I have always known The Gambians, especially the women were tough but after living in a village with them and experiencing more of their life I truly do not know how they do it. I am definitely a wimpy tubaab as they reminded me on a regular basis while they were bringing me chairs to sit in and rest. During my recent village experience I received many “cooking lessons”. These lessons really consisted of me (the wimpy Tubaab) sitting, observing and chatting while the not wimpy Gambians did all of the hard work.
Lunch is the main meal of the day and preparation starts early, lunch is served anywhere from 2pm – 6pm. The wimpy tubaab purchased a bowl of food that I ate with my host family for lunch and dinner; no way I could cook like this. My village was near the river, so the “fish truck” or taxi with a trunk full of fresh fish arrived daily with a horn blasting around 9am. The kids (as young as 5) were sent to buy fish and to the corner shop to buy the ingredients for the days meal. Most compounds do not have refrigeration or good storage and money is limited, so you buy what you need for the meal and no excess. No stocking up at Sam’s Club or Costco here. When you go to the corner shop you buy based upon how much money you have: 0.25 cents of diapers (not a bag), 0.10 cents of tomato paste (taken out of a big can and placed in newspaper for you), 0.25 cents of cabbage (a piece cut off a head of cabbage), etc.
The kitchen is outside and is an enclosed room with hopefully room for a table to store your cooking pots and spoons as well as a place for the fire, sizes and quality of cooking areas vary greatly. Before you start cooking the dirt floor needs to be swept as cleanliness is very important. Then around 10 am, you try and get a fire started praying that the wood didn’t get too wet from the rains the night before. Most meals have a base of rice, it is filling and inexpensive. Now, before you can cook the rice you must sift through it picking out bugs or other debris. This was something I was allowed to help with, but I need more practice as many times I reached for a bad piece to only push it further into the bowl of rice instead of picking it out. The Gambians were very patient with me. Once the rice is sorted and rinsed you can put the large pot on the fire and heat water. To help the rice cook quicker you steam it first and then place it in the cooking pot. While the rice is cooking there is no time to put your feet up and watch TV. The preparation continues, from peeling and chopping onions to crushing black pepper (no pepper grinder here) and pounding hot peppers or garlic. Now remember, all of this is done dressed in a long skirt to your ankles, long shirt and many times a baby on your back. If you are lucky you have a co-wife or a janqa (teenage girl) to help you out. If you forgot an ingredient there is no calling someone to get it for you, but you can leave the fire and pop around the corner to the shop (greeting all of your neighbors and friends along the way). Clean up is a little easier as you can just throw your food waste on the ground for the goats and sheep, but you do have to go to the well to fetch water for the dishes. By the way, dirt from the ground makes a great scrubbing agent for those really dirty pots and pans. Once the rice is done and set aside you can move onto the meat (usually fish) many times fried in a small amount of oil and the sauce of which there are several varieties. If you have the funds you supplement the rice and fish with cabbage, potatoes, cassava (another root vegetable) or bitter tomatoes and all of this goes over the rice in a big bowl.
At lunch time the family comes together and eats with their hand out of a communal bowl. Now, if the wimpy tubaab is eating with you she is given her own bowl and a spoon (they wouldn’t believe me when I said I was capable of eating with my hand so I took to carrying a spoon with me). Once the meal is completed the goats, sheep and chickens help with the cleanup and leftovers, nothing goes to waste!
Imagine cooking like this for hundreds of people in a pouring thunderstorm! You all know you can’t have a good party without food and The Gambians enjoy a good party (see my next post). I hope this makes you appreciate your refrigerator, stove, grocery store, rice cooker and other kitchen conveniences.