By CYNTHIA G. ROBERTSON
San Diego County has long been a place of refuge for many people coming from other countries. They come from all places in Asia, Africa and Europe. The diversity in these ethnic groups add a rich layer to the city’s culture mix. One of the most outstanding facets of any contribution from these groups are their particular styles of cooking. Our bodies, minds and souls are made more healthful with the introduction of wonderful aromas of spices and herbs mixed with exotic vegetables and creative ways with meat.
An example of such richness comes from the people of East Africa. Their cuisine delights the senses; the duty of cooking becomes a shared, happy experience in the kitchen for the women. In San Diego, the United Women of East Africa (UWEAST) provide a way for them to interact with each other and the surrounding larger community.
Miriam Adams is the program coordinator of UWEAST and manages Baraka and Bilal Catering. “The women we serve have been living in San Diego for a while. They are from different countries in Africa, such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania,” she said.
UWEAST launched its first catering service, Bilal and Baraka — which translates to “beginning and blessing” — in 2013 to give refugee women a chance to make their own money while connecting with the larger San Diego community.
This group of women make traditional food to keep their culture alive and to showcase it to their children, Adams explained, adding that the catering service helps the women both economically and socially.
However, as to be expected, the pandemic affected these services. Since the pandemic started up until the end of last year, all of the Baraka and Bilal catering services were paused, which mean that these women weren’t working and had to apply for unemployment.
Starting midway through the pandemic to keep connectivity in the community, UWEAST started a virtual cooking class named The Thursday Taste, featuring different authentic East African meals such as okra stew and rice, which will be featured at the next ‘Taste’ event on June 17. UWEAST also hosting hosting a ‘Meal Pickup’ event where the community preorders African meals featuring such items as injera — a fermented flatbread typical of Ethiopia and other East African countries — as well as lentils and vegetables along with meat cooked in the traditional ways. Sambusas are also a popular item. The most recent meal pickup was held June 10.
“We thought about new ways we could engage with the community but still remain safe as the pandemic progressed. We had to wait for county guidelines in order to resume taking orders and hosting order pick-ups.
“Our hope is to have order pick-ups more often, perhaps twice a month or so. As more places open up, we hope to get more catering opportunities and spread the word about our business,” Adams said.
In addition, UWEAST provides workshops — with interpretation — to better understand topics such as mental health, substance abuse and healthful eating.
Funds raised from the cuisine events help raise the awareness and appreciation of the East African culture. By ordering food through UWEAST’s Baraka and Bilal Catering kitchen, the San Diego community will be helping to support an intentional mission.
Kafisa Mohamed has found great help and service in UWEAST. “This organization has helped me and the people I surround myself with because whatever I learn, I share with others. The women and I have a similar experience of leaving our home land and coming to a new place and we are able to help each other and bond over similar experiences. It gives us a place to cook and has services for the family,” she said.
UWEAST first began in 2008 and received a three-year project grant in 2010 from the California Wellness Foundation, with the objective of building bridges between the community and service providers.
Successful in their objectives ever since then, UWEAST continues as a San Diego nonprofit providing health services, education and advocacy for the well-being of the East African community, women and families. Serving approximately 100 East African women, it operates the East African Cultural and Community Center in Rolando, 6523 University Ave., and offer programs and services with the goal of responding to the overlooked health needs of East African women and their families.
In very practical ways, UWEAST connects the East African women with the larger community. Not only does the nonprofit provide health services, education and advocacy for the well-being of the women and their families, the people have opportunities to participate in groups traditional to Americans, such as Girl Scouts. Tutoring is also offered, as well as Young East African Scholars for young boys; and Urban Beats, an arts program; Safety through Connection and Making Connection for young men; Dialogue with Doctor for women; Mental Health and Substance Abuse Training, and Baking Connection for women.
In the very near future, as the pandemic subsides, more opportunities for the larger San Diego community to interact with the East African community will form.
“We are hoping to do programming in person later this year,” said Adams.
For more information about the cooking events and other programs of UWEAST, go to www.uweast.org.
— A journalist and photographer for more than 30 years, Cynthia G. Robertson is the author of “Where You See Forever,” a novel set in San Diego about finding a home for the heart. She also authors a blog at Shutterbug Angel, a unique visual devotional attesting to the everyday miracles and beauty in nature. She is currently working on other books. See more of Cynthia’s work and order her book at cynthiarobertson.com.