Food And Identity In An African Village
When I think back on the two years I spent in Guinea, West Africa, and what aspects of my experience there had impacted me the most, I remember the difficult yet peaceful routine of village life, the lush Guinean landscape, my eager high school students, the colorful markets and traditional clothing…but mostly I remember the changes that oc-curred as I struggled to establish an identity for myself in a small African village.
When I first arrived in 1996, everyone stared at me, and I stared back. I walked down the dusty paths and kids called out, “White woman!” By the end of my stay, they called me “Miss” or “Allyson” or sometimes “Sister.” At school, during my first days of teaching, my students laughed and gawked at me. Two years later, they stood when I entered the classroom, and I felt I had earned their respect. Despite this change, or cultural adaptation, I would remain throughout my two years the white woman, the foreigner, the American, and I struggled to balance trying to maintain my own cultural identity while at the same time moving around in an African one where my roles were at best ambiguous.
The ambiguity of my situation—white, American, female, teacher—began to manifest itself most sharply in relation to eating patterns. At ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, food was usually a main component, and villagers never knew how to treat me. Often I would show up alone, looking out of place with my Western-style dress and hiking boots next to their colorful boubous, head ties, and leather sandals. While most guests would squat over communal bowls of rice, sauce, and meat, and eat with their right hands, I was often given my own plate with a spoon and directed to a table to eat alone. I would sit there miserably, spooning rice and wondering why I felt so out of place. More often than not, the most important village elder would call me over to share a bowl of food with him. Still, I would be given a spoon and the best pieces of meat.
Closer to the end of my stay, at ceremonies I began to steal away to the back of the compound, where the women were busy preparing food and eating together. Each time my presence was protested, and I was directed back to the central eating place, dominated by men. With most villagers, I was never allowed that kind of intimacy, and although it frustrated me, I came to realize that what seemed like rejection was actually a sign of respect. By pushing me over to the men’s side of the courtyard, they were, in fact, showing me respect. This idea was rather disconcerting to me—what had I done to earn these village women’s respect? I was a teacher to their children and a stranger to their village, yes, but weren’t they the ones who deserved respect for their work so often overlooked?
The nature of food preparation in Africa, mostly women’s work, involves processes that the Western world can no longer imagine: cul-tivating small patches of vegetables and grains by hand, pounding grains with a pestle as big as one’s thighs, fetching wood and chopping it down for cooking, balancing large buckets of water on one’s head and carrying it from water source to home, bending over the cooking pot in a tiny hut with soot-stained walls. I couldn’t pound rice or cook a chicken, and every time I tried to carry water on my head, I ended up drenched and mocked. No wonder I felt uncomfortable spooning from my plate of rice, wondering if the women harbored any resentment that, despite being female, I was somehow exempt from this grueling preparation! At worst, I remained self-conscious during these large village gatherings; at best, my situation forced me to reflect and examine my position in the village, as well as the position of other women.
I developed the kind of intimacy and acceptance that I was looking for slowly over time and on a much smaller scale. I became an adopted member of the Dansoko clan, an extended family in the village. My relationship with them strangely became more intimate as my eating patterns among their family members changed. I remember quite vividly my first meal at their home very shortly after my arrival in 1996. Sory Dansoko, a prominent village elder and president of the Parent-Teacher Association, had invited me over for a meal. I accepted gladly as I recalled the meals I had shared with my host family during our Peace Corps training. During those meals, 8 or 10 of us gathered around a large communal bowl where we ate and took leave once we were full.
When I arrived at his home, Sory presented me with a plate of cooked liver drenched with oil and some bread. My stomach wrenched as I realized that I would not be sharing it with anyone, that, in fact, they had prepared it especially for me. I was relieved when another teacher passing by on his way to school responded to Sory’s call to share the meat. Though disappointed that I did not get to share in a family meal that day, I discovered later that liver is considered the rich-est and tastiest cut of meat, and that by preparing it for me, Sory and his family were showing me respect and a welcome into their home.
When I left, Sory accompanied me to the entrance of the village and said, “This is your home. I will look out for you. Please come and eat with us, we will be your family.” Touched by his kindness and hospitality, I thanked him and wondered what his motives might be for wanting to adopt me into his family. Over the course of two years, I would grow to realize how my relationship with Sory and his family helped me establish an identity in the village. I would show him and his family respect by choosing to associate with them. And, at the same time, he protected and fed me and allowed me to share and understand aspects of African culture that would never have been available to me were it not for his family’s friendship and acceptance. Sory would even be-come my mentor when deciding on projects for work, and I chose him as my main counterpart for a public library project. A sense of mutual trust formed between us that lasted until the day I left the village and completed my Volunteer service.
I returned to the Dansoko compound often in the months following that first formal dinner of liver and bread. In the beginning, I always found a covered plate of food waiting for me at the table. If I arrived at mealtime, the rest of the family would eat on the floor together, Sory and his sons around one bowl, the women and girls around another bowl. Occasionally, cousins or other guests joined in when invited, and at any given time, there were between 10 and 15 people eating in the living room. I hated eating at the table—I resented being made to sit alone, isolated from the rest of the family. I tried to explain to Sory that eating alone caused me to eat less, so to compensate, he would spoon one bite off my plate and encourage me to finish the rest.
One evening, I took my plate and emptied it into the communal bowl and prepared to squat. Everyone in the room stopped eating and began to protest. Someone gave me a stool so I could sit properly. The boys crowded closer together to make room for me, and Sory just shook his head. I looked at him adamantly, and he realized I was insistent on sharing the meal with them. After that day, it was no longer questioned when I sat down to eat with Sory and his sons. I began to eat there more comfortably now that I had stopped being treated like a guest and foreigner. In time, I would abandon my spoon, despite more protests, and learn how to form balls of rice and sauce with my hand. Occasionally, sauce would drip down my hand and wrist; other times the hot rice would burn my fingers, and Sory would click his tongue and send one of his sons for a spoon. However, the satisfaction I felt, along with the sense of acceptance by his family, cancelled out any embarrassment I might have experienced over dropping rice or dripping sauce.
In time, however, I realized that eating with Sory, his brothers and sons, and occasionally visiting male teachers, was still a source of unresolved conflict within me. After all, I was a woman. Why wasn’t I eating with the women? The first few times I tried to eat with the Dansoko women and their daughters, they refused and pushed me back toward Sory’s heaping bowl of rice, sauce, and meat, just as the village women did at the ceremonies I attended.
During Ramadan, the Muslim period of fasting from sunrise to sunset, villagers broke the fast at the eldest woman’s and man’s house. The Dansoko women all shared their evening meal at Sory’s mother’s house, and surprisingly, I was allowed to attend. None of the women questioned my presence, and every night on my way out, Sory’s mother would thank me for coming. It wasn’t until Sory left for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca during the spring of my second year that I was finally allowed to eat on a daily basis with his daughters and two wives, Ciré and Ramata, who became the heads of household during his ab-sence. When he returned six weeks later, he said to me, “My wives told me you were here every day and ate with them, and I am so happy. Thank you.”
For my remaining months in the village, I roamed freely among the Dansoko extended family and ate wherever I pleased, most often with women. At the Dansoko family compound, I found solace and peace; I was accepted unconditionally, never asked for anything except to eat with them, my presence never questioned. I participated in Muslim ceremonies—baptisms and weddings, sacrifices and prayers—and gradually learned all the names and relationships of the different family members. My status as an American, a white, and a teacher began to wear off as I integrated more into the family, as my local language improved, and as I adopted more colorful and traditional clothing. But for me it was the transition from eating all alone with utensils at a table, sterile and unfamiliar, to squatting down with Ciré and Ramata and other village women in the outside kitchen, in the front yard, on the porch, natural and warm, that marked my acceptance and earned me a place in their large family.
Almost two years after my first encounter with Sory Dansoko and his family, I shared with them the traditional Muslim feast of Tabaski, where a sheep is sacrificed. After the slaughter outside the eldest brother’s hut, Sory took the liver and grilled it, then offered the first morsel of it to me to taste. I grinned and accepted it, recalling the first time he presented the plate of liver to me so formally two years earlier. The rest of the family also smiled with approval. If occasionally I was still shown the respect and hospitality due to guests and foreigners, I had, at the same time, earned a place in the Dansoko family that allowed me to live comfortably with myself and others. A place that allowed me to forge my own identity—a combination of American and African values, amidst cultural paradoxes and ambiguities.
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