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
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
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
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,”
“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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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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