Pascaline Lisembe has not seen her husband, Michel, since she left South Africa in 2014, but every time she makes cassava for their two boys, she thinks of him.
The dish, also known as pondu, is his favorite food – and the thread that binds them together across continents.
Lisembe and her husband left the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 to escape the ongoing violence there and ended up in South Africa. But it’s difficult to get asylum there, she said, and the politics were not friendly to her people, so Lisembe applied for visas to the United States for herself and her boys. She did not want to explain why her husband did not come with her. She came to the United States in 2014 and is now living in Portland, an asylum seeker separated by thousands of miles from the husband she loves.
“He is alone now,” she said. “There is no one to cook for him.”
Millions of people have been killed and more than a million people displaced from the DRC since civil war erupted there in the mid-1990s, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups. The country has been plagued by a climate of corruption and serious human rights violations that have caused widespread suffering. Armed groups that were supposed to protect civilians instead routinely prey upon them. The International Criminal Court has investigated charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery, the conscription of children and other atrocities.
Lisembe does not wish to share the details of her personal story, for both personal and legal reasons. Just thinking about it brings her to tears. But she did agree to share a cherished part of her culture, and memories of the physician husband she had to leave behind.
Lisembe, who speaks Lingala, French and English, is a Christian and, in her home country, worked as a nurse. (She’s not yet allowed to work in this country.) Now she lives with her sons, Dody, age 7, and Beny, 5, in a modest apartment on Cumberland Avenue. She still has trouble sleeping at night. A clock on wall in the living room says “God is My Strength.”
“My boys are still young,” she said during a recent visit where she agreed to demonstrate making cassava. “I want for them to be safe.”
One of the ways she keeps them tied to their culture, and to their father, is through cassava, which is a staple in central African countries. Every time she makes the dish, she’s filled with happy memories, but also sadness.
Cassava is a stew made from the leaves of the cassava plant. In Lisembe’s village, it’s eaten with rice and either fish or dried monkey meat. (Despite a visitor’s skepticism, Lisembe insists that monkey is “delicious” and, when it is smoked, tastes similar to turkey.) In her husband’s village, cassava is most often eaten with fish and pap, a thick, sticky porridge also known as fufu that is made with cornmeal, the root of the cassava plant, or some other starch.
Making cassava with fresh leaves is an arduous task that involves a lot of pounding. Lisembe uses frozen cassava that’s ready for cooking. She buys it at Save-A-Lot or at one of the ethnic grocery stores within walking distance of her apartment. Other ingredients include Maggi Seasoning Cubes, palm oil, and vegetables such as onion, eggplant, cucumber, scallions, onion, green pepper and cabbage.
As she chopped the vegetables in her kitchen, the cassava leaves simmering in a big pot of water on the stove, Lisembe talked about her life in the DRC before the war tore everything apart.
Lisembe is from the province of Equateur; her husband is from Kasai. If their native traditions had anything to say about it, they would not be together. Their love story has a pinch of “My Fair Lady,” and a dash of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Traditionally, people from their villages do not intermarry, Lisembe said. In the past, families typically arranged unions. But with western influences, things have changed. Couples “just need love, that’s it,” Lisembe said.
Lisembe met her husband when he was a university student. He tutored her in biology and math. He has a good sense of humor, she said, and he loves gospel music. He plays the piano, “but he doesn’t sing very well,” Lisembe said with a laugh.
When the couple told their families they wanted to marry, neither side was happy. Lisembe said it was “a big problem for my parents to accept my husband.” Her parents worried that she would not be treated well by her new family.
People in her husband’s village, Lisembe explained, consider women from her village too talkative and aggressive, and tell stories of them “beating up” their husbands. While that’s an exaggeration, Lisembe said, they do prefer wives who are quiet and stay in the home – qualities that don’t describe Lisembe or the women from her village. “In my village, the women are strong,” Lisembe said. “They can fight with men.”
It’s the job of future mothers-in-law to find out if the newest female member of the family knows how to cook. Lisembe had not bothered to learn since she had set her sights on becoming a nurse. She was worried her lack of skills might ruin her chances of marrying the man she loved. “In my country, if a woman doesn’t know how to cook, it’s a big problem,” Lisembe said.
Her mother told her she couldn’t put it off any longer. “She teach me late, but I learn fast,” Lisembe said.
Lisembe said her people have always eaten only “natural foods,” such as the fruits they find in the jungle and the vegetables they grow at home. Plantains there grow the size of her forearm. Her late grandmother had “great knowledge” of how to heal sick children and take care of “women’s problems” with food, she said. Cassava leaves, for example, have traditionally been used to treat chicken pox.
An hour and a half after Lisembe began making the cassava, the pot of leaves and vegetables were bubbling vigorously, having absorbed at least half the water she’d put into the pot. The cassava looked like stewed spinach. Lisembe used a large spoon to mash the vegetables in the pot, then turned to making the pap – just cornmeal and water, like polenta.
When it’s done, she cuts out a serving of the pap with a bowl – in her country, they have a special bowl for dishing it up – and puts it onto a plate next to a generous pile of cassava. The vegetables are practically invisible in the finished dish, but the flavor is remarkable for such a simple food. The cassava leaves themselves are bland, almost bitter. But they absorb the other flavors in the pot so that, when it’s time to dish them up, they taste something like like very well-seasoned cooked spinach.
When people in Lisembe’s village cook, they “take time for food,” she said. “They relax and leave it (to cook). But I can see here you have fast food. We don’t have fast food.”
Lisembe makes cassava for her sons to strengthen their tie to their heritage, but it can take some convincing to get them to eat it. Beny likes vegetables; his older brother does not. The boys have grown to love American food, especially pizza and American chop suey. A trip to McDonald’s is a treat. That makes Lisembe a little wistful, but letting her boys have fast food once in a while in a country where they are safe is a trade-off Lisembe is happy to make.
“I want to stay here,” she said. “I love Maine. I just say, thank you God.”
Lisembe hopes that if she and her children are granted asylum, her husband will be allowed to follow. She would love nothing more than to cook him a big pot of cassava.