For the Love of Chapati!

By Emmanuel Ushindi

During these cold and rainy days, I enjoy a mixture of wheat flour, water, and oil to make a warm chapati. Before heading to work, I have a sunny side fried egg and ginger tea on the side. Chapati is a delicacy to many but at the same time a major strategy refugees in the community use to make ends meet. Chapati allows single mothers and child-headed homes to have a reasonable supper, buy clothes and even pay for the children’s school fees. I believe that this ancient delicacy connects the need for survival and satisfaction for those who devour it.

A small history lesson about Chapati. Chapati is a type of bread that is a variation of roti or rotta, which originates in India.. The terms are frequently used in the same sentence. The word “chapat” means “slap” or “flat,” a Hindi word that is still used in east African countries and refers to the conventional technique of slapping the dough between the wet palms of the hands to make circular pieces of thin dough. This is one of the standard varieties of wheat bread, which is a frequent dish on the Indian subcontinent. In Dzaleka, the technique that is used to make the bread is very different from the way it was done in India in the 12th to 15th centuries.

The process starts with customers standing in mob formation around the chapati stall. Each customer pressures the cook to complete their order first. The most popular franchise is called King Chapati. There are also other folks who do this on their own, but in the space of 3 years, the King Chapati has expanded his activities to more than five stalls. That tells you how much demand there is for this simple cuisine.

Every day hungry customers surround King Chapati’s most popular stall, made from thatched roofs and selling a single chapati at 100 kwacha. A bargain some might say, but it gets almost unreal when you are getting close to 100 orders in an hour. This is a large amount of chapati because it takes so much preparation to make them at equal quality. You need someone who is attentive to detail, organized, and efficient. That’s how I can describe Jonas Kalala, the guy that I usually find making my three Chapatis. That’s what I can manage right now. I have tried going to five but never seem to be able to stomach the last bite of the fifth chapati. Jonas is just 15 years old, and is one of the breadwinners in his home. I feel the need to buy from him because subconsciously, I feel I am doing something good to help a person that reminds me of when I was that age.

Back to how he makes these three chapatis. Step number one is that he takes a ball of dough and nonchalantly throws it in the air. I am always so intrigued by why he does this, is it a way to make it taste better? Whatever the reason, it makes it more enjoyable. He puts the three doughs right next to each other and on his right hand he has the same piece of cardboard that is packed with oil stains, as if he has been using it for days. The cardboard is what he uses to hold the tawa (a large flat frying pan used for cooking) as he is cooking the dough to perfection. The dough is stretched effortlessly until it makes its usual perfect circular shape, and then put on top of the hot tawa. Here is where he does something very strange, to me: he adds the oil after placing the dough on the tawa. I watch how the oil seeps right under the dough and it begins to grow and turn into golden brown. He squeezes on top of the dough with the piece of cardboard in hand to make sure that every part of the dough is nicely cooked. It is neither well-done nor under-prepared, but cooked to a perfect consistency that is crunchy in the mouth.

I give him a 300 kwacha and he passes me my three chapatis in a piece of small blue plastic, and the transaction is complete. Just those three will fuel me for the day until I have my supper around 7pm, which is in 7 hours. So I take my time enjoying every piece of this savory chapati. Nothing goes to waste.

I love chapati, and I recently love them even more with a side of beans or goat meat. Chapati business plays a huge role in my community’s economy and has turned refugees into self-reliant individuals. People like Jonas would not be able to make a living if it wasn’t for the existence of chapati. I once saw a couple of young guys Jonas used to hang out with fall into the trap of drug abuse, alcoholism, and petty theft because of the poverty levels in the camp. They believe that lifestyle will be a relief for the pains of hardship. But Jonas is improving his life and that of his family, one chapati at a time.

23 December, 2022