Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Make Tea

Making and drinking tea is an important social process, integral to every meeting, all work, and every relationship.  You could literally spend all time between meals making tea, and that would be perfectly socially acceptable.  So in case you ever find yourself in Senegal and need to impress, here’s how to make tea:
Materials: 100 cfa box of tea, 100 cfa bag of sugar, 3 sprigs of mint, water, small tea kettle, small charcoal burning stove, plate to serve the tea on, charcoal, two shot sized tea glasses
1.       Pour 3/4ths of the bag of tea leaves into the pot along with three glasses of water.
2.       Boil until water bubbles the color of the tea leaves.
3.       Add one overflowing shot glass full of sugar to the kettle.
4.       Boil until it smells like burning sugar.
5.       Take off the stove and add a large sprig of mint.
6.       Pour tea into one glass, back into the kettle, then into the other glass.
7.       Pour the tea back into the first glass and let it cool until you can hold the glass.
8.       Pour that tea back and forth between the glasses until you’ve made a sufficient amount of foam.
9.       Pour the tea back into the kettle and reheat slightly while washing off the outside of the glasses (they’re probably sticky from spilling a little while making foam) making sure to leave the foam on the inside.
10.   Pour the tea into the glasses and serve two people at a time until everyone has gotten some tea. The size of the serving depends on how many people are there so that everyone gets tea and so that all the tea is used.
11.   Add the rest of the tea leaves to the kettle and add three more glasses of water to make the second round of tea following the same directions above.  This round uses slightly less sugar.
12.   The last round has no extra tea leaves added but the same three glasses of water and the rest of the sugar.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blueprint of a Typical 'Maria Freak Out'

I’ve never been the type of person who could hide their emotions.  Sometimes my face betrays what I think before I even realize that I’ve come to a conclusion.  I’ve come to accept this and steer clear of things like poker.  I’m a little worried about how my village perceives my expressive reactions to things.  I’m pretty positive they enjoy seeing a big smile and they definitely get a kick out of me being sassy and skeptical.  It’s when I am having a bad day that I think I throw them off guard.  What exactly do you do with a frantic foreigner who is trying to explain to you in a strained and cracking voice and broken
 Jaxanke what is wrong?  Whatever happens it is a scene, and even if I don’t complete any sustainable projects while here, I can rest easy knowing that I  successfully brought some entertainment to this rural community, otherwise lacking in sitcoms, for two years.  Here is a brief sketch of a typical ‘Maria Freak Out’.

Scene opens with Maria being asked for money in some form or another.  She happily gives a little,  content with some explanation such as they probably need it more than I do.
Cut in and out to many scenes of the same thing, Maria slowly becoming less and less generous, both with her handouts and her responses.  Her thoughts volley something like this:

“It’s nothing personal, just a cultural norm.  If they don’t feel guilty asking I shouldn’t feel guilty saying no.  But why haven’t they said thank you?  Really, just a cultural difference.  But I have a culture too.  No really, you read books about how this would be the case.  But can’t we come to a happy medium between my culture and their culture?  Just let it go.  I gave up so much already.  Try to just breath deeply.  There’s only so much cultural integration I can handle.  Think about all you have and be thankful for that.  Had.  Have!  You get to go back to America, they don’t.  If they were in my position they probably wouldn’t keep accepting to be treated like a human vending machine.  Maria, it’s their culture to share what they have, you just have a lot. Then why don’t they share more of their tea with me?  Oh grow up, that’s so petty.  But it still hurts.  Only if you let it.  I didn’t let it the first many times they asked.  Be stronger.  I’m only human with my own limitations and faults.  Try to understand theirs…”

And then she breaks.  It is invariably a small straw.  The chicken tore up her entire back yard, for the second time in a day, she was stood up by one more person, her one pair of intact pants gets a hole ripped in it, the children did not water the grafted mango she gave them.  Never anything big enough for her to talk about and have people understand why this broke her.
She’s not yet hysterical, it’s an internal break, but her family notices her slightly inappropriate comment, slight flex in the jaw muscle, and out of character frankness.  Example:
“If that chicken comes behind my room again I’m going to kill it and eat it.”
“That’s my chicken.”
“Well you should tell it not to come behind my room again.”
“Chickens don’t understand Jaxanke.”
“If God wills it, it will understand.”
“Ohhh Maria…”
And they know.  At this point they poke it.  Either that or everything they say seems like a poke, it’s hard for Maria to determine the difference at this point.
Maria tries desperately to cool things down.  Unfortunately, it’s Africa and the sun is hot.  She goes for a long run, hopefully expending all her energy until none is left to be angry with.  She writes the injustices she feels in her journal.  She eats a treat from America and doesn’t even mind who can hear the wrappers crinkling, exposing her splurge.  She fumes ‘I am a person whose emotions should be accounted for too!’ in her head.  She tries to do yoga, but has trouble clearing her mind.  She decides not to sit out with the family after dinner and goes into her hut early, although she has trouble sleeping.
Her family stands by, slightly amused.  If I ask her to cook will she blow?  What if I ask her why she’s not going to the garden?
Maria agitatedly picks at her acne without realizing it while going over in her head a speech in Jaxanke that will attempt to convey to someone why she is so upset.  Try to deal with her problems instead of letting them fester.  She takes a deep breath and heads out to confront whoever she feels she needs to explain herself to.  Once she gets there she might lose confidence and have to wait until tomorrow.  Or she might start right away, in either case her speech instantly crumples and out pour tears.
This is when the Senegalese just kind of look at her, both unbelieving and somewhat horrified.  The general rule they resort to is hands off.
Maria calls a Peace Corps friend to calm her down.  It’s probably  the morning and they’re not expecting something quite so heavy quite this early.  She cries until she laughs and everyone knows that then she’s fine.  She calls Massaly, one of her bosses, while she still has motivation and tries once again to explain to him how much she dislikes this Master Farmer program he told her to work on.  They decide to have yet another meeting to try and fix it yet another way.  She sighs, and knows that nothing will come of it but also that she’ll be ok for a while now and so will give it another shot for perseverance sake.  As she walks back to her family they are still a little wary, wouldn’t want to see those tears again, but realize she’s better.  They innocently suggest a menial task they know she can do and boost her confidence with compliments.  Maria, you make the best tea!  You know how to harvest rice!  She shamelessly revels in the praise.
Calmed with the knowledge that her family really does want her to be happy (or at least not crying) she once again can enjoy her time here.  She takes the afternoon off and does something just for herself, like paint her room, read a book, or clean her room (can’t forget those Hornbostel genes).  She is happy and laughs at how silly it was to take herself so seriously.  And it’s over until next time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Considering how much I love food I’m shocked to realize that I have yet to write an entry dedicated to what I eat here!  The food is delicious, if not slightly carbohydrate heavy, and I think I’ll give you a little sampling (taster if you will) of a typical village day’s food.
We start off with one of two options.  Breakfast is either raw crushed peanuts boiled with white rice to a slightly thick porridge consistency.  If it is available salt or sugar is added.  The other, tastier, option is corn, millet, or sorgum flower which is rolled into balls, mono.  These are then boiled to the same thickish porridge.  Sugar is usually added, but for a fancier occasion you can mix in yogurt, peanut butter, bissap juice, or lime juice.  I especially love the millet flour mono because it has a slight tang to it, which complements the sour yogurt, bissap, or limes well.  Not to discredit the peanut butter because the peanut butter with sugar combination makes the breakfast thicker and creamier; almost like tapioca pudding for breakfast except filling.  So delicious!  Unfortunately I enjoy having control over one of my meals a day, so I do not eat breakfast with the family and instead make myself oatmeal.  Since it is the only meal I cook myself I have to expend all my culinary creativity on that one dish and consequently I think the oatmeal deserves an entry all to itself.
Lunch is the most versatile meal.  There are many options depending on what’s available and the cook’s preferences.  I’ll just go into three of the most common and popular dishes I eat here in village.  My family makes the best mafe in Senegal.  It may be premature to say that but theirs is so good that  I’m willing to bet I’m right.   I’ve eaten a lot of mafe in a lot of different places and I’ve never tasted better.  Mafe is a thick peanut butter sauce served on top of white rice.  Depending on what we have there will be goat chunks, fish, or sometimes the occasional squash square cooked in the sauce.  The peanut butter here is what you might find at a fancy hippy grocery store back in the states.  It’s sugar free, preservative free, salt free, just crushed up roasted peanuts.  Mix that with some water, a little salt, maybe oil, and you’ve got yourself an amazing lunch.  My friend once described mafe as peanuts’ final reincarnation.  The other huge dish here in Senegal is cheb.  It’s fundamentally fish and rice, but each house has their own specific way of getting there.  We first steam our rice,  while frying fish.  When the fish are crispy and put to the side  water and spices are added to the pot and then vegetables we have available; squash, potatoes, okra, carrots, cabbage, eggplant, hot pepper, depending on what’s in season are boiled.  Once they are soft enough to break apart with one hand the rice is added and boiled until cooked.  The spiced and oiled  rice is served with the vegetables  and fish on top in the middle.  Crispy fried rice from the bottom of the pot and a whipped sour bissap leaf sauce are served as garnishes on the side.  If you want to get really fancy you can make an onion sauce with mustard and vinegar and sprinkle that on top of the entire thing (although we’ve only done that once in village).  So delicious!  The other dish I often eat is steamed then boiled white rice mixed with crushed up raw peanuts, Parkia biglobosa seed, a magi cube, and some salt.  It sounds simple but tastes amazing.  Sometimes we’ll have the bissap leaf sauce or raw onion flavored with magi in the middle of the bowl.
Dinner is also one of two options, both served over a couscous.  The couscous is not like the kind we cook in America, it is made out of corn, millet, or sorgum flour and then steamed three times to reach a consistency somewhat reminiscent of sand (but don’t get me wrong, it’s very good).  The sauce is either a watery peanut butter sauce with fish, beans, or goat boiled in it.  There are usually a few chives, some salt, and a magi cube.  The other option is a thick leaf sauce boiled with crushed peanuts.  It’s flavored with salt and chives and oh so good!  I think I could eat that every night here and be happy!
So that’s pretty much the menu.  I’m learning how to cook with my moms so hopefully when I return I can make this food that I’m sure I will miss.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Experiment in Fasting

I love to eat.  Most of you who know me probably realize the gravity of that statement and do not need further explanation.  Each of you probably has their own story of my incredible mood swings caused solely by hunger, funny in retrospect.  For those of you who do not know, when I have not eaten enough, I am not happy.  So for me to decide to fast with my family for Ramadan is either extreme dedication, a tendency towards masochism, or things have finally caught up with me and I am insane.  I tell myself it’s my dedication.  I would not really be able to understand the people I am trying to work with and would be missing a huge part of Senegalese culture without fasting.  So to the delight of my family I told them I would fast, probably not every day, but I would at least start.  I also told them that, truthfully, I would drink water in my room without them seeing because I am from America and do not understand heat and would die if I didn’t drink water.  This also delighted them.
Yesterday we saw the moon and I wasn’t sure whether to be excited or horrified.  I didn’t know if I should eat a huge dinner to over-stuff myself into not even wanting to eat, or just going light to get myself used to less food.  Should I get rid of all my food so it doesn’t tempt me or should I buy more in case things get really ugly.  I know nothing about fasting.  I have never even put myself on a diet.  All the more reason to try this… and let you know how it goes.

5:50 a.m.  My first mom knock on my door to wake me up.  It’s pouring rain and dark.  She hands me a half a loaf of village bread balanced on top of a steaming, tie-dyed, plastic cup.  It’s good, but I’m not really sure when the leaves they picked in the bush then boiled for flavor, sugar, and powdered milk  became ‘coffee’.  I eat it by dunking the plain bread in the super sweet drink, like dunkin’ donuts in reverse.  Before I decide how I should properly savor this last meal it’s gone.  I also decided to eat my last banana, and go back to bed before the sun rises.

7:30 a.m.  I slept in since I didn’t need time to eat breakfast.  And it was raining.  I brush my teeth and head to the garden, no big deal.

9:30 a.m.  I return from the garden early, without really having done anything, because no one was there and I wasn’t about to do someone else's manual labor, by myself, without the promise of lunch.

11:30 a.m.  We don’t usually eat lunch until 1:30, so I should not be hungry.  Especially since I have not done anything today.  But I keep thinking about food.  Not so much because I want to eat it, but because I know I cannot.  I also have nothing else to do.  So far the fasting isn’t that bad, but the prospect of hunger is killing me.  I’ve got to find something to do other than sit and watch my sister braid hair.  I move slowly, not because I’m that tired, but to conserve energy.  I’m making this into a way bigger deal than it is.  I decide to take a nap.  Really, I’ve got to find something to do.

1:30 p.m.  It worked!  I did some laundry and cleaned some dishes while listening to Neutral Milk Hotel.  I didn’t look at my watch or think about food for two hours!

2:45 p.m.  I don’t know where everyone is.  Maybe I’ll go hand sew a skirt…

5:00 p.m.  I had thoughts of sneaking a piece of Vache qui rit cheese or a spoonful of peanut butter from the bucket in my room.  No one would ever know, after all I’m the one who controls what I write here and I’m not even Muslim.  But I would have disappointed myself, so I didn’t.  Promise.  I think I’m going to do some yoga.  Don’t they sometimes fast at those intense yoga retreats.  It’s probably cleansing, that’s what I’ll tell myself.

7:00 p.m.  I do feel clean, or at least empty, after a day of fasting, yoga, and a bucket bath.  Souleman returned from Tamba so I suspect we’ll eat soon.  To be honest I’m hungry but don’t feel near as bad as I thought I would.  My hunger level is on par with hunger before dinner after a long day of pulling water and digging.

7:30 p.m.  Prayers done – we eat!  More ‘coffee’, water, and an oh so delicious macaroni meat sauce eaten with chunks of bread.  I relish licking the salt off my fingers! I’m proud that I actually did it, and dinner is still to come J

9:30 p.m.  I swear they made the peanut sauce differently today.  Some extra ingredient, some substitution, some new technique, something to make it taste so much better.  They won’t tell me and deny doing it any differently.  I am now very full.  My stomach doesn’t understand what’s going on and keeps asking me, which makes my mom giggle.  Then I surprise myself by agreeing to fast again tomorrow.

Sweet Ride

Peace Corps used to issue motos to all volunteers in Senegal, that is until they realized that the leading cause of death of Peace Corps Volunteers was motorcycle accidents.  Now we get bikes.  Not that I’m complaining.  I love riding my bike.  Often I’ll travel into Tamba on bike, not because I have to but because I enjoy the two and a half hours of exercise, wind through my hair, feeling in control of my pace, and getting distracted by the trees along the way.  Bike speed is the perfect speed at which to view a landscape.  But love for my bike did not prevent the twinges of jealousy while watching the Kedegou volunteers in my stage and then all the health and environmental education volunteers in the new stage receive new bikes.  Faster, smoother, more comfortable, fewer ticks, less rusty, sexier.  When my uncle compares my bike to his, he calls mine sweet and his bitter.  If my bike is sweet it is like a butterscotch from your grandmother’s cut glass bowl and these newer bikes are like crème Brule eaten on a Parisian veranda during a warm spring evening.  Sweet but…
Well, one of the new health volunteers in the Tamba region had to go home for medical reasons.  Her return was speedier than that of her things and now her bike is sitting in the Tamba regional house, marked for Dakar.  Peace Corps had us write down our specific pin numbers associated with our bikes to make sure they are all returned at the end of our service.  But that did not stop me from dreaming about what it might be like to switch bikes and send mine back to Dakar instead.
If I were to have taken her bike I imagine that it would be like switching from a Honda sedan to a Mercedes sports coupe.  In an instant my status would be elevated and I am now part of a club I don’t quite feel like I belong in.  I would simultaneously gloat in and feel slightly embarrassed about the complements and envious glances directed at my new ride.   First justifying why I deserve the bike then submitting to how awesome it is and showing off the new bell and flawless gear shifts.  I might feel like I was on a completely different road the first time I took it home, the ride being that much smoother on the new shocks.  I would probably change the tires just for the sake of playing with my new toy and to further affirm my ownership of the bike.  I would probably wash it incessantly, compulsively removing mud splatters, and become extra meticulous about keeping it out of the weather.  I would be amazed at the speed and the comfort of the seat.  I would smile as my gears no longer clicked down the road and the handlebars did not melt onto my hands.  The bike was even my size…!