Wednesday, September 14, 2011

African “Chop”

above: Mama Sabina Garlough and her husband. It was Mama Sabina who expressed concern that we didn't have enough time to cook and thus took it on herself to see to it that we had good African chop to eat. Daily, she left us with more than enough.

above: young boy Tejani Conteh - helping his mom, Mamie, out with preparing dinner. About two years old in this photo - he now would be about 44.Photo taken across from our house on Dama Road. With Tejani is his sister Hawa peering out over his shoulder. Tejani's mom, Mamie works by the fire.

above: taken in back of Mama Sabina's house and near her kitchen, we share a rice meal with Mama Sabina on the right and her daughter, Elizabeth (on the left. [Dama Road - Kenema]

above: known as "dry bunga" - this woman sells it (dried fish) at the Joru Dama market some twenty miles to the south of where we lived.

above: the making of palm oil near Vaama Nongowa close to the River Moa.The palm nut skin is mashed and then skimmed in the tub area. The inner kernal was not used locally but was sent off to merchants who then sold it to the European market. The palm oil used in cooking in Sierra Leone had the somewhat orange color as pictured in this photo

above: kitchen chores at #55 Dama Road (across from our house)[Kenema]

above: supper at #55 Dama Road Kenema with Elizabeth Garlough.
At first the food in Sierra Leone was a challenge. By the end it was a joy. While in training in the beginning at Fourah Bay College we got a somewhat watered-down introduction to the food of Sierra Leone – which did mean lots of rice meals sometimes with local sauces but the infamous West African pepper was kept to the side. Sierra Leoneans would joke about this – because for them a rice meal without pepper had no taste. But in the beginning, for those of us brave enough to try and add the pepper to our meals, it was very difficult. The pepper was incredibly hot and sometimes ground up into a powder, but more often the whole peppers were cooked with the sauce. Kindly, in the beginning when we ate at the college cafeteria the cooks knew of our pepper hesitancy and catered to us accordingly. And that food was pretty bland. Then, as we headed down to live with our host families in Freetown, we became even more hesitant (at least at first) regarding what we ate. The Peace Corps doctor – a Midwesterner and somewhat bland guy in his own right – had lectured to us about health and food concerns while living in the tropics. Although many of us took what he said with (excuse please) a grain of salt – we all had heard his warnings and much of what he said had gotten our anxiety up a bit. So we ate with our hosts, they cooked for us, and we ate bland and we ate carefully. For a month our host foods were, I am sure, a very bland version of what they ate. They laughed when we tried pepper – they knew of our aversion to it. And when we tried pepper – it was usually the powder from (the form that had been dried and then ground up). After our 6 weeks of training in Freetown we left our host families and headed to the Sierra Leone agricultural college at Njala. It was here that we got training in the growing of Sierra Leone crops including rice (swamp). We planted rice there, learned of what was being introduced to try and modernize agriculture, and we continued our language studies. In agriculture we had instructors from Sierra Leone and also from the University of Illinois (they had a contract both with the Peace Corps and with the government of Sierra Leone). And we continued here to adjust to Sierra Leone food. Here we were, one and half months into our West African life – and still the food (mainly the pepper) was a challenge. As a kid I had always liked rice so that was easy. The sauces (potato leaf, cassava leaf, dried “bunga” etc) were tasty but when pepper was added most of us – to some degree – still shied away. But we continued to try the pepper – adding small amounts on a regular basis in order to try and adjust. And it worked.
Rice was the basis for every meal in Sierra Leone. The upland rice had an almost meaty taste and was by far superior to the swamp rice being introduced. Swamp rice did taste almost watery. It was swamp rice that was being introduced by both the Chinese who had “rice stations” around the country. It was also being encouraged by the University of Illinois. Swamp rice could be grown 2 or 3 times in a year (upland rice only was grown once). But for the most part, in those days Sierra Leoneans did not like working in swamps. They found the dampness intolerable and found the swamps cold. For centuries they had grown their brown kernelled rice on their hills. It was better tasting. Our August (1968) arrival in Kenema saw us on our own completely. Leaving the cocoon of other volunteers – now food became our responsibility. I was not a cook. But I was willing to be adventurous – and when a neighbor insisted on sharing her cooking with us – delivering us a daily and huge meal of rice and whatever sauce she was putting on it for the day – we slowly acclimatized to the pepper – and the food (at least for me) became wonderful. The palm oil made meals come with an orange color and seemed to add body. The sauces – potato leaf, cassava leaf, dry bunga (fish), Jollife rice, etc – were always prepared fresh as was the rice. In the morning firewood would be gathered for the kitchen, rice would be taken form storage bags, placed in a mortar, and with pestle the husk would be removed, and separated from the rice grains by a process in which it was thrown in the air from a flat grass tray – the wind separating the rice from its skin in this process. Certainly by December of our first year we were eating African chop full time – although Susan still found it less appetizing than I did. And the pepper – the more the better. It was Sabina Garlough, our across road neighbor who saw to it that we had enough to eat – and what she was concerned about was that we had enough, yet brought us enough for an army to eat. Each day I looked forward to what we would have. When we’d have holidays we would have the celebratory Jolliffe rice that we had learned about while living in Freetown.   We perhaps enjoyed this the most. We never liked the mashed up cassava meal called “fufu” – I think it may have had a Nigerian origin, but although Sierra Leoneans found this filling, I did not like its smell or taste – so only rarely tried it. As word in the neighborhood spread that I liked “African Chop,” I started to get daily invitations (“Awa mu mehe me”) to stop and eat with neighbors – and although many times I did – sometimes I had to refuses feigning already having eaten (“Ngi Mehemia sangey” – I am already very well satisfied).  On July 14, 1970 I had my last Sierra Leone meal – it was Jollife rice. On the next day we left for home. Returning home to our own American food was amusing enough – a challenge in reverse. Our home food had no taste and where was the pepper…I missed it.

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