Cooking Lenga Lenga (Amaranth) with Marie

Marie Bampamulolwa, Democratic Republic of Congo

stirring amaranth“I learned to cook from my mother, my grandmother, my aunties. My auntie especially. She taught me everything I needed to know to be a woman. My first meal for a group, I cooked when I was 8 years old. I remember, rice, fried fish and amaranth”.

Marie came to the US from Rwanda on September 27, 2001. After her husband was taken from their home in Bukavu, Congo, she and her children waited a year and a half before hearing that he was alive in Rwanda. They walked to the Rwandan border and made their way to Kigali, the capitol, to be reunited. Marie now lives in her own home on Tucson’s south-side, with five of her own children and two from the Central African Republic, whom she adopted when their families abandoned them. Her kitchen is small but tidy – a list of chores on the refrigerator, large pots stacked in the corner awaiting one of the many Congolese church or community events for which Marie always cooks. In the backyard, a carefully tended plot shaded by the mesquite tree contains amaranth, squash, African hot peppers and water spinach. While most of the vegetables are consumed in her home, Marie also routinely cooks amaranth and other greens for her pastor who suffered a heart attack some time ago and has to limit his intake of meat.

“I would make the garden bigger but, water costs so much. It’s great when it rains as then we have a free water day. At home, we farmed, growing lots of amaranth, different kinds of peppers, squash and African spinach. The men cut down the trees and cleared the land but, the women did everything else. We went to market every day to sell our vegetables. That was the only way we had money for everything – salt, sugar, oil, coffee, tea, soap and to pay our tuition at school”.

Originally from a well-to-do family, Marie went to Catholic elementary and high school where she was taught by the nuns, “les bonnes soeurs”. She speaks four languages in addition to English and French – Lingala (her native tongue), Swahili, Kirego and Kinyarwanda. As a young woman, she received a scholarship to attend university; after a year and a half, she gave the money to her husband so he could attend in her place.

“In Congo, a married woman cannot graduate university before her husband. So, I gave him the scholarship. In Africa, men dominate everything. All children inherit land but even then, it goes to the husband. In matriarchal families, like my own, women run the households but, that just means your mother-in-law is in charge of you. It is hard to be in the US but I like it better. Here I can develop myself. I can be free, independent and happy”.

Marie works nights as a caregiver, often skipping sleep in order to take her young children to school or the older ones to soccer practice. She monitors the family carefully, making sure friends’ parents are home when the kids go to visit but, always offering food to anyone who stops by. One day when Marie was cooking cassava leaves, her Mexican-American neighbor came over and said that it smelled so good, she could not smell her own meal! Marie told her that she was cooking cassava, from the yucca, like in Mexico. Soon thereafter, Marie invited them for dinner, to eat stewed cassava leaves; she also taught her neighbor how to make the dish. “Since then, her husband wants to eat Congolese cassava all the time. ..That is how we became friends”.

Here in the U.S. , cassava leaves are purchased frozen at the Asian store but amaranth is plentiful and often considered a weed, known in certain areas as pigweed. Marie and other refugees in Tucson are asked by local farmers to come and weed their fields; they come home with crates of amaranth, considered a valuable cash crop and source of nutrition in Congo. Amaranth leaves contain vitamin A, C and folate as well as calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. In parts of the world such as Congo where food security and nutrition are poor, growing amaranth and eating it almost every day the way Marie did as a child was and remains an important source of essential nutrients.