"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Eating, Drinking, and Dancing in Africa

The first African country I visited was Mauritania, perhaps not as African as Mali or Kenya, but more so than Tunisia or Egypt because of its black belt along the Senegal River, the border with Senegal.   One of my favorite stories of my time in Mauritania is about a famous World Bank project designed to build two dams on this River, providing water to the deltas on both sides and therefore giving agricultural fertility to the black Africans who lived there and who for centuries had been enslaved by the northern nomadic Moors.  Slavery still existed in 1978 when I first visited and was only criminalized in 2007, and the World Bank felt that a direct and deliberate investment in the black population would redress the economic and social imbalances in the country, and by so doing effect a de facto end to slavery.

This of course didn’t happen.  Once the dams had been built, water provided, and agricultural productivity improved, the Moors simply took over the land, and the black Africans remained to work it.  The dams were a windfall for the Moors.  It was not a case of unintended development; just illusionary development planning.  As often happened in large projects and small, mission, desire, and ideology gummed up the works, and projects either failed from their original purpose or failed entirely.

One of my very first meals in Africa was a picnic on an Atlantic beach near Nouakchott.  Mauritania has an Atlantic coastline as long as North America’s, and if you count the 3000 miles or so across the Sahara to the Arabian Sea, the worlds biggest beach.  The outing was organized by M. Diouf, a Senegalese from St. Louis who had been one of France’s “chosen” Africans – Africans by dint of family, social class, intelligence, French language and orientation, selected as honorary French citizens, sent to France for their education.  It was a kind of ex post facto justification that colonization and the famous mission civiliatrice (mission to civilize Africans, i.e., Westernize them, and especially make them as French as an African could every hope to be). 

Nouakchott was well provisioned with French products to serve the fairly sizeable French community that ran the ports, many agencies of government, hotels, restaurants, and shops.  There was Camembert, jambon de Parme, salami, pate, lettuce, wine, and baguettes.  The baguettes, done in traditional ovens according to old French recipes, were far better than you could get in Paris whose bakers had begun to cut down on ingredients, speed up the process, and in general modernize.

The picnic started well.  Of course there was no one on the beach, the day was bright, clear, and pleasantly cool, and the waves and light salt spray made it feel like home.  We helped M. Diouf spread the blanket and array the food.  We sat down, and hungry after a long and early morning of teamwork (we were part of a UN team in Mauritania to assess the health system), tucked in.  I remember hacking off a big chunk of Camembert and slathering it a piece of baguette, and swilling it down with a glass of Bordeaux.  Another American colleague made himself a big salami, lettuce and tomato, and cheese sandwich on a baguette, slathered with mayonnaise. 

This display of American barbarity was too much for M.Diouf. “Mais non!”, he exclaimed. “Non, non, non, non”.  Cheese was never to be eaten as a first course; and it was inconceivable to eat a salami, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise sandwich.  Sandwich de saucisson, by all means; but never with anything but French butter.  The mission civilatrice not only had worked, but obviously had worked very, very well.

To be fair, M. Diouf came by his pro forma food preferences quite naturally.  On a trip to France, we had visited good friends who lived in a region in the southwest of France.   They organized a picnic which we would eat in the mountains near their house.  They could forage for wild mushrooms, and then we would eat.  They would get everything ready if only we could put together the silverware and buy some bread in the village.

The day was cool and fresh, and the woods where the mushrooms grew were scented with pine and old forest trees.  Robert and Diane romped through the woods like children, yelping with excitement when either one found a mushroom.  The picnic was much higher up the mountain, in a grassy glade overlooking the valley.  The blanket spread, the food laid out, all of us ready to tuck in; but before we could, Diane gave out a shocked and offended wail just like M. Diouf – “O, non, non, non, non, non!”  We had brought the wrong kind of forks and there was not enough bread.  The French, I decided, had internalized some ratio of bread to food which was calibrated for each type of food, because after one quick look at the paltry two baguettes we had bought (of course we thought that two big baguettes were way too much bread but we bought them anyway) and the array of food she had prepared, Diane knew that it was all wrong.  The picnic had been ruined. 

This episode, however, was minor compared to The Pigs’ Feet, a story retold to this day by our family.  On another trip to visit Robert and Diane, we brought our two children, aged about eight and ten, and our dog.  Robert’s mother, La Duchesse de Manon, had come down from her chateau  to spend time with her family.  Our children spoke no French, but Diane, Robert, and La Duchesse no English, so all conversation was in French.  Our children were very patient and sat quietly as we all chatted and laughed.

Diane was preparing a regional specialty – pieds de cochon, pigs feet, and Robert had gone to a special butcher 20 miles away to get what were considered the very best.  Diane exclaimed with pleasure when she saw them, and immediately started cooking them in a fragrant broth she had prepared while Robert was in Blesson.  They would take all day to simmer and would be ready for a seven o’clock dinner.  We couldn’t wait, we said.

At seven, we all sat down to dinner for our first course, a delicious mushroom soup from wild mushrooms that Robert had collected on the mountain.  Our children sat quietly and patiently at the table, eating their soup.  That morning, La Duchesse had commented to us how well-behaved our children were – a left-handed compliment because of course she believed that all American children were little barbarians.  The “compliment” was especially meaningful because in the aristocratic, royal milieu from which La Duchesse came, children were not even seen, let alone seen but not heard.  Robert had told us that he and his sister were brought into his mother’s sitting room in the morning to give her a little peck on the cheek before heading off with the nanny for the rest of the day.  Little did La Duchesse know that the reason that our children were so quiet was because they didn’t understand a a word of French.

After the first course dishes were cleared and new ones set, Diane brought in the piece de resistance, the pieds de cochon.  All the adults smiled in anticipation.  She dramatically lifted the lid to show off her creation.  The pigs trotters were sticking straight up, hoof first out of a gummy, viscous liquid.  That did it. My son blurted to his sister – “Liddy, look at that!  Pigs legs, disgusting, yeccchhhh…and what are they floating in?”

“Oh, how gross”, his sister replied.  “Beyond disgusting.  I am NOT eating that.  No way.  Never”.

The table was completely silent.  La Duchess looked at our children in dismay, then at her disappointed daughter-in-law, then with a knowing, censuring smile to us.  Although she did not understand English, she knew exactly what the children had sad.  She had been right all along.  Little barbarians.  And of course barbarian parents from a barbarian country.  The only member of our family who had behaved properly was the dog.

“Please eat them”, my wife pleaded.  “They are really very good”, and she put one trotter on each of their plates.

“There’s nothing but fat and gristle hanging off them”, my daughter said.

“But that’s the best part”, replied my wife.  More groans.  My son pushed and picked at the trotter, but ate nothing.  The meal had been ruined.

As I have written before, I have eaten very well in Africa.  The continental shelves off the coast of Mauritania are among the richest in the world in fish, and it was a treat to eat fresh lobster, crabs, tuna, bonito, and sole.  Ti--bou dien, a dish of Nile perch and couscous eaten in the Sahel is succulent and fragrant.  Nile Perch (capitaine) is for me the king of fishes – sweet and flavorful, I ate it in Mali from the Niger River, Burundi from Lake Tanganyika, and in Senegal from the Senegal River.  My best memories of ti-bou dien were in a small village near Mopti, the home of my Malian Ministry of Health counterpart.  We had driven to Mopti to review some programs in the local hospital and health centers, and he invited us to dinner at his house.  We ate outside in the early evening after the sun had set, and the heat had begun to lessen.  His mother served the food on a very large, round plate, heaped with couscous and vegetables and fish on top; and she apportioned pieces of carrots and cabbage, and pieces of steamed, spiced fish by hand to each of us.  It was delicious, generous, and pleasant.

I remember the traditional Indian Sunday tiffin, a curry buffet at the Norfolk hotel in Nairobi, an old colonial gem similar to those I have described in Sri Lanka and India, lots of wood and polished brass, well-mannered servants, and delicious food.  There was a large Indian community in East Africa, and curries were popular.

I will mention Tunisia because it is Africa, after all, and because I ate better there than anywhere else on the continent.  The food is Mediterranean – seafood, salads, fresh oranges, olive oil, dry rose wine and I could not get enough grilled octopus and squid, Tunisian salads of chopped grilled tomatoes and red pepper, olives, tuna, dressed in olive oil, and of course oranges.  I remember the first time I ate at what became my favorite restaurant I ordered oranges for dessert, and the waiter brought out a bowl of what I knew were juicy, sweet, tender, seedless wonders.  After I had eaten the whole bowl, the waiter came over and, Frenchified enough to wonder the habits of Americans, told me he had expected me to eat one orange, but was happy that I had enjoyed myself.

One of the only two good things about Luanda – a pestilential, crime-ridden, polluted, congested, dysfunctional city – was the fresh seafood available at restaurants on the Ilha, a  peninsula along the Atlantic Ocean about 10 miles from the city.  The ride was hot, long, frustrating, and agonizing but sitting on the patio, under the palm trees in a civilized, quiet restaurant, overlooking the ocean was my reward for the ride and for the Purgatory of the day.  The margaritas were the best, and the fresh, grilled, giant shrimp were the best I have ever eaten.  Coconuts, the best restaurant on the beach was an oasis of calm and civility.  I went out to the Ilha every night.

The other good thing was the music – a pastiche of Brazilian, Portuguese, American blues, and African hip-hop that was energetic and more interesting than the West African high-life (English-speaking) and pop (French) I danced to in the clubs and discotheques all over Africa. Wikipedia describes it as follows:

…a diverse group of styles including Angolan merengue, kilapanda and semba, the last being a genre with roots intertwined with that of Brazilian samba music. Just off the coast of Luanda is Ilha do Cabo, home to an accordion and harmonica-based style of music called rebita.

When I first brought back African pop music back to Washington in the early 80s, few of my friends had ever heard it.  It was the dance club music.  The songs were based on repetitive phrasing, a pumping beat, high-range electric guitar riffs, and the most delicious of all, the change of key, the pause in phrasing, and major-to-minor shifts.  You never knew when they were coming, but you knew they were, and the expectation was exciting, and the change a happy release.  I danced in clubs all over Africa – in Dakar before it became dangerous to go out at night; in Ouagadougou, in Bamako, Brazzaville, Kinshasa, Maseru, Banjul, and Douala.  Everyone danced in African clubs – young, old, and children.  There were always prostitutes if you wanted to dance with or sleep with them.  The atmosphere was always happy, upbeat, and pure pleasure.

I went on a lot of UN Missions to Africa in the 80s, and the custom was for the sponsoring government agency to treat the team in some way before leaving the country.  In the then Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), the Ministry of Health took us to one of these clubs.  We were told that they were paying for everything – food, drink, and girls – so we should enjoy ourselves.  The food was traditional African, served in great vats with lots of sauce; the music was hot; and the girls beautiful.  It was the best sendoff of all my missions.  The worst, by the way, was the banquet organized by the Mauritanian government who never showed up.  The twenty-five place settings were empty, while the five of us foreigners waited hours, then ate a hilarious meal, joking about the phantom Moors.

I brought back cassettes and later CDs of all this music and went to African clubs in Washington.  In the early 80s there was one particular favorite, the Kilimanjaro on Florida Avenue.  Outside is was a slightly sketchy DC neighborhood.  Inside it was no different than any of the clubs I had visited in West Africa.  It had the same driving, pumping music, the atmosphere, and the friendliness of an African discotheque.  We always were the only white people in the club, but as in Africa, it never mattered.  A few years later American blacks and Jamaicans started to go to the club, and it became clear that we were no longer welcome; but it was great while it lasted.

In addition to Angolan semba, there are two types of African music which stand out as very different from high life – Senegalese and Malian music.  Senegalese music is very jazz-based, subtle, and distinct from the pounding bass and upbeat guitar riffs of the rest of West Africa.  Watching African women dance to this music was hypnotizing and entrancing.  They barely moved, just an almost imperceptible movement of the head and and a sensual undulation of their bodies, and it was the sexiest dance I had ever seen.

Malian music is a music apart – it is unique, truer to its native, folk roots than any other music; but yet so blues-influenced that some scholars have surmised that the American blues must have come from Mali.  Whichever direction the influences went, it was the most interesting and complex music of the continent.  Many musicians played it on the kora, a kind of very resonant gourd with a sound like a harp; but soon transposed their music to the guitar without losing the character of it.  The most well-known Malian musician is Ali Farka Toure.  I saw a documentary about a music festival held in the desert near Timbuktu and all the great musicians from Mali from the South to the Berber North came and played.  That is one festival I am sorry I missed.

Africa was great when I travelled there, before the cities became infested with crime, decimated by AIDS, and still economically viable.  My world travels have satisfied three important desires – India was a sensuous cultural kaleidoscope and an intellectual challenge, but was never fun.  South America was stunningly beautiful, especially the high plateaus and the Andes, but also the vast Amazon jungle; but the machismo and pseudo-sophistication of the Europeanized population was numbing.  Africa was neither kaleidoscopic nor intellectually challenging like India; nor spectacularly beautiful like South America, but lordy lordy, was it ever fun!

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