parked cars of customers; men sip home-brewed beer while splitting dry logs for the women grill masters to throw on their braais; and youths help usher the convoys of motorists looking for somewhere to park.

Amai William points to the metal signs emblazoned with the names of Mereki’s other female barbecue chefs; women like ‘Amai Fungai’ or ‘Amai Tonde’, each signifying their demarcated spots. “The customers that come here prefer female barbecue chefs because they say that dishonest male grillers steal portions of their meat during preparation,” says Amai William.

All over the world, barbecuing meat is traditionally seen as the preserve of men, as demonstrated by its depiction in film and adverts and the fact that the world’s most famous BBQ chefs are mostly male. Zimbabwe is no different. It is quite rare to see a woman grilling meat on hot blocks of wood over mesh wire plates at events like funerals or weddings. And because of chauvinistic restrictions at most open-air barbecue venues, women are generally restricted to preparing the side dishes that go with the meat or washing dishes while men work the grills.

“In Zimbabwe, grilling meat is traditionally linked to wildlife hunting, so it is associated with male virility and masculinity,” says Catherine Simango, a high school sociology teacher from the city of Mutare, who completed a bachelor’s degree thesis on women in Harare’s township food kitchens and frequents Mereki whenever she comes to the capital.

“It also has a lot to do with the traditional patriarchal Zimbabwe belief that women are ‘soft’ so they should focus on cooking soft boiled food, like stewed beans, meats or vegetable. Grilling meat, just like the harshness of hunting wildlife for meat, is considered a male task.”

However, the relatively low barrier to entry means that barbecuing can provide a respectable income for women that do work in the sector. The historical exclusion of women from the heavy industries that made up a significant portion of colonial Rhodesia and later early post-independence Zimbabwe’s economy meant that women were structurally disadvantaged in the formal labour market. But over the last three decades, Zimbabwe’s formal economy has declined – a result of deindustrialisation and various waves of severe economic crises – with an estimated 75 to 90 per cent of Zimbabweans now engaged in informal economic activities. For women, this unfortunate trend has had the unintended consequence of democratising labour force participation, although decent work remains out of reach for most workers of both sexes.

But in one of Harare’s most deprived townships, Mereki has brought dignity and an average daily wage (of US$30) way above the national average. “I am a single mother,” says Amai Fungai, 49, one of the star barbecue chefs at Mereki. “This work allows me to head my household financially and even send my young brother to college. The meat money does it all. It feels really empowering to have a place where women control the grills.”

The men who throng to Mereki not only get to enjoy the food, but they also get a demonstration of how women can play a leading role in Zimbabwe’s economy. “We show our male customers that women don’t just exist to give birth to children. We work too,” says Amai Chingoma, who shares a grill wire pit with her close friend, Amai William.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect. With no streetlights, at night, lighting is so difficult that the women have to depend on their own solar lamps, or the light generated by the nearby bars, butcheries and motorists.

The women say that if Harare City Council could pave Mereki with hard cement or tarmac it would be transformative, as it would stop the brown dust that is raised by the wind from spoiling their food. Proper drainage would also help remove stagnant and flood waters during the rainy season.

In April 2020, in a cruel drive of building demolitions that are frequently inflicted on Zimbabwe’s urban space dwellers, Harare City Council attempted to raze a section of the informal market structures that surround the barbecue area at Mereki, claiming that they were unlawful trading posts. A massive crowd of hundreds of community sympathisers swiftly gathered and ultimately prevented the authorities from demolishing the barbecue posts. “The community, as our shield, ears and eyes, knows that Mereki is for the community and that the women barbecue chefs here are a township treasure,” says Amai Fungai proudly.

But it is not easy for female barbecue chefs like Amai William to access full insurance or banking loans. Without proper title deeds from the city council, they are prevented from accessing the kind of bank loans that would help them upscale their businesses. The banks demand years of accounting records and few of these women have either accountancy training or access to a qualified accountant.

“We are growing older and since we have no title deeds, we don’t know who will succeed a female chef who dies on the job – her daughter or a stranger? As for insurance we run monthly money clubs whereby we donate US$20 to a pool in case a colleague gets sick or wants to buy new equipment,” says Amai William. “But ultimately, we wish for a future where catering colleges in Zimbabwe formally work with us so that we can nurture the next generation of female barbecue chefs.”

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