During the U.S. training institute we did an exercise to replicate the food distribution throughout the world. For dinner one night only two people eat the usual full, healthy IONS meal. The rest either had a bowl of beans and rice; just rice or in the case of one person a half portion of rice. Having never done this simulation before I went away thinking about world hunger and with a greater awareness of how the majority of the world eats. Little did I realize then that this time in Senegal would be a greater lesson in this and as it is not a simulation but a daily reality even more impactful to the point that I don’t think I will ever eat or think about food the same way I did five months ago.
One of the first aspects of the Senegalese people many of the fellows noticed upon arrival is that no one looks starving here. In fact, I think it is safe to say that I have never seen more obese women in my life. Part of this is due to the culture which emulates the large, voluptuous woman; however, I also speculate that it is heightened by the eating style and quality of food. The typical Senegalese breakfast consists of roughly a six-inch piece of machine-made baguette with butter or chocolate spread. Six to seven hours later at lunch everyone fills up on a rice based meal which is almost always cebbujen, rice and fish with a few vegetables whose nutrients have been boiled down to almost nonexistence. This is made using a good amount of oil (for my host family a quarter liter) and “Maggi” or a similar artificially flavored cube of sodium and MSG. Dinner is then often leftovers from lunch or ceré (millet) with sauce made from oil and meat broth or ground up leaves and peanuts. There is always more than enough food at lunch, the main meal of the day, however there is an obvious lack of nutrients in the daily diet. In addition, the copious amounts of oil and rice consumed have unpleasant side effects, the two which the other fellows and I have most commonly experienced being acne and weight gain.
Coming to Senegal and eating like the average Senegalese is like when I was a little kid and never appreciated how good a cook my mom is until I had dinner at a friend’s house except this is blown up to a world sized scale. It is not that I don’t like Senegalese food, because I actually do. My host mother also happens to be a good cook and while cooking with her I have written down many recipes that I plan to make for family and friends at home. It is that I never fully grasped how wonderfully varied, full and balanced my diet was at home. In addition, until now I had never craved a food or wanted an ingredient that was not available somewhere.
At the same time it was not until after sharing spaghetti, gnocchi and oatmeal with Senegalese friends that I realized how open my palette is. While they were kind and pretended to like the food it was obvious that they preferred the usual cebbujen. Considering they have mainly eaten meals of rice, bread and millet their whole lives and are not accustomed to trying new foods I understand. However, it was not until those experiences that I thought about the fact that growing up in the U.S. I have been exposed to and enjoyed a wide variety of food from all over the world.
Those of you who know me well know that I have never been a food person. While I of course have my favorite foods and enjoy baking occasionally food was just never that important to me. So it is funny to me that now among all luxuries Senegal has made me have a better appreciation for, food is by far the greatest.