Gambian culture revolves around food, which works out perfectly because that’s how my life is too. Like many things here, meal times are a social event that includes the whole family and usually some neighbors as well. If you walk around the village around lunch time, you’re sure to be called into almost every compound to join the meal.
“Cai ain!” – Come for lunch!
If someone calls you for a meal, it’s respectful to sit down and at least eat one scoop. Lunch and dinner happen in a communal bowl, usually several around the compound – the older and very young family members eat out of one bowl and everyone else out of another in my compound. Customarily, everyone eats with just their right hand, scooping the rice and pieces of vegetables out of the bowl. I get my own bowl for dinner, but eat with the family for lunch. My friend Taylor created this awesome video about the communal bowl culture – check it out!
When I’m full at the end of the meal (or the bowl is empty, whichever comes first), I am always, without fail, told to eat more.
“Ali! Foy dem?” – Ali, where are you going?
“Soorna! Ain basure.” – I’m full! I’m finished with lunch
“Ali togal! Lekal! Leeka bi neirut?” – Ali sit! Eat! Is the food bad?
“Deedeet! Ain neirna bu ba!” – No, the lunch was sweet!
While we’re trying to challenge Gambian gender norms as Peace Corps volunteers, cooking is not one of the areas where I excel at that. Without the help of my most useful cooking tool, the microwave, I’m pretty much useless in that department. My host sisters are amazing cooks, and usually don’t want my help. They do let me watch and explain to me in Wolof what they’re doing or what they’re cooking. We have a cook stove that is situated on three rocks and is a warm place to huddle around in the morning.
So here’s my typical daily food schedule: Breakfast happens around 8, right when the kids head off to school and I go to the clinic. Typically this is a piece of bread or some days some porridge. The bread is baked one village over, so some mornings it doesn’t make the trek all the way to my village. Another Peace Corps volunteer built an oven for bread making in his village, something I hope to incorporate here. If we’re really lucky, we’ll have eggs or potatoes and mayonnaise on the bread. Usually I’ll make coffee too. Breakfast is usually the smallest meal of the day. When traveling, I look forward to a street food breakfast! You sit on a bench around the cook while he makes omelettes or potatoes or both.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and is always amazing at my compound. My host sister cooks lunch for us and the guys who work at the clinic. It’s usually rice (either white rice or benaccin, rice with some oil) with fish and veggies: typically a small eggplant, some cabbage, a carrot, and bitter tomato. Lunch usually happens after the mid day prayer, so around 2.
Dinner happens after the sun goes down around 8. At my compound, dinner is usually cherre (like a pounded koos type of situation) with fish and onions and some sauce. It’s usually smaller than lunch. On the weekends at my compound, we usually have family in from Senegal so the dinners are awesome. Sometimes we have bread with macaroni, beef, and potatoes which is incredible. My family usually cooks something like this if I have Peace Corps friends over too.
It’s important to point out that the food I have is typical of Wolof communities, so it is not the situation for all of The Gambia. I am fortunate to have awesome food that is usually pretty balanced. It’s inherently carb – heavy with all the rice and bread, but we have a good deal of vegetables. One of Peace Corps’ health objectives is introducing farm to table systems where people grow vegetables and then include them in the meals. Usually if people grow vegetables they just sell them at the market and eat rice. The amount of vegetables we have everyday is not typical, but is something we’re hoping to see in every compound around the village.
Lastly, a quick update on re-entering village after our Senegalese vacation. Today is Gambian Independence Day! And President Adama Barrow was officially sworn in at the capitol. In my village, no one can stop laughing that all of Peace Corps “ran away” from the political drama, because it was pretty quiet in the providences. The exposed pipe I wrote about in the Water post got fixed and they just recently repaired the roof of the clinic! I lost a little bit of language, but I’m getting back into it ndanka, ndanka (slowly, slowly).