Chef Veronica Wandui: How I Found My Voice In A Man’s World

HuffPost. September 2021.

Veronica Wandui is the executive banquet chef at The St. Regis Atlanta, where she orchestrates weddings and conferences for up to 600 guests at a time. After graduating from culinary school in Nairobi, Wandui was demotivated, harassed and told to stay “in her place.” She migrated to the United States and restarted her career, earning business management and culinary degrees and making her way from an intern to executive banquet chef at one of the most opulent kitchens in Atlanta. In this Voices in Food story, Wandui talks about what it took for her to get ahead as a Black female chef in a male-dominated workplace.

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Rich with Culture and History – Senegal at a Glance

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Sept 2019.

Senegal is one of the most peaceful and well-developed countries in West Africa and there was only one reported case of Ebola in 2014 (according to WHO). This French-speaking country in the westernmost part of Africa is relatively easy to navigate and friendly toward tourists. It offers pristine beaches, large fishing villages, heritage sites and new museums. It is also one of the best places to learn about African-American history.

Weekend on Goree Island
Pictured: Weekend at Goree Island | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Dakar

Unlike other capital cities on the African continent, Dakar is relatively quiet and clean, especially on the weekends. Plan to spend a couple of days exploring the city’s French architecture, museums, markets and restaurants. Wander around the streets where you can see French bakeries selling fresh baguettes, hole-in-the-wall shawarma stalls and upscale coffee and gelato shops. Grab lunch in the courtyard of the French Institute and check out their schedule of daily music and cultural performances.

The recently opened Museum of Black Civilizations offers a good overview from the birth of humanity and early civilizations to textiles, fashion and modern art. The African Renaissance Monument is the tallest statue in Africa and was designed by a Senegalese architect. The 160- foot bronze monument is a symbol of Africa’s readiness to take its destiny into its own hands.

A short ferry ride from Dakar is Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, colorful Dutch slave trader houses, cobblestone streets dotted with pink bougainvillea and blue Atlantic waters make it a scenic location. Take a guided tour of Maison des Ésclaves (Slave House) to learn about the Atlantic slave trade that originated from the island.

The Pink Lake 

The second most popular destination in Senegal is Lac Rose (Lake Retba), also known as the Pink Lake. Here you can see seasonal workers collecting salt on long summer days while ladies dressed in bright traditional clothes sell souvenirs and homemade snacks. Spend a few hours watching the color of the dense saltwater turn into shades of pink, float in the lake, take a boat ride or spend the night at Hotel De Crostaux Roses to enjoy a peaceful ambiance away from the city.

Women in Senegal working around The Pink Lake
Pictured: Women working around The Pink Lake | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Lompoul Desert 

White sand dunes make for a scenic setting in Lompoul, where the local village community also runs a luxurious eco-lodge, equipped with en suite bathrooms, a restaurant and bar. Explore by foot, ATV or on camelback, relax with a cocktail or enjoy a traditional Senegalese meal. The village men entertain guests each night with drumming and jambe dancing under the stars.

Kaya Fisherman Village 

Stop at one of the largest fishing villages in West Africa to see the daily life of fishermen and their families. Afternoons are the best time to witness the bustling of the locals when fishermen return and pull their reels in. Hundreds of colorful boats dot the busy beach where men reel in nets, sort, bid and sell. Most of the seafood is exported to Europe.

As you pass through the villages, kids will wave and run up to greet you with “bonjour” in their soft, innocent voices. People in Senegal are extremely friendly and will strike up conversations or invite you to see their shops. The Senegalese people are proud of their teranga, the Wolof word for hospitality.

Saint Louis

The former capital of Senegal, with its French Colonial buildings and lively music scene, resembles the city of New Orleans. Many of the historic buildings in the UNESCO city of Saint Louis have been turned into hotels and restaurants. Though there are a few art galleries and African boutiques, most people spend a few hours observing pelicans, flamingos, seagulls and eagles at the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary.

Also, the Saint Louis Jazz Festival held in April is one of the most popular music events in Africa and requires reservations months in advance.

Touba

Touba is a holy pilgrimage site for the Mouride brotherhood, a Sufi order. The main attraction in this holy city is one of the largest mosques in Africa with a capacity of 7,000 people. With its intricately designed ceilings, minarets and large domes, the mosque is an architectural marvel and a revered pilgrimage site.

Touba Mosque in Senegal
Pictured: Touba Mosque | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

If you don’t speak French and are traveling in this part of Africa for the first time, it is encouraged to have a local tour guide or travel with a trusted company. There are few international tour operators offering sustainable tours to West Africa. Canada-based G Adventures recently launched its Senegal and The Gambia itinerary that includes highlights of both countries in a small group setting. G Adventures’ Planeterra Foundation helps kickstart and support social enterprises in Africa and around the world, which are embedded in their tours as customer experiences.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

What to See and Do along South Africa’s Garden Route

CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2019.

If you’re looking up cheap flight deals to the Rainbow Nation and are on the lookout for a unique experience once you’re there, the Garden Route South Africa could be your answer! The 190-mile stretch allows for many opportunities to check out wildlife, hike, swim, eat, and drink along the scenic coastal drive across the southern Cape. Starting in Cape Town, there are many small towns worth visiting along the Garden Route, including Hermanus, Agulhas, Mossel Bay, Oudtshoorn, Knysna, Plattenberg Bay, and Port Elizabeth. If you want to see it all, plan for two weeks. Here are some must-see places to stop at for a sustainable vacation.

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Black African Businesses Emerge in Soweto

For Cuisine Noir. March 2019.

What to see and do in the birthplace of the South African Revolution

A 30-minute car ride from the urban sprawl of Johannesburg to the suburbs of Soweto makes you feel as if you have traveled to another country. The scenery changes from glass skyscrapers, planned roads, upscale boutiques and acclaimed restaurants to rows of colorful houses, children dancing behind fenced yards and piles of accumulated garbage.

Black African Businesses Emerge in Soweto
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

If you have heard of world leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, you may already know that they both lived in Soweto, practically across the street from each other. Soweto, or the South Western Township, was created in the 1930s when Black Africans were forced away from the city to separate dwelling areas under the infamous “Urban Areas Act,” making Soweto the largest Black city in South Africa. Today, it is still the largest township located on the outskirts of Johannesburg, with a population of 1.5 million.

Eyes on the Future

My Uber driver is a Black African by the name of Doctor Siphamandla, who is in his mid-20s. He’s not a doctor as one may suspect. “My grandfather named me Doctor, perhaps because he had a bigger vision for me,” Siphamandla clarifies. He tells me that he was born and brought up in Soweto and loves everything about the place. “The people, the food, the nightlife—it’s a vibrant place!” I’m curious about the visit.

During our commute, I ask him what he thinks about the future of South Africa and he says he feels very confident. “I have not seen or experienced apartheid. I have only heard stories from my family. So, I cannot tell you what it felt like. All I know is we are too focused on the past, on Mandela, and have to move on.”

Born after 1994, Siphamandla falls under the category of “Free Born,” meaning those born in free South Africa. Once we arrive at our destination, I see how Soweto is moving on. There are international travelers —Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics —all lined up to go inside the former home of Nelson Mandela, now a museum. It is a small one-story brick building with only two rooms, filled with original pieces of furniture, certificates and pictures. Everyone wants to take a photo in front of the house, raising their fists as Mandela did, to show their support towards his cause.

Across the street, restaurants and bars are serving Soweto beer and traditional braai. Souvenir shops on Vilakazi Street sell African crafts, colorful gowns, and bags with Mandela’s face on them. Many bankers, chefs and entrepreneurs have returned to Soweto to open modern cafes, jazz clubs and breweries. Nearby, Morara Wine and Spirits Emporium, Soweto’s first boutique wine and spirits shop, hosts book clubs and poetry gigs with more than100 South African wine labels.

Orlanda Stadium in Soweto, South Africa
Pictured: Orlando Stadium | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The Orlando Stadium is home to the Orlando Pirates FC of the Premier Soccer League, one of the best teams in the country. In 2010, Soweto hosted the FIFA Soccer World Cup drawing the attention of more than a billion soccer spectators from all over the world.

Many travelers prefer to stay at the 4-star Soweto Hotel and Conference Center so they can enjoy nearby attractions, including Orlando Towers. The two disused cooling structures loom over the township offering a lift ride to a viewing platform, bungee jump, power swing, and internal swing.RELATED: Ntsiki Biyela Uncorked: South Africa’s First Black Female Winemaker Delivers

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum gives a stark perspective into Soweto’s recent past. During the Soweto Uprising of 1976, police opened fire on 10,000 students marching against the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than their native languages. Disease, hunger, civil unrest, and violent riots were a part of everyday life in Soweto until the country abolished apartheid had its first multiracial elections in 1994.

Reconciling the Past for a Promising Future

The next morning, I meet with Charles Ncube, my guide from Kgokare Tours, an all-Black-owned tour company. Ncube is one of the 12 tour guides featured in South African Tourism’s new ‘Meet Your South Africa’ campaign where locals show insights into their communities. He is in his 30s and speaks 11 languages. “When you live in Soweto, you have to speak to everybody in their own language,” he tells me, referring to how the shanty town was initially divided by different language groups, including, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Zulu and Xhosa.

Typically, when you go to museums, you expect to see things that happened to generations before us. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I realize how recent the history of South Africa is. “I remember having to walk through Black-Only marked staircases and going to Black-Only restrooms at the airport when I was a teenager,” Ncube, who is almost my age, tells me.

Tour guide Charles Ncube of Kgokare Tours in Soweto
Pictured: Tour guide Charles Ncube | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

One of the exhibits at the museum is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where witnesses of gross human rights violations during apartheid were invited to give statements about their experiences and face their persecutors. “It was in the middle of the night when some White men came to our house and took my mother. We never saw her again,” Ncube explains in one of the documentaries.

This year as South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy, people like Ncube and Siphamandla have different experiences from the past, but the same hopes for the future. They both see tourism as a way to enhance their economic situation. They want to see more Black African entrepreneurs and transforming neighborhoods like Soweto.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir. March 2019

10 UNESCO Sites Every African-American Traveler Should Visit

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018. 

Are you curious about traveling to countries that are particularly known for their UNESCO designated sites? Lazare Eloundou Assomo, deputy director of the World Heritage Centre, provides some insight into how the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) works.  UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world that is considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. These include monuments, habitats and natural formations that have aesthetic, archeological, scientific or anthropological value. All countries have sites of local or national interest, but sites selected for World Heritage listing are inscribed based on their merits as the best possible examples of cultural and natural heritage.

How did the UNESCO World Heritage list start?

The idea of creating an international movement for protecting heritage emerged after World War I. The 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage developed from the merging of two separate movements – the first focusing on the preservation of cultural sites and the other dealing with the conservation of nature.

How is a UNESCO site selected?

First, a country must pledge to protect its natural and cultural heritage by signing the World Heritage Convention and submitting a nomination for a site on its territory to be included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. A nominated property is independently evaluated by two advisory bodies mandated by the World Heritage Convention, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The committee of 21 representatives meets once a year to decide which sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage List.

Some of the newest inscribed properties include the ancient city of Qalhat in OmanThimlick Ohinga settlement in Kenya and the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa.

As history and culture play an important role in why people travel, here are 10 UNESCO Sites that every black person should visit at least once in their lifetime.

  1. Robben Island, South Africa

Used as a prison and hospital for socially unacceptable groups and later as a military base, this maximum-security prison located on an island near Cape Town imprisoned Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandel for 18 years.

  1. Lalibela, Ethiopia

Famous for its rock-cut monolithic churches, the town of Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities with11 churches built in the 12th and 13th centuries, a monastery and vernacular houses.

  1. Island of Gorée, Senegal

Located just off the coast of Dakar, close to Africa’s westernmost point, this island played an important role in slave trade in the Middle Ages.

  1. Medina of Fez, Morocco

The Medina is not only a visually stimulating cultural and spiritual center, it is also home to the oldest university in the world.

  1. Salvador Bahia, Brazil

The city was the original colonial capital and the first slave market in South America. It maintains many Afro-Brazilian traditions, religious rites, martial arts, food and dances.

  1. Old Havana, Cuba

The fortified characteristically Spanish town retains a mix of Baroque and Neoclassical monuments, private houses with wrought-iron gates and balconies.

  1. Pitons Management Area, St Lucia

With two volcanic spires, hot springs, a coral reef and wet forests, Gros Piton and Petit Piton make a spectacular backdrop to the western part of the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean.

  1. Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

This wildlife park stretching over 50,000 square kilometers is home to elephants, black rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles.

  1. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Sprays from the largest waterfall in the world formed by the Zambezi River can be seen from Zambia and Zimbabwe.

  1. Lamu Old Town, Kenya

The oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa features narrow streets with elaborately carved wooden doors, stone buildings, dhow boats and an annual Mualidi festival.

For more additional exploration of history, Moukala also recommends checking out some of the sites related to slavery to further understand the social and human impact around the world.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

Essential Tips for Your First African Safari

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

Kenya has some of the best-preserved wildlife and to see it with your own eyes is a dream come true. As I drove in a rustic jeep through the vast expanse of the Masai Mara watching, herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeest and prides of lions walk past me, it feels nothing short of being in a National Geographic documentary itself.

If you are planning a visit to see the African wildlife, here are a few things to know beforehand.

When to go?

June through October are the peak seasons to visit Kenya as rainfall is minimal and temperatures are cooler. While wildlife viewing is great throughout the year, you’ll see the most animals during the great migration, an annual event where hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cross the borders between Tanzania and Kenya in search of water and food.

Where to go?

If it’s your first game drive experience in Kenya, allot at least 7-10 days. International flights arrive in the capital city of Nairobi where you want to relax for a day or two after the long journey. In Nairobi, take the opportunity to learn how baby elephants are rescued at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage and kiss a giraffe at the world-famous Giraffe Center.

Head on to Naivasha, where you can see hippos from your luxury camp. This fresh water lake is also a good place to birdwatch. Walk among zebras, giraffes, and gazelles at the Crescent Island Game Park.

The Masai Mara is a 583 square-mile vast game reserve where you can spot the “Big 5” – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards and buffaloes. Around the Mara, you can interact with the local Masai people. They often sell handmade crafts and jewelry, perform traditional dances and offer tours of their villages.

See thousands of flamingos, rhinos and more animals at Lake Nakuru National Park, then head west to President Barack Obama’s ancestral hometown, Nyang’oma Kogelo Village.

Where to stay?

There are only all-inclusive tented camp hotels (known as camps) located near game reserves ranging in luxury and price. Most of them are nicely decorated with hardwood floors, comfortable bedding and en-suite bathrooms with hot showers. There is generally no air conditioner or heater, and electricity is restricted to few hours in the night. Stay at Sekenani Camp if you want a romantic bathtub inside the tented room or follow the footsteps of the Obamas at Basecamp Masai Mara, where they stayed during a family vacation.

What to pack?

On a safari trip, it is best to pack light as you will be moving around in a jeep and staying at camps. Since you will spend a lot of time in the car, dress in comfortable camouflage and neutral color clothing that doesn’t attract the attention of animals and blends with surroundings. Layers are great to have as it can get chilly in the mornings and evenings. There are no stores in the reserve, so pack lots of insect repellant and sunscreen along with plenty of spare batteries and memory cards for the unforgettable panoramas you will take.

Who to go with?

A reputable tour operator and a knowledgeable safari guide can make or break your wildlife viewing experience. My driver/ guide, Danson Kahuria with The Village Experience is a native to Lake Nakuru. He grew up close to animals and knew where to spot them. He could predict their next move and would take us to the best spots to get close-ups. In a matter of few hours, I saw thousands of lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and more.

Kenya is perhaps the best starting point for an African wilderness getaway because everyone speaks English, the infrastructure is well developed and it is quite safe outside the cities. A visa can be obtained electronically through a simple process and there are no vaccinations required (advisable to check with CDC).

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. February 2018. 

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog