The ritual of our traditional meal began outside the hut where first Betty, then me, and finally Beatle and Sampson washed our hands in a basin of soapy water and blotted them on a small wet towel hanging by the door. Inside the tiny thatched rondavel slivers of sunlight filtered into the dim interior between the vertical poles of its walls. After the glare of the late afternoon sun it took my eyes some time to adjust. Our hosts had already set out the food, but perhaps mercifully, I couldn't make out what it was. The four of us took our places on rough stools around a low plank table and Sampson poured generous portions of beer into large wooden tankards set in front of us. By that time I could see well enough to identify some of the food and began to prepare myself psychologically to eat fried caterpillars.
There are times when being a gracious dinner guest can be the most challenging part of visiting other cultures. As I sipped the warm yeasty brew from my wooden cup and pondered whether the caterpillars were dessert or part of the main course, I recalled past encounters with exotic cuisine: a second cup of rancid yak-butter tea from a Tibetan refugee in Nepal, sharing a raw octopus tentacle with a fisherman on the Kyushu coast, and chewing up live lemon-ants in the jungle of Ecuador. There were others but none took quite the same gastronomic resolve as eating the "mopane worms" of Namibia.
The sorghum beer, freshly brewed in a plastic garbage can outside the hut, has the colour and consistency of thick buttermilk. It's no threat to Kootenay or even the stuff Americans call beer, but it helps to wash down the food. A communal bowl of boiled wild spinach and the bowl of deep fried mopane worms sat beside a mound of mealie meal piled on a slab of wood in the middle of the table. This thick, bland porridge, made from ground millet, has been a staple of the black African diet for thousands of years.
"Help yourself," said Beatle.
Careful to use only our right hand (the left serves another purpose where rolls of tissue are not part of the culture) we took turns scooping up wads of mealie meal, dipping them in the spinach and adding a few worms for texture and protein. Betty and I ate enough to be polite and thanked our beaming hosts. Beatle and Sampson wolfed down everything that was left.
The meal was part of our visit to a black township on the outskirts of Swakopmund. Our guides, Beatle and Sampson, both live in the township and run their own small tour company to give visitors a look at the reality of life beyond the palm-lined beaches and haute cuisine of Swakopmund's tourist hotels. The resort is where the blacks work, but here in the township is where they live.