Widening the bowl

“Here, I’ll teach you. You tear off a piece of the meat from the middle and scoop up some rice. With your hand you form a ball of the rice mixture, squeezing it together and shaking off any extra.” Maria demonstrated for me, and I followed her, reaching my hand into the warm, oily rice. It was Day 3 of my team’s trip to West Africa, and finally we were eating a meal out of the famous common bowl. I had heard a lot about this important eating routine. I had looked forward to it with eager curiosity. So when the man acting as host for our group came around with a fistful of spoons for the tubaabs (“westerners”), I declined. I wanted to eat with my hand, I told  him. Like them. Right away, Maria offered to show me how it was done. She also prefers to eat with her hand.

“Once you’ve gotten it to hold together in a ball in your hand, you just put it up to your mouth and eat.” Maria is French and has lived in West Africa for 5 years, working with the Red Cross. We happened to meet at a large, village-wide celebration our team was attending. When I asked what brought her to West Africa, she explained that she’d first visited with her doctor-husband and “est tombée amoureux du pays” (“had fallen in love with it”). But he passed away 6 years ago, and “pour soulager ma douleur” (“to relieve her sadness”), she returned to West Africa to live.

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I copy the instructions she gave in French, using the palm and fingers of my right hand to form the rice and meat into a sticky ball. I then manage to put it in my mouth and get my first flavorful taste of “ceebu yapp,” a common West African festive meal. With a twinkle in her eye, Maria explains that if you’re eating with your sweetheart, you tear off the pieces of meat for them, placing it in their section.

Mealtime turned out to be a valuable window into West African culture and values. And perhaps an indicator of one difference in values between the US and West Africa. I’ve heard it said, “You are what you eat.” Could it be equally valid to suggest, “You are how you eat”?

No silverware. No plates. No individual portions. Just one large common bowl that a group gathers around to share a meal together. Everyone knows to wash their hands (primarily the right, “clean” hand) before and to eat from the section in front of them. Family groups eat together; when the group is large, the men eat together, the women eat together, and the children eat together — all following the same pattern. There seemed to be no limit to how many people could gather around a single bowl. Before starting the meal, Maria had led me over to the washing area. After cleaning our hands, we walked back toward where my group had received our bowls of ceebu yapp. But on the way, a couple circles of people widened to offer us a spot around their bowl. Sharing is built in. There’s nothing especially mystical about it; it’s simply the way they nourish themselves daily. But there’s a rhythm to it, there are unspoken rules (many of which I have yet to learn).

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Savoring the blend of flavors in my mouthful of ceebu yapp, I exclaimed to Maria, “Ah, qu’est-ce que c’est bon!” Then, remembering a Wolof phrase which I’d learned was appropriate at mealtime, I said a butchered version of Neex na! (“It’s good!”). Maria smiled and corrected my attempt, adding Neex na torop! (“It’s very good!”). I filed that one away in my growing mental Wolof lexicon.

I said I thought the food tasted all the better, eating it with my hand. Maria nodded in agreement. Then she said something that warmed my heart: she said that eating with me and our group of Americans (other white people, like she hadn’t seen in a while!) gave her the feeling of being with her family. With eating being so communal in West Africa, I guessed that mealtime for Maria was simultaneously comforting and a bit painful, as it would remind her of her family far away in France.

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I ate my fill of ceebu yapp that day and thoroughly enjoyed my induction into West African meal ritual. More than food just for the belly, I left our circle with much food for the soul and for thought…

Photos by Dick Senzig and Leslie Newman

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