This week we journey to three West African countries. The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal and borders the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia gets its name from the river that runs through the entire width of the country; 300 miles from east to west. “The” was added to the name to avoid confusion with another African country named Zambia. She gained independence from British rule on February 18, 1965. Links to Britain date back to the 17th century, particularly connected with the slave trade. Alex Haley’s famous book “Roots,” begins in a small village named Juffure, located in The Gambia. Today it remains a popular tourist destination for Roots Heritage Tours. Not far from this historic village, is Albreda, home to a slavery museum which opened in 1996. It is housed in the Maurel Freres building that was built by the British in 1840. Here you will find historical artifacts of the slave trade known as “Black Ivory.” This tragic period was testament to the number of people who died on the “Voyage of No Return.”
Today the country is run by Dictator Yahya Jammeh, a US trained, former, army officer who took power during a bloodless coup in 1994. It is said that people in The Gambia live, under his rule, in a cult of witchcraft and execution. He locks people away for any criticism and executes trouble makers on a whim. Back in 2007, Jammeh announced a cure for AIDS, made from boiled herbs. He also announced a cure for several types of cancers in 2014, however there is no scientific evidence that any of his claims are true. Jammeh continues to drive the World Health Organization and the United Nations, a little crazy with his discoveries. Most recently, “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President,” (really that’s Jammeh’s title) began releasing prisoners from some of the worst prisons in Africa and granted amnesty to dissidents, in celebration of the 21st anniversary of his coup. Many fear Jammeh’s regime and his reputation for human rights violations remains despicable. He continues to win elections by granting services to those that vote for him, while leaving those that don’t to suffer in poverty.
Ninety percent of the population in The Gambia is Muslim. Muslim Berbers from Mauritania brought Islam to The Gambia and surrounding areas in West Africa, along the trade routes. The country is home to many ethnic groups, the largest ones being the Wolof, Mandinka, Fula and Jola. The small size of the country has made inter-tribal mixing commonplace. The country has a peaceful reputation regarding racial and ethnic interactions. English is the official language of The Gambia, however many Gambians speak three or four indigenous languages. There is political pressure by Jammeh, to embrace Jola as the country’s language and quit teaching English in schools altogether. Even so, the literacy rate in The Gambia is only 50 percent.
The capital city, Banjul, is the only urban center in the country. More than 80 percent of the people live in rural areas. Tourism is an important economic sector to The Gambia and many European budget travelers retreat to the beautiful beaches there to enjoy the warm climate. Recently, tourism has been hit hard due to the Ebola outbreak, even though there have been no confirmed cases in The Gambia.
Guinea-Bissau is another small country in West Africa. Formerly known as Portuguese Guinea, she borders Senegal to the north, Guinea to the east and south and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Bissau, the name of the capital city, was added to avoid confusion with their neighbor Guinea. Guinea-Bissau’s official language is Portuguese, although most people speak Criola, a blend of Portuguese and indigenous languages. Guinea-Bissau is home to the Bijagos archipelago, comprising some 25 islands off the coast. Bissau-Guineans, as they are called, gained independence from Portugal on September 24, 1973, after nearly 400 years of colonization. Cape Verde used to be part of Guinea-Bissau until a coup erupted in 1980. They have struggled ever since with a series of coups and corrupt leaders. Jose Marion Vaz is the newly elected leader of the country. The world hopes that the new leader will break the cycle of corruption and make progress towards providing public services and work for the country’s development.
Despite many years of colonization the Bissau-Guineans have managed to preserve their ethnicity and ancient roots. The diverse ethnic backgrounds make for a colorful culture with art, music and dance a big part of life. The Gumbe genre is most popular, with the calabash being the most prominent instrument accompanying these rhythmically complex dances.
The country is poor but rich in natural resources such as: fish, bauxite, clay, granite and unexploited deposits of petroleum. They export cashews, fish, shrimp, peanuts, palm kernels and sawn lumber. As a result, they suffer from environmental problems such as: soil erosion, over- fishing and deforestation.
Guinea, the neighboring country, shares many of the same resources and problems. The name Guinea is what European shippers called the large area of West Africa. It is possible however, that the name originated from the word “guine,” which means “woman” in Susu, the language spoken by a coastal tribe. It may have been a misunderstanding from when early Europeans encountered African women washing clothes. The Europeans must have thought they were making reference to the area, rather than to themselves. Guinea is sometime referred to as Guinea-Conakry which is also the nation’s capital city. Conkary is the wettest capital city in the world, receiving over 149 inches of rain from June to November.
Guinea was colonized by the French in 1890 and was previously known as French Guinea. They gained independence October 2, 1958. The country may be at a turning point, after decades of authoritarian rule. They held their first, free and competitive, democratic, presidential and legislative elections in 2010 and 2013. The official language is French but several indigenous languages also spoken. The country is young, with nearly half the population being under the age of fifteen, which may explain why the literacy rate is one of the lowest, at only 30 percent. (Most world literacy rates are gauged by how many, over the age of fifteen, can read and write.) The country is primarily Muslim, comprising 85 percent of the population. They too are rich in natural resources (exporting iron ore, bauxite, diamonds and gold,) yet the people suffer in poverty and malnutrition. The mining industry, though profitable, has caused serious environmental issues, especially water pollution, with which the country must also deal.
The Ebola virus is a big problem in Guinea, as they have had many confirmed cases and over 2100 deaths. The recent outbreak was believed to start in Guinea, when a young boy played with a fruit bat that lived in a tree in his local village. The country has suffered tremendously due to the outbreak but humanitarian aid has been steadfast. Good news has just recently emerged about a long awaited vaccine for Ebola. It is now being administered to the people of Guinea with great optimism for its effectiveness. This potential cure, along with the promise of political stability (with an important election to be held in October of 2015,) have foreign investors waiting on the sidelines, hopeful for a positive outcome.
All three countries share, pretty much, the same food sources and cuisine. The familiar flavors of tomato, onions, peanuts and hot peppers are the staples. Most all of the population lives rurally and survives on subsistence agriculture. Rice is common on the coast and millet, in the inland areas. Cassava, plantains, okra, sweet potatoes and yams are ubiquitous. Meat is a luxury, although bush meat as well as chicken, mutton and fish are available. Stews scooped up with rice, millet or cassava (fou-fou) are their everyday meals.
I chose to combine all three of these West African countries because their cuisines have so much in common. The dishes are called something different in each country but the recipes and ingredients are the same.
So let’s eat West African style:
We set our mat on the floor and decorated with African animals and the staples in West African cuisine. We placed a bowl with water to cleanse our hands before eating. It would be typical to eat with only your right hand out of the communal dish, which would typically be placed on a small stool around which everyone can gather. A spoon is also normally provided, as it takes some practice to scoop up the stews with rice or fou-fou. Men and women may eat separately, with the children joining the women for their meal. As all three of these countries are Muslim, most people do not drink alcohol or eat pork. With our meal, we served a refreshing, non-alcoholic drink called Ginger beer.
Our first course was a street food called either Afra or Dibi, often times served on a brown paper bag. The meat is typically mutton but could also be bush meat, beef or other. Ours was made of lamb and it was outstanding. The bread was a French baguette, as all three countries have influences from Britain, France and Portugal. The combination of flavors from the seasoned meat, mustard and onions was fantastic. This street food would normally be a meal unto itself, so we had only a small sampling.
The next course was peanut stew (or soup.) This is probably the most common meal throughout West Africa. It is called Domodah or Kansiye. Ours was made vegetarian style, using sweet potatoes. However, it is often times made with meat or chicken. The familiar flavors of West Africa were beautifully represented in this dish, which was served over white rice.
The main course was a dish called Yassa. It is made with chicken and known by this name is all three countries. The flavors of this dish, created by the pairing of citrus and caramelized onions, provided a perfect contrast of delight.
As a side dish, we enjoyed a refreshing, black-eyed pea salad, called Saladu Neebe. Black-eyed peas are grown in this area and are often times relied on for protein in a meal. The peas, together with tomatoes, cucumber and peppers were tossed with a light citrus dressing. It was the perfect complement to the Yassa. (I will add this lovely salad to my favorites list.)
For dessert, we had chakery, a sweet and creamy couscous, made from millet. Dessert is not often served in West Africa and this dish would more typically be eaten for breakfast or as a snack. When dessert is served there, fresh fruit would be the most common choice. They have an abundance of fruit that grows in the area, such as mango, pineapple, and coconuts. Fresh fruit for dessert, is quickly becoming my favorite way to end a meal.
As we say goodbye to The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, we do so with hope for a brighter future for the people who live there. We recognize that in countries, such as these, life is not easy and the struggle, for basic things that we so often take for granted, is a daily battle. We wish for them, peace, political stability and prosperity.
I leave you with a few proverbs from these three countries:
What one hopes for is always better than what one has.
The stomach has no holiday.
The bitter heart eats its owner.
Too much discussion means a quarrel.
Until next week,