If Theres Enough For One
I didn’t know what animal the head in my soup had come from. When Gara set the first bowl down beside the forestier (environmentalist), he pulled a slimy gray wad from an open cavern of bone, offering me first dibs on the brain. I shook my head in something approaching panic: me, the girl who was just easing her way off of seven years as a vegetarian. And while the forestier, the local government agent charged with enforcing environmental laws, knew nothing of vegetarianism, he knew enough about Western eating habits to enjoy watching my discomfort. He tilted his head back and slid the brain into his mouth, downing it in one satisfied gulp like he was taking a shot. I turned to my own dish. I had been gifted with the creature’s tongue, a swollen cylinder lying purple over the teeth like a bruised piece of rubber. I looked from the tongue to the forestier and back to the tongue.
“Il faut manger,” said the forestier. “You have to eat. To make the préfet happy.”
The préfet was the local administrator of the national government, by far the most important man in my village, and I was nervous about offending him. Eating food that’s offered to you is a crucial tenet of many African cultures, and Peace Corps had drilled that into us during training. Since I’d only been living in my village for a few months, I hadn’t yet learned to move past those seemingly carved-in-stone commandments and trust my own judgment about when it was okay to breach local culture. So, to make the préfet happy, I managed a few weak bites of meat (carefully avoiding the tongue), then pleaded a full belly and gratefully passed the soup over to the others. Their laughter as they accepted the bowl made me suspect that they had never really expected me to eat it anyway.
The Burkinabè had many customs around food that took me time to learn. (I’m just glad that my first attempt at eating spaghetti with my fingers took place far from my village, with no incriminating wit-nesses.) They also had many sayings. The most common one, which I heard my first day in-country, was the aforementioned “Il faut manger.” To Burkinabè, eating well was synonymous with being wealthy and being happy. They often complimented me on having gained weight, thinking that my parents would be pleased to see pictures of me and the increasingly bulging stomach resulting from my all-carbohydrate diet.
Another common saying was, “If there’s enough for one, there’s enough for two.” This could be modified to suit a group of any number. As I biked around the village, if I stopped to greet a few friends who were eating, they would insist that I join them. “Kara, come eat! If there’s enough for three, there’s enough for four.”
Everyone in my village ate outdoors. Houses were used mainly for storage and for sleeping, and even the latter was debatable, since the oppressive heat of the dry season forced most people—including me—outside at night. Being inside at noon was even less bearable. My house had been constructed with bricks of mud and was capped with a tin roof that sucked in heat and trapped it in the darkness of my almost window-less home.
Despite all this, I almost always ate indoors, hiding like a fugitive so that visitors wouldn’t come across me eating and expect an invitation. At first it was because I was ashamed of my nonexistent cooking skills. Before joining the Peace Corps, cooking spaghetti and heating up a jar of Ragu had comprised my greatest efforts in the kitchen. In Burkina, it took me months to figure out what to do with a tin of stale tomato paste and a kilogram of bug-infested rice.
Even once I had mastered a few decent dishes, I continued my stealthy habits. Since I didn’t have a refrigerator, and the intense heat would spoil any food left out overnight, I only ever cooked just enough for me. It was true in African families that one more person was always welcome at the table because they cooked massive amounts of food for the ever-shifting extended families that populated their courtyards. But if you lived alone? I thought their “always-enough-for-one-more” mandate couldn’t possibly apply to a courtyard of one, so I would sweat through every meal indoors, then bolt into my courtyard to take relief in the mere 105 degree shade.
Despite—or perhaps because of—this rationalizing, I began to feel guilty about my secretive eating. I felt especially bad about not sharing food with my best friend, Jules. After months of friendship, we had become closer than I had ever expected to get with a Burkinabè. I had listened to his reluctant complaints about the brother who leeched off his dwindling food supply. He spoke to me about the death of his first son and his fears about the mortality of his second. I confided in him about my conflicted feelings toward certain aspects of Burkinabè culture and my growing relationship with another Volunteer. He taught me how to raise chickens, and I introduced him to cheese ravioli. We discussed the existence of God and speculated about what happens after we die.
But our friendship still wasn’t enough to break through this cultural barrier. I was thinking like an American, self-conscious about the presentation of my food: the taste, the appearance, the amount. Was the spaghetti overcooked? Was the rice under-seasoned? Onions, salt, and tomato paste were the key ingredients that I paired with my carbohydrate staples, and none of my dishes was pretty or tasty. It certainly wasn’t guest-quality food, and, besides, there wasn’t enough to go around anyway.
It was an accidental comment I overheard in the village one day that made me rethink my food-sharing habits. I can’t remember where I heard it; all I remember is that the person was discussing a certain meal, one that he had had years ago and recalled with a nostalgic glow.
“Ah, that food,” he said, satisfaction quivering on his lips as though the memory itself could bring back the taste. “When you eat like that, you can even get full.”
Those are the words that stuck with me. You can even get full. They shouldn’t have been shocking. I had been told during training that some students would come to school without having eaten for two, even three days. I saw the distended bellies and ultra-skinny arms that signaled malnutrition. Some of my teenage students seemed to be just muscle, bone, and gritted determination. Still, the intellectual knowl-edge that most Burkinabè were undernourished had never quite seeped into the reality of my daily life until then. The realization marked me: being full is a luxury.
That idea percolated in the back of my mind until a few days later, when I was planning to bike to Nouna, a neighboring town about 30 miles away. An hour before I was to leave, I had just finished cooking a yam stew of questionable quality when Jules arrived at my gate. I went outside to greet him, and we sat down in the shaded portion of my courtyard. We exchanged the usual pleasantries—how was the morning, how is your family, how is your wife—and then I paused awkwardly, thinking about the single untouched bowl of soup waiting for me inside.
Then it came unbidden into my mind: If there’s enough for one, there’s enough for two. Suddenly, all the sayings and traditions around food that I had been observing coalesced into something large enough to spur change. I was able to push it all aside: my embarrassment at the meager portions, my worry that he would think it tasted bad, my self-ishness at the thought of biking so far on such little nourishment. What matters is that someone who might not eat all day has something to put in his stomach, I finally realized. And what matters is a willingness to share, ungrudgingly and without hesitation.
My whole way of looking at food shifted. I couldn’t take it for granted anymore: food was sustenance; food was life; food was what kept you walking those five miles to your fields, bent over rows of millet in the hot sun.
“Jules,” I announced suddenly, standing up, “I want you to eat with me.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling with a touch of what I recognized as relief. “Bari’a. Bari’a.”
When we had spooned the last drops of stew from our bowls, he walked my bike to the edge of the village and sent me off to Nouna. And what I remember, two years later, is not the feeling of a merely half-full belly or the bland taste of my overcooked yams; what I remember are Jules’s words: Thank you. Thank you.
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