There was a local café that was run by a jolly middle aged mama. It was one of those local joints that was way less fancy than what you are used to. Allow me to describe it to you as vividly as I can. The café was located by the roadside in one of the neighborhoods that I frequented. It was made up of temporary structures of wood and iron sheets. Inside it was partitioned once, one side had a few wooden benches and wooden tables that was where the customers sat. On the other end, there was an open kitchen area. Which was in full and closer view of the customers.
It was a smoky kitchen, those ones that you expected to see in an African historical village where they cooked in firewood while sitting in very low wooden stools. The jolly mama had a staff of two- a cook and a waiter. The café made all types of local food, their delicacy was the local chapati and beans. It was not a joint that you would leave the comfort of your home to go to for a date or a meeting. What amazed me the most, was that the joint was always packed to capacity especially during lunch hour. It was so packed such that some people had to stand outside and wait for the ones inside to finish eating. There was no single day that I passed outside that café during lunch hours and saw it empty.
So one day out of curiosity, I decided to go just to see what it was that attracted people to that smoky little joint. I tagged a friend of mine along for lunch. When we got in, we were greeted cheerfully by the jolly mama. It felt as if she knew us. You can imagine how surprised we were. She gave us that motherly laugh and made us feel like we were her regular guests then she showed us to our respective seats and went back to her kitchen to continue cooking. From where we were seated you could actually see her perched lowly on her stool cooking while laughing and talking to her guests.
In less than a minute of our arrival, we were served very hot meals in generous portions. We ate heartily, paid and left. As we were leaving the mama shouted a cheerful goodbye to us and welcomed us to go back another day.
Indeed, we did go back again and we became regular customers. Each time we went back, the experience with the mama got better than our last visit. She would talk to us as she did all her customers. She would loudly tell people stories of her childhood, her life, her several failed marriages and all the lessons that she learnt. She exuded positive energy all around her. Customers would listen with a lot of interest, they would also join in and tell their experiences and everyone in the joint will contribute and say something. It was a jolly place to eat. Unfortunately, you could not spend more than ten minutes to eat as there was a crowd waiting outside to get in. It was a worth ten minutes of having a meal.
So, I asked myself, why would anyone go to eat in a smoky little place?
This mama was having a high feet flow in her café because she gave her customers value for their money. She had excellent customer service, she made it her business to know all her customers and she knew many by name. She made sure that the food she cooked was delicious and she served in generous portions.
That smoky little place was not just an eating joint. It was a place that people connected. It equalized all. The customers felt at home. It was a place that people came together to tell stories, to share experiences, to laugh, to de-stress. It brought people from different backgrounds together- the rich, the poor, the working class, the not working class, men, women, handcart pushers, hawkers, you name it! Everyone came to not only eat but also to socialize and tell authentic stories. In a way, the jolly mama, built a little haven where for just ten minutes of your life, you would forget your problems, you would be yourself, and you would allow others into your world and you into theirs. Something which is so rare these days.
Imagine my pain when I learnt of her demise the other day. Unknown to many the jolly mama was battling breast cancer for over five years. I bet, of all the stories she told, she never mentioned her cancer fight. Like me, most of us in the neighborhood and her loyal clients were shocked beyond words to learn of the cause of her death.
When we held a small vigil in her honor outside the now former little smoky café, we all wondered silently what would became of the laughter, the stories, the connections created in that little smoky joint. Days later when the council brought the structure down, we knew life will never be the same again without the Jolly Mama!