When my husband returned from his first trip to Tanzania in 2011, he brought me a long wooden spoon that was well used, telling me it was a gift from a very kind African woman named Bibi Kapili. Every time I used this spoon, I wondered what Bibi’s life was like. I thought it was so kind of her to share a utensil she had used in her cooking. I thought it would be wonderful if I were able to be in her kitchen with her and get to know her. I really didn’t think this was possible, but since that year, I found that I have been in her kitchen many times: visiting, laughing, and witnessing a hidden jewel living in a small house in Nyakato.
We became neighbors, and more than that, we became close friends. I was always welcome in Bibi’s kitchen while she was sitting on a low stool next to a hot charcoal stove, preparing food for her husband, four grandsons who lived with them, and the many friends and relatives who regularly stopped by to visit. Often she was sorting dry beans, peanuts, or rice in a large winnowing basket found in every Tanzanian kitchen. Sometimes there were chicks scurrying around our feet, and she would throw down some of the inferior legumes and grains for them to enjoy.
Bibi ("grandma" in Swahili) taught me the laborious ways of peeling greens before cooking them in the traditional Tanzanian way over the charcoal stove. She scolded me when she discovered that I wasn’t peeling the greens I was cooking for my family, and told me it was important to peel them correctly in order to remove any sand or small stones that could be hidden. I learned many tips from her about how Tanzanian women prepare and cook their food. One food that was new to us was pumpkin leaves. I remember sitting outside as Bibi showed me to properly process the leaves before cooking them. Then she went out to her pumpkin patch and picked me a batch of leaves to take home to prepare for my own family.
She mostly spoke in Swahili, using a lot of gestures and expressions, repeating her words and surprising me with a few English words when I was not catching the meaning well. She shared her wisdom with me, and at the same time had a good sense of humor as she conversed. Bibi was very patient with my slowness in understanding spoken Swahili, and subsequently I was able to learn more of the language as she told me stories of her life than I learned from poring over Swahili language books.
I asked her to teach me some praise songs, and she sang the Swahili version of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” over and over again, until I was able to remember the tune and words. The tune she knew was somewhat different than the one we use at our Kentucky church, so it took a lot of repeating to remember the song. I really enjoyed singing with her, and hearing her beautiful voice resounding praise to our Lord.
The Kapili’s had about a dozen chickens that stayed in makeshift cages outside their front door in the daytime, and at dusk her grandsons would escort them into a spare room off the kitchen, specially set aside for the chickens. I asked why they brought the chickens indoors, and she explained that the chickens could be stolen if they were left outside at night. I brought all our fruit and vegetable peels down to the Kapili’s chickens every morning and was always greeted with a cheerful smile from Bibi. She was usually busy sweeping the area outside their front door and starting a fire to heat water. Greeting Bibi with the traditional “Shikamuu” and hearing her reply of “Marahaba” brought a wonderful start to each day while we lived in Nyakato. “Shikamuu” means “I respect you” (literally, “I kiss your feet") and “Marahaba” means “I am delighted”. I knew that Bibi truly was delighted to see me each morning by the kindness in her voice and eyes. What a gift from our heavenly Father to greet this Godly woman each day!
I would often see Bibi working in her garden: hoeing, planting, spreading chicken manure, and harvesting. I asked to join her in the work, and at first she was reluctant to have me helping with any work since I am an older guest from another country. She was fine with our children helping her with various jobs, such as hauling buckets of water to their house for daily use, but for an older guest like me, this wasn’t culturally accepted. Yet, as time passed and she recognized my desire to work with her, she finally allowed me to hoe and weed her corn field together one morning in November, shortly before we left Tanzania. I was able to understand the vast amount of work African women do to care for their families, and was even given the gift of working alongside this blessed woman as she faithfully served her family.
One day I came down to Bibi’s house and found her with a very long stick. I asked her what she was doing, and she brought me to a tall cassava plant, which towered over our heads like a small tree. She stretched the stick to the high branches, and loosened some leaves, and as they fell into the vegetation below the plant, I gathered them for her. We brought them to her outside table and together we peeled off the tougher parts of the leaves. Next, she brought out a very large wooden mortar and pestle and began pounding the greens in it. Afterwards she put the greens on the charcoal stove to boil until they became soft. Fresh ground peanut sauce was added to make a delicious dish of cassava greens. The next morning one of her grandsons was at our front door with a hot dish of newly prepared cassava leaves for our whole family to sample. We always enjoyed the traditional Tanzanian foods she shared with us.
Whenever I was ready to return home after visiting her, Bibi always escorted me part of the way, often holding my hand as we walked together. She always left me with a blessing, and I knew that she was thankful for our time together, just as I also was thankful to share life with her.
I am so grateful that the Lord brought me all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Bibi Kapili’s kitchen. What I thought wasn’t possible, the Lord orchestrated two times (2013 and 2015). I was able to witness a true servant of God as Bibi daily cooked, cleaned, washed laundry by hand, collected water, and gardened; cheerfully serving her family and guests. I also was a recipient of her love and acceptance, even having our family received as part of her family. We call her our grandmother because Bibi and Babu Kapili consider our children to be their grandchildren. Now when I use her long, well-used wooden spoon in my Kentucky kitchen, I have so many memories wrapped up in this gift from our African grandmother. Now I think about how wonderful it was to have shared so many pleasant visits with her as she lovingly labored over her charcoal stove.
Bibi exemplifies the virtuous wife described in Proverbs, chapter 31: “Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness. She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” Proverbs 31:25-29
May the peace of Christ be with you,