Let me walk you through it: the air is dry, umbre if you will, and there is smoke wafting across, colonizing the Jones garden; there are shreeks (the children are playing UNO enthusiastically) and there is gentle chatter spread across the front yard; there is food, lots and lots of it- salads are spread across and fighting for space on the table- but most importantly, there is meat on the braai and sadza on the stove. You can smell all of it, and so can everyone else in the neighborhood

A braai may seem like some strange lingo you can barely pronounce, but in South Africa, and Southern Africa as a whole, the term needs no definition. The meaning of the word braai, besides its literal translation to meat over fire, or burnt meat, is an abstract one: it’s the grease on your fingers, the rich smell of teek and searing meat, the pile on your plate, the person next to you, the smoke rising to an African sun. One could equate it to a barbeque, but that would rob it of its whimsy and rawness.

This braai in particular, however, will be different. It will mark the end of Volunteering for A.F.C.A for this trip; I’ll go out on a limb and call it an integral part of the ‘vacation’ in ‘vacation with a purpose’. But what makes it so amazing? Why is there a whole blog about this braai? Let’s break it down:

1)  A Minibus?

By the time you arrive at the braai you will be well acquainted with this bus. You have your self assigned seat and it has your indent. This bus is your chariot- a glorious 18 seater scooting you across zimbabwe- and it has brought you to the gates of fortune: the Jones’ house- birthplace of the famed A.F.C.A braai.

2)  Panic!

Your A.F.C.A team is the first to arrive. You are greeted by the dogs, but now you are being shoveled into the kitchen. There are sounds of cucumbers, cutting boards, wooden spoons, knives and deep gutted laughter from Mell (mother of the house) and Tanya (the team’s director) crowding the air. You are given a station: if you aren’t chopping something for a salad, you are counting forks, and if you aren’t counting forks you are quickly ushered outside to sit and converse and enjoy the day.

3)  Forget the Panic: Sign the Wall!

The salads are done, it has been established that there are enough plates for 30 plus people, and everyone is allowed to breathe now. Yet, you now find yourself being pushed back into the house; you are handed a sharpie and met with the face of a vandalized wall. The wall is plastered with cursive and printed signatures? Now is the moment you will confirm your attendance at this grand annual event and sign the wall- joining hundreds of others who too survived a meal at the Jones’ house.

4)  Wait- was that a scream? Wait.

People have slowly trickled in since you arrived, it’s more busy, so you check out the braai. There is a section for steak, chicken, pork and boerewors (we’ll get to this). The crackles of the fire are cut- a squeal! Squawk? Scream? Cry of agony? What was that? You spin and are struck by the sight of a child wailing about the ‘+8’ UNO cards he now has hands. Heading closer, you can hear the taunts of his ‘Bible of cards’. Back in your seat, you can relax again; get back to waiting for lunch. Just wait, all is well.

5)  What’s on the Table?

You’ve now been called in, lined up, and handed a plate. Single file, people are moving around the stretched table like a conveyor belt. You reach the foot of the table: a line of brimming pots and bowls running to the head of the table on one side, and a line of brimming pots and bowls sprinting back to you on the other. The table is too much to explain in one sub-section, so here’s a list to lead us into number 6. There is sadza, bread rolls, beans, green salad, quinoa salad, chomolia, braaied meat (chicken, pork, steak), relish and boerewors

6)  Now: what’s on my plate?

Sadza: looks like mash potatoes, is made like grits and molds like playdough- you form it into a ball with your hands and then use that to scoop up anything more on your plate. It’s on 90 out 100 Zimbabweans plates, and it’s made its way onto yours. Chomolia: the Zimbabwean kale, and Sadza’s best friend. Onion, tomato, salt and umami explode in your mouth. Chicken: you know what chicken is, but not like this. The skin is charred and crisp, and it makes you think smoke might not be as bad as you thought. Acid and fat and garlic and herbs marry in your mouth as the meat pulls off the bone. Relish: tomato, onion and garlic stewed to make something for you to dip your sadza in, a.k.a glory on your tongue. Boerewors: ‘farmers sausage’. You break a piece away from the larger coil and it bursts into a blend of coriander seed, cayenne and any allium you could name. If you got through everything and ate it correctly, your fingers are smokey and starched in the absolute best way possible.

7)  ‘Vinegar Pudding’

I’m sure your jaw dropped reading that; but the desert is neither vinegary nor what you know as pudding. You’re at the table again- but it feels completely different. A five liter tub of ice-cream!? A berry cobbler, two different towering jugs and what looks like a golden toffee/caramel cake sat right next to the tub. One jug has pouring cream, the other a rich yellow custard- both are to accompany this rumored ‘vinegar pudding’. Secretly, pudding is just what Zimbabweans use to describe desert, and the vinegar is just a rising agent in this cake. Vinegar pudding is the golden cake- and now you can have it melt in your mouth.

8)  Conclusions

The food would have sunk to the depths of your stomach, and now you can laugh and sit and enjoy the company of the team you’ve been working with. It’s the late afternoon, the sun is strung the sky and the shadows are still harsh. Your name is on the wall, and you now understand why and described a braai as both whimsical and raw.

Yet, this Southern African barbeque will become a faint detail in the larger experience of the vacation. The braai meets you in the city, after you’ve lived in the granite glories of matopos and right before you see the Zambezi River fall into the Victoria Falls gorge. A braai is an experience- a unique one- but one of many in this case.

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