Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cooking Okra in Bo and Other Stories

The Bo market is a hectic and anarchic experience, one that pulls you from the street clogged with motorbikes behind tall storefronts through small dark passageways full of people hawking Chinese-made shoes, cloth, rotten bananas, Irish potatoes, onions, and strange, simply designed boxes of pills that promise to cure colds. Then the chaos really starts on the narrow paths between zinc roofed wooden stalls, coated with a thin mud greyed with fallen produce, sewage, and other unknowns. The paths are chock full of children with baskets of broad brown beans, women with buckets of cassava leaves on their heads, shoppers with heavy loads of food for the lunch time meal, and then me, standing out in my clothes and my skin (I was recently jokingly asked if I would stay overnight at the nurses’ house so that I could light up their electricity-less living room) and stooping underneath baskets and basins on heads and contorting my body around women’s curves as they lean over piles of okra and tomatoes, stacks of dried, twisted smoked fish and bowls full of every type of rice imaginable. Each part of the market offers different fare, with one area dedicated to citrus, another to greens, one to clothes that were obviously donated from the US, and a section across the road for bush meat—large bush pigs, tiny deer-like creatures, monkeys of various sizes and species. Loudspeakers blast loops of “TWO THOUSAND TWO THOUSAND TWO THOUSAND”—prices for the various goods on sale. Men with large cartloads of rice yell their way through the crowd, pushing people out of the way with their voices. No one wants to play chicken with the sheer weight of the carts and the force of the men muscled like Michelangelo statues pushing them. Women offer me palm oil—“buy dis fine pahlm ohl, ma”—as a joke, knowing I won’t buy, and when I did make a purchase of cassava leaves—a bunch as thick as my forearms together for 200 Leones, or about 6 cents, everyone wondered at me and asked me, incredulously, “You eat cassava leaf?”

The food here is not that dissimilar from Senegalese food and what I gather most people eat across West Africa—lots of fish, always rice, and a stewlike concoction made with copious amounts of oil. My favorite so far is okra stew over rice, a slimy sauce made with chopped okra, smoked and fresh fish, and those broad brown beans slathered in bright red palm oil and lots of hot pepper (which is called “peh-peh,” like Pepe le Pew). There’s also cassava leaf, potato leaf, and crain crain stew, the anonymous “stew,” pepper stew made with goat meat (a Nigerian delicacy as well), and others I don’t know yet. They all taste the same to me. Also foofoo—cassava pounded into a paste, gari—flaked cassava powder, and sweet potatoes, coco yams, bush yams—they look like alien eggs, and other tubers.

Rice can be imported and nutrient-deprived white or rich brown, fat grains called “country rice.” After the economic crises of the 1980s and intervention by the IMF and World Bank, who advocated the subsidization of imported rice, local rice culture declined, worsened by prohibitively expensive plowing machinery and the destruction of cattle herds by rebels during the war. Now, only old farmers know how to grow rice. I’ve come to the conclusion that a program that preserves these rice culture techniques and introduces oxen-pulled plowing would be incredibly beneficial for both farmers’ livelihoods and nutritional standards here, since white rice is stripped of most of the good stuff. The malnourished kids I’ve seen out at the Doctors Without Borders Facility—stick arms, red tufted hair, and big swollen bellies—got enough food to keep them alive but not enough to keep them living, if that makes sense. Starchy cassava (or yucca in the Spanish speaking areas of the world) and sweet potatoes can grow year-round here, and they can sustain, but not reinforce, until the next rainy season.

I eat some traditional food, though this is curtailed by the fact that I cook for myself and have no idea where to begin. I generally eat pasta gloop (Helen’s creation—pasta with tuna on top, and I add fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic), salad with whatever overly-inflated vegetables are available, canned hummus spruced up with raw garlic and cumin and cucumbers (I was greatly encouraged by the post on hummus at, and lots of beans. I’ve attempted my version of soul food with African ingredients--an idea of which I was particularly proud--okra stewed in tomato sauce and cassava leaf fashioned as collard greens, but both were heartily rejected by the Sierra Leoneans I work with as too hard to chew, lacking spice, or downright nasty. I found avocados (called pears) once and I eat as much fruit as I can stand—green oranges and grapefruits full of seeds but sweeter than many American (though certainly not Ojai) varieties; various kinds of bananas that make one view American bananas as terrible tasteless blobs that are infinitely easier to transport but not in any way worth avoiding the bruises; “plums,” which look like mangoes but are sour and a little spicy; pawpaw—nothing like that slightly vomit-y tasting papaya you get at home—but sweet and soft, a bit like melon. I’m looking forward to mango and pineapple season.

I will admit that I’ve had a can or two of “luncheon meat,” made less worrying by its guaranteed Halal status but not less disgusting, theoretically (it’s delicious chopped thin and fried like bacon). Eggs are a staple—they’re 15 cents each, raw or already boiled for you--as are groundnuts—boiled, ground into a paste, or roasted in hot sand. I had a sandwich today made with balls of ground up chicken--50 cents. When John, our Logistician, came in holding one, I saw it and said I wanted one too. He ran off after the woman who sells them, calling “Hey, Mama Chickie Ball! Mama Chickie Ball!” All of us in the office collapsed into laughter. I buy a lot of Fula bread, handmade baguette-like loaves baked by the Fula people, which the drivers find infinitely funny for some reason. Breakfast is bulgur, corn flakes (the cheap knockoff ones), fruit salad. When I’m feeling in need of comfort, I go for a bag of peanut M&Ms or a Mars bar from the Lebanese supermarket. I’ve recently cut back on the cookies—I originally thought it was necessary to sample all the different kinds but have since reconsidered that my health might be more important. I make a lot of popcorn in a big metal pot—so much better than the microwave stuff and a lot better for you—and add cinnamon and sugar or salt and hot pepper. Lipton Yellow Label tea is the main staple of my day, made with powdered milk that I hope isn’t imported from China. Occasionally I’ll pick up a Coke Light imported from Morocco and emblazoned with whatever the equivalent of “Coca Cola” is in Arabic. Most of the canned foods I get are imported from random places—Germany, the UK, Lebanon, the US, Brazil, United Arab Emirates. World Soup.

Going out to dinner is an unvarying menu of the same “European” dishes—hamburgers, shwarma, chicken and chips, chicken and rice, fish and chips, fish and rice, spaghetti, and kebabs, with a Fanta, Sprite, or a Star beer—the local beer made with sorghum. I’ve not tried palm wine yet, but I’m as fascinated as I am afraid. Which might define most of my food experiences here—even the canned beans are a mystery to me—and as long as I try to ignore the storage and handling of the food (did the rats crawling over the cans have Lhasa fever? Did the guy grinding the peanut paste wash his hands? How old is that fish?), everything’s fine, and I haven’t had a bad night of food poisoning…yet. It’s exciting to lean over a dish of food or open up a bag and have no idea what it’s going to taste like or whether I’m going to cook it correctly. It’s a bit like squeezing my way through the market—I have no idea what’s around the corner, or even what’s right in front of my nose.

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