October 18th 2015:
The romance of travel often rests in the food: the scents, tastes, spices of another part of the world. In Ibel, I live constantly surrounded by food. The okra that will be in today’s lunch is less than ten feet from my soodu (hut/room). Right now my compound is full of corn, okra, and millet drying in the sun.
As the rainy season comes to a close, kaba (corn) is everywhere. The other night, with no preamble, Nenee marched into the part of our corn fields that spills into the compound and started tearing off corn and chucking it in the direction of my siblings and me. It was a sudden harvest. Moussa, my four year-old brother, went running, grabbing as much corn as he could, dumping it before us, and racing back to grab more. I circled up with Moussa, Habe (my seven year old cousin), Ramatou (my seven year old sister), and Mari (my two year old sister) around a big pile of corn and started husking.
Food is shared as much as the labor for it. Neighborhood women stroll into the compound carrying branches, buckets, and the latest news. We strip the leaves off the branches, Nenee serves attaya (tea), and rapid gossip in Pularr flows between the women. The first time I tried to join the women, I plucked the leaves off one by one causing my neighbor to raise a definitive eyebrow. Nenee laughed as I paused and carefully watched my neighbor use her whole hand quickly stripping the leaves off. I followed suit to a resounding “Eyyoo” (Yes) from the women.
The first time I pounded corn into millet my Nenee laughed and laughed, “ahh Safi” she called out happily. When she took back over, I watched in amazement as she threw the pestle above her head slamming it down, catching it on the up swing, and pounding it down again. When she wanted to switch arms, she would throw the pestle up with her right hand, clap her hands together above her head, before catching it with her left hand and pounding it back down She kept having me try, passing me the six-foot long pestle and casually flashing a six pack as she adjusted her skirt. I can’t yet get the sweet ryhthm out of the mortar and pestle, but I was proud enough to feel my muscles working hard.
As I walked back from visiting my Baaba’s (Dad’s) rice fields, I attempted to explain the problems of the US food industry and my reasons for being a vegetarian in the US. I grew frustrated – how could I explain a place where although people have an abundance of food, very few have contact with their food from seed to plate? How could I explain food factories and farm corporations to a man who has always had food outside his door?
Our conversation stopped as we passed through a small village. “Woo!” Babaa called out as a means to greet someone he did not know. After an exchange of greetings, we walked toward the person through a small foot path. I reached three women sitting under a tree surrounded by what looked like big piles of weeds. After squatting down with them I realized they were picking peanuts off the roots – there is a whole lot of plant for one peanut. Baaba struck up a conversation and I passed the time meditative plucking and munching tiga (peanuts). After accumulating a large pile I was told to bring them home with me. Take them? I thought I’d been helping move the work along.
But any guilt subsided – food isn’t individually possessed here, its too be shared. Food is given freely and in abundance every day. From being offered roasted kaba at every house I pass to the bag of corn given to my Pularr tutor after my first lesson, food is constantly moving from one hand to another. Even though everyone in the village has a store of kaba,the gesture of giving a few cobs is very important. Whenever someone walks through the compound while we are having a meal, we call out “Come! Eat!”.
Food is shared in all stages: growth, harvest, labor, preparation, and eating. Corn surrounds the foot paths, okra is chopped during conversations, attaya made during laundry, lacciri (couscous) made while gossiping. Community forms as much around stripping leaves off branches as around the communal bowl at lunch. Steadily, I’m building relationships with Nenee and the women of Ibel by sharing in the labor and eating until I’m harri teff (totally full).