Food from the heart with Rosemary Kariuki

This Mother’s Day, we’re celebrating how Rosemary Kariuki takes care of her family, friends and entire community through love, laughter, understanding and, of course, good food. 

Rosemary Kariuki

Sharing a meal, Rosemary says, is the ultimate icebreaker. “In multicultural communities, food brings us together. Food makes you stop and sit down”

Rosemary Kariuki says her 17-year-old grandson never quite knows how many places to set at their table. Impromptu dinners with neighbours and friends – or people the generous 62-year-old Kenyan woman has only just met – are commonplace at their home in south-western Sydney. “It may start out with five and end up with eight,” Rosemary explains with a laugh.

But it wasn’t always like this. Rosemary remembers a time when the city of five million people felt as lonely as a remote mountaintop. After escaping tribal conflict more than 20 years ago, Rosemary arrived in Australia without family or friends and it took 12 months for her neighbours to even say hello (after she cheekily sent Christmas cards introducing herself).

“It was hard at first,” she admits. “I came from a very big family and all of a sudden I was alone. It was good that I was safe, but it was very isolating because nobody was speaking to me. I started volunteering because I wanted to do something other than just sitting down and feeling lonely.”

Bridging the Gap

Rosemary has cared for many women in her community, including those who’ve suffered from domestic abuse. She understands the difficulties of that because she’s been there, too. It’s this empathy that gives her a special knack for helping refugee and migrant women feel at home in their new country. “It’s hard for [multicultural] women – they don’t just go out for lunch, or to the pub or movies because it’s not their culture,” says Rosemary. “Most come with no English and don’t have other family or any form of transport, and money is just to pay bills and buy food.”

For the last 16 years, Rosemary has worked as a multicultural community liaison officer with the NSW Police Force, where she specialises in helping migrants to seek support. But the caring continues well after she gets home.

 

Dinner for a Cause

In 2006, Rosemary came up with the idea of starting the African Women Dinner Dance – a vibrant and colourful celebration full of traditional songs and dances, a fashion parade and, of course, good food. Now partnered with the African Women’s Group Australia, this annual event is in its 15th year.

“The women come without children or their partner, forget all their problems and just have an evening by themselves,” says Rosemary. “They make friends, plus it’s a showcase of our culture and a chance to dress up – all the while learning what services are available to these women in the community.”

Rosemary also organises a weekend cultural exchange program where multicultural women are billeted with Aussie host families twice a year. “What comes out of this is so huge,” she says. “The women make friendships and give each other confidence. It is also the first time many of them have entered an Aussie home so it helps them to feel like they belong in Australia. The women bring their spices and on Saturday they cook a dish, then we have a party for the whole town.”

Sharing a meal, Rosemary says, is the ultimate icebreaker. “In multicultural communities, food brings us together. Food makes you stop and sit down,” she explains. “When people come to my house they’re not visitors – they sit around the kitchen and cook with me.”

While her work has earnt her accolades – including the 2021 Australian of the Year Local Hero award and a documentary celebrating her volunteer work, called Rosemary’s Way – the real rewards are the people she helps. “My highlight is when I see them in the street and they say, ‘Rosemary I’m happy now’. They’ve made friends and can take a train by themselves; some are working and some have their own businesses,” she says. “When you support a woman, you have supported the whole village.”

Importantly, Rosemary stresses that anybody can do it. “Get to know your neighbours, as well as those at your office, your kids’ school or at sport. If you know each other, you can look after each other. You just don’t know, you might be saving their lives,” she adds.

Try Rosemary's mukimo (mashed potato) recipe

Made with love, Rosemary’s easy mashed potato dish is a delicious side to share with family and friends.