One day, Elephant, proud and stubborn, swept Squirrel off the path with her trunk and rumbled, “Out of my way, you of no importance!” Squirrel stomped her feet and challenged Elephant to an eating contest. When the day came to see who could eat the most palm nuts, Squirrel’s children, brothers, sisters, and cousins all came. There were a lot of them, they were hungry, and they won the contest. From that day, Elephant always made room for Squirrel on the path. Clever Squirrel had tricked Elephant and fed her whole family!
In West Africa, everyone is responsible for making sure the whole family eats. It is not so much about food as it is about eating; not so much about what you cook, but about finding enough to fill everyone’s bellies. Every meal is a chance to begin again, to live another day.
In the early 80s, I worked for Save the Children in Dori, a small Muslim town on the southern edge of the Sahara in the country of Burkina Faso. My family was my cook, Laya, and her four children. Every day, after a morning of working on garden projects, grain storage, fuel-saving stoves, and blanket-weaving cooperatives in the local villages, I would return to my compound for the noon meal.
Depending on the season — four months of rainy season, eight months of dry, whatever was available at the local daily market went into the cooking pot. In dry season, we ate the sorghum harvested in October and stored in mud brick granaries. Dried beans and canned mackerel provided protein. But by April, when food got really scarce, people often ate the tough, bitter leaves from the Baobab trees. Then in late May, if we were lucky, it rained.
How everyone loved rainy season! The rains filled up the local mar, a seasonal lake that transformed Dori into a peninsula connected to higher ground by a narrow dirt road. A miracle happened when the mar filled. Fish eggs that had lain dormant in the dry, sunbaked mud for nearly eight months grew into fat catfish. New stalks of sorghum sprouted and grew in the sandy soil in surrounding fields. Local gardens greened up with niebe, arachides, gombo — black-eyed peas, groundnuts, and okra. Ground water replenished the oasis well where rows of lettuce, onions, and potato greens flourished.
Every day at noon, Laya and her children, Moussa, Aissatou, Hama, and baby Ousman, greeted me with smiles and polite hand shakes. My family, the bellies we filled every day, would sit together at the long table in the courtyard under the Neem trees.
In rainy season, Laya cooked everyone’s favorite dish, catfish soup — a rich tomato broth of onions fried in peanut oil, potato greens, okra, and the delicious, dense meat of catfish. Sitting with our spoons in hand, the children and I waited as Laya carried the steaming bowl to the table. Laya would sit, and like Squirrel, smile, and say, “Bismillah!” Begin!
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