January 24, 2018
For a ‘Chef-ugee’ from Zimbabwe, Cooking Stirs New Hopes and Old Memories
By Rosalind Tordesillas
Every now and then the woman in the apron clinks her water glass with a fork to cut through the conversation, and all eyes at the table turn to her.
“Please don’t think there’s any question that is uncomfortable,” she says. “It is my duty to explain to someone who doesn’t know, and hopefully inspire a life.”
Seated midway down a communal table of 20, Tatenda Ngwaru is a commanding presence. She has prepared this recent evening meal for diners in Manhattan to share cooking from her native Zimbabwe and her story of struggling to survive as an asylum seeker in New York City.
The event is part of a series of dinners called Displaced Kitchens, hosted by Komeeda, a company that designs events allowing diners to experience different cultures through food and storytelling. Refugees – dubbed “chef-ugees” – host each meal, joining diners to engage in conversation about their experiences.
The dinners also help the chef-ugees earn money to meet their urgent needs when resettlement support from non-governmental organizations or government agencies falls short. “[Tatenda] was living in a shelter a few weeks ago,” says Nasser Jaber, co-founder of Komeeda. ”She’s the one in need of the most immediate help.”
Tatenda worked as a caterer in Zimbabwe, and her events often feature her signature chicken stew with sadza —a Zimbabwean staple made from maize meal that’s similar in consistency to mashed potatoes. The bone-in chicken parts are braised with tomatoes, onions, and carrots. It’s a dish that summons strong memories of home.
“My father says he doesn’t make anyone cook chicken except me, so I wanted you guys to have that,” she tells the diners.
Tatenda left Zimbabwe to escape the persecution she faced as an intersex person born with both male and female anatomical features. At birth, she was categorized as a boy and was treated as one throughout her early years. But Tatenda knew better.
“I’ve always been a girl-girl! That wasn’t even a question,” she says. “My first crush was a boy. I liked dolls and nice dresses.” Then she adds playfully, “You know, I’m pretty, which helps!”
When she had to undergo emergency surgery as a teen, doctors discovered her female internal organs. But Tatenda’s parents wanted her to continue pretending to be a boy. Rather than hide who she was, Tatenda ran away from home. She and her parents eventually reconciled, but that acceptance couldn’t protect her from discrimination.
“People like me are not people,” Tatenda says. “Some say we’re the ones that don’t make the rain come. You go to jail, or you get killed, or you disappear.”
Concerned for her safety, Tatenda’s father urged her to seek asylum in the U.S. But the decision to leave home was just the first step in a journey that continues to be a struggle.
After arriving in Los Angeles in 2016 with only $60, Tatenda slept on the street outside an LGBTQ organization for two nights. Eventually a donated plane ticket helped her get to New York City.
Asylum seekers must wait 180 days to take jobs after filing applications for work authorization, so she couldn’t legally support herself during that time. And Tatenda found that organizations helping refugees could only do so much.
“They help with legal [matters], but when it comes to everyday life [not so much],” she says. “That was my first winter in New York. I have no winter clothes. I have never seen snow. And they don’t help with that.”
Tatenda now has her work authorization and a Social Security number. She has a business degree and experience organizing for the intersex and transgender community. She’s hoping to leave behind the odd jobs she has had to take to survive. But so far, job hunting has been slow going. She still needs help to keep afloat.
“It’s very hard for me to ask [for help]. Every time I have to ask it makes me feel like I’m a prisoner,” she says. “It’s just that I really need it.”