“O.K. Lahai, eat.” Lahai grinned and took the blackened pot from the dirt and began working at the crust of brown rice baked to the inside. We would never eat a dinner in the village without a mostly silent audience of children. At first it was weird. Then, it became normal. It was the most symbiotic potwash conceivable.
Two friends and I decided to spend a few months in rural Sierra Leone working on a fledgling aid program. I worked most closely with the schools, and helped my buddies with a micro loans program that hadn’t become self-aware, and a crop collective that, in time, we hoped would become a source of public works funding for the villages. Our first challenge, and our steepest trajectory, was learning how to eat.
“Do not eat the palm oil,” Munir had told us. “It is very heavy.” The first night, we listened to him. We made our dinner over an open fire (built by our future loyal audience) in a borrowed pot. Spaghetti. We stirred it and fanned the flames until we were just past al dente and then I spilled nearly half of it in the dirt trying to drain it. The villagers watching us moved in and proceeded to eat it off the ground with their hands. We poured a can of ‘Laser’ brand baked beans over the starchy noodles and ate the slippery pasta with spoons. Laser beans + spaghetti + spoons= a diet. Many a wounded noodle fell to the earth to be picked up by an African.
As the jungle started to fade from green to black, we realized that it was Thanksgiving.
“For a man to cook is a sign of scrotum,” Bockarie informed us. Thus, we worked to muster our culinary independence early on. Not only was it uncomfortable for us to be waited on and cooked for, but we wanted to show them that we, too, possessed scrotum. Bockarie had, inexplicably, several different facts and observations regarding scrotum that we grew used to hearing, but we felt that this one regarding cooking was the most accurate.
We had arrived in the village with an unreasonable 50 kilos of white rice – we were told not to eat the Mende rice, the brown rice they grew in the village – because it had rocks in it. Our first dinners were dismal. Bland white rice, boiled into a slimy gel, served with “Laser”-brand beans and tuna fish. Spaghetti smothered with beans. Tuna fish on Butter Bix, the Liger of the wafer-shaped carb world; sweet like a cookie and serious like a cracker. Basically, any possible combination of foods that were never destined to coexist. Our canned goods were all carted in from Kenema, the regional capital and third largest city in Sierra Leone. The tallest building in Kenema was the mosque tower from which prayers blared several times a day, but our personal Mecca was a dusty, cluttered supermarket called Choithram’s that served us well in the beginning. We relied heavily on the canned goods, but realized our mistake when we made our first African rice dish.
“There are two kinds of dinners in Sierra Leone,” remarked Bockarie. “We have One Pot – this is when you use only one pot to cook – and we have Two Pot. This is when you have two pots.” Bockarie counted out the pots on his fingers as he spoke. “The difference, you see, is the number of pots.” He couldn’t have been more correct. We ignored the cryptic warnings against Mende cuisine and began to experiment.
1 bottle of palm oil – this blood-vermillion oil, culled from the palm fruit, has the base for any sauce. We have a healthy glug of palm oil each night to thank for not wasting away in the bush. It cost us around 1,000 leones per bottle – about 30 cents.
Patete leaf – this slightly bitter green went for about 400 leones – 12 cents – a bunch.
Pepper – 100 leones for a good handful of these semi-dessicated flavor-and-heat intensive little guys. Don’t rub your eyes. 3 cents.
Groundnut – ground peanut, usually about 500 leones (15 cents) worth, sold in small plastic boluses, oil-slicked and fragrant. The pleasantly sweet paste was an awesome base for an oil and pepper sauce.
Onion – tiny sweet onions, grown in small jungle garden patches, went into the pepper, patete and groundnut sauce. Can we stop mentioning the prices? I think you get the point by now.
The only extras not grown in the village were salt – sold in small plastic bags from a store in the center of town, Maggi – a seafood flavored taste explosion that looked like a sunbrowned piece of Bazooka Joe, and pure crystalline MSG, which is, unfortunately, delicious. These all combined ran us around 300 leones – 9 cents – a night.
The staple of our meal: Mende rice, a rich, almost nutty flavored jungle grain that oozed health, but also might break your teeth. We would cook three dry cups a night, paying 400-450 leones a cup. The total price for a luxuriant, scrotum-tingling two-pot meal: $1.50, if we were feeling crazy. Enough food to stuff three gluttonous Pumoi (white guys), ample leftovers to keep in my clamp-shut pot for the next day, and extra goodness to feed a couple adult friends and give a solid after-dinner snack to a group of younguns.
The first step towards making a dinner was to procure the materials. “Shopping” meant walking through the village at dusk from cookfire to cookfire and inquiring as to what was available. Gomusu, our two-huts-over neighbor, lent us a half gourd that became our shopping basket. While one shopped, the others would wash up and get a fire going – we had a flattened can onto which we would balance a couple borrowed coals from our neighbor’s cookfire. Our neighbor had some tri-syllabic name that reminded me of the curves of a musical instrument, but to us she was simply MegaBabe, the incarnation of all things Womanly and Carnal. Until we saw the effect that gravity had had on her enourmous breasts. For me, this only made the attraction more complex, and not any weaker. Sometimes Foday – a three year old with a gigantic head – would steal our can and run away, only to return bearing colas and a huge, shy grin. We would thank him and then he’d put his arms over his face and stand there in our yard. The ostrich approach to cross-cultural interactions.
Before we could cook the rice, it had to be cleaned. When the Mende harvest their rice, they would lay it out on tarpaulins or sheets and then would beat the grain from the stem. Mixed in was the earth from which it came. It paid to eat the rice slowly, without hard chomping, lest you split a molar on some hidden pebble. Or a diamond. This was the one part of the process that we couldn’t do ourselves. No men seemed to know how to do it – the washing of the rice required a mysterious dexterity and confidence that none but the women had been chosen to inherit. Plus, I was still skittish about food handling after the spaghetti incident, and wasn’t about to push my luck. The rice, mixed with water, would be poured from receptacle to receptacle, and the stones, with an occult motion of the hand through the water, would be winnowed to the bottom and removed with a sweep of the palm.
Our Frisbee was our cutting board. “This knife,” said Bockarie Sheku, testing my Leatherman’s pliers, “is very fine for catching scrotum.” We couldn’t disagree. Bockarie would come and sit with us with a hand-fixed radio and listen to some distant station – an African news broadcast or music from Kenema – Bob Marley or some other reggae soaring in through the waves of static, the acrid smoke from the fire billowing around our simmering pots.
The cooking involved the following: boil the water to sterilize, add the rice, add water as the large drains drink it in, simmer the delectable glorpy sauce of groundnut, palm oil, onion, pepper and greens, add our various crystalline and chemical flavorings, and wait. We estimated that about 70 or our calories came from dinner. A mound of rich, steaming African rice, a thick peanut and pepper vegetable sauce, salt. Our scrotometer soared nightly at around 7:30.
After we had eaten ourselves into a sweaty, engorged and almost carnally pacified state, we would save a few scoops for lunch and give the nod. We would offer our prodigious leftovers first to the adults, and then to the kids. It was a well defined pecking order: older to younger, but everyone got a meal. If you’re wondering if this felt a tad strange, the answer is absolutely a yes. Having five-to-ten Sierra Leoneans watching you wolf food down is a funny thing. It took some getting used to, just like everything else. Events in our day, new information, customs: these became dots when they happened, and they would become connected slowly. Or never.
An example: our friends, our acquaintances, and people we had never met and didn’t know at all would come to our hut during the day or at night to “spend time” – which, when you don’t speak the same language, means sitting. I was sitting on a bench during our first week, feeling stifled and claustrophobic, and was enjoying my first moment alone in several days. A new friend walked up the path and said hello, and sat down on the bench next to me, his thigh touching mine. He didn’t say anything for a full ten minutes, and it was torturous. Then he said goodbye, and got up and left. As he left, I noticed that his lavender colored shirt was a woman’s shirt, and was embroidered with lace around the collar. It was lycra, and nice and snug, and displayed his nipples quite well. Judging by the importance of masculinity in this culture, I figured he didn’t know. That evened the score. I didn’t know about the silent sitting, he didn’t know he was cross-dressing. It’s necessary to realize that not understanding is OK. At least, that’s what I clung to.
I love telling the “This one time, in Sierra Leone” story about our breakfast being interrupted by the hellraising screams of little boys as they were being circumcised behind our goat shed. Normal is different wherever you go. We learned not to sweat the stigmas and just make extra rice, because it’s a gesture we could all get behind. I can’t emphasize the value of the “go with it” mentality enough.
Anyway, the kids would scrape the pot clean and help us wash them, and then we’d hang out around the fire and try to talk. We learned very few words, but we learned them many times. “In Mende,” Sheku said for the tenth time, “we call the fireflies ‘Tubeekee’, but we call the stars ‘Tubeke’.” This lay the perfect segue into “We call the moon ‘Gawee’, but the ground squash is also called ‘Gawee’. The hen’s egg, this is also called ‘Gawee’.” No dinner was truly complete without a vocabulary lesson, and no vocabulary lesson was productive unless it was of a repeat word, because Mende was so damn hard to memorize.
“In the olden days,” Sheku said quietly one night as we warmed ourselves around the fire, “people used to warm themselves around fire.” He said no more. Sometimes it was better to accept his smooth, incomprehensible grace than to dig for meaning.
After dinner we would go two huts down the hill to Gomusu’s house for our most exciting purchase of the night: Breadie-de. Bread. Squat, spiraled pats of sweet cloudsoft bread – we would take ten and give the required 60 cents in return. She would give us one or two extra as gracious thanks for our patronage – because originally, we had bought our oven-crafted starches from Breadmaker, an old, almost impossibly spindly man who lived across the village and about whom we had genuine concern for his chances of surviving until the next breadmaking business day. Sadly, Breadmaker’s flour supply was inconsistent, and his husklike truncheons of hard bread soon fell to the Invisible Hand of Gomusu’s soft, sigh-inducing rolls.
We made a delicious caramelized dessert by frying boiled palm fruit in palm oil and sugar – a concoction that dentists across West Africa definitely wish was a traditional staple dessert. Nope. Just Americans in the bush trying to figure out endemic ways to fry things.
Frying, not surprisingly, turned out to be the Missing Link in our creation of Pumoi –Mende fusion cuisine. A simple pot, when filled with strips of yam and palm oil, becomes a Fryolater! The sticky, chalk-white yam, with a texture not unlike slimy jicama, was a riproaring success when fried until crispy in palm oil and dunked in a spicy peanut, pepper, palm oil and bean sauce. A success that will send your riproaring to the latrine five minutes after you finish eating, for another riproaring experience that smells disturbingly similar to the first one. On my first encounter with The Fries, I ate myself into such a gastronomical tizzy that, in my haste, I missed the hole of the latrine and discovered a new, more vivid sound than I had ever heard in a bathroom.
Yam fries, in moderation, were an unexpected delight. It was also a great way to get rid of yams in a more pleasant way than boiling them for breakfast. A common morning meal was boiled green plantains and yams – but we always ended up with yam slurry with plantain chunks. Vegetable Mucus with Plantains. And we were too hungry not to eat it. We would often, at the end of some meeting at a school or farm in a village five or so miles away, be presented with a magnificent yam. Accepting the graciously offered gift with a smile, we would think about the pile of yam gifts rotting in our hut, think of the five-plus miles to walk home, now with a large yam, and try not to selfishly think about how we wished the yam was a pineapple. Yams are a staple food, and as anyone who’s read Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” knows, West Africans are serious about their yams. Yam fries were a savior because they changed our reaction to the gift of a magnificent, plump yam (“Oh. How kind. A yam.”) to a sincere upwelling of gratitude and a Pavlovian response to the mouth-watering fried goods to be made in the near future with our gift, this most dirt-encrusted and venerable of all root vegetables.
Consumption is a mainstay of humanity no matter where you go – take that however you will. Idiotic statement of the obvious, economically and cynically tinged tru-ism, or kitschy common-thread blabber, I don’t really care. It’s how it is. Once one learns how to do that in an original way, it becomes a beautiful thing, and I have so much respect for food as a life-affirming force, for the meal as a central congealer of community.
Gomusu would make coffee in the mornings in the center of town – the sun would be slumbering behind the jungle hill, Joki, to the east, the town would be slowly waking, the cooking fires sputtering smoke out into the surprisingly cold dawn. Last night’s bread and a cup of coffee – people would commune and talk, and I’d mostly sit, and drink an unreasonable large quantity of watery, heavily sugared coffee out of my Nalgene, and eat a roll or two. The coffee was terrible, and carried with it the risk of intestinal worms (depending on how long Gomusu boiled the water…I never knew. So I might have worms.) but the ritual was essential. I have one snapshot of a morning in Jokibu near the end of our three months there, in early February: the cold of Hamatan keeping everyone swaddled in colorful clothes (including ridiculous foreign aid clothing: either 50 Cent really is that big, or people only enjoy his t-shirts for a week or so and then immediately buy more after donating the old ones), the coffee fire burning, men and women greeting one another, farmers heading to their rice paddies and farms, children in green uniforms heading down the path towards school. I could sit there and feel as if I were a part of it – that in some strange and inexplicable way, this reality had a place for me.
I sat on a log with Section Chief Koroma and his two-year-old granddaughter and commented on how lovely the morning was, which it was. Then, chief Koroma offered me his granddaughter’s hand in marriage, and after she refused to consider me, I walked back home for a Yam Slurry breakfast.
John Babbott worked as a volunteer in Kailahun District, Sierra Leone. Get informed on development efforts in the region at http://www.onevillagepartners.org/.