Chronicles of Africa: the parallels of food – Blog Action Day 2011

Today is Blog Action Day 2011, #BAD11 it’s also international food day.

The aim of Blog Action day is to simply gather together writers, bloggers, and publishers from all over the world to write about an important humanitarian global topic on the same day the world over. Past subjects have included water, climate change and poverty. I’m contributing this year with something from my life in Africa.

Sharing Beans in Nigeria
No matter where we are from, we all need to eat ... (west African beans)

Three levels of food from one nation

I rarely write about my time in West Africa here. I simply don’t have the time to sit down and write out over two years of journals. Such a horrible thought when so many of the issues I came across are slipping by without being mentioned. Such things I saw, learned and experienced there could surely help others today.

Yet I am struggling with my own day to-day life at the moment. So it get’s pushed back in the name of working for the future. Today I’m stepping back in time for some memory recall in a hope to chronicle something I must not forget.

The Ambassadors dinner

Fine wine, roast beef, and apple pie. All set in a luxury villa, complete with swimming pool, small theater, and a lavish amount of decor throughout. At our table is a BBC regional correspondent, a leading national editor, three NGO workers, a radio journalist and a foreign office minister from some random nation plucked from the lottery of invitations.

As a culminating choice of Earls grey or Colombia’s finest is presented the conversation stirs around to where the Ambassador’s wife found such good beef for tonight dinner. It is after all hard to find good beef anywhere in West Africa. The cattle here are a hybrid mix designed for tough climates, and as a result have boot leather tenderness if served up. I should know, I spent over two years hammering, boiling, hanging and near on breaking my teeth on the stuff.

But here, the Ambassadors wife is the talk of the table. She, alone, managed to produce a banquet feast fit for a hundred people of the finest tenderized roast beef this side of England. The secret to all this beefy goodness was seated at the table next to us. The manager of a German construction company outfitted to re-pave half the nation it would seem. The German life-camp has fresh German beef flown over every second week.

Yam Porridge
Yam Porridge a mix of yam, beans and bitter leaf

Not bad for a tax payers public servant to arrange.

The chop house ladys banquet

A chop house is basically a local eating establishment. Usually a rough shack of timber with crude wooden seating all around and a small selection of basic food staples on offer. It was lunch time and I was back in the real world of my working environment. Princess was the lady who cooked everyday in this chop house, but today was a special day. Today there were guests coming to visit a neighboring business center. And, Princess was hoping to drum up some new customers.

She’d rented some stainless steel food heaters and brought out her very best dishes. Amala, pounded yam, garri, fried plantain, egusi soup and my favorite Yam porridge. Princess had asked me to bring my camera and take some photos of her best dishes on offer. I obliged. It was the least I could do.

You see I’d heard of Princess’ plan from a few days beforehand. And asked her if it was really such a good idea to rent all this equipment just to impress people who were not even guaranteed to eat here.

Princess smiled thinly as I asked again that day. Her eyes looked over at the building across from us. One man had come over. A vague friend of one of my colleagues. That was it. No one else. She’d spent a months earnings in the hope of cashing in for one day.

My colleague later said she could not afford the rent there anymore after this. She was barely breaking even as it was. Today had been her last gamble to make a living.

The villagers demand for nothing

The Fulani are a nomadic tribe of cattle herders that settle for only a few months in one location before moving on. They have a unique look. Long faces, or faces with sharp bone structure. Skin darkened due to constant exposure to the elements, and facial tribal markings by sharp blades.

Fulani children and their mother
Fulani children and their mother at their home

They are often regarded as trouble makers and lawless citizens of nowhere. They say they have the right to roam the lands of their ancestors, it is what they have done for centuries. It is their choice to live this way. They’ve lived this way long before the countries even existed.

Today they are often chased out by farmers, landowners and state administrations. Forced to find rough lands to graze their cattle and construct their temporary homes for a few months.

They eat simple food. And by simple, I do mean simple.  Milk from their cows is their mainstay source of nutrition. Lunch is a mix of millet and milk, much the same as their breakfast. Dinner might yield some corn or cassava depending if they’d sold any milk or cattle at the nearby market.

They were happy to see us, it’s not often they get visitors actually wanting to visit. During our departure we made mention of having to go and eat. No sooner had we mentioned this than we were invited to eat a mix of millet and milk.

A simple meal from nomads that no one seemed to like.

Food in so many guises

You can take from this what you want. To me they are memories. I can still taste the ambassadorial tender German roast beef. I remember Princess’ Yam porridge, and how she always saved me some without dried fish in it. And, I remember the Fulani, they’re unique lifestyle, how they were treated, and how they treated us.

So many contrasts that involved food in some way or another. And there are more, much more. Dare I mention Argentinian beef smuggling, the roasted rat, or the strangely addictive peanut infused red hot kilishi.

Famine is often thought about when we think about food and Africa. And, perhaps rightfully so in many cases. But then, I think it’s also interesting to look at the parallels of lifestyles and food. Moreover, I think, it’s quite insightful.

This is an additional article written for blog action day 2011. Please share this article with as many people as you can to raise awareness.

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13 Replies to “Chronicles of Africa: the parallels of food – Blog Action Day 2011”

  1. Interesting post, Dave. I like the approach of three different cultural/food scenes in one nation. More refreshing, accurate and perceptive than a post on famine would be. Was this in Nigeria? It’s interesting, Fula people are viewed very differently across West Africa. In Guinea they are actually a plurality at about 40% of the pop. In Mali, many of the most venerated singers, like Oumou Sangare and Mamou Sidibe, are Fulani. But in other places, they are viewed in a manner similar to your account here. Interesting culture though. Pulaar is one of the most beautiful languages on earth, I feel. It’s great to read this tale of hospitality.

    1. Well spotted about Nigeria. Indeed the Fulani are widespread, and have an equally diverse reputation. Personally, both at work, and in travel I’ve never had a bad experience. There are several groups set up to try and protect their nomadic way of life, though I’m not sure how effectual they will. And yes, their language is very unique and near on poetic sounding.

  2. Those Fulani are so tragic. The gypsies of Africa. This is a refreshingly original way of raising awareness. Three stories, in one nation, all so different.

    1. Thank you Kelly, there’s often too much written about famine, and we grown used to it. Here, I thought the diversity would ring true with some people.

  3. Such insight. It sounds like you had a fascinating time in Africa. I don’t think it’s an ideal location for me to travel. I only get so much vacation time and I don’t think I could handle the hardships.

    How people manage day to day I can only perceive that it’s to do with being born into that environment.

    1. “Ideal location to travel”, I think is relevant to one’s likes and dislikes. But yes, West Africa is not easy to travel. Though there are those who take “Package tours” And make it sound that way!

  4. I enjoyed reading your post very much. It’s easy to disregard the food culture when traveling as miniscule, but when we really contemplate the influence food makes in our personal lives and the influence it has on our local culture it really can provide rare insight to human understanding. Thank you for sharing! How long were you in Africa?

    1. Thanks Heather. You summarized what I was trying to write about food very well. I should go back and include it, just kidding. I was over 2 years in West Africa, not including many months in Morocco.

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