Always in the deep woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is an ancient fear of the unknown and is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. -- Wendell Berry

The TRIP: GUINEA - wonkifong --> MALI - bamako, djenne, douentza, Dogon Country --> Burkina Faso - ouagadougou, bobo-dioulasso, bala, ouagadougou --> GHANA - tamale, mole national park, tamale, yeji, volta lake ferry, akosombo, accra, green turtle lodge, elmina, cape coast, accra, hohoe and wli falls --> TOGO - kpalime, atakpame, lome --> BENIN - cotonu (transport stop) --> NIGER - niamey, tahoua, agadez, camel trek in aiir mtns, niamey --> BENIN (abomey, grand popo, ouidah, ganvie, cotonou) --> CAMEROON (douala, buea, top of Mt Cameroon, limbe, sangelima, yaounde, kribi, douala) --> MAURITANIA (nouakchott, atar, chinguetti, camels into the sahara, terjit, choume, ride the coal train, nouadhibou) --> MOROCCO (western sahara, dakhla, agadir, essaouira, marrakesh, imlil, summit of jebel toubkal, fes, chefchaouen) --> cross the Strait of Gibraltar --> Malaga, Spain --> fly to Geneva, Switzerland --> Les Grangettes, France
Click for a map. Updated April 30, 2007

jeudi, octobre 19, 2006

La Cuisine (October 9, 2006)

At 2:30 every afternoon, my neighbor walks down the stairs from her house, traverses the 15 or so feet to a small, round hut, stoops and enters into her kitchen. Dinner time is around 7:00 pm, but she needs the time to prepare the meal. Her hut, which is typical of kitchens in Guinea, is circular in shape, open air, with a thatched roof composed of palm branches. Nine posts are attached to the conical roof and support the structure. I have to stoop to enter but can stand tall in the middle with plenty of room above my head. The floor to the kitchen is composed of packed earth. As she sits in her kitchen, my neighbor has a good view of what is happening in her neighborhood and people consistently come up to say hello.

The hut has been organized so that she can sit in the middle and reach out to almost everything needed without getting up. She sits on one of several sawed off rounds of tree trunk or a somewhat larger, scooped out type of stool. The seating options in the hut bring a person about six inches above the ground.

The area behind her is often reserved for preparation bowls, utensils and buckets of water that have been filled at the pump. The current pump is about 500 meters away but there is a rumor that the motor of a second pump system will soon be fixed to make the pump in her yard work. I’m hoping for her. Small baskets around her are filled with lots of peppers (the spicy kind), eggplant (there are two main types here), onions, bouillon cubes, tomato paste containers, the occasional potato, dried or smoked fish and manioc. A callabasse (large bowl) filled with rice is always present. For Guineans in the Basse-Cote, a meal without rice is not really a meal at all. Since I have been sharing a meal with this family, I have eaten rice 20 out of the past 21 dinners, though there are quite a few different and tasty preparations that are made in this kitchen. The base is rice though different sauces including “leaf” sauces made from the leaves of either manioc or a type of potato plant, palm sauces and a peanut sauce are put on top of the rice.

One of her first priorities is to get one of the two fires going. One fire source is a small grill that you might find in the States during the summer though it would likely not be up to George Foreman’s standard. This grill burns charcoal briquettes that people prepare in the country by slowly smoldering lots of wood in a low oxygen environment. From the kitchen’s point of view, the resulting fire burns much cleaner and people in the hut are not hampered by fumes in their eyes. In kitchens with less space, charcoal is almost exclusively used. The second fire is a wood fire. Three large rocks have been placed in a triangular fashion to support cooking pots and provide the boundary for the fire. This fire uses branches of trees, though all of the pieces that I have seen so far have been fairly small in diameter.

On a side note, it is amazing how much energy goes into collecting wood and, in turn, how much wood is used by a community to cook. On a daily basis, I see lots of small children and women spending the entire day collecting bundles of wood. The wood is transported back to the village on their heads and it often looks like the load carried is quite heavy. I have seen some reports that say it is estimated that between 80 and 90% of wood collection in the developing world is done by women and children. Other than the hard labor and time allotted for collection, this fuel source can rapidly deforest an area. As trees in local areas are used up, the women and children then have to walk even farther to collect wood. At the same time, forested areas surrounding villages diminish. The environmental toll around my village is fairly evident as large de-treed areas exist.

Back in the kitchen, once the fire is going a pot is put on and cooking begins. The peppers are tossed into a large wooden pestle and mashed up with a mortar. Other ingredients are added, mashed if necessary, and then dumped into the pot. Though time consuming and a lot of work, cooking is also a social event. I have gotten in the habit of spending a few hours under the roof of this hut every afternoon. We sit and talk about the day, local customs, comparisons between Guinea and the States and she also teaches me Susu. Off and on, different people of all ages from children on their way back to elementary school after the lunch break to adults on errands stop by to say hello and talk for a little. I am even getting to know some of my students because they come by to hang out during the afternoon.

Towards the end of the preparation, a large pot of water is put on the fire to prepare the sauce. For Guineans, the favorite variety of rice is the one harvested locally. It has a heavier consistency than typical white rice. Today, about 2 kilograms of rice was prepared which is fairly normal for my neighbor. Lots of people seem to drop by at night for a bowl of rice and she always has enough. Though a different environment, the Guinean kitchen is a welcoming and enjoyable place to spend an afternoon.