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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Porridge Party!

The women I see in my village are incredible.  All household work is “women’s work” here, and there is no shortage of it.  Females work tirelessly, sunup to sundown.  My daily wake-up call is the pounding of a mortar and pestle as a portion of the family’s grain stores are turned into something edible (lecciri is finely pounded millet or corn, kodde is bigger particles of the same, and even rice needs to be pounded to remove the chaff and picked through to remove the rocks).  The work continues through the day, a neverending cycle of sweeping the compound (this is not just for aesthetics, as roaming livestock leave piles of “fertilizer” all over the ground, which is obviously a health hazard), drawing heavy buckets of water up from the well, washing clothes over a washboard, and cooking, all while keeping track of several children.  

In America, cooking is low-stakes.  You can try out a new recipe because you have disposable income, and if it’s not good, you can always just throw a pizza in the oven or head to a restaurant.  Here, if you screw up dinner, if you burn the rice, oversalt the mafe, forget to guard the kitchen and allow a marauding donkey to get into the bowl of grain, your family's meal is ruined, hours of hard work were wasted, and your family will not eat tonight.

Sometimes when I talk to my friends at home, they treat me with reverence.  “I can’t believe you’re living in an African village!” they say.  “With no electricity or running water!  For two years!  You’re amazing!”  This is simply not true.  I am not amazing.  I could never survive here if I didn’t have the women in my compound to help.  I don’t do any of the hard work of converting food that is grown into food that is eaten.  If it wasn't for the women, I probably would have starved to death a few months ago. 

All of this background is just to put the next sentence in perspective:  Women in my village have no creativity when it comes to cooking.  The same 4-5 dishes are repeated, identically, every day, and new foods are treated with suspicion.  This is usually fine, since those dishes are typically nutritious and filling, and the monotony doesn't bother people when it's all they know.

Breakfasts, however, can sometimes be lacking nutritionally. In my village, breakfasts are usually gosse (rice porridge), mooni (millet balls in sauce, with the consistency of the gelatin pieces on the bottom of a bubble tea), or ruit (millet, corn, or rice flour porridge).  If you’re a regular reader, you might remember the Complet Model of Nutrition, since I’ve talked about it here and here.  If you don’t remember, here’s my sitemate Lauren with an incredible visual aid she made.

A traditional Senegalese complet has three parts - headscarf, shirt, and skirt.  You would never go out without all three parts - you should never eat a meal without all three parts.  Headscarf is fruits and vegetables (they're on your head because they give you knowledge), shirt is protein sources (they're on your arms and back because they give you power to pound) and grains are on the skirt (on your legs because they give you energy to walk).
The breakfasts in village contain the skirt part of the Complet model, but don’t usually contain the rest.  I saw this as a good opportunity for a project…and since I’m me, I wanted it to be as fun as possible.  So, I looked at a list of the 16 women in my village whose babies were underweight at the last baby weighing and invited them and their kiddoes to a Porridge Party.

The premise was simple – each woman was asked to bring a cup or two of what their kid usually eats for breakfast, a small charcoal stove, a bowl, and a spoon.  I told them I would bring several healthful additives to increase both the taste and nutritional profile of their child's meal…or at least that’s what I wish I could have told them, but I think my baby Pulaar still got the point across.

Of the sixteen women I invited, only seven came, and of those seven, only four brought stoves, but, as the Pulaars frequently say, wiso wiso buri hokkere – a sprinkle’s better than a drought.  Some attendance was better than none.

We started with a review of the Complet model, then I laid down a picture of a woman in a complet, and, after asking the women where each of the porridge additives went, placed them on the sheet.  

Bananas, tomato paste (in the oatmeal can) and onions on the head scarf; beans, powdered milk, peanut butter, and dried fish on the shirt; oil (in a recycled liquor bottle) on the skirt.  Sugar and MSG cubes on the neck - those are the earrings of the Complet.  They're not nutritious, but they taste good.
I announced that we would make four different porridges today, one for each stove.  I told each group of women to grab one or two items from the shirt and from the headscarf of the woman, since the skirt was already taken care of by the porridge base they had brought.

This is where the Porridge Party shows “room for improvement,” to put it mildly.  I knew that Senegalese women were not creative cookers, but I underestimated the extent of it.  They simply had no concept of what tastes would be good together and which combinations were disgusting.  It reminded me of the time I was five and decided that cheese slices and chocolate sauce were both delicious so I’d make a sandwich with both of them.  One group put dried fish and bananas in their bowl before I saw what they were doing.  They did follow the “rules” of the porridge party – they just did so in a nauseating way.  I watched the other groups more carefully (ie I told them what to do) and their porridges were more successful.

From the front: dried fish, beans, tomato and MSG; powdered milk, banana, tomato, and sugar (I was skeptical about this one but it ended up being OK); peanut butter, banana, and sugar.

After the porridges were cooked, the moms gathered in a circle and had their babies try out the three successful porridges (we gave the gross dried fish and banana porridge to a grateful goat instead).

Did I start a revolution of healthy breakfasts in Teyel?  Probably not.  But I got the moms to try something new, and hopefully they got to thinking that improving the nutrition of breakfast does not have to be expensive or difficult.  It’s a start, and, after all, wiso wiso buri hokkere.


  1. Hi Barbara, I will be sharing this blog with my Child Development class when we get to the infancy unit. I shared your nutrition blog with a 9th grade nutrition and foods class. The photos are beautiful. I love the colors and patterns in the clothing. Where do they get their clothing? Keep up the good work! Barb Mader (your dad's 1st cousin and also a namesake of Grandma Michel)

  2. Wow, Barb, great to hear! Thank you!

    The brightly patterned fabric is called "wax" and it's sold at every market, usually for about $1.50/meter. I think most of it originates in guinea-bissau. After you buy fabric you bring it to a tailor who can sew it into anything your heart desires for between 2-10 dollars. It's great!

  3. I think Shaka & I have about the same level of creativity, but none of the credible excuses.
    Day 1: Burrito bowls, Day 2: Chicken stir fry, Day 3: Turkey burgers Day 4: Pasta, Day 5: Vietnamese Takeout. Repeat.

    Those photos turned out great! The baby in the striped soccer shirt slays me <3