Against all odds, Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere fled political violence in their native Burundi and — in just a few short years in Detroit — now are proud owner-operators of one of the buzziest, most critically lauded restaurants in the city’s recent history.
Baobab Fare is the couple’s love letter to Detroit, serving East African pilau rice, stewed goat, and other traditional dishes, is the embodiment of their mission, captivating Detroit’s culinary scene since its inception.
In 2015, when Mamba arrived in Detroit from Burundi, a landlocked African nation, it was snowing. His wife was waiting for him at the airport with their 2-year-old twin daughters — children he had never met before. As Mamba relayed in an interview with the New York Times, the journey of becoming a family, learning the culture and the food, and raising two children was only beginning.
Establishing a new life in Detroit was a challenge. Mamba had to grapple with learning English, adapting to a new culture, and becoming a first-time father to twin girls.
Mamba also harbored a big dream: to bring the food of their home country to Detroit, a majority Black city with not a single East African restaurant in its borders. The couple competed in the local entrepreneurship program Hatch Detroit in 2017 and won the $50,000 prize to help them get their restaurant started. In early 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, Baobab Fare finally opened its doors.
Baobab Fare, named after the resilient baobab tree that thrives in arid desert conditions, was born out of a desire to share the couple’s culinary heritage and create a supportive community for refugees while giving something back to Detroit.
Despite the global crisis, Mamba and Nijimbere have been recognized for their exceptional culinary talent. For the second time in February, the couple were named as semifinalists for best chef in the James Beard awards. Mamba also won an episode of the TV cooking competition “Food Network’s Chopped,” and with it, $10,000, which they are generously donating to Freedom House Detroit, the nonprofit that aided the couple and other asylum seekers escape persecution.
Throughout his life, Mamba had learned to cook traditional regional flavors from his mother, who owned a restaurant in Burundi. But, he admitted, “The best cook is not even me, it’s Nadia.” Nadia, preferring to stay away from the limelight, did not wish to appear on national television. However, they both understood the importance of sharing their food and the story of how two refugees became small-business owners.
Today, Mamba and Nadia see Baobab Fare as more than just a business. It’s a place for the entire community. “We are working hard not only for us but for others,” Mamba told the NYT. “I feel like I’m not the owner now. Now this is for our staff. For our clients. For our community.”
They’re expanding into wholesale packaged foods and have just introduced a food truck specializing in East African street foods. Their journey is a testament to resilience, community spirit, and the enduring allure of the American dream.
Follow their journey on Instagram: @baobabfare