Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bowls of Love and Stew

I remember the disappointment I felt as a kid when I saw my mom rinse the spaghetti sauce jar to get every last drop of sauce out. I longed for thick, sweet, sauce, but what I remember (mom, don't worry, I've gotten over it—and make up for it daily:) is thin sauce that stretched our meals and our family's food dollars.

We ate well in Bamako, Mali's capital. Though the food was somewhat redundant, we ate meat at most meals, flavorful, thick sauces and fresh salads. After a week of tigedigena, toh, duga, and zame, my family headed to Wasulu, a region in the southwest of Mali that spans Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. We had a mission this trip—I wanted to bring Jarra to the village of his father's birth, and his grandmother's home. We also were delivering the grain grinder which our Madison community so generously bought for the villagers.

I had not been to the village in 10 years. We were excited and nervous. Jarra was meeting his father's family—his paternal grandmother-- for the first time. We loaded ourselves into a hot and crowded bus, and took off for Yanfolila, Mali, where we got a car to take us over the dirt path to the village.

The village lies just over the border in Guinea, and is called Kolomalila by the locals. The Guinean government renamed it Bagafea, and miraculously it shows up on Google earth.

As my son likes to explain, we went 4-wheeling without a 4WD vehicle. The carcass of a van carried us for more than 2 hours over red-dirt roads which gradually became a single track. We held onto metal framing and vinyl seat covers for dear life. Our friends Cathy and Peter joined our family and were amazed as the cement block houses of the city were quickly left behind and replaced by beautiful, round-walled, adobe brick huts thatched with grass.

We reached Kolomalila just before dusk and were greeted by dozens of villagers who immediately surrounded the van and helped us out. Jarra's grandmother slowly walked through the crowd, bent with age, and started shaking with emotion. She is very old, no one knows exactly how old, but must be around 85 or so, as Jarra's father was her last child. She reached for Jarra and put her arms around him before people gently guided her away to sit down.

We spent 3 nights in the village, quickly adapting to life without electricity and running water, but less easily adapting to the crowds and crowds of kids that surrounded us every waking hour, and the very simple meals that were served.

The villagers still subsist almost entirely on food they grow themselves, and access to market produce is limited. Every day begins with corn porridge, called seri. For lunch, while the villagers ate toh (a corn polenta with okra sauce), we ate rice with a thin tomato-onion sauce. Dinner was another bowl of rice with sauce, or gbanzan, a thicker corn porridge with a green leaf sauce. Jarra's uncle Joumen brought bananas from their farm, a potato-like root, and peanuts to snack on. On the last day, we slaughtered a sheep and fed many families. I discovered that I love sheep liver—or maybe I was just hungry.

Corn makes up the basis for most meals, and peanuts and small amounts of fish provide most of the protein. There is little sugar available, though sugar cane is grown for a treat.

The farming season lasts from about May-Nov, and a large communal garden about 1.5 miles from the village provides fresh onions, pineapple, peppers, okra, herbs and tomatoes year round.

My son, who had become accustomed to sugar in his seri and milk, went through some sugar withdrawal, but, amazingly, learned to love the morning cereal without sugar (though that didn't last long).

Here are some pictures of what we ate in a day (corn porridge, freshly butchered sheep (and the sheep before butchering) and rice and roasted roots). Though the food was simple, we were given the best they had, I know. As our friend Cathy noted, we stayed in their huts, ate their food, used their water, and we were treated like royalty. I wish I could be that kind of hostess.

The love the people of Kolomalila have for Jarra, our family and our community filled our stomachs and hearts in ways that food can't. It is the same love that was stirred into each plate of spaghetti I ate as a kid.

(other photos include, from the top, women pounding grain, a fire in a kitchen, some villagers with my son and his grandma, the grain grinder, gardens, selling food at a bus stop.)

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