A Restaurant Without a Menu

By Esperance

Ngare and Juma, two retired school teachers, owned The Farmer’s Best Choice Restaurant. Ngare was the matriarch of the family and Juma a son of a freedom fighter. He was named Juma because he was born on a Friday, as is custom in this area. They lived on a huge farm inherited from Juma’s father, in a very remote and isolated area of Rance. They found it depressing there, it got too quiet, with no neighbors around but at least they had plenty to eat. Too much, in fact, as every year they had leftover crops. To not let them go to waste, and to step out of the isolation, to meet new people, they decided to open up The Farmer’s Best Choice Restaurant. The hospitality industry was a different sector from what they were used to, but they didn’t seek the advice of an expert. They ran it as they wished. After all, the property was theirs. They also decided against a fixed menu. Instead, they just served what they had harvested, and prepared meals based on the season.

In the year after they opened, the restaurant at the heart of Rance had become very popular. Business was booming. Not only because the restaurant was conveniently located at the corner of the main road just opposite Shell petrol Station but people simply loved the food. Being a quiet area, away from the noise of the city, Rance hosted a military camp, a convent and some boarding schools for both girls and boys. The Farmers’ Restaurant even attracted people from those institutions. During the weekend, you could spot the Little Sisters of Mercy dropping by for coffee and to greet Ngare. “We all need mercy,” as Michael would say! Ngare served them, chatting to them about their lives and giving advice on the health benefits and nutrition.

The only group that never really came was the youth, probably because the restaurant didn’t serve fast food. Despite Ngare telling them of the health benefits of the available food in her persuasive way, young people would turn away. Ngare couldn’t convince them, and perhaps it was because of the difference in generation. Despite being of the same country, Ngare spoke a language unknown to the youth in terms of food and health benefits.

Sometimes, when Ngare was not in sight, people served themselves and leave money on the counter. The community that had formed around The Farmer’s Best Choice Restaurant was like a family, with trust and respect as guiding principles. People stayed as long as they wanted. Closing time would be marked by the end of a topic or a conversation.

Juma always had a good relationship with the local authorities. The opening party of the restaurant was another occasion to strengthen this relation. The invitation had been sent in advance to the office of local area Chief Ali. Ali had confirmed his attendance afterwards. Chief Ali, a very modest man and very orthodox in his manners, has always supported and facilitated local projects in his capacity. He did not hesitate to attend this day.

On the restaurant’s one-year anniversary, Ngare and Juma held a big party with lots of music and food and soft drinks to celebrate the success. All kinds of people from all ages had come, the youth, children, ladies from local ladies’ group, people from the parish community. Everybody was happy. When the local chief Ali bin Massoud, arrived, stood up in silence to acknowledge his presence, and when he sat down, the party went on as usual.

Ngare moved from one table to another serving this and that, and the ladies from the local women group assisted her. The DJ played all kinds of songs, including “No One Can Stop Reggae of Lucy Dube,” and Rhumba and Bongo flavor songs. When the DJ put on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the local chief became uneasy. Ngare, who had eyes on everybody, noticed it and in no time she approached the DJ and told him to change the song, saying, “These kind of songs are not played in the presence of the authorities!”
“I’m sorry! I’ll turn it off right away,” answered the DJ, and the party continued without further incidence.

Right after the DJ had switched the song, Kesha, one of Ngare’s friends from Chama, the local Women’s group, approached her. “Ngare, as you know I have been without work for a few weeks already.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Ngare. “What is your plan?”
“It’s my dream to work in a restaurant. Now that you have just this one, would you consider hiring me?”
“Be here on Monday,” said Ngare without hesitation. “I need a helping hand.”

Kesha arrived early that Monday. She was eager, and happy to work for her Ngare. It was 8 o’clock and the restaurant hasn’t been opened yet. As she waited, she thought, maybe Ngare closed late yesterday? Having been a guard previously in the neighborhood, she was well aware of things taking time in the Highlands.

After 3 hours of waiting Kesha spotted Ngare. “Welcome my daughter,” said Ngare, as if nothing happened. Then she continued to show Kesha around, explaining what she expected of her. Kesha was to welcome clients and perform other duties including retrieving provisions from the farm and the supermarket. “The foods we serve depend on the season,” said Ngare. “There is plenty of the fresh food around during rainy seasons. And in the dry season, food is characterized by the harvest. You get it?”
“Yes mum,” Kesha nodded.
“To know the menu of the day, we need to announce it as soon as a client enters the restaurant. Just announce ‘Kuna ndoma, viazi, mukimo,’ (there is yum, there is potato, indigenous vegetables etc.), or ‘Kuna ndoma, viazi, managu,’ (there is yam, green vegetables, sweet potatoes, very fresh). If somebody is not a fond of that, they’ll just pass. It’s as simple as that.”
“Alright,” Kesha nodded again.
“You should be here by 7’o clock in the morning,” said Ngare, hesitating a bit as if she was reasoning with herself. She was absent minded, thought Kesha.
“What time do we close?” asked Kesha.
“We’ll see about that,” said Ngare, and on that note the verbal contract was sealed.

People in Rance easily adopted to the dynamics of the restaurant. Besides, Ngare had a special gift of persuading people. If clients came in asking for particular foods they didn’t have, Ngare convinced them otherwise by talking about the health benefits of what was on what was available, and often clients accepted, and eat whatever Ngare offered.

Visitors in town had a harder time though. Mark was one of them. He was transferred from the city center to map the Rance area on Google Maps. After a morning of hard work, he decided to have lunch an hour early. He entered The Farmer’s Best Choice Restaurant but it was empty inside. Ngare had gone back to the farm and Kesha had a day off. Mark didn’t wait for long and he drove straight to the next restaurant.

Although Kesha was employed as guard initially, she was rarely seen at the entrance of the restaurant. Most of the time, she was inside giving Ngare a helping hand, serving customers, going back to the farm and the supermarket to bring what is needed in the restaurant.

The next Sunday afternoon, Mark was parking at the road side opposite a couple of a red building waiting for his colleague George. George had invited him to take a tour in the area but first they were to meet at the Green-si Restaurant. George was already in the restaurant where they serve vegetarian food.

The owner of the restaurant was an activist for the recent green movement and had educated his neighbors about ways to reduce the carbon foot print. To show solidarity, he named his restaurant Green-si and painted it green and served vegetarian food exclusively. But later the communication company East Teby Tel emerged in the country, and they wanted to mark their presence at every corner of each county. They offered to paint the shops around red for free. Businesses that needed a new look didn’t hesitate to accept. One day, they asked the owner of Green-si if they could renew the restaurant by painting it. “Go ahead, paint it,” he said, absent mindedly. The customers didn’t mind because they knew that is the Green-si Restaurant, but it was a problem for visitors who expected the restaurant to be green. Mark parked opposite the restaurant but became suspicious immediately upon spotting red buildings across the road, and he immediately called his friend saying, “I only see a red hotel, and other buildings, all in red.”
“Are you color blind? Just read at the top, it says Green-si Hotel!”
“No, I don’t understand. I guess I’m in the wrong place.”
“Just enter!” George said, “Don’t be so annoying!”
“How about you have lunch by yourself?” said Mark, as he hung up the phone and got back into his car.

Nobody understands the dynamics of the highlands except the residents. Mark switched off his phone and drove away with high speed, never minding the traffic police officer on duty. After a minute, Mark came to his senses and slowed down to below the speed limit, observing the beauty of the highlands along the way. Then he came across the Farmers’ Restaurant, and he remembered having been there before and not being served. He was hungry and decided to try again, maybe this time he’d get something.

He met Kesha at the entrance, she welcomed him and asked him to please sit down. Then she called Ngare, who was busy in the kitchen. Ngare immediately sent her to the supermarket with a list she had made earlier so that they could have enough food for the coming weekend, and then she went into the restaurant and said, “We have everything! What do you want?” to Mark. As culture dictates, he needed to be respectful and answer politely as Ngare was Mark’s mother age. He had no idea what he wanted, but if he was to decline, he had to come up with a very polite explanation and leave respectful. He was busy formulating an apology when Ngare said, “My son, you need something, I’ll be right back.”

In no time, Ngare brought a plate of Mukimo (a mixture of mushed vegetable, maize and potatoes), it was warm and appetizing. It was long since Mark had such a delicacy. After saying a brief prayer, Mark started to eat. Ngare, who was arranging the chairs, asked Mark about his family. Mark was very excited and told her about his sister and mother. They also talked about the ongoing political campaigns and the upcoming general elections. He even told her about his upcoming stay in the area. Ngare listened carefully as a mother would listen to a son. Unknowingly, Mark spent double of the time he thought of he would pass there. With gratitude Mark paid and left. As he walked to his car, he said to himself, “That was not bad at all!”

10 November, 2023