IOWA Magazine | 12-09-2019

UI International Writing Program Essay: 'About the Curry'

6 minute read

I'm becoming really concerned about the curry. It's hot, yellow and deliciously sticky and my mother has made it exactly the same way for 30 years with a secret of spices, a trickle of turmeric and with the amazing ability to not have the chicken skin cling to the bottom of the pot.

When I'm solitary and starving to death in my apartment, I can smell it if I wrinkle my nose right.

If I tilt my head and shut my eyes, I can imagine the ineffable aroma wafting down the hall of all the houses we have ever called home and it's enough to set my crazed culinary instincts down a pathetic path of rubbery chicken, burnt skillets and some guilty gulping down throat.

I'm going to write down the recipe one day.

Before the world abruptly empties and my mother moves on and I'm left wanting what I can never truly have again.

I'm going to watch her one day.

Minutely observe every pinch of salt and block of stock thrown into a cauldron filled with the magic of motherhood, the melancholy of memory, the taste of time and the warmth of love.

But this only in-between afternoons when I ask her about the start. When I carefully place her stories in a jar marked "Before."

Before me, before my brothers and sisters and the existence extinguishing time before my father.

A time when she was the girl one could easily mistake for me in photographs and who went on to train in the army before becoming the kind of graphic artist whose work can still be seen on faded billboards in a birth country I have never quite called home.

The same can be said of my father.

Of future enlightening afternoons in which I'll ask him about the grandmother that I am named for but never knew and the granddad who's long and gone life remains only as a fading image of a slight man astride a small dwelling in the countryside delighted by the fact that we brought him a battery charged light.

I'll ask him also to expound on his tall tales fit for fantasy novels. Of being one soul in many bodies including a red headed fellow in America and of the spaceship he saw in a field as a child. Set in the sky behind aliens as big as oaks.

All these many questions, these histories and stories to write down before it's too late. Before life comes dressed darkly as death on the day one finally decides to ask those who gave us life about their lives, the books they've read, the choices they made, those that were made for them, their motivations and their regrets.

Talohole Enkono has already begun.

She mails me five days after Valentine's Day and asks me if she can pay me to write her mother's memoir because she doesn't think she's much of a writer.

She wants the world to know that her mother lived. That she survived the massacre at Cassinga, attended a village school deep in the heart of the Omusati region and went on to become a medical doctor as she reared her children as a single mum before beginning to build a hospital in Outapi while raising Talohole's son as she studies in the Ukraine.

Her story is touching but I tell her no.

I have a knot of hopes and dreams and commitments I need to see through and I tell her she should try writing it herself. It can be edited later or ghostwritten if she wants it for the world but, in the meantime, she should gather her mother's stories as best she can so she can tell her children and they can tell theirs and theirs.

Before everything that tore African traditions asunder, this is the way it was done.

Legends leapt up out of village fires and family histories were recalled with pride even if we didn't have the shadows of Shakespeare and Achebe to call attention to our inarticulateness.

Talohole doesn't reply but a few months later she's back in my inbox, beaming, buoyant and bubbling with delight.

"I took your advice on writing my mom's biography, it's challenging looking for words to describe and explain. Nothing's impossible, though."

As I write, Talohole Enkono sits at her desk in the Ukraine writing about her mother inbetween her studies.

She hopes to tell the world an inspiring Namibian story. She hopes to regale Africans with the tale of a single, Namibian doctor who defies odds and nurtures ambition. It's uplifting, inspiring and ripe for emulation but it's the kind of story we don't often see on Western television and rarely read about in widely published books because the West's storytelling mold is not made for or interested in Africa's shine.

Africa with its ancestors still whispering in the ears of elders. Africa interrupted by colonialism and just beginning to emerge from blood-soaked soil in shining shards. Africa filled with family, fantasy and factual stories told by the people who lived them.

Or by the children who listened.

Even though the stories halted and stuck in their parents' throats.

Even when they rambled and ran back in time.

Even as the pot smoked and the chicken burnt because they forgot about the curry.


Martha Mukaiwa

Namibia native Martha Mukaiwa is a freelance arts and travel journalist and an activist for black Namibians, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community. She was one of 29 writers who participated this past fall in the UI's International Writing Program, the world's oldest and largest multinational writing residency.

Since 1967, the IWP has brought more than 1,500 writers from around the world to Iowa. Over the course of the 11-week residency, writers give readings and lectures to share their work and cultures, collaborate with artists from other genres and art forms, and interact with literary communities across the U.S.

"About the Curry" originally was published in The Namibian newspaper. Mukaiwa, who is from a close-knit family of nine, wrote the personal essay as she contemplated her parents' mortality and the fear of one day losing them.

"Curry is what my mother prepares when I'm going away, coming home, feeling sick, or heartsore," says Mukaiwa, the first-ever IWP participant from Namibia. "It was the last meal I ate in Namibia before coming to Iowa. It's a cure-all, a pot of luck and a swallow of farewell."

Mukaiwa says that in a broader context, her essay is about her people's struggle to preserve memory in post-colonial Africa. "Many African countries had their traditions, beliefs, and stories ridiculed, disparaged as savagery and effectively wiped out as a result of colonialism, which sought to impose colonial ideology on the indigenous people," she says. "The continent's various struggles for independence have further added a layer of trauma to remembrance. Often, when attempting to suppress the horror of harrowing events, there is silence."

Mukaiwa, who has traveled to 14 countries, holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Cape Town and has written for publications such as Quartz, Matador Network, and The Africa Report. She has also served as film juror for the Namibian Theatre and Film Awards, on panels providing grants to Namibia's upcoming voices in the arts, and on UNESCO's #JournalistsToo campaign. Mukaiwa participates in the International Writing Program courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Says Mukaiwa: "The biggest thing I have learned from my travels is that we're all in this together, kindness is a universal language, and home can be a number of places at once." —Josh O'Leary

Follow Martha Mukaiwa's travels at

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