Italian pastry chef Maddalena Borsato leads a baking workshop for Sahrawi women. [CREDIT: Photo provided courtesy of Matteo de Mayda]
(NEW YORK) — In a recently published series for the New York Times, photojournalist Matteo de Mayda tells a visual story about the Sahrawi refugees and the ways in which food connects people across the globe, from Algeria to Pollenzo to Brooklyn and beyond.
After generations of living off humanitarian relief and waiting to re-establish their homeland, the Sahrawi people have found solace in organizing a community baking workshop. There, the women learn techniques with the help of a pastry chef and a researcher from Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences. Italian pastry chef Maddalena Borsato uses her knowledge of natural ingredients to teach culinary ingenuity like milling leaves from the fast-growing Moringa tree into a gorgeous green flour or making sweet cookie paste out of native desert dates.
Dry, barely arable desert land was made more functional with the planting of over 4,000 drought-resistant Moringa trees, introduced by Italian groups as a renewable source of vitamins, calcium, iron, and protein. Local roselle flowers, a type of hibiscus, also helped to give the treats a vivid hue of red.
Referred to as Algeria’s forgotten refugees, the Sahrawis have been occupying the camps for over 35 years with no set date or place to create a permanent settlement. “This is not a very well-known story, so I hope to give some visibility there,” said Mayda. On the surface, his photos capture sandy shoes, tattooed hands, ramshackle housing, and plates piled high with Italian cookies. Looking deeper, his photos bring to life a community steadfast in their own cultural traditions but dedicated to overcoming adversity by embracing techniques and recipes that originated from a completely different part of the world.
Mayda’s photos bridge the heart-wrenching reality of refugees with the everyday joys of baking. Something as simple as dessert has inspired a greater sense of community and an economic opportunity for the women at these camps. In one image Mayda photographs a group of Sahrawi women gathered closely together, piping out the pastel-colored dough and wearing brightly colored mefhla headscarves. Their expressions range from subtle grins to focused concentration.
As an artist and journalist whose body of work largely revolves around telling the stories of refugees in Italy and Africa, Mayda has a surprisingly upbeat philosophy. “I don’t like to tell sad stories,” he said. “This is a more lighthearted and approachable way to deliver an important and interesting story.”
The baking workshop helped improve the quality of life for Sahrawi women. They can now bake recipes not only for their households but for money. In a caption for the series, Mayda describes how the women have requested longer, more advanced workshops so that they can learn to bake wedding cakes.