Travels

 

The Sacred Grain


When I got my own apartment in Conakry, I decided to have a house-warming dinner party, inviting my friend’s sister Mara to come teach me to make peanut sauce for the guests. She told me in advance what to buy: peanut butter, fish, tomato paste, “Maggi” cubes (a Nestle product, these bouillon cubes is a prerequisite of the Guinean kitchen, even in the village), and piment, the small hot red peppers used to spice the sauce and served mashed on the side for those who want to kick it up a notch.

I asked my domestic to buy the needed ingredients, plus a cornucopia of vegetables to tweak the recipe for a vegetarian friend, but perhaps knowing I didn’t normally eat hot pepper, he left it off the list.

As Mara didn’t speak much French, and I spoke no Susu, I had to follow her like a child watching her mom bake a cake, to discern the recipe. We hit our first bump when I let her know my colleague was vegetarian, and so we would be making the peanut sauce with vegetables rather than fish. Consistency, not innovation, is the hallmark of a good Guinean cook, so this anomaly was not welcomed.

To Mara, the sauce sans poisson was like café au lait without milk in it. As a concession, I put out two pots to indicate that we would do one normal sauce and one vegetarian. She wasn’t happy with the meager half-jar of peanut butter I had, either – we had people to feed.

Time to add the piment. “No piment. Forgot.”” I said, extended my empty hands and shaking my head. Her eyes got big and she just shook her finger at me like I was a naughty child. Begrudgingly she accepted the black pepper and curry powder after an invigorating whiff.

Together we chopped and boiled, pinched and stirred and stirred and stirred… Now I understood why it seemed those women took spent all day over their charcoal-fired cauldrons. I like my veggies crisp but Mara cooked them till they fell apart in your mouth.

A taste test proved delicious, the sauce creamy yet spicy despite the lack of hot pepper, the vegetarian sauce filled with savory chunks of potato, zucchini, carrot and squash, the regular with practically indiscernible bits of fish. At last it was time to serve.

Half the crowd had gotten silly on wine during the long wait, and dove for the food like cadets in the mess hall. A colleague’s boyfriend, a tall, easy-going Guinean, picked up his fork to dig in and stopped mid-bite.

“Where’s the piment?” Soumah exclaimed.

I explained the oversight.

“No, no, no. I can’t eat this,” he said, laughing. He was among the soused.

I laughed with him, thinking he was joking. “Bon appetit,” I said.

“No, really, this just won’t do!” Soumah gasped.

He got out his cell phone to call around to see who could bring some pepper to the rescue. A caller did, apparently understanding the gravity of the situation.

In the end, everyone was well-fed. My vegetarian friend appreciated the extra effort for the meat-free meal, Soumah got his pepper and Mara took home the leftovers.

Food is the sacred seal and symbol of the communal life that binds Guineans together. While we Americans pride ourselves on choice and independence, taking a meal of our choosing alone over one shared but not prepared to our specifications, Guineans will take a communal meal any day – just don’t forget the hot pepper.

When it comes to meals, African hospitality is no tall tale or guidebook cliché. Even on the streets of the capitol, if you walk past a meal in progress, often the diners will call out “invitation,” asking you to come and eat with them. Consequently, it’s impolite to tear into your little chocolate bar or treat without offering your seatmate or colleague a nibble – socially it’s akin to getting drunk alone.

I remember my shame as Kourouma, a Guinean colleague, told a story about staying with a group of Canadians. The family’s younger sister, who had been studying abroad in Germany, came home without notice, showing up at dinnertime. “She sat in the corner reading a newspaper while the rest ate – if they don’t know you’re coming, you won’t eat,” he said, raising his brow in an exclamation point.

Show up at a Guinean household, on the other hand, at any hour with any number of people and they often will have a meal for you in minutes, like Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes.


RICE AND SAUCE

Rice and sauce and rice and sauce and rice and sauce. That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner in Guinea. Love it or leave the country.
The sauces don’t vary much – you have the aforementioned spicy peanut butter sauce with bits of smoked fish; leaf sauce, which is cassava or sweet potato leaf chopped and cooked down to a tasty green goo in thick red palm oil; a slimy gombo (kale) sauce, and “soup” (something like beef stew minus the vegetables).

That’s it -- no salad, no appetizers, no dessert, other than perhaps oranges or bananas. It sounds dainty until you understand the massive quantity that constitutes a portion – a small rice volcano erupting with spicy, oily sauce. I have learned to negotiate a half-plate when eating out or else I will go straight to sleep.

A proper African meal is served in a huge platter with spoons at regular intervals, where placemats would be at an American table. The cuisinière works the rice into a perfect dome: to serve it haphazardly shoveled onto the plate would insult her diners. Though all share the same plate, each has his or own unspoken territory; it’s a gaffe to invade your neighbor’s for a tasty morsel that happened to fall on his side of the border. However a host will often toss precious morsels of meat from the no man’s land in the center to his guest’s section.

Guineans cultivate and consume other grains, albeit in small quantities. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Guineans especially like to eat toh (a starchy paste made from pounded grains, whether corn, cassava, etc.) served with a slimy gombo sauce; attieké, an Ivorian dish made from grated cassava served with fried fish or chicken, and a sprinkling of raw onion, tomato and cucumber is also popular. Fonio, a tiny but nutritious grain something like cream of wheat, is also tasty with peanut sauce and not impossible to find.

WANNA START A RIOT? RAISE RICE PRICES

Though it’s not native to Guinea any more than the Maggi cube, rice rules. I challenge you to find a Guinean that goes a day without it. Suggesting that Guineans diversify their diet is likely to start a food fight – “what else is there to eat?” they will ask. People say if they haven’t eaten rice, they haven’t eaten.

Inflation of rice prices, due to dwindling internal production, increasing global prices and a seriously devalued Guinean franc, has been a major burden for the Guinean family. In recent years, the roller-coaster price of a 20-pound sack of rice has often surpassed the average monthly Guinean income.

Bulgur, rice’s ugly stepsister, is perhaps the only grain that is cheaper than rice in Guinea, due in no small part to the fact that refugees sell their food rations to buy other necessities, saying it’s animal feed that gives them diarrhea. Insane sums of money go to growing, subsidizing, shipping, monitoring and distributing these donations, only to end up on the black market at bottom-barrel prices.

President General Lansana Conté may well go down in history for saying “Let them eat rice”. He has tried to control the flow of the grain through, in and out of the country as tightly as he controls the movement of his own army. He knows that the key to keeping the population peaceful is having rice in their bellies. In 2002, just before the first presidential election in seven years, Conté gave top priority to rice vessels coming in Conakry’s port to lower mounting prices, leaving boats loaded with food for the refugees stranded in the port for several weeks.

After his “surprising” landslide reelection, President Conté took a huge loan out from the Japanese to subsidize rice prices, leaving it to Conakry’s neighborhood chiefs to sell rations to the people. Instead some of the chiefs sold to the local traders to make a small side profit, who in turn jacked up the prices, inciting the townspeople to storm the rice trucks, which the President had placed under high security.

Conté intervened, throwing several neighborhood leaders in jail as a lesson to the rest. He called all of Conakry’s leaders to the National Assembly and gave them an hour-long, finger-wagging speech that subsequently aired on the government-controlled television channel every night for a week.

“You ask for democracy, look what happens. I wanted to appoint the chefs du quartier, but no, I let you elect them. And you end up with crooks!” Conté proclaimed.

Conté owns endless hectares of rice fields himself, the fruits of which he supposedly exports, but politicians like Conté seem to believe their subjects should do as they say and not as they do.

If Conté is not successful in managing rice prices, he could face the same fate as his predecessor Sekou Touré, a communist dictator who ruled Guinea during its first 25 years of independence from France.
Touré’s despotic rule earned him a spot in Amnesty International’s top ten list of all-time worst human rights offenders, though in 1982 Ronald Reagan lauded him as a champion of human rights. State-run farm collectives were among Touré’s many failures. As many as a million Guineans fled either seeking political asylum from his revolutionary purges or simply seeking work, leaving few farmers to actually work the land for the regime.

The final straw came in 1977, when Touré decreed that all agricultural products had to be turned over to these revolutionary farming brigades. The market women, who had heretofore been the backbone of Touré’s support, rioted in the streets of Conakry, and the revolt spread throughout the nation like wildfire, with the governors of Kindia, Faranah and Boké subsequently killed. (August 27, the day the women revolted, is now a national holiday.) Touré was forced to concede to some free market activity, a softening that would characterize the end of his reign until 1984, when he died of natural causes and Conté and his army took the country’s reins.

Yet production of rice and other foodstuffs has never since reached sustainable levels, and Guinea’s imports continue to outweigh its exports. It is a great embarrassment to the people that they rely on boats coming in from China for their sacred, staple meal, when Guinea has such a large, able-bodied rural population, such fertile land, so much rain.




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