Saturday, April 26, 2008

What the heck I eat

Sent via e-mail 4/26/08
Hello loved ones,

So many of you have asked me questions about my experiences here in the Peace Corps--"What's Africa like?" "Do you have electricity or running water?" "What's it like seeing poverty everywhere?" "Do you play soccer a lot?" "Do you really go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground?"

My responses are as follows: Friendly. Yes, No. Hard, but not in the ways I expected it. Yes, but not as much as Forecariah. Yes.

Hope that clears up a few things.

I may spend the next few emails trying to respond to some of these in a little more depth, however. Today's question is this:

"What the heck do you eat?"

I eat rice and sauce usually about 10-12 meals a week. Picture this typical evening scenario:

The sun is setting over Bouliwel. I am riding my bike, careening through the backroads in the hills over the village, relishing in the speed of the bike and the cool breeze that dries the sweat on my forehead and chest. I stop in Hoore Lopi, the small village two km outside of Bouliwel, greeting the Peuhl women sitting by the side of the road on their stools and mats. Each is selling fruit-- papayas, oranges, mangoes, bananas-- arranged in little piles on the ground or on low wooden tables. I need some bananas for my peanut butter-and-banana baguette (PB&BB) tomorrow morning.
"On djaraama, neene! Tana alaa gaa?" Good evening, mama! Are there no problems here?
I smile winningly and enjoy their titters and exchanged glances-- the porto's speaking Pular, after all. That's hilarious.
"Banaanas, ko jelu?" I ask the price.
"Jowi mille francs," the woman responds, gesturing to a bunch of fat green ones. Five for 1,000 francs (1,000 francs= 25 cents). It's a good price, so I hand her the money and put the bananas in my pack, mounting my bike with a word of thanks: "Albarka nani!"
I turn to go, smiling inwardly at the snippets of Pular I pick up from the women chatting behind me ("he speaks Pular!?" "his name's Boubacar Barry, he lives in Bouliwel"). So the Pular studying is starting to pay off a little.
The descent into Bouliwel is the best part of the ride: straight down hill on the paved road. The wind rushes by me as I wave to some kids at the water pump ("Andre! Ca va?!").
Pulling up at my house at last, I greet Mme Diallo, the wife of my official counterpart, the doctor at the health center. Slapping hands with the kids who crowd around me ("Andre, ca va bien?!"), I unlock my door and put away my bike. I strip off my sweaty clothes, grab my towel and my shower sandals and head out back to the well.
"Andre, ko honto yahataa?" the kids ask. Where are you going?
"Mido yahude lootagol." I'm going to wash myself.
I grab my bucket, open the hatch to the well, and lower the rope and bucket down. One bucketful usually does it for an evening bucket bath-- amazing when you think of how much water I used to use taking showers in the States.
Water obtained, I walk over to my douche, a tiny little stall with a wimpy supply of smelly-girly things: A bottle of shampoo, razor, gel, and a bar of soap. I usually deal with lots of smelliness, not much girliness.
I close the door and pick up my goblet, a small cup that facilitates the bathing operation. I dip it into the water and count to three. On three I dump the water over my head. The initial shock is a little jarring, but the three minutes after that have to be the most refreshing of the day. I lather up and rinse.
Having finished my "shower," I head back inside and get dressed. I turn on my little shortwave radio and tune it to the BBC World Service (oh, what a life saver!)-- turns out Zimbabwe is imploding, Barack and Hillary are neck and neck, and a Brasilian priest has accidentally drowned by attaching himself to 1,000 ballons and floating out to sea.
I walk next door and greet Mme Diallo again. M. Diallo, M. Sow, M. Kamano the principal of the Bouliwel school district, and Ousmane the stagiaire are all at the mosque saying their final prayers of the day. I sit next Thierno Mariama, M. Diallo's 8- yr old girl, and shoot the breeze in my broken Pular. She's in the fourth grade and still can't write her name, so of course, conversing in French is not possible. We play the game where one person holds their hands out palms down over the other person's hands palms up and person #2 tries to slap person #1's hands. You know what I'm talking about. This lasts for a few minutes until the men come back.
"Bonsoir, Aboubacar," says M. Diallo warmly. "Comment allez-vous? Vous avez bien peloter?" Did you have a good bike ride?
"Tres bien, merci." Very good, thanks. In fact, it was amazing.
The other men and I exchange greetings and M. Diallo calls everybody inside to eat.
"Aru namen!" Come, let's eat!
We all go inside, taking off our sandals, and pull up stools on the floor. M. Camara, the Sous-Prefet Adjoint, or Vice Mayor, pokes his head in and is immediately invited to come join us.
M. Diallo grabs the large metal platter and sets it in the middle of all of us. We are eight: Mme Diallo, Thierno Mariama, M. Camara, M. Sow, Principal, Ousmane, M. Diallo, and me. Every night it's like that-- meals are very communal. I love that.
M. Diallo empties the pot of rice onto the platter and pours the sauce over it, making sure to get every corner covered-- nobody wants to be shafted with a spoonful of plain rice. Tonight it's fish sauce with potatoes, and when we say fish, we mean whole fish. None of this removing-the-head-and-bones business.
When the sauce is applied, everyone digs in, the men with spoons and Mme Diallo and Mariama with their hands (by choice-- not discrimination). There is little talking while eating. Everyone holds to their little wedge of the platter-- to reach across and take some potato out of someone else's corner would be a major faux pas.
In five minutes the platter is mostly picked clean. I am usually one of the last ones to get up, either because I'm a fat American or because, as M. Diallo says, I'm a "child" and need to eat more than "old farts" like him and Sow.
I spoon up the last bits of the rice and thank Mme Diallo for her good home cooking: "Albarka!" Thank you and God's blessings.
"Barka Alla," she replies. Thanks be to God.

Rice and sauce twice a day is surprisingly enjoyable-- it's easy, it's quick, and it fills you up. Cooking here can be a huge pain; There's no ovens, there's no refrigerators... If you want meat you have to kill something, which can be fun, but is mostly just a huge hassle. So I stick to my PB&BB in the matin and eat rice and sauce for lunch and dinner. When I really do feel like a change, I'll whip up some spaghetti or ramen that I picked up at the Lebanese store in Conakry. Wild, I know.

And that's pretty much it. Very long answer to a very short question, but I figured I'd try and paint a picture to let you see what it's like.

And with that, this is the end of installment number "I'm not sure" of Andrew's Guinea/ Peace Corps chronicles. Thanks to everybody who's responded to these emails in the past and for all who've written. You guys are awesome! And a special shout-out to CMOB and Aunt Debbie for the packages last month. I've taught the kids in my neighborhood Pass the Pigs and been officially commissioned to teach Bouliwel how to make girl scout cookies. Not sure if that's gonna be possible... But you never know ;)

Love you guys!

P.S. Check out my pictures too if you get a chance. Alrighty.
Blog poster note: You can also check out the Wiki which has a link to all past messages from Andrew at

No comments: