Meal Time

Food, a central component of social and family life in Senegal, has been one of the significant features of my immersion experience. It’s no coincidence that the little Wolof I know consists of basic greetings and the phrase suurna – “I’m full”. Most social interactions center around or culminate with a meal or a round of tea.

For the sake of time, I will focus on what goes into cooking one of my new favorite meals: lachiri hakko. Lachiri is a general term for sauce served over couscous. In northern Senegal, people make couscous from millet, but in the Kedougou region corn is more common. Even the name of the village I live in, Mako, means “corn” in Malinke.

The sauce in lachiri hakko is made from peanuts, leaves, onions, and meat – on a good day. All of these ingredients are fresh, as Makorabe (“people from Mako”) are sustenance farmers. Every home has a corn plot beside it. When I first arrived in September, Mako looked like the set for Children of the Corn. Then the harvest began and suddenly, the outdoor toilets and showers became a lot less private. I can have a nice chat with my neighbors over the reed fences that enclose the toilet areas. In addition to corn, most families harvest peanuts. Most days at least two meals are peanut-based, so my host mothers spend a good portion of their free time cracking peanuts. Unless they’re napping, they rarely sit idle. Often other women bring over their own buckets and everyone sits outside shelling together.

This is my host brother Omar posing with just a fraction of the crop on the last day of the peanut harvest. His mother’s plot is out near the major cattle grazing fields. In most other parts of Senegal, people eat a lot of fish. However, Peuls are traditionally a cow herding people, so meat makes its way into our meal rotation more frequently. Not far from our house is the clearing where cows are slaughtered every morning. The ground there is littered with cow horns, some still attached to the scalps of recently killed cattle.

All of the other ingredients – onions, okra, and hakko – come from the women’s community garden, which my host mother Hawatine organizes. Hakko means “leaves” in Pulaar. I have yet to see a leaf grown in that garden that cannot be chopped up and boiled to make lachiri hakko. Because there’s no way to store the leaves fresh, we’ve had lachiri hakko every night for the past couple weeks in order to use it all up.

Midmorning, our house beats to the steady rhythm of the pestle and mortar as my host mother grinds peanuts and corn. Unugol, a verb that means “to grind with a pestle and mortar,” is the key stage of most dishes. Once the corn is semi-ground and the bad bits sorted out, we take it to the neighborhood corn grinding to finish the job for 100 CFA.

All of our meals are cooked over the fire. The ground corn is sifted, doused with water, then set to steam over the boiling sauce. On weekends my little host brothers go into the brush to collect firewood and return with heavy bundles balanced on their heads. At 9 we all gather around one bowl. Women sit on stools, little children perch on a woman’s foot, and the men squat. One or two people eat with a spoon, but most of us roll our couscous into balls in our hands. The bowl never goes empty. When it starts to run low, the chef piles in more couscous and tops it off with sauce. Whenever someone stands up, everyone else asks “you’re full? Already!” Though we leave the bowl still filled with food, it will get eaten. The talibe boys, full-time Quranic students, come by after dinner to eat whatever we have to offer. Early the next morning my host brothers will snack on the leftovers then head to the Imam’s house to study the Quran before school. Finally, any food scraps that remain are set down for the goats and chickens to fight over. Nothing is wasted.