For Cathy Tshilombo-Lokemba, also known as “Mama” Africa, her life story could easily be summed up the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.
“Mama” surely loves her home country and African roots, but in a land filled with civil war, violence and genocide, the Congolese-born woman is perfectly content living in America where she has been for 25 years. Driven by her culinary prowess and entrepreneurial spirit, Mama’s journey from the Congo to Tooele is an extraordinary voyage.
When asked why she picked Tooele as home, a city surrounded by chemical depots and communities of working-class families, she noted it was a move with her husband that determined her decision to stay out West by the Oqurrih Mountains.
“I was so much in love with the man [her husband] that I later learned to love the land,” said Mama with a robust laugh. “I’ve never felt the need to go back to my country. I love this country [United States] because it’s so big and there’s so much to see and do.” Having lived in New York, Dallas, Phoenix and California, she’s seen her share of the states. Much to her surprise, she learned that Tooele had its own immigrant communities and a sizable arts festival as well.
As a Living Traditions Festival favorite in the food market, Mama Africa is best known for her traditional African dishes including everything from savory dessert beignets covered with powdered sugar to her tender goat meat with Congolese rice on the side. What started as a cooking a few foods in her kitchen like plantains or peanut chicken, later led to a cooking passion that continues to this day in her own commercial restaurant.
While Mama learned recipes and traditions from her mother and by living in Belgium much of her life, her big break came a few years after living in Tooele. Having attended college to study interior and fashion design, Mama tried her hand at wedding planning, but it only lasted a few years. Soon after that venture, she acknowledged that she became a convert; from designer to full-time cook. If there’s one takeaway that launched her desire to cook and make a living at it, it was an observation that “Americans can eat anything.” And sure enough, she was right.
Mama notes she received her first big break in Utah thanks in part of Caputo’s Market. Typically known as a deli adjacent to Pioneer Park, Mama attributes much of her success to Caputo’s.
“Matthew and Tony [Caputo] were some of the first people to really welcome me and open their doors which allowed me to do sampling,” said Mama. “They took on my product where it was sold in the market. They helped me bottle my pili-pili sauce. Now, people from all over ask for my sauce whenever they go to Mexico, Jamaica and other parts of the world.” The pili-pili sauce she speaks of dons the Mama Africa label and is a condiment made from hot peppers and ground into an off-white paste packed with an intense and unique flavor.
Nowadays, Mama has a small restaurant in West Valley City and wakes up early every morning to gear up for the lunch and dinner crowds. Her clients include everyone from foodies and families to a large percentage of current or former Mormon missionaries who served in Africa and developed a taste for authentic fare while proselytizing throughout the country.
As a family affair, her husband helps in the kitchen from time to time and she also who has two nieces who not only help in the restaurant, but also do a lot of community and advocacy work on the side. One of her nieces works to help find homes for Congolese orphans affected by the turmoil in that part of Africa.
With a little more than month until the Living Traditions Festival, Mama is hard at work planning and making sure she has enough staff and food preparations ready for the three-day festival. Last year after an on-air segment with Lara Jones of KRCL Radio, Mama saw a surge in customers 20 minutes after plugging her booth on the radio. The masses of people lined up for beignets that sold faster than they could be served.
At Living Traditions, we’re happy to have Mama back. Her infectious enthusiasm and working with other cultures is truly one of her finest callings in this life. While she goes to many different festivals throughout the region, she says the Living Traditions Festival is by far the one she loves the most.
“I look forward to those days at the festival where I bring down all the food and prepare it on site and get to interact with all these wonderful people, Mama said. “By the time the food is ready, the smell calls the client [patrons] and the client is always on time for what’s cooking.”
This is the second in a series of weekly Blog posts about the 2018 Living Traditions Festival. This year’s event is May 18, 19 & 20 at the Salt Lake City and County Building and Library Square. As always, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about the different performing and craft artists from all over the world.
Save the date for the 2018 Living Traditions Festival. As always, admission is free. Don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy the city’s premiere multicultural festival which is the perfect way to enjoy the outdoors before the unofficial summer kick-off.