Saturday, April 14, 2012

Home cooking in Sokone, Senegal

Observing the  daily, laborious, backbreaking job of preparing lunch and then dinner for 25 people at Jamie's home in Senegal was one of the most interesting parts of my visit. The cooks were a crew of young women, supervised by Jamie's host sister Sophia, the eldest sibling in the family and the one who ran the household on behalf of her mother.

The women at work cooking another meal.
The count for each meal was about 25 and could vary from that number by five either way. The patriarch and matriarch of the family ruled over a household compound filled with children, grandchildren, students from the country living as boarders and one Peace Corps Volunteer. Almost all of the household were women and children: the men worked in other towns and only came to visit.

The menu was some unvarying combination of rice, fish or chicken, onion and some other vegetable. On rare occasions (like our visit) they prepared noodles.  The family was Muslim so pork wasn't served, even though pigs were raised and no doubt eaten by members of the country's minority Christian population. The rice came from Thailand in 100 pound bags, examples of which I observed in abundance on trucks and donkey carts throughout the country.

Jamie's host sister Sophia
Sophia starts off each day with a bean sandwich from her mother's stand at the front of the house before heading to the market to buy the vegetables and chicken or fish for the day's meals. The family has no freezer or refrigerator so items other than staples like rice must be purchased daily. The morning we accompanied Sophia to the market was a Wednesday, the big market day of the week, so Sophia dressed for the varied social aspects of the visit.

 The day was already warm as Jamie, Gale, Sophia and I left the bean sandwich stand for the 20 minute walk to the market. On the main street we joined a stream of empty handed pedestrians moving to the market to make a purchase and a series of heavily laden carts drawn by donkeys, horses or oxen with products destined for sale. The market itself was a riot of color and activity.

Scene at the market in Sokone. The colorful clothing is made with the famous
Senegal “waxed” fabric.

Buying food at the market in Sokone on market day. Note the dried fish and the
scales in front of the seated woman with the blue turban.

The kitchen in the compound of my son Jamie’s host family in Sokone.

Cutting up the vegetables for the meal. 

Dividing the food in the communal bowls.
There was no running water in the household. All water was brought in buckets from a public spigot on the street. Goats, chickens and ducks shared the interior compound with the family. There was no chopping of vegetables on a cutting board. The vegetables were cut by  hand over a bowl with a small knife. I asked a young woman in my broken French, as she was busily engaged in this task, if this didn't result in cuts on her hands. She nodded and showed me a example.

Cooking the food was a laborious, time consuming task, with the women spending too much time (in my view) either squatting by or bent over a pot of bubbling liquid. Once the food is cooked the rice  is put into the communal bowls from which it is eaten by the family. Pieces of chicken are apportioned to each bowl. Almost everyone eats from the bowl with their right hand. The family divides by age and sex to their assigned bowl. 

As guests, we were given spoons to eat with. Jamie, Gale and I ate from a bowl with the mother and father of the family, a duck darting between my feet to catch any stray grains of rice that missed the passage from bowl to mouth. The mother tore off bits of chicken with her right hand and laid the pieces before us to eat. She squeezed the rice into a ball with her hand and then ate by passing the ball with a vertical motion in front of her mouth, almost as if she was licking her hand. Except her hand never touched her mouth, because she was using the same hand to divide the food in the communal bowl. She ate sparingly until she saw that we had our fill. 

The food was delicious.

One of the meals that we shared with Jamie's family.

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