Go anywhere around the world and you will find them – seemingly informal food vendors with queues upon queues in their vicinity.
From the outside looking in, it is often difficult to tell who’s who and what they do. One thing remains, however, which is that they are looking to satisfy their hunger and that location is the present pick. From the cooling Pani Puri in India to the filling Rolex in Uganda and the gorditas of Mexico, there is a synergic relationship between the foods one encounters in a place and those that they see locals enjoy on a regular basis.
Across the landscape of Botswana, there has evolved an industry that bridges the gaps of fast food and homeliness. While this is not to say that encountering a familiar dish away from home might not transport one back to a distant time and place, the street food in the country is governed by several unspoken rules. These rules, however, fall under the jurisdiction of the cooks known as boMmaSeapei. Cruise through many a business centre in the capital city, Gaborone, and you will find that a tree serves as the shelter and landmark. The lines of the mid-morning and afternoon often belie the emptiness one would encounter outside of the feeding times.
Much like their ever-present counterparts dealing items of convenience such as sweets and airtime, boMmaseapei continue to be a sector of the food and beverages industry that is dominated by women. Their reliability garners devotion so strong that it is not unusual to hear complaints rise, should there be a shortage of food requiring devotees to find another eatery.
Their popularity is also clear in the sly rotation of staff through office corridors as the noon sun sits up high. Unlike the many other types of street food across the world, however, the often standardised – and at times seasonal and organic – menu that they prepare requires countless hours that are usually spent by designated members of families at special occasions.
Economy and provision remain at the core of the development of the popular menu accessible regardless of geographic location in the country. Starch options regularly include phaletshe (maize meal), samp, bogobe jwa mabele (sorghum porridge), and the seasonal bogobe jwa lerotse (melon infused sorghum porridge). Popular meat preparations are grilled or fried beef or chicken, stewed beef, or chicken, seswaa (pounded beef – the goat alternative is a delicacy due to the raw material to product ratio), and the elaborate eater might happen to come upon a rare oxtail stew guaranteed to cost far more than any other option.
The plate is always rounded off in a fashion that would impress a dietician, with greens and a salad of some sort. While the starch and meats are standardised, some of the greens – such as spinach or morogo wa dinawa (Setswana bean greens) – can be hard to come by when harvest and preparation times do not allow.
Speaking to Reflwe Keoreketswe Keabilwe, founder and Rebel Cook – a bespoke culinary art enterprise based and Court 5 (Squash Club) – she offers that while the work that professionals such as herself has its place, nothing quite compares to the appeal that Botswana’s street food has. The foodie lauds that “it is passion-driven, and you can always tell when it has been made from the heart”, adding the popular Americanism, “it’s soul food!” Rebel Cook is known for their innovative approach to gastronomic exploration, often creating fusions that bring refined technique and familiar tastes together as equals.
The global street food vendor market was estimated at USD 2.5 billion in 2022, according to a report produced by Future Market Insights, and has a forecast value of USD 8 billion by 2032. The city of Austin, Texas, boasted a remarkable 1,000 food trucks in 2022, according to Damian Roberti of Marketing Food Online, followed closely by Portland, Oregon, with 800 mobile eateries all serving foods of the world from classic BBQ to spicy Eastern cuisine. While there are no statistics regarding the number of street food vendors across Botswana – a reflection both instability of the sector and the valuation of their role in the economy – by-laws of the country stipulate that one must possess a permit to carry on business “in a convenient public space or upon land which he has no right to control”.
The regulations regarding legality do not, however, extend to oversight in terms of hygiene and or nutritional value, relegating their skills and efforts to a pastime. Similarly, one of the unspoken rules is that of price regulation as the precarious choice between trusting the loyalty of one’s patrons and acknowledging the economic pinch all parties involved are experiencing falls solely on the shoulders of the vendor – while commercially prepared versions of the same dishes call over quadruple times the amounts one pays under an acacia tree, with “not as much spirit” as Rebel Cook attests.
It was Oscar-winning Italian actress and Hollywood icon, Sophia Loren, who stated “the most indispensable ingredient of all good home cooking … love for those you are cooking for”. As the Italians are themselves also well known for their hearty, homely feasts, the rise to cultural ubiquity and consistent presence in urban and peri-urban locales of boMmaseapei is a sign that the cuisine of the people is something they are not shy to celebrate. It is only a matter of time that due investment is made to ensure that not only can they be uplifted economically but offered the kind of stability that builds legacies for generations to come.