Bake Off - Ugandan style, with Selasi

Food is a common thread that connects us – wherever we come from. And although I’ve become known through my love of food - and particularly baking – never has the importance of basic nutrition hit home as much as when I visited the refugee settlements in Uganda. When you have so much it can be difficult to imagine surviving on so little.

Over 1 million refugees now live in Uganda having fled from the civil war raging in South Sudan. World Vision works with the World Food Programme to provide meals to exhausted refugees who have just made it across the border into northern Uganda, and also helps distribute monthly rations once the refugees are settled.

I believe to get to know a place and its people, you must try their food. So when World Vision gave me the challenge to cook a meal for a South Sudanese refugee family using only the rations that they receive, I jumped at it.

Around 60% of the refugees are children, and many of these kids have arrived in Uganda after seeing their parents killed or abducted. Rose, 37, who agreed to let me take over her rations and cook for her and her family, is typical of some of the many women who have now made their lives in Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Rose left South Sudan in August 2016, when the fighting got fierce and soldiers kidnapped her husband. She is now not only a single mother to her three daughters but also fosters 14 other children who arrived in Uganda without parents.

This recently formed family is barely surviving. Each month each of them receives 6kg of maize, 1k of beans, some cooking oil and salt. They barter some of their meager rations for other goods. For example, they’ll swap grain for seeds so they can then grow vegetables such as tomatoes and onions to add some variety and different nutrients to their diet.

“Food is life. When you lack certain things, your bodies will fail and you’ll get sick,” Rose stressed while showing me the small kitchen garden in front of her home.

The salt in their ration pack is so important. I usually add stock cubes to everything I cook at home to add more flavor, but all they have is salt.

This monotony in their diet really struck me, especially when – I’m ashamed to say - three days into the trip, huddled in the World Vision van, I bit into yet another cheese sandwich and sighed. “Cheese again!” The kids I’d just spent all morning with know what is coming at each and every meal; there is no excitement to see what will arrive on their plates.

I didn’t see a single fruit - not even a banana – in the settlements. And food we take for granted; things like eggs, butter and milk that define me as a baker, were totally absent. Eggs and meat are a luxury for these refugees. They can barter the few crops they grow for them, but eggs and meat are definitely a treat.

The cooking challenge was tough, not least because before I started cooking I had to find wood for the fire! But Rose’s kids and foster family found it hilarious as South Sudanese men don’t tend to get involved in cooking.

Philip, one of her brood, kindly claimed my meal was “tasty” because of the way I’d fried the onions and tomatoes. But to be honest, in the end it wasn’t about what I cooked. Sitting with the family when everyone had a full plate in front of them, one of the older girls, Christine, said: ‘It is good that you have cooked with us. We are often given things and we are grateful, but it feels good for you to sit with us and to hear our stories.”

Join Selasi to help vulnerable children by organising a meal for friends and family and collecting donations for our Share A Meal appeal. See more here