My host family’s house here in Sebikotane is made up of three separate buildings enclosing an open concrete-floored space shaded by a single fruit tree (never seen this particular fruit before) and hanging laundry; it is usually empty except for me, my notebook, my nalgene, lots of little kids and a few buckets full of dishes and laundry to one side. But throughout this past week I would come home at one o’clock for lunch from the elementary school where I started my apprenticeship to find this space full of large colorful bodies, mostly women, sitting on stools and mats, bending over large bowls of fish guts or white rice, or stirring a cauldron sized pot of sizzling oil. I would go around and shake each of their hands with a little curtsy to show respect, and inevitably be commanded to sit down, after which would follow a fairly predictable series of questions starting out with where are you from? and proceeding quickly to why don’t you have a husband?
The reason for this grand cooking gathering at my house was that Sebikotane had someday, somehow been chosen as the site for the national celebration of Global Diabetes Day in Senegal, and my home had somehow been designated as the place where all the food for all the visiting doctors, professors and officials would be cooked. Free blood sugar testing for Sebikotane residents and informational conferences were held daily at the poste de santé throughout the week, while the actual celebration took place last Saturday in the sandy clearing in front of the town hall.There was a big stage set up with a canopy colored yellow, red and green (the colors of the Senegalese flag) and there was drumming, dancing and two men dressed in tree bark tatters (which were actually plastic) carrying knives and chasing people around – the kankouran, a spiritual creature that traditionally appears around the time of circumcision ceremonies. The scene in my house the night before this event was a mass chicken gutting fest. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many chickens in such a small space before. All of them had to be plucked, gutted, cleaned, fried and grilled before noon the following day.
Why diabetes? You might be wondering. Less developed countries are typically associated with diseases related to malnutrition, not obesity. Well just take a look at the ingredients of a modern Senegalese meal and you have a good part of your answer. Sometimes I wonder which parts are actually traditional, and which parts are a product of modernization. When did white rice start to replace the traditional couscous? And when did oil become so plentiful and cheep that people adopted the habit of pouring a quart of it into the pot with every meal?
This is all speculation of course, but I kind of think that the presentation of meals from one house to the next is so uniform is partially because of TV adds, most of which are for fake flavorings and colorings that in my opinion aren’t needed (for nutrition or flavor), but are almost always used.Bouillon cubes that contain MSG and sachets of fake spices. When did the average Senegalese woman become convinced she had to add these little mysterious brown cubes to her freshly picked bisap leaves, pepper corns, onions and salt in her wooden mortar in order to make her meal satisfactory? And then there is the question of the identical, machine made white baguettes that are the only bread people eat. In more remote areas of the country that these mass-modeled bakeries don’t reach, heartier, thicker bread is made in mud ovens in thatched huts. I had the pleasure of tasting these baguettes last summer, and I think they were called something like tappalappa.