In Zimbabwe, a priceless party

The best gifts are often the most simple.

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    FRUITFUL BOUNTY: Fresh fruit, such as mangoes and red grapes grown in backyards, augments the sparse diets of those living in Zimbabwe.
    Joanne Ciccarello/Staff
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Never let a lack of cash stop you from hosting friends.

After seven years in cash-strapped Zimbabwe, I'm used to not having much. Food shortages and price slashes emptied shops well before last year. Soon, bread became a hard-to-find luxury.

As the purse strings got tighter, I learned to cook "relish": a stir-fried (and cheap) mush of spinach, broccoli leaves, and other monkey-resistant vegetables from our garden. I devised my own "doughnut" cake made from donated pancake mix, and I chopped cakes of soap in half to make them last longer.

In the last four months of 2008, when protracted haggling over a unity government between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pushed prices higher, we decided on more drastic cutbacks. The first thing to go: dinner parties.

It wasn't just a question of not having enough food. I knew my pantry would stretch to accommodate scrambled eggs for eight. But whoever heard of a scrambled egg party? Besides, I was afraid I'd embarrass my friends, who might feel they had to invite us back – and couldn't.

Instead, we exchanged news in the street – a quick "hello, how are you managing?" and a wave, or a few words thrown out of the car window.

Sometimes I daydreamed of the feast I'd cook for friends when all this was over. I planned my menu in detail: a chicken smothered in oil, rubbed in sea salt and thyme, stuffed with chunks of onion and lemon slices, and slathered in gravy. Then I'll set it on a table with rosemary-speckled roasted potatoes and rice, butternut squash, and salad. I envisaged lighting candles just so my guests could enjoy their flickering flames (and not because the power had gone off for the nth time).

But as the annual inflation climbed relentlessly to an estimated 1 sextillion percent last December, the dreams of my feast began to disappear.

Finally, our friend, Mai Nigel, called. "What are you doing this morning?" she asked. "Come to our place. We'd love to see you properly."

Quickly, I scanned my cupboard. When we used to visit our friends, I'd bring presents from a stash of overseas luxuries: bath soap sent by an uncle or packets of custard powder from my mother. But Zimpost, our public postal provider, hadn't delivered so much as a letter in weeks. Like Old Mother Hubbard's, my cupboard was bare. So my husband grabbed what we had: three mangoes from the fruit bowl.

Mai Nigel's husband was waiting at the gate. "It's been so long," he said.

Inside, we drank water, served in glasses on a pretty doily-covered tray. There were no biscuits, no cake, and no sweets – but I only realized this hours later. My 4-year-old, who's normally so hungry we joke that he has hollow legs, did not ask for food once.

We left well after lunchtime. As we were leaving, Mai Nigel handed me a bag of black grapes from the vine in her back garden.

"Please," said her husband, "come anytime. And next time, don't wait so long to visit."

Those grapes lasted us three days. Each time I ate a cluster, I thought of the hours we'd spent with Mai and Baba wa Nigel and the lesson they taught me.

Sometimes there is no point in dwelling on the things you lack. Instead, I've learned that good conversation and the sheer contentment of being with friends, can be just as satisfying as chicken and chips.

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