My life interjected with Chu Chu Kibour in the summer of 2013. We were in a class together, a class whose sole purpose was for us to learn to live the lives we wanted to live. To cast our stories about ourselves and all of our preconceived notions to the side and to truly live the lives we believe we were meant to live.
The teacher split the class of about 45 into groups, and these were the people we were ‘assigned’ to for the duration of the class. I was placed in a group with 5 people, including Chu Chu. Initially, I was intrigued by her. A seemingly self-assured woman with a warm, beautiful smile and naturally curly and autumn colored hair. After brief introductions, I learned that she was not only a business owner, she previously owned a restaurant, and now a salon; but she was a painter and quite often displayed her pieces in local art exhibitions.
Why was Chu Chu here? I mean, I get why I was here given my constant issues dealing with self-worth, depression, confidence and finding my place in life. But Chu Chu seemed, to me, so powerful and assured in her style and her walk. But my quick, brief assumption of her life was not her story. The beginning of Chu Chus’ story would take me on a journey oceans away to the city of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.
Chu Chu, how has food played a role in the woman you have become?
“Food played a major role because it wasn’t given freely.” --Chu Chu Kibour
--My mother left me when I was two years old. She left me and my sister, Elizabeth, in the care of my father and his wife. My father loved me, this I knew. But my stepmother had no maternal instincts, no warmth. She didn’t fit the comforting, nurturing image that many of us may have of our mother’s. But nevertheless, she loved me the best she could.
School left the same voided feeling as well. Growing up and going to school was a struggle, partly because I didn’t feel loved. I’ve always been an artistic person. And school was hard... I remember feeling different because it was hard for me to focus and I learned different and saw things differently. Now, there are names for it, but in Africa, a child would not be labeled as having attention deficit disorder (ADD); there you were just labeled a dummy.
I didn’t feel loved at home and I felt out of place at school. I began to rebel because I wasn’t getting the love or attention that I needed as a child. I guess my way of rebelling was stealing food. I didn’t steal out of hunger or necessity. But my step mother controlled everything and food was monitored, so I stole because I was able to give freely to myself something that was not given freely to me.
In Addis we had a cook and whenever she prepared dinner she would place the food in the oven to stay warm. When I came home I could not find the injera bread, but I did find what she prepared for dinner: curry potato and cabbage with meat sauce. I ate all of the meat sauce, a portion of food for the entire family. I simply ate it all. I didn’t care that she made it for dinner. I didn’t care that it was enough for the entire family. I didn’t care that she had to cook it all over again. I needed comfort. I needed love. But even with all the aggravation I caused her, she never told my parents. Maybe she knew or understood what I was going through, to this day I don’t know. But I do know she cared for me and she always had my back. For those things, I will always be grateful.
I still relish in the smell and I remember it as if I could walk five steps and be right back in my childhood kitchen. I was just so delighted in the fact that I could have control over what I was given and what I could have. This is how it felt to have arms wrapped around me! The embrace of a mother. All of these feelings that I had not yet had the privilege to experience. I realized through food that this is what love is.
My rebellious ways did not let up and by the time I was nine, my father decided it would help if I went to live with my mom. I was elated to be with my mom after all these years of going through life without her but I also wanted to know why she left me and my sister.
My mom lived in a district of Addis Ababa called Gulele. Now staying with her was a stark change to the life I had with my dad and stepmom. I now lived in a place where I wasn’t only loved but where food was an extension of that love. You see my mom owned a restaurant and food was always around or being prepared. But most important, it wasn't monitored.
At the beginning I was trying to figure everybody out. It was a lot to get used to because in regaining my mother, I regained an entire family of people whom I did not know. But immediately I knew that my newly found family based their entire day around food. Food was every where and for some reason, even at that young age it brought joy to my soul!
I spoke with my mother about leaving me and my sister with my father, and I began to understand why she left. She had us by the time she was 17 years old. That is my daughter’s age now and I couldn't imagine her having two children at this age. My relationship with my mother was something different to me. But we had a nice relationship. She carried me for nine months, she’s my mom and I knew she loved me.
Food was a true blanket of love and that love constantly showered me with abecha dabo, dorowat, cake, and the most beautiful golden spiced butter. In the years that I stayed with my mom I learned how to cook many different kinds of foods, but primarily Ethiopian and Italian. Even as an adult when I had my restaurant in Northern Virginia, my mother was the one who prepared most of the Ethiopian food including vegetarian red lentils, yellow chickpeas with curry, azifa, and french lentils prepared with wasabi sauce.
After staying in Gulele for about two years, I then moved back with my father as his job transferred him to Zambia. I stayed in Zambia another four years or so, before moving with a Mennonite family who sponsored me to New Holland, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country. I was 15 years old and once again in a new and unfamiliar place.
Now, for the second time in my life, I gained a family whom I did not know. But this time, this family was thousands of miles away from my home, they spoke a different language, ate different foods and had customs and ways that I did not understand.
New Holland was predominantly a Mennonite and Amish culture and farming was big in New Holland. It is quite expected that after leaving Addis Ababa for Zambia and now New Holland, that every aspect of my life changed. But it was quite unexpected that I would, once again, find that same blanket of love in food thousands of miles away. I mean, I was surrounded by dairy farms so my new found loves became buttery foods, sweets, freshly made cheese, pies and ice creams.
My transition to New Holland was not an easy one. I dealt with issues of racism and ignorance and everything in between. But I survived. I married my love, became a mom and an entrepreneur and I've continued to develop myself as an artist. It is a life that has taken many turns, some expected, many unexpected, but it is my life.
Even now, when I cook at home, I have a habit of cooking more than my family will ever eat. It's funny, the parts of your childhood that you carry with you into adulthood. Maybe I cook too much because I don't want my children to experience that feeling of control that I experienced with my step mother. Or maybe it's just my way of loving them, just as food loved me when I first stole the family's dinner so long ago.
Chu Chu, when you look in the mirror, how do you feel about the woman staring back at you?
When I look at myself, I now see a smart confident woman, a good mother, wife, friend and sister who finally figured out that forgiveness and love for all is the key to everything. I keep my life simple. But I still cook a lot of food!