Pictures from Senegal

Sunday, January 30

Drinking Water

Travelling in under-developed countries can be scary for many a reason, but when my family came to visit clean water was my most pressing concern for them. A trifecta of parasites, bacteria and viruses (caused by human waste) are waiting at every turn to render even the most enthusiastic traveler incapacitated and glued to a bathroom. Being in-the-know myself, I stocked up on bottled water and we carried it everywhere we went. However, this doesn’t mean there’s a lack of other options.

Wednesday, January 26

Camels

As the end of my service draws near (only 1 year left?) I decided to make a “bucket list” of all the things I want to do, visit and see in Senegal before I kick my African bucket. A list was born. I won’t be divulging its contents, because I’m no spoiler, but I look forward to sharing the exploits one by one with friends and family.

Sunday, January 23

You're Back!

Some things never change. But seeing as I was only gone a few weeks, I never expected them too. As a shout out to my fellow volunteers, here are some things that have happened to remind me about my African life. As if one could ever forget…

Wednesday, January 19

Food Diary

Aside from everything mentioned in the last entry, one last important point I’d like to make before we get to the details of this food diary is that my family is not like “normal” Senegalese families. I can’t say this enough; my experience is completely different from just about every other volunteer in this country. I am the exception, not the rule. My family is pretty wealthy and we therefore have the ability to buy more variety. They are health conscious (as my Mom is actually on a diet- and losing weight) and so we are always talking about ways to prepare and eat better food. By contrast, I’ve had conversations with volunteers who’ve never even seen chocolate in their villages, who live in desert places where fresh veggies don’t grow in- nor get delivered to- their town, and who are always eating lunch’s leftovers for dinner (and sometimes breakfast the next day, too). Remember: exception, not rule.

And now, a recap of all the things I ate for a week:

Monday Lunch: Beef Maffee. This is a tomato paste based sauce with peanut butter added for flavor. Veggies cooked whole and then broken into pieces during the meal include potato, sweet potato, cabbage, manioc, carrot, onion and hot pepper. All of this poured over white rice. A soy sauce substitute is sprinkled on top and a wedge of lemon is available to cut the spice.

Monday Dinner: Beef with Veggies. The meat is braised in oil and garlic before the water and veggies are added to the pot and thoroughly cooked (i.e. water has evaporated). Veggies are green bean, onion, and potato quarters. Pieces of bread accompany the dish.

Tuesday Lunch: Beef Curry. Beef is cooked in oil. Small pieces of carrot, onion, tomato, cabbage, and white radish are cooked in the traditional yellow Indian curry sauce… while whole pieces of manioc, potato and hot pepper are also added and then poured over white rice.

Tuesday Dinner: Beef Spaghetti. Yes, we have pasta here… which, after cooked, is covered in copious amounts of oil, onions and a few pieces of beef. Bread is served on the side. Side note: they break the pasta strands into thirds, even though the entire long piece will fit in the pot for boiling, just to make it bite sized.

Wednesday Lunch: Fish and Rice. The dish of Senegal! Pieces of fish are fried in oil, sauce is made from bouillon cube in which cabbage, potato, carrot, bitter tomato, and sweet potato are cooked. After, the cooked veggies are removed and a portion of the sauce is mixed with the cooked rice. The whole thing is pour back over the now red rice and eaten.

Wednesday Dinner: Salad. The outer circle of the bowl is lined with unbroken pieces of lettuce that have been tossed in vinaigrette. The inner circle is filled with boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and green beans. Fresh cucumber, green pepper, and tomato slices are dispersed around the entire bowl, along with spam, hardboiled egg, and sausage slices. The entire dish is then drizzled with ketchup, herbed mayonnaise, and hot sauce. And of course there is bread.

Thursday Lunch: Beef Yassa. Picture long slices of white onion sautéed in oil and vinegar. Add beef pieces and pour over white rice. Variations sometimes include additional vegetables or green olives, but generally not. It’s a pretty bland and nutrition less meal.

Thursday Dinner: Mouhamza. The tiniest dot pasta balls cooked then mixed with water, powdered milk, and sugar. No bread comes with this one (did you really want it?). My host mom wishes all to know that normally this meal is reserved for Sunday dinner (light meal rotation)… but as she was very busy during this afternoon she had little time to prepare a “proper” meal.

Friday Lunch: Beef Domada. Tomato based sauce mixed with flour, to make it thick and goopy, and bay leaves. Whole cooked potato, carrot, cabbage head, manioc, and sweet potato are divided amongst the participants during the meal. Bite sized beef and white rice round out the dish.

Friday Dinner: Beef and Potatoes with Salad. This dish comes with “Irish style” stewed meat and potatoes in an onion sauce. A salad lines the outer circle and consists of vinaigrette soaked lettuce, tomato, green pepper and mustard and hot sauce sprinkled on top. Bread, as always, is served on the side.

Saturday Lunch: Fish and Fish Balls with Rice. This is a fancier version of the same meal eaten earlier in the week. One large fish is substituted for the pieces used in the last version. Same veggies are cooked in sauce, but egg plant and red beans have been added. Smaller pieces of green beans, white radish, and onions have also been incorporated into the sauce. Another type of fish is mashed, balled, fried and added to the veggies and sauce. The whole sauce is mixed with the rice. A hot pepper has been added for good measure.

Let’s pause for a disclaimer: I have informed the town of Mboro (and quite a few people outside it) that I am allergic to fish. I therefore, have a system worked out with my family where when fish is eaten I will go out, eat leftovers, or prepare my own meal. So on Wednesday I made myself hard boiled eggs and ate a plate of spaghetti. And Saturday I made an egg salad sandwich and a cup of ramen noodles. It’s nutritious (sort of) and a little taste of home.

Saturday Dinner: Green Peas. This is one of my favorite meals. Admittedly it’s because of its protein and fiber content, but also because green peas seem to taste different here. Purchased dried, the peas spend an afternoon being rehydrated in salt water. They’re then boiled until soft. Beef pieces and an onion sauce are created together then added to the peas. Bread is served on the side, of course.

Sunday Lunch: Meat and Rice. As it was my host mom’s birthday we had her favorite meal for lunch. Rice was cooked with curry, hot spices, and bay leaves. Cucumber, carrot, tomato, green pepper, white radish, green beans and onion were sliced into long thin slices and tossed with green peas and vinaigrette. Beef and sausage was pan cooked, while summer sausage and hard boiled eggs were cut into slices. Green olives, pickled Vidalia onions and pickles were littered about the top.

Sunday Dinner: Chakrey. Picture a runny (not so goopy) sweat vanilla yogurt. Add pieces of your favorite tropical fruits (papaya, cantaloupe melon, pineapple) and a few others such as banana and apple. Throw in some dried stuff too; raisons and cherries. Added to it is millet flour made into millimeter sized balls thanks to water and a few drops of orange and vanilla extracts (it was also steamed at some point). This is the only meal that is served in individual serving sized bowls. Seconds are optional, and on this occasion I even had thirds!

Another note about dessert: Sunday being mom’s birthday, we had a phenomenal buffet of dessert. First we had the same yogurt described above minus the millet, plus extra fruit. But most importantly, my host father drove to the gourmet bakery (an hour away) to buy 6 (yes, I said 6) different flavored cakes for my mom. This is the 2nd year running I’ve seen this and it convinces me that for all dad’s joking he really does love mom! Happy 39th birthday to Ndiaye Anna Ba. 

Sunday, January 16

Food Basics

I frequently get a lot of questions about Senegalese food, so I decided to create a week long diary of what it is that I actually eat. While I was on vacation in the US, I attempted to refuse to eat rice or onions… because they are in everything I’ve eaten for nearly a year and a half. Aside from that tid-bit it’s time to lay out a detailed description of what I’m consuming (and why I’m always asking for protein in care packages).

There are a few basics that apply to every meal that I figure are “must know.” So this installment I’ll throw out all the generalities (and the next one will have a blow by blow of an entire week of food).

First off, half of ever meal is prepared in the hallway. The kitchen is used for storage of utensils, cookware and the gas tank. Things may be cooked there but they prep work is done in the hallway. Mom pulls up a chair then washes, peels, slices, or mashes food in the most common area of the house. The refrigerator even sits in the hall way. Honestly, there just isn’t enough room in the kitchen anyways… it’s roughly the size of guest bathrooms you’d see in America. Seriously.

When I say there is beef in a meal what I mean is someone got a hunk of who-knows-what-part of cow from the butcher. It was probably killed within the last 48 hours. I hope. They don’t seem to know how to handle fat, so my family cuts through the muscle portion to form small bite sized pieces thus leaving the fat to ribbon through each piece; yummy. In any given meal there are only maybe 15 to 20 pieces of meat and 9 or more of us at the bowl. This is why I ALWAYS ask for protein in care packages.

The “table” is a piece of vinyl that is placed on the floor, either in the hallway (for lunch) or the living room (for dinner). Then the meal is served in a circular platter about 24 inches in diameter with a 1 inch high rim. Everyone is handed a spoon at lunch and a fork at dinner. My youngest brother has a mini fork and spoon. This is not the case in every home. Quite often you will hear of people eating with their hand- without utensils. This is normal, but as my family is well off we only find ourselves in this situation when many more guests are around than we have utensils. The women sit on their legs, butt cheeks on ankles, while the men sit on their left leg the same way with the right foot on the ground and knee to their chests. Guests are given a “bank” which resembles the foot stool we used as kids to brush our teeth in the bathroom sink. It’s not really all that comfortable and just makes you eat with your chest resting on your knees during the meal. Or at least that’s how I feel.

As for etiquette, we have only a few rules. Everyone eats with their right hand, while the left hand holds a piece of bread (at night only). It is not the biggest insult if I forget and chew a piece of bread with my left hand, I’ve seen my family do it, but I generally try to set my fork down, tear a piece off in my right hand, and then eat it. When you are done eating, it is then acceptable to find a drink (or be handed one if you’re a guest). No one speaks, drinks, or moves slowly during a meal. You snooze; you lose- your precious few bits of meat- as any given period of consumption lasts a maximum of ten minutes.

Breakfast in my house is always the same: bread. It’s therefore not worth mentioning 7 individual times. We each get about 6 inches of white baguette. My mother will spread butter on the insides for my brothers. Occasionally we’ll have chocolate, or fruit preserves (if I’ve brought them) on the weekends. During Ramadan we try to eat sandwiches with egg or meat and cheese on them as it is already 7p and we are dying for protein. And there are plenty of volunteers who eat breakfast out… and acquire cooked bean sandwiches or chalkery (yogurt and millet) but those options are a pretty long walk for me and who can stand to wait that long for breakfast?

To drink for breakfast the kids are handed a cup of heated water mixed with sugar and powdered milk (because of its high fat and vitamin content… and good taste?). Adults drink water with Nestcafe (instant coffee) or Café Touba (strong chai spiced coffee). A third option is Quinquilliba, a mild local green leaf boiled in water for tea.

An note should be made about dessert. After lunch, if we have the stock, fruit is served. We’ll eat slices of watermelon, melon, corossol or papaya, or share pieces of orange, apple, banana… generally anything we can find in season. For special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays (both American and Senegalese) we’ll make a cake. Last year on my mom’s birthday my dad drove to Thies and bought her a cake from the bakery. It was really cute. And finally, when bored or throwing a party, my family pulls out the ice cream maker and tries a new recipe involving sweet yogurt or eggs and condensed milk. Generally with fruit flavors added but we attempted a great chocolate version once! Any dessert is successful if my 2.5 year old brother is wearing more of it than he’s eaten (actually that rule goes for most meals, too)!

One of the most important points to keep in mind is that we are currently in “vegetable season.” This goes to say that veggies are abundant and inexpensive (read: affordable in appropriate quantities). The meals represented next, especially at night, are infinitely more nutritious this time of year than, say, the end of the dry season just before the rain hits and plants can grow again. Perhaps I’ll log another meal diary in 6 months for comparison…

And lastly, the timing of meals isn’t what you’d expect either. Lunch is served anywhere from 1:30p to 3:30p. Schools in Mboro don’t even let out for lunch until 1p. If its Friday then lunch can be even later as the most important prier of the week (read: trip to the local mosque) takes place at 2:20p. Dinner is then pushed back to 9:30p at the earliest, but generally around 10:30 or 11p. This is because my brothers get hungry around dusk… so they snack. If we eat too soon after snack time they won’t finish dinner and this greatly annoys my host mother. In addition, 2 nights a week my dad won’t even get home from work until 10:30p so we’re waiting for him to join us before eating. Frequently some of my youngest brothers won’t make it until dinner is actually served before passing out of the night. 

Wednesday, January 12

Kayaking the Delta

As part of the African adventure I planned for m sister’s visit, I combined visiting a friend, seeing a new point in Senegal, and doing something I’d never done before… and that’s how kayaking came about. We went to see the beautiful sites of five or so villages known collectively as the destination of Palmarin.

The adventure started when we left Mboro, took a two hour detour to see the mosques of Tivaouane (collecting Christine), and then passed through the Thies and Mbour garages before finally arriving at our destination. Along the route, I’d showed my sister the art of shopping for food via garage as we collected fruit, nuts, bread, and water. In addition, they got to experience the magic that is a seven-place ride with its heat, smells, lack of space, and breast feeding passengers. As an added bonus the car broke down on the road affording us that mini adventure too.

By my recollection, we went three villages into the collection of Palmarin before disembarking at the intersection of two dirt roads. Before getting there we’d crossed the delta and the seemingly infinite span of salt flats, choosing to actually drive on the salt flats because, as the name implies, it was significantly less pot-holed and bumpy than the actual road itself. The resilient pools of water made it easy to imagine the flooding that would have occurred during the rainy season making travel to and from the area a nightmare, if not completely impossible only a few months beforehand.

In the village of my friend, we passed time at a local restaurant sipping on cold cokes, tasting mint ice cream, meeting my friend’s host family, searching out more drinks, and gossiping in the shade until more volunteers joined our party. In total we became a team of seven ready for kayaking, camping, and a great time. So we started hiking, in the later afternoon sun, down an endless dirt road toward water, our guides, and the boats. And this lasted for about an hour, or maybe two miles, until we arrived at a shallow bank of water. There were two guides for the adventure who would navigate the waterways of the delta, set up camp, prepare dinner, and act as a bevy of knowledge about the area.

We pared off for the boating part of the excursion, although not all that smartly, with Christine and I in our own kayak, my sister and her boyfriend in another, the boys in a third, and the remaining volunteer to pilot a solo kayak. Disaster struck Christine and I almost immediately after pushing off from land. The water was only 5 inches deep, but we managed to get ourselves completely turned around and floating backwards with the current in mere minutes. The rest of our party long gone, we piloted from one bush of mangroves to the next attempting some on-the-job acquisition of the skill. Where I had started in the front of the boat (the strong rowing position), we eventually found our groove with me in the back (the navigator position).

Just before sunset we pulled into camp. Although it felt as though we were on a secluded island, we were told that walking farther into the bush one could find their way to another village and eventually the main road. But from where we were standing, we’d landed on one of the only banks with a clearing in the mangroves. A few tall trees, a flat surface for tents and brush already trimmed back a bit. The space of land was slightly elevated which augmented our view of the delta.

Our guides handed us peanuts and blankets so we sat down to enjoy the sunset with a celebratory cocktail; a good time ensued. For dinner we started with an appetizer of clams served with an onion sauce and pieces of fresh veggies. Dinner was grilled shish kabobs of lotte, a type of white fish, with more veggies. It was outstanding. The guides had even brought a cooler of cold sodas and beers to share. By the time dinner was done we were ready to call it quits and climbed into our already set up tents with air mattresses and sheets and blankets; very hospitable.

The next morning we woke at dawn to the sounds of hyenas in the distance. A French breakfast consists of bread with butter or jam and coffee, which is what we ate picnic style once more plus some juice and fruit. A little bit later we’d packed up camp, loaded the kayaks, and set off once more to navigate the delta.

After the debacle that was our experience the night before we begged the guys to split up their kayak to save Christine and I the hassle of forging once more through the unfamiliar experience. They refused. Perhaps they thought it was funny. We disagreed but had no choice to brave it again. And it was going quite well, even though we were now going upstream, until it occurred to the guys that our kayak was ahead of theirs; typical male egos. So they picked up the pace, and just as we were going around a close quarters type of corner in tandem with my sister’s kayak the guys slid their kayak between our two, slamming into ours midway down the length of her effectively pushing us into the mangroves. It was all over for our confidence after that. We couldn’t get ourselves out of one bush without landing again in another. Sigh. The guys thought this to be hilarious, so at the first chance we got we splashed them with as much water as our paddles would throw. It seemed justified at the time.

Before making it back to the main road, we took a detour to a small island covered in shells that were protected grounds after being looted for the shells that could be used to build roads out of the delta to Dakar. There we learned more fun facts and found our way to a giant baobab tree. The guy was so big that 8 of us could climb inside of it. Literally. And we did. And after the hilarity of that, we had a nice cup of coffee inside before climbing back out. Then back to the kayaks. And then we made it back to the main road, thus completing our entire experience. Well done, well maybe except the actual kayaking part.

Sunday, January 9

Drink

It seems that most of the maladies I’ve tackled here in Africa have been contracted by something liquid. The problem is the contaminated water. We have filters, bleach droppers, and even pre-filtered bottled water… but as it usually does in life, shit happens. There are times when I run out of water in my carrying bottle long before I know I’ll make it back to a vendor or my treated stash. It’s at these times that I think to myself “diarrhea is way easier to treat than dehydration.” I know what you’re thinking, diarrhea leads to dehydration… but that’s only if I still haven’t made it back to water by then. And when I get dehydrated I stop functioning like a rational human being, which makes getting anywhere in this blistering sand box a whole hell of a lot worse. And my final argument is the ability to stop at any house on the way home and beg the use their hole in the ground toilet… but once I’ve made the commitment to not drink untreated water, there’s no stopping by any old house begging for water.

So, once getting myself into a waterless predicament, then choosing the lesser of the two evils and chancing the contaminated water, there is nothing to do but cross my fingers and pray to not spend quality time with my toilet. But, you know, shit happens.

Plus side is that a good number of maladies have also been cured by some of my new favorite liquids. Stomach cramp, constipation, or urinary tract infection: bissap juice. Irritated stomach or amoebas of some kind: ginger juice. Dizziness, high blood pressure, dehydration: treated water (generally in mass quantities) mixed with oral rehydration salts. Laziness, tiredness, or lack of motivation: café Touba. Sweet tooth or lack of appetite: Senegalese tea. Depleted stash of water flavoring packets: Foster’s Clark fruit drink mix packets. Stress, irritability, or general need to relax: beer.

I know a few of these might be foreign words that you’ve spent a good 3 minutes deciding how to pronounce, so I figure we should go into more detail.

A glass of icy bissap juice is actually sundried hibiscus flowers that have been soaked in water. That water was then drained, mixed with sugar (and extracts of any kind or lemon juice), and then chilled. Fancier versions include soaking mint in with the flower petals. It is similar in color and taste to cranberry juice, and I can personally attest to its third likeness to the fruit with respect to urinary tract infections. If brewed in hot water, it tastes more like a berry tea and does seem to help with anything variety of stomach cramping knots. However, beware not to drink more than a few glasses of bissap because in large quantities it acts as both a diuretic and caffeine. No one wants to be awake all night running to the bathroom every half hour. Trust me; I’ve made that mistake already.

For a spin, mix it with orangina (soda water with a dose of orange flavor) for a kiddy cocktail, with gin for a man’s drink, or rum and sprite for something a bit fancier. If you find yourself in Dakar where rum is strangely in short supply substitute whiskey and continue about your evening. It won’t taste all that great, but then again what were you expecting?

Bissap can be found in syrup form (a thriving enterprise among women’s groups), purchased on the streets made with local water and sold at reduced prices, occasionally by the glass for exorbitant prices in restaurants, or in the grocery stores by the carton.

Café Touba can best be described as strong hot Starbucks coffee mixed with chai spices. Because the Senegalese love their sugar so much there is an excessive amount in there. Like any coffee, caffeine is the key ingredient, but this mixture will have you off your ass before you can finish the espresso shot serving size portion.

Senegalese tea is similar to the Café Touba in that it too will be served with copious amounts of sugar in a shot sized serving. It is brewed with Chinese green tea for round one, even more sugar in round two and with mint by round three. Don’t drink on an empty stomach because you will get sick. It is typically served after lunch as a digestive while more sugar conscious individuals are partaking of siesta.  

Foster’s Clark is the only thing getting me through the monotony of daily water consumption. Before you start making noise about my finicky pallet, I suggest you try filtered beached water for breakfast lunch and dinner for any duration of time. Right. So Foster’s Clark makes all sorts of great flavors like orange, apple, guava, passion fruit, peach, mango, and even Coca Cola. Mix ‘em with a large bottle of water and enjoy for about 30 min until your next bottle (because that’s how fast we go through water in the hot season).

And last but not least, Senegal produces a total of four beers on its soil. Flag and Gazelle were the only two around when I landed. A Flag tastes like a wheat version of Budweiser while Gazelle is like a Miller Lite that only gets better when you add a lime wedge Corona style. I was immediately drawn to Gazelle for its great quantity for the money ratio and taste. Later in my service two more beers were introduced: 33 and Pelforth. 33 is somewhere between Flag and Gazelle in taste and bottle size, where as the Pelforth is an amber ale. There are some imports that are available in bigger cities for more money, but who can be bothered? Hmm, yeah I stuck with my old faithful.