"That's the role I've always seen myself play - a bridge" - Roshaneh Zafar
Last weekend I was promoting Tamu at a local event. Offering samples of my cakes and showing photos from my recent trip, I realised how difficult it is to explain the concept of my venture to a complete stranger.
I was a fussy eater - so fussy that both of my grandmothers had to invite the children from the whole street just so that I could get an appetite through eating in company. Imagine huge stacks
of pancakes with at least five types of freshly-made summer jams as toppings. At the end I would judge whose pancakes were thinner, crispier or who had used more egg yokes to give the pancakes a
lovely yellow colour. My grannies and the neighbourhood kids were happy...
My favourite winter activity was to make ‘pirojki ‘- savoury pastries with different fillings, pan fried in fresh sunflower oil. Again we invited loads of children and ended up with even granny's gates covered in flour...
My mum is the queen of yeast pastries, pies and bakes. Full stop.
The smell of yeast dissolving in warm milk was a regular occurrence. But the best time was Easter, when my mum would work her magic on traditional Ukrainian Easter bread. You were only allowed to bake them on the Thursday or Saturday before Easter. Nobody was allowed to even speak loudly or (God forbid) argue when pasochki were being baked. Once the egg white icing had settled on the top of the freshly prepared holy bread, I would take it to the church in the middle of the night to be blessed.
Five hectic years training to be a journalist. Leaving the house at 6 am to travel 40 miles by bus to university, lectures until the afternoon, then off to work at a TV channel until the last bus home at 9.30pm. Surviving on just a few hours sleep. I was busy, so food was not my main priority. On the rare occasions when I was at home during daylight hours, my mum would encourage me to bake with her. But my response was always "I will never need this skill. And I am not good at this!". My mum used to answer "Your poor future husband will never eat properly!".
During the early days of my marriage, I was not the best of cooks (despite my English husband’s polite protestations to the contrary!). But he did get spoilt rotten by my mum and grannies, who every weekend would cook him a whole range of Ukrainian cuisine.
The happy days were over when emigrated to the UK. Without my close family, without my proper four seasons, without my career and friends - I was struggling. What did help me were the kicks in my tummy of my unborn son. On those cold Autumn days when I was missing everyone and everything, I would open jar of jam, made by my mum - and the smell of summer kept me calm.
When my son was born, I understood the meaning of the tale about the woman who runs with wolves. It is about finding your inner you, your natural roots.In those early days of becoming a mum and still missing my community, I started occasionally baking traditional Ukrainian recipes, once a month or so...
"I am really sorry, Yana. You have a lung cancer. We don't know the stage and can't give you any prognosis at the moment". After many months of investigations and benign biopsies...I couldn't walk to my husband and baby boy. How would I tell them? I was not ready to die at the age of 25...
All I remember about that period of time is baking. Practically every day. Anything. It wasn't the best of baking, but it helped me to stay me. It saved me. I couldn't tell my parents, I couldn't go and cry on my sister's shoulder, I didn't want to overstretch my supportive husband. And I had a little boy to look after.
Whilst recovering from cancer, I found out my employer didn't want me back as I was not part of his vision for a profit-making magazine anymore. At this challenging time, lying in my hospital bed, I prayed "God, please, show me the right way to go. If I survived, it has to be for a reason".
A couple of months later I had a job offer to run BME women’s groups. That was the start of my new life. My NGO life, a life of a short-term contracts, fighting for people's human rights.
In January 2012 I received the best present ever - my husband invested his time and money into my first women empowerment trip to Kenya. I went there in April, simply teaching two hundred girls how to bake and stand up for their rights. It was amazing. To bake in the middle of a village with no electricity and very basic facilities. We baked and sang together.
A few more trips down the line we had created the way Tamu works. People in the UK ask me to bake them an unusual and tasty cake, originated in another part of the world. In return I never give a price, but just ask for a donation. This money, along with the consultancy fees I sometimes get for delivering human rights training, goes towards my next trip. When I arrive somewhere in the world where women are denied their basic human rights I buy ingredients for baking with the money donated. And we bake. And women talk about their experiences. They cry. They laugh. They sing. They dance. They LIVE again. Thanks to the therapeutic power of baking that once helped me.
Of course, in real life organising a trip isn't that easy. Not because I am scared of baking loads of cakes to fund it, nor because of the lack of women needing help. But because of the lack of Tamu supporters. Often Tamu is not welcomed at fairs, often chefs are too busy to help, often people are simply not interested.
But I am saying a huge thank you to YOU for reading my story, for supporting my cause and for letting me be a bridge between YOU and a lady on another end of the planet who really needs encouragement and support.