Tuleka Prah, Film-maker – South Africa/Ghana

Who are you and where are you based?
I am Tuleka Prah and I’m the middle child of three. So, I am an older and younger sister. I’m a filmmaker and PhD student living and working in Berlin. I’ve been here for a little over six years. I moved here for a few choice reasons, but mainly because I had an exquisite Sunday brunch somewhere and could no longer justify my reasons for living elsewhere. I had to give this city with bakeries everywhere and cheap and amazing Sunday brunches a chance.

What’s your background?
My parents were great travellers. We moved to new cities and towns relatively often (every 3 years on average). So I kind of grew up all over the place, almost entirely in Africa. My mother is into computer science and statistics and my dad is a professor of sociology. He also has the largest and most fascinating collection of books of anyone I know. Those came with us everywhere and more were added over time. So in my memory, those were the constants: new countries and the smell and presence of books – and of course my siblings. This is my foundation; what I suppose shaped how and who I am now.

What’s the African presence in Berlin like?
You know, it’s growing! And at a fast rate, which is a relief. It was pretty weak when I first moved here – that was one of the biggest deterrents for me. In the end though, I guess the “food factor” and “quality-of-life” pull was stronger!

So can you tell us a bit about what my African Food Map is all about? And how it came about?
My African Food Map is literally a combination of the things I love. (It includes, food, travel, Africa and making films!) It’s a food series which I hope will ultimately cover the continent. It’s about the challenge of transporting the tastiness of a particular African dish visually. I’ve often felt the way African food is presented in books and videos online make it look like something hostile and unapproachable. It’s like it went hand-in-hand with the whole “it’s a hostile and unapproachable continent” mentality, when of course there is more to it. Yes, there are all the wars, warlords, hunger, poverty and general political dysfunctionalness, but people live there! People eat there. I did! Besides that, my logic has always been, “well, if you like for example, Mexican, Thai or Indian food then I don’t see why you wouldn’t like say, West African food.” I believe it has a similar depth of flavour, variety and/or spiciness .The main difference is that it has not been documented as carefully and beautifully as these other foods have.

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I was looking for the recipe for Kontomire. The ones I found were very different from each other and neither of them were like the one I had grown up eating. Additionally, the pictures were awful! Just harsh, aggressively lit meals, spilling over the plate. If I’d never tried it, I think I wouldn’t want to. So that was the underlying reason behind the development of this idea. I wanted to start properly documenting popular African food like Groundnut stew/soup, Jollof rice, umngqusho etc in a way that would not only attract new food lovers to try them, but also to excite those who already know them. And then I thought, “I don’t actually know more dishes other than those in South and West Africa really.” Another thing which I thought needed changing – I mean, do you know what people love to eat in Equitorial Guinea? Or Namibia? Or Chad? Exactly. So, I took out a payment plan, bought a camera, a lens and a hard-drive and started this project.

Some would say your videos make the cooking of foods like Jollof Rice deceptively simple? Is your objective to show how to cook African Food or is there a more aesthetic agenda to your videos?
It is that easy though! The most challenging thing I found was that often African dishes are quite flexible in their measurements. That probably has a lot to do with availability of ingredients and another approach to cooking; i.e. one that is perhaps a bit more “instinctive.” So that’s what would make cooking things like Jollof rice complicated. My objectives are twofold. Firstly, to show, step-by-step how to make a particular dish, and secondly, to make it look like it tastes good. And as I said, most of the time, it’s pretty amazing. So yes, there is definitely an aesthetic agenda to it! But I also want to be honest about it. If it looks that simple and that good, then it is. Try it! I have (it’s one of my conditions: To try to cook the things I’m posting, in exactly the way it’s shown in the videos and using the instructions on the website).

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I get irritated with the current food show formula of having someone give instructions as they cook. It’s too clinical; inorganic. And psychologically, when you’re copying that formula in your own kitchen it gets demoralising when you notice, for example, that you’re not chopping your onions as fast as the chef on TV, or that the oil you started to heat, just as he did while he chopped, is now too hot because you took too long. And then it all starts to go pear-shaped. Do you know what I mean? Moreover, I often found that I needed to see more closely what the food looked like at the different stages to make sure I was on the right track. I also found the constant voice barging in very distracting. So I consciously try to minimise the speaking parts, which I guess makes the videos more aesthetic.

So far you’ve focused on West Africa – any other culinary destinations in your plans?
Yes, with any luck, we will travel to all the countries on the African continent! Next stop is Kenya. I thought I would start with a well-known West African country, followed by an East African one, then south and north. You know, ease people in by starting with the familiar. The last country on the agenda is South Africa. It’s generally a well-documented country as it is. Also, to start with one of the countries that first gained independence from colonial rule and end with one of Africa’s “newest” hopes has some kind of poetic ring to it.

Who are your favourite characters from African film, literature or art?
Hmm… Although there are a lot of books, films and artists that interest me, there isn’t really one that I specifically like to the point of “favourite.” Most of them are quite flawed characters, which I guess is what makes the narratives interesting. Like, a lot of the time I’d think “Why on EARTH would you do that!?” about some decision a character makes in a book or film. But there is one that keeps coming to the front of my mind: Jezile from “And They Didn’t Die” by Lauretta Ngcobo. That story and Jezile crept up on me and has stayed in my mind as one of the best I’ve read.

What are your ambitions for the My African Food Map series?
Besides putting four of their most popular foods online, I also want to put that country in the front of people’s minds. For example, if you didn’t know where that country was or what people eat there, we hope that this would be an easy and enjoyable way to initiate an interest in that place. So that in the end, questions like “which country in South Africa are you from?” will become a mythical joke.

How can people get hold of you, and/or involved with My African Food Map?
I’m still looking for funding and sponsors so that I can create a proper website through which people could contact us and get involved. For the moment you can reach us at myafricanfoodmap@gmail.com or through our Facebook site.

Why the medium of video rather than say books or articles?
I think it’s the fastest way to grab people’s attention when it comes to food. We’re also an increasingly web-based society and this is the easiest way to get things out there. And: I’m always taking pictures or filming things. It was just a natural extension for me.

Tuleka Prah is the founder of My African Food Map and Director of The Gemuse Project, a film production company based in Berlin.

Follow My African Food Map on Twitter 

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