Monday, June 21, 2010

My Life as a Kabaa Eater (tentative title. Other tentative titles: "How I learnt to Stop Worrying and Eat Some Kabaa.", "In America they call it candy

My preferred way of eating kabaa is with my fingers, while pacing frenetically in the backyard and thinking random thoughts (such as the ones that I'm writing now). The kabaa - along with the solom-solom, the gurun-soup, the flocks, the mborkha-bu-laka, etc. - are our version of candy/the American snack ("our version of" here not used in the sense of having a derivative product, since kabaa definitely is not a copied and changed version of candy, but rather used in the sense of two products used in the same fashion in different cultures, neither of which take precedence or claim originality over the other). Sucking on a kabaa seed it struck me how different our "candy" is from the ones in the West (and again we see the factory-ization that is a theme I have been visiting again and again lately): over there candy (and by candy here I mean all dispensed products, from bottles of coke to Pringles to those little groundnut bags) is created in factories, where programmed mechanical arms put them in bags and label them with, among other things, their caloric content and what ingredients went into their making. These are then sealed into boxes and transported in their thousands to giant warehouses, from whence they move to supermarkets and vending machines. In contrast, our "candy" grows on trees and is harvested and bought by old women, who sit outside school gates and at street junctions haggling over their price with customers. There are no laws (health of otherwise) which the producers of this "candy" have to follow (and here again I take a detour to talk about the issue of consumer trust: all over the Gambia there are men and women selling all kinds of food - from the narr selling yaapa-bu-laka ("forokh chaaya" to some of you) to the peul selling taapa-laapa - though there is a health department that is in charge of regulating all these food-selling places, it rarely does anything, except in the most egregious cases - instead we have an implicit trust in all these people to stay healthy and not, for example, cut open our bread right after they finish wiping their noses. Despite the occasional horror story about razors being found in taapa-laapa, e.g., the system works surprisingly well - there is rarely a case of food poisoning (whether because we have developed stronger immune systems a more qualified person will have to tell us) and everything goes along relatively smoothly). And while over there the end of the line is a food dispenser, programmed to work without human intervention (and, the melodramatic novelist in me wants to add: cold, distant, austere), here it is the aforementioned old woman, experimentally cutting open your kabaa for you to see if it is bad, or turning your mborkha on the charcoal fire to prevent it getting burnt (interesting-but-useless-fact-about-the-author: I actually prefer some of my mborkha to be burnt in this way - there is to me something satisfying about scraping off this black burnt crisp and chewing on it - this makes me understand at an instinctual level why people suffer from pica, eating ash, or chalk, or clay).

The kabaa's preparation is as important as its consumption. Novice (or just lazy) kabaa buyers will leave the details of the mixing (aside to the uninitiated: kabaa in its virgin form is usually a sour, almost-juiceless fruit - a mixture of sugar, salt, etc. are needed to flavor the kabaa and bring out its juices, and allow one to eat it without the mouth-tightening which is the visible result of sourness) to the kabaa seller (who usually has a mixture of sugar, pepper and salt in a plastic container ready for just such events), who adds a smidgen of this mixture to the kabaa with his knife and stabs again and again into the kabaa, introducing along with the stabs a swirling motion meant to imitate the motion of a mixing finger (one of the disadvantages of having the kabaa seller do it for you: a knife just can't reach into the inner recesses of the kabaa like a well-aimed finger can. Plus you can't lick and suck on a sugar-covered knife). And so the better way to do it is to take the kabaa home, and cut it open, and carry out the mixing ritual, yourself. The downside to this of course is that if the kabaa is a bad one (in my experience about one in every forty or so kabaas turns out irrecoverably bad (recoverably bad is when the badness is limited to just the top of the kabaa, so you can cut it out with a knife and enjoy the rest; irrecoverably bad is when the badness has spread throughout the kabaa like a disease, so all you can do is throw it away)) you have to either take it back to the kabaa seller to have it replaced, or, if they're located too far away, throw it in the bin and curse the waste of money (speaking of which, the price of kabaa has gone up quite a bit in the last two years - whereas two years ago it cost a dalasi for a small one, and five dalasis for a big one, now the starting price of big ones is ten dee and the smaller ones cost pound (hip nongo slang for currency: pound = five dalasi; sugu-fem = twenty-five; arch = hundred (geddit? arch as in the Arch which adorns the hundred dalasi note. Don't ask me what sugu-fem means)). Anyways so once the kabaa is opened (with a knife - as in when cutting open an orange you must make the lower part larger, and the upper part smaller, giving a cover and a main part - this is just one of those things everyone does automatically, which just seems to be the right thing, and does not need rationalizing), one then has a selection of condiments to add. Sugar is the most common, with a dash of salt on the side to add a hint of, well, saltiness. It is by no means the only possible combination however: I have seen people who prefer just salt; or just sugar; or sugar and salt and pepper; or salt and pepper; or any of the above but with jumbo added as well (I myself am not a big fan of jumbo in kabaa, which is funny because I liberally apply maggi sauce to every rice dish I eat, yet adding even a little jumbo to my kabaa leaves me feeling faintly nauseous). Instead of working within the confines of the kabaa shell there are some who prefer instead to offload the whole thing to a cup (including the skin, of which more later), which gives them more space to maneuver but abstracts a little from the mother-naturey feel of the whole exercise - these are also the people who will, after they have finished mixing the kabaa this way, put it in the fridge to have it chill a bit before they eat it, a practice frowned upon by kabaa purists but which I have been guilty of on occasion. (I have heard as well that doing this, and freezing the kabaa, is the only way to get it past US customs, as the whole kabaa - pod and all - seems to pose too much of a threat to national health security (not surprising, given that the kabaa - much as I love it - is not exactly the most good-looking of fruits (that award would probably go to the vain apple, or the frivolous banana). I haven't had occasion to test this yet, though I fear I will soon).

Swallowing kabaa seeds does wonders in the, ahem, fibre department, strengthening (and here I ask the more sensitive readers to skip a line or two - or in fact the rest of this paragraph - before they continue reading) what would perhaps be rather watery in nature, or, at best smearful (as in leaving smears during its passage), leading to some very satisfying, ahem, sessions in the bathroom (there is a palpable sense of relief that follows these sessions - after a particularly good one, one finds oneself feeling lighter, as if divested of a great load (which, in fact, is the case) - this relief is built up over the course of the session in increments, each release of matter increasing one's level of satisfaction, until one is finally done. The solidity of the matter being released is directly proportional to the general feeling of satisfaction and relief one feels - which is where the kabaa comes in: the swallowed seeds mix in with whatever is already in there, adding a firmness and a certain well-roundedness which contributes greatly to the final feeling result).

After one has eaten the seeds there is the skin of the kabaa (skin here having faintly cannibalistic connotations (at least to my, admittedly quite dark, imagination), but don't think of human skin, think of the skin of, say, a banana). The kabaa has a hard casing in which the seeds are contained - coating the inside of this hard coating is an edible skin, which can be scraped off and eaten, either with a spoon, or with the edges of the teeth. This is where the sugar/salt/pepper/jumbo mixture proves it second use, in addition to un-souring the kabaa seeds: by the time all the seeds are gone all is left is the kabaa juice created at the beginning of the exercise. This adds a measure of sweetness/saltiness/jumbo-iness to the skin - while one sucked on then spat out/swallowed the seed, the skin is made for chewing on. There is a certain sourness around its edges, which along with the sugar make for an interesting combination, and one which I would urge you to try if you have not already.

Home is not just a place - it is useful instead to think of it as a construction, a collection of things we have experienced enough times that they become a part of our core identity, and we yearn for them every time we are absent from them. One of these things for me in my construction of Gambia as a home is the house-shaking thunderstorms, which send thrills (thunder! lightning!) through you one moment and then gently send you to sleep the next (the gentle waft of a breeze through an open window, as voices drowned by the rain sounds attempt a conversation in the next room…). Another is the kabaa, and the experience that is eating it - silly as it seems this is one of the things I missed most about home, and is one of the reasons I can't wait to come back for good.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Mosquitoes

There are our old friends, the mosquitoes. From the first evening, outside on the verandah praying, they make their presence felt. They descend from the skies in ones and twos, and settle daintily, almost fondly onto the bare patches of skin that wait, like fields buried beneath which lie globules of blood, waiting to be harvested. There are two main reactions to the mosquito. First there are the swipers, who cannot sit still for a moment in a mosquito's presence, because even hearing the whine of the insect in the air (or imagining they hear it) sets their skin to crawling. And so they swipe their hands through the air, and clap them together.

These are the two generally agreed-upon and most effective ways to kill a mosquito, apparently: the swipe (a swinging of the forearm through the air to a decided-upon point in the sky, at which point the hand is suddenly clasped closed, the idea being to fool the mosquitoes ("oh look - there - an empty palm facing upward and moving down toward me - I'll just continue flying in its general direction - how could it hurt me"), and then at the crucial moment intercepting their flight path and squashing them flat (or as flat as a mosquito can be, given that it is already so tiny).

The swipe casts a wider net, though its disadvantage is that it leaves you with a palm full of blood and is not as satisfactory as the clap, which is like a sudden sharp shock in the life of the mosquito bringing it to an end (we don't just want our enemies to die, we want them to die painfully, with thunder rolling down from the skies and lightning illuminating the scene and everyone witnessing it). The clap begins as two palms facing each other in the sky (as at the beginning of a clapping motion, hence the name) - the mosquito flies between them like - well like a mosquito really

There is a tale of a pharaoh who, fooled by the excess of his earthly wealth and power, dared challenge the name of God himself. And God, ever patient, said nothing, only watched as he boasted and pounded his chest* and pointed out to his people how God was doing nothing, because he was so great. That night while he slept God sent a mosquito, the tiniest of creatures - it flew and flew, whining all the while, until it reached the sleeping pharaoh. It did not bite** him, oh no, it did something infinitely more cruel: it flew into his ear. The pharaoh (we imagine) awoke with a start, to the whining which seemed to be coming from his very brain. And so the mosquito stayed, driving the pharaoh to madness and eventually death. (At this point in the story the Oustass who was narrating it would point out just how powerful God is, and how He can use even the tiniest creatures (imagine! - a mosquito) to his advantage. There is also in the story a metaphor, in which we replace the pharaoh and the mosquito stands in place for the thousands (millions? are they really that much? the thing about counting mosquitoes is that because they zoom around so fast and are so small there always seem to be an infinitely greater number of them than there are in real life) of mosquitoes that bite us every day.

The mosquitoes in my memory are much larger, their stomachs bloated, basically jars of blood with wings attached, leaving stains on your sheet where you wiped off your hands after killing them. The ones in my room now seem to be much smaller, barely-there mosquitoes, driven this way and that erratically through the air when I put the fan on. When this happens they will fly to a curtain and hang on for dear life, waiting… Why have the mosquitoes shrunk (or, alternatively: why has the mosquito in my memory become enlarged to inhuman (in-mosquito?) proportions).***

The war against the mosquitoes is an ongoing one, fought in backrooms and front rooms and parlors and bedrooms all over the land. In the morning the mosquitoes rest in their stagnant pools of water, so light on its surface they barely cause any ripples, sleeping, gathering energy. At dusk they set out.

[ Or rather the female mosquitoes set out. The males drink nectar, and do not have a thirst for anything else. It is the females who need blood, in order to reproduce. There is something tragic about this: the female mosquito, ready to reproduce, going out in search of an animal to supply it with the only thing left, the missing ingredient: its blood. A dangerous mission, especially if the animal in question is human, a suicidal mission in order to ensure the species continues. The tenacity of mothers everywhere in nature, to bring their offspring into the world and raise them at any cost. After the female mosquito has fed it retires for few days, until it has developed and laid its eggs. And then off it goes again to search for another animal to bite, repeating the cycle. There is something poetic (of the gruesome school of poetry) and moving about this. ]

And in the houses the ritual killing of mosquitoes begins. The first line of defense is the insecticide (Bop, Baygon, Spritex - every house has its favored brand). All the rooms of the house are sprayed, causing noxious fumes which force everyone to go outside for a bit…

…where the mosquitoes are waiting. It is there, sitting outside, that the first battles are fought - the swiping and the clapping, the dodging through the air, the itchy skin, the whining. The spilling of blood. And it lasts all night, or at least until the humans are asleep, lost in their dreams and unable to react. Then the lucky ones, who have survived the onslaught on them - they feed in peace, with sighs of relief (or whatever the mosquito equivalent of a sigh of relief is - perhaps a different pitch to the whining, as their wings slow down and they settle).

Why we hate them of course is the malaria (and also the yellow fever, and the dengue fever, and the exotically-named Chikungunya), something they can never understand. But in Gambia the malaria especially: the weakening of the joints, the fire that threatens to consume you from within. 700 million people infected every year, 2 million dying from it. All from an insect so tiny you can only see its features if you lean in real close and squint.

We dream of exterminating the mosquito, of annihilating it from the face of the earth. The mass extinction of a species that not many people will complain about, or miss. And the mosquitoes? As they lie in their swamps what do they dream? Who knows - but perhaps this: a man, middle-aged and healthy. During the day, while the mosquitoes sleep he goes about his business. He eats good food, and exercises. He goes about his life as normal (while the mosquitoes dream). And then in the night he retires - he goes back into his house. In his room he takes off all his clothes, and lies on his bed naked, and closes his eyes. He stays perfectly still, does not move a finger. And in a minute the mosquitoes, who have been waiting, will descend. In their hundreds, the young and the old, from the closet and the corners of the room where they have been biding their time. And softly, softly, so as not to wake the man from his trance-like state, the only sound the their gentle whining, so softly, they will land on his body. There will be no fighting amongst them, for there will be enough for everyone. And they will feed, they will satiate their thirst, not wasting a drop, not taking a drop more than they will need, their covenant with the man. There will be no swiping, and no clapping. After fifteen minutes they will rise as softly as they descended and in a dark cloud they will leave the room, leave the man where he lies sleeping, a small smile on his face. Perhaps this is what the mosquitoes dream.

* Needless-but-cool-(I think) Aside: The Wolof phrase for pounding one's chest is "foga dayna", which is completely unrelated to mosquitoes but has a certain lyricism and poetry to it - say the phrase to yourself, softly and for a moment you will see a puffed-out chest and a hand pounding on it, and hear the sound it makes.

** the dictionary says mosquitoes bite, but there seems to me an association between bite and teeth within a mouth that mosquitoes do not possess, and so I hesitated at using it here. Sting, perhaps, would work better, though it too has its shortcomings. Perhaps suck. Or, if we're feeling adventurous, feast ("the mosquitoes descended on the man, and feasted upon him as he slept").

*** the cats, too - though the cats have always been different animals: the cats in America are fat and spoilt, protected by law and loving owners. In contrast to our cats, which are lean and look underfed, always kept on the edge by the stone thrown by a bored kid, and the increasingly empty waste bins. Two communities, each hated by the other: "there is a place", the older Gambian cats will tell the younger ones, "where the cats do not believe in God and live decadent lives of over-nourishment. If you do not behave we will send you there" (and in America the opposite story).