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Kitchen diplomacy: A Canadian diplomat electrifies a Zimbabwe cooking contest

Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans rallied around a crowdsourced Twitter cooking contest with Canada almost coming out on top

By: /
20 May, 2024
A table set with several traditional meals from Zimbabwe. Image: Wikimedia Commons King Vinci
Deogracias Kalima
By: Deogracias Kalima
Freelance journalist

For over two decades now, Canada and Zimbabwe have had somewhat frosty diplomatic relations and two-way trade is minimal at best. However, in March, the Canadian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Adler Aristilde, wowed locals in a crowd-sourced Twitter (X) chefs contest – easing bilateral tensions one could say. 

Diplomatic relations turn frosty

Canada established diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe in 1980 following the latter’s independence. However, relations faltered in 2001 when Zimbabwe’s government under the late Robert Mugabe grabbed private farmland owned by white Zimbabweans, abandoning the rule of law and committing gross acts of violence while doing so. 

Things came to a head when the former Canada ambassador James Wall was assaulted by veteran militiamen loyal to Zimbabwe’s government in May 2001.

In 2008, Canada decided to implement the Special Economic Measures Act (Zimbabwe) Regulations that prohibited arms trading with Zimbabwe and imposed sanctions against listed Zimbabweans and entities. 

The Special Economic Measures – as Ottawa calls its sanctions – were amended in March 2023 and delisted 100 people “who were either deceased, were deemed to no longer be involved in human rights violations and political violence, or are widowed, divorced or separated from listed individuals”. However, as the Canadian government notes, “the measures will remain in place until there are positive shifts in Zimbabwean policy that result in improvements in human rights, democracy, freedom, and the rule of law”. 

Ambassadors’ kitchens

While diplomatic relations remain cool, in March, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean citizens rallied around a crowdsourced Twitter (X) cooking contest challenge that pitted Canada’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, against dozens of other diplomats accredited to the country.

It was called the #AmbassadorsCookoffChallenge and organized by the Twitter (X) handle of Zimbabweans in the diaspora going by the moniker ‘Team Fulo’.  @Teamfulozim, which has 17,500 followers, means ‘Team Eating’ when translated from Zimbabwe’s Shona language. It’s simply a widely followed Twitter (X) account uniting Zimbabweans at home and abroad in culinary discussions. As ‘Team Fulo’ notes, it’s all about “showcasing the culinary skills, or lack thereof of home cooks. Where unity, friendships are forged around food, banter & drinks. No politics, No religion”.

“Ambassadors are seen by ordinary Zimbabweans as these elite folks. The cooking contest humanized them,” said Shamiso Mupara, an indigenous plant foods farmer and amateur chef based in Mutare, an eastern Zimbabwean city.

The brainchild of the contest was Jay Hussein who goes by the Twitter moniker @KingJayZim. A former popular radio DJ in Zimbabwe’s heydays in the 80s and 90s, @KingJayZim is now an electrical engineer living in England.  And he is also a symptom of Zimbabwe’s massive brain drain that has seen tens of millions of its citizens including nurses, teachers, accountants, and engineers relocate to Canada, the UK, the US, and South Africa in the last 25 years.

Kitchen battles

For four weeks Zimbabweans at home and in Canada watched funny blow-by-blow daily hustles on short videos as Canada’s ambassador battled to best out all diplomats accredited to Zimbabwe in the kitchen. 

And Ambassador Aristilde proved to be very ingenious, asking his chef to visit township street markets (not upper-class supermarkets) in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, to purchase fresh indigenous vegetables, and traditional grains to style ‘thick porridge’ Zimbabwe’s staple.  His use of indigenous spices, and peanut butter, also tilted his dish a bit vegetarian. 

The Ambassador also needed to act quickly, as Britain’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Peter Vowles, who is famous for speaking fluent Shona, was also wowing crowds with public forays to arcane corner township markets to load up on everything from tomatoes to wild vegetables and coarse salt. Meanwhile, the Pakistani Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Murad Baseer, was busy creating his famous South Asian curried chicken tandoori dishes. 

In the end, Canada excelled when the Twitter (X) votes came in from tens of thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans watching the unscripted Twitter cooking show. The Canadian Ambassador won second prize beating a bevy of fellow diplomats, although not Christine Mendes, the Deputy Resident Ambassador of the World Food Program to Zimbabwe who was the ultimate winner.

Heart-to-heart relations

“I was pleasantly surprised to learn the Ambassador was a DJ back in the day,” @KingJayzim, the originator of the diplomats’ cooking show, wrote of Ambassador Aristilde’s former job in April. King Jay, as mentioned, lives in the UK and when on vacation back home in Zimbabwe was invited to Canada’s official residence in Harare, Zimbabwe. 

It was two former radio DJ’s meeting heart to heart – apart from improving Canada-Zimbabwe relations in the eyes of ordinary people. 

Indeed, Ambassador Aristilde is very relatable in the eyes of ordinary Zimbabweans. First, the Ambassador was originally from Haiti and has done very well for himself rising to the post of Canada’s top diplomat in Zimbabwe.

“Zimbabwean emigrants living abroad in Canada, the UK, or South Africa see something like them in Ambassador Aristilde, someone with a former immigrant background becoming a top leader for the Canadian government’s business. Of course, his buttered dried vegetables dish was tantalizing,” laughs Kudakwashe Magezi, a social analyst of Zimbabwe’s diaspora networks. 

The cooking challenge humanized Canada’s presence in Zimbabwe, says Magezi, adding that Canada’s big humanitarian role in supporting Zimbabwe’s vulnerable in the healthcare and food spheres, investment in Zimbabwe’s mining sector, and being a host to thousands of Zimbabwe’s emigres is also very notable.

Certainly, Canada is an active supporter of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system, climate relief and education efforts, plus helping with disaster recovery projects. Due to accountability doubts, Canada doesn’t give the Zimbabwe government money directly but works by channeling millions of dollars annually to UNICEF, the World Food Program, the International Labour Organization, and other humanitarian actors serving Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable people. 

Its star project is the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives whereby Canada gives out grants up to $50,000 CAD to local civil society organizations to implement projects in their communities.

However, it is the mining sector where Canada’s presence in Zimbabwe is deeply felt. Canadian companies like Zephyr Minerals Limited, B2 Gold Corp, and Duration Gold are very active miners of Zimbabwe’s lucrative gold reserves – and employing thousands of workers in a country with one of the world’s highest unemployment rates. 

Thousands of Zimbabwean nationals live in Canada as well. According to the 2016 census, 16,255 Canadia citizens claimed Zimbabwean ancestry. Zimbabwe also received remittances amounting to $1.47 billion USD from its worldwide diaspora community between January to October 2023, up 8% compared to the same period in 2022.

‘Friendly jealousy’

“What this Ambassadors Cooking Show and Canada ambassador’s excelling is to show ordinary Zimbabweans – elite diplomatic hostilities can’t override the social, economic, migration and human bond tying Zimbabweans and Canadians,” said Yasin Kakande, African migration specialist and author of Why We Are Coming

But as a sign that the Ambassadors’ cooking contest, and its crowd-sourced nature, did stir some jealousy in Zimbabwe’s upper echelons of power, Zimbabwe’s minister for tourism tweeted afterward, in a celebratory fashion, that the cooking show actually owed its origins to Zimbabwe’s First Lady (the president’s wife). 

It was such a wild claim that it was soon mocked by thousands of Zimbabweans who saw in the tweet as a silly attempt by the government to grab the limelight for an initiative that was entirely crowdsourced by ordinary citizens online. 

“Where do you find the shamelessness to smuggle the First Lady into a social initiative that has been running for a long time here on Twitter,” an irritated Zimbabwean follower of the Ambassadors’ cooking show responded to the minister. 

Of course, Canada’s Ambassador was not focused on all this…more so on perfecting his cooking skills. 

Nevertheless, there are concerns in Zimbabwe with reports of opposition party politicians and supporters, trade unionists, labour activists, teachers, nurses, doctors, and human rights defenders being targeted for prosecution by the government. But who knew a Canadian ambassador egged on by ordinary Zimbabweans to do vegetable pudding and a mealie-meal porridge live on Twitter would win street hearts more than high diplomacy? 

“This unscripted food diplomacy was more human than high state-to-state diplomacy,” added Kakande who has been an avid follower of the show online. 

The Canadian embassy simply called the entire performance ‘cultural diplomacy’

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