Down the Hatch
Michael Slattery | KF17 | Togo
For those who love to eat as much as I do, I salute you and call you henceforth my brothers, my sisters, my true fellow companions in life. Eating is a passion of mine; I’ve had a good run thus far and hope to have many more good days ahead of me. When I worked planting trees in the aftermath of Canada’s logged bush, I would consume absurd amounts of food every day, and find myself hungry only half an hour after having eaten an amount of food that, verily, makes me now a bit uneasy. Subsequent to that uniquely terrible and beautiful occupation, my metabolism has never been quite the same, and eating has consequently taken on a different, more epic quality that — like the tide — rises and falls relative to my phases of activity.
Growing up with a Chinese mother, you luck out in the food department: a lot of spices and varied ingredients result in a large number of dishes. Food preparation is diverse, eating style is communal, your olfactory system gets used to a range of tastes and, especially, many food textures. Fufu is a West African staple, made of cassava that has first been peeled, cut into chunks, boiled, and then is pounded in a wooden mortar with long, thick, and heavy shaped wooden staffs only somewhat shorter than the holder. Small amounts of water are added during the pounding process to lubricate and add moisture to the product. After a few minutes, what’s left is a velvety, moist, gelatinous and tacky substance that gets eaten all the time at any time of day.
Fufu gets to some foreigners pretty quickly: the texture is a bit slimy to the tongue, and it’s hard to handle at first. The fact that it comes deposited in a bowl filled with a physically hot and very piquant sauce doesn’t help. It’s food to be eaten by hand, and if you wait for it to cool down before eating, you’ll soon find that all your dining companions have already finished their meals and are looking at you with polite expectancy.
The taste of fufu is mild, much like rice, only it has a slightly sweet flavor, serving as an attractive backdrop to the foreground tastes. Fufu is filling, and when taken with a balance of other food groups, can be considered part of a nutritious diet. What initially bothered me while eating it was that it reminded me of something I couldn’t identify; it took me a week or two, and then I realized that the texture was very similar to a type of Chinese gelatinous ball made of rice flour that is filled with a sweet poppy paste. Eating fufu, I had felt that something was off, and it turns out that this was because subconsciously it felt like I was eating desert for dinner.
One universal truth is that fufu on its own is unsustainably boring — again just like rice; it all boils down to the sauce, and fortunately sauce variety is very good in Togo. There are eight major types that I am aware of: fish, beef, chicken, mutton, goat, palm tree oil, sesame, peanut, and perhaps others that the connoisseurs out there will know. But I’m also told that in Ghana the variety is less so, to their loss, and one which I celebrate, since I’m a simple man to please.
When you need to eat a lot, as I do, you tend to discriminate less over what you eat, so long as it’s plentiful. After a certain point, you don’t really care if it’s even hot, as long as it’s well cooked. This last point can be well appreciated by the worldly voyageur: there is a rare one who has not had a vigorous round of traveller’s diarrhea at some point in the past.
Indeed this is the traveller’s conundrum: you want to try it, but you remember how, way back when in that beautiful paradise country, you ate something benign and then spent several painful hours or even days paying lonely obeisance to a toilet, alternately hunched over and/or crouched before it, sweating and possibly even swearing . It’s not a pretty picture, but this is a facet of living abroad — one surely categorized as parcel of those great character-building experiences.
At a certain point, we believe that we have had enough such personal development, desiring less character and nothing more than the simple satisfaction of a meal consumed, retained, and evacuated according to natural rhythms. The wash of the ocean against the shore is soothing, as is the unadulterated melodies to which our own bodies’ systems sync themselves.
A colleague here asked me, “Michael, have you started taking any pills to cleanse your system?” Sorry, I said, but I’ve been fine on this trip, nothing irregular, knock on wood. But wait, I said, why do you ask? There are two major lessons I’ve learned over the past few years worth sharing to the public at large. One is that I’ve undergone a couple of long-term projects with bacterial infections that have made me attuned to my body: anything that seems to slow me down, even a bit, that isn’t the result fighting the flu or a cold, could likely be a parasite enjoying a free lunch.
The other lesson is that native extension workers I’ve spent time with, be it in Kenya, Ethiopia, or here in Togo, avoid potential food and water contamination like the plague. These are people who spend time on the road a great deal and who, unsurprisingly, have also played unwitting host to unwanted guests in the past. The pathological approach of one Kenyan colleague in particular was impressive: self-administered gut cleanses with antibiotics four times a year, and an outright refusal to eat anywhere but at trusted establishments, which often meant skipping meals for a day at a time. Extreme and understandable, given that this is why rural dwellers on the continent have significantly lower life expectancy that urban dwellers, and why water projects are a dime a dozen in rural Africa.
An impressive fact about West Africa is the ubiquity of potable water, often sold in half-liter plastic sachets. The cost is negligible per unit, 25 FCFA, or five cents, and it’s readily available from wandering hawkers and stalls. For 400 FCFA or so, a 15 liter sac of these can be bought with equal ease from local dry goods stalls or shops. It is affordable for almost all except for the most extreme poor. When I was last in East Africa, water sachets were unavailable, but bottled water was. The latter remained the preserve of those above a lower income. Here, bottled water is also available, but beyond the means of the poor. The existence of an economic alternative is a sign of good things.
There are inherent issues with the commodification of the staff of life. The bottling and selling of water poses a great risk to the basic liberty of a people, forcing them without choice to devote a portion of their income to what is impossible to live without. Beyond this major concern, plastic sachet waste is pervasive, an unfortunate complement to plastic bags and packaging casually disposed right, left, and center elsewhere on the continent. In countries that struggle with providing education and health services to its citizens, waste management is a low priority. It’s a more recent phenomenon as African nations have assumed the ability to consume manufactured goods on a large scale.
Appetites can be all-consuming. My expanding waistline, certainly, is proof enough of this credo. The delight in diversity, selection, and guilt-free food is the basis of fun times in foreign lands, notwithstanding the potential post-holiday penalty.