Friday, February 08, 2008

The epic tale continues...Who knew that a weekend trip to an obscure African village could be turned into a novel?
Other things are going on right now, of course. Bloggable stuff. There is a food-supply problem in Ouagadougou now, for example. The price of food staples is rocketing. Cooking oil is up by 25%. A sack of rice that used to cost about 25 US dollars is now up to 30 dollars. That means a lot of hardship for the average Burkinabé. And people have to be very careful when buying, as scarcity and high prices tempt merchants to "stretch" their stocks of oil with cheaper, sometimes dangerous, fillers.
Even luxury items are no more. There hasn't been a shipment for weeks of cold goods. Butter, cheese, cream, sour cream, etc are difficult, if not impossible to find. The only reason there is milk is because there are stocks of irradiated boxed milk that doesn't need refrigeration.
This is all linked(so I'm told) to higher transport costs. Practically everything here has to be driven in and the price of fuel has risen sharply over the last months. And certainly chaos in oil-producing nations like Chad doesn't help matters.
But today's photo isn't a sack of rice, though there are similarities. It's a picture that Freida just sent me of our Gourcy adventure. This was taken just before JP made his speech. You see what I mean about the pink outfit. I wasn't kidding.
Which all leads us right back to:
Part 4 in which Burkina Mom needs help from Emily Post. Desperately.
So, it was 10:30 at night and there we were, picking our way cautiously among the cabbages, lettuces, water hoses and other garden-variety hazards. The mystery of Antoine’s fabled garden was solved! And we were going to have dinner in it. Well, just behind it, in a small clearing that had been set up with about 40 chairs and a couple of buffet tables.

Now, the average Burkinabé dinner is eaten in relative darkness, which most people here have no problem with. They mostly only ever eat millet tô with sauce. What’s to see? They make do with a candle or a small kerosene lamp at most. Even at this fancy party featuring actual electricity, there were just a couple of feeble light bulbs hanging off a cord. It was very dark- that far-from-the-city kind of dark where you can not only see Orion’s Belt, you can also make out Orion’s Shoes, Orion’s Watch and Orion’s Nose Piercing. It was dark.

We each took plate and wandered over to the buffet. I was near the front of the line, thanks to the “ladies first” policy. It was hard to tell what was in the big metal pots. Even Celestine, who had prepared the food, was having a hard time. Antoine’s wife had a small flashlight that she used to venture a best guess on the contents of the various containers. The miniscule beam of light revealed fatty mutton, chunks of apparently anorexic chickens, couscous (nothing more than edible sand, IMHO. Hate the stuff), mashed beans (so she said -looked like mud), and salad (unless impeccably clean it’s a major health hazard. The normal rule is NEVER eat salad in the bush). Then, I peered into the last pot and saw smooth, pale blobs. Tô! I love tô- it’s the national food here: a dumpling made of either corn or millet flour. Very nice. .
“You like tô?” Celestine asked, quite surprised.
I so enthusiastically declared my love for the dish that she put a softball-sized chunk on my plate. Then she ladled a bunch of sauce onto it. Can’t eat tô without sauce. Too dry.

I made my way back to my chair, past all the other guests juggling plates in their laps. As I sat down, I reflected that a person could make good money selling silverware with built-in lights for use in the bush. My prototype would be a fork with a small penlight taped to it. With the light shining towards the pronged end, there would be no more surprise bites of hot pepper, bone or gristle! A true innovation! When travellers come to Africa, they often think that they need stuff like khaki vests with hundreds of pockets and a big fancy camera. What they REALLY need is self-illuminating cutlery. Take it from one who knows. If I had had Beth’s Amazing Safe-T-Glo Fork ™ , I never would have taken the first bite. The slime! The chunks! I didn’t spit, but politely swallowed, while quietly scooting closer to a light bulb. I could now make out a pool of greenish, shiny sauce. Here's the thing: I adore oseille leaf sauce and I’m crazy about peanut sauce. But gombo sauce? It’s viscous and goopy, made with heaps of okra. Some people don’t like tapioca because it is somewhat like (avert your eyes if you are sensitive) snot. The trouble with gombo is that it is exactly like snot. I’ve gotten used to lots of local specialties, but that one has defeated me.
And the chunks in it? That was soumbala. It’s a popular seasoning here made of fermented tamarind seeds. It is pungent. Scarily pungent. Actually, it smells a lot like Muenster cheese, which in turn smells like old gym shoes that have trodden in dog poop. Neither substance is for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached. I would have smelled it and avoided it, if not for the fact that my allergies were acting up from all the dust.

So, there I was, sitting with this huge plate of tô and gumbo sauce balanced on my lap. I saw no way to get rid of it without being incredibly obvious. I didn’t want Celestine to think I didn’t like her cooking. I didn’t want to reject a dish that millions of Burkinabé love. In short, I didn’t want to be the Ugly American, I wanted to be the Good Guest. But I just couldn’t do it.
Then, Antoine strolled over and noticed my full plate.
“Having trouble there?” he asked.
I said “No.” And it was true. There was no “trouble” - I just wasn’t going to eat because I am a doofus.
Frieda, sitting next to me, leaned over and said “Actually, she doesn’t like gombo.”
“No problem! It’s my favourite!” Our host cried genially. “Hand it over!” He took the plate off my lap and grabbed my fork.
“But I already …” I started to say.
Antoine quickly took a big bite.
I felt like a really Bad Guest now. I had rejected their food and then allowed my host to eat with my used fork from a plate of tô I’d had a bite out of. Not like I have any contagious illnesses that I know of, but still…
Antoine sat down nearby and dug into the meal with enthusiasm.
I went back to the buffet table and got a small plate of mashed beans and bread. It was very good.

Part V: The Magic Pumpkins of Death

1 comment:

babzee said...

You have a long way to go to acheive true Ugly American Status, but nice try! I see that the further south one travels, the more-important OKRA becomes. As a young Yankee (New Englander, for those who think "Yankee" means all Americans) with an unadventuresome mother, I was never introduced to Okra until my first nursing teacher casually decribed it a "a normal looking vegetable filled with snot". I managed to avoid MOST contact with it until moving from New York to Georgia, USA, and suddenly finding it on every buffet table, accompanying every main dish, crowding DECENT vegetables out of the freezer case and being sneakily disguised with heavy batter and deep frying.

Great, now I can't eat for the rest of the day!