Though, by no means a vegetarian, I felt unsure about eating something that was smiling at me. I am ashamed to say that when I was quite literally “faced” with the opportunity to eat a “smiley” – goat’s head - I very quickly figured out my position on the subject as I slowly edged out the back door. I foolishly hoped that no one would notice my act of cowardice because I had come with co-workers who had gone out of their way to give me a lift. They suggested chicken instead and I struggled to hide my joy.
According to everyone who’s eaten it, I missed out on a delectable culinary experience, and with this being my last day in Windhoek, I sit and write about it filled with regret. To add insult to injury, I met the owner and founder of the restaurant who is a wonderful woman named Melba Tjahere. A woman who has achieved so much, and who started from so little, that she was asked to speak at an event (hosted on July 19th by Team Destination Namibia as an early kick-off to the Adventure Travel Trade Association World Summit) to empower and celebrate the success, commitment and passion of local women working in the tourism industry.
Unlike the other two women who were also asked to speak, but sat clinging to their seats unable to look up as they desperately reviewed and silently practiced their speeches, Ms.Tjahere merely glanced at a few notes and then casually left her seat next to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, laughing in response to me asking whether she needed more time to prepare. “I am not nervous, I do this all the time. I am a business woman.”
Aside from being a business woman, Ms.Tjahere, recently divorced, (and seemingly quite happy about it) is also the mother of ten children whose ages range from 15 to 40. “Biologically I have only 3, but they are all my children. I adopted them. They are my family, we stay together.” Although she is unfalteringly polite and in possession of a warming smile, Ms.Tjahere carries a certain air of unstoppability, by which I mean, I would not want to get in her way. Wearing a striking red traditional Herero dress, her commanding presence, with no question, is enough to make even the largest man feel small. While she patiently sat and answered my questions, though she did not say it, it soon became clear that her time was precious and she was doing me a favour. As we walked to a table outside, Ms.Tjahere took out her phone, silenced it, and placed it next to her, where it sat, buzzing constantly, for the rest of our conversation.
Her story began simply. As a way to earn extra money after work, Ms.Tjahere began working as a chef at Pupkewitz Catering Company where her job was to cook local meat. In the process, she created a dish that quickly caught the attention of local tourists. Deemed “a smiley”, this delicacy that I could not bring myself to try is the cooked head of a goat. It is called “a smiley” because the heat of the oven causes the lips of the animal to curl up giving one the impression that it is smiling at you. I am sure, however, that if any goats were consulted on the issue, they would beg to interpret the look differently.
As word continued to spread about her enticing dish, demand for it grew. Ms.Tjahere had to expand. Quickly climbing the steps to success in the culinary world, she quit her job at the catering company and founded the Otkikaendu Den. “Come with a smile, leave with a smiley,” she says, grinning. With rapid expansion of the Namibian tourism industry happening at the same time, Ms.Tjahere’s audience quickly increased. “With years one learns that tourism is everybody’s business and I am honoured to contribute to this industry by feeding the local and international tourist.”
Ms. Tjahere also does local catering for different companies and travels the world to showcase her specialty. Her vision is to be the sole international supplier and leading producer of “the smiley”. Despite her success, she refuses to rest and has many plans in the works. She wants to create new infrastructure, expand the brand to other towns, increase production, and hire more employees. Ms. Tjahere says her mission at Otjikaendu Den is to offer products of a superior quality in order to have a steady relationship with both local and international customers. “When you are in the food business you dream differently and you do things differently, I am feeding an international family.”