In much of Africa eating together is an important part of building relationships—and goes well beyond simply sharing a table. In Mali, and many other countries, you eat with your hands, most likely sharing a few germs (builds the immune system). You share stories, laughs and I think that some saliva is shared as well. As one Malian woman told me after I saw her nurse another woman's child, “We share everything.”
Eating communally entails more than just digging in to a delicious meal: there are some rules. I hope to provide you with a simple guide to help you next time you are invited to share a meal in West Africa. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, you might even try this in your own home. Ko barika!
Serve the meal on a large shallow platter (about 18-20”) on a small table or the floor. You might be surprised to find that you can eat anything with your hands—but slightly sticky dishes work best, such as fried rice, or rice with okra sauce, or rice with peanut sauce, or rice with chicken. Get the picture? Or use bread.
Have everyone wash their hands in a bowl of clean water. Use the right hand only to eat. In Bamana (a language in Mali), the right hand is called kini bolo, or rice-eating hand. The left hand is called numan bolo, or nose-picking hand. Yep, and nose picking is the least of it. Only the right hand to eat.
Wait until everyone is seated or squatting around the plate before you start. Mentally divide the dish into quadrants, or sections. Your section is directly in front of you, not in front of me. Don't reach across for my rice, please.
If there are vegetable or meat that you would like, and there is not enough for everyone, then break off a piece for yourself, and leave the rest. If you have something in front of you that you would like to share, place it in the middle of the dish, or in front of the person you want to share it with. Share is the key word, because when there are 8 hungry people, and 2 pieces of meat, you gotta share. That's kindergarden stuff, right?
To use your hands, grab a small handful of food in your palm, and sort of form it into a ball. Quickly and confidently turn your palm up and scoop the food into your mouth--”overhand”. Do not use your hand like a backhoe, or risk laughing and teasing. You kind of lick the top of your fingers as you pull your hand out of your mouth.
If there is anything you can't chew, or bones to spit out, do not put them on anyone else's plate (that's universal, right?), just set them beside the plate on the table. Never let food drop back into the communal plate.
When you are done, say “ko barika”. The response is “barika allah ye". You know, thanks and blessings. Get up and wash your hands. Feed leftovers to hungry children.
Next time you gather your friends and family around a table to eat, why not try African-style communal eating? Nothing tastes better than a shared meal—eaten with your (right) hands.