‘Food gave me freedom. It liberated me and soothed the pain of Direct Provision’

My most treasured food memory: Ellie Kisyombe, activist

Ellie Kisyombe: For the first time in five years, I got to make my nsima with fish and vegetables in peanut butter soup

 

Throughout Food Month people will share with us their most treasured food memory.

After many years of living in Direct Provision and not being able to cook my own food or go to the market to source my own ingredients and make the food I like, such as nsima and free-range chicken with vegetables in a peanut butter soup, I was dying inside.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, plus reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/food
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, plus reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/food

My most treasured food memory happened on a beautiful morning. I was about to start my daily routine as a volunteer with the Irish Refugee Council.

I remember walking into the office. I saw my supervisor Caroline O’Connell who looked at me with a shining smile.

A bit fishy

It was a bit fishy, and I wondered what had happened. She said to me, “Ellie, guess what?”

I said, “Caroline, just tell me!”

There was nothing to guess as there weren’t any high expectations in my life as a woman living in Direct Provision.

Then she said to me: “You will love this one.”

I said “Can you just tell me as I’m about to faint?”

She told me that I was going to be able to do something I had really wanted to do – cooking. We had been approached by an Irish business woman who wanted to help asylum seekers do something with food.

I went home that night and I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. This was just a dream to me and I couldn’t believe that it could happen. I felt really frustrated at that time, having spent over five years in Direct Provision.

The next day, Michelle Darmody popped in to say hello. We had a good chat. She brought some chocolate with her and that was the start of cooking my favourite food.

It was magic

After few days, I brought my friends from Direct Provision to a space Michelle found for us in Rathmines. For the first time in five years, I got to make my nsima with fish and vegetables in peanut butter soup. I can’t explain how I felt that day. It was magic.

What made it special was that all of us had been stuck in the Direct Provision system for a very long time. We missed home-made meals. We missed the taste of home. When we were given the freedom to go to the market and source the ingredients by ourselves, to eat without being watched by cameras, as if we were incarcerated, we felt liberated.

We pretended that we owned the kitchen, that it was ours. That was the start of many friendships, and of bringing women and men together from different backgrounds to share food with our fellow Irish brothers and sisters. It reminded us all of the taste of home. Food gave me freedom. It liberated me and soothed the pain of Direct Provision.

I’ll never forget this memory as it has given me so much hope.

Ellie Kisyombe, is a director of Our Table (ourtable.ie).