Food as a Path to the Spiritual — the Diet in Guinea

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I’ve experienced a different relationship with food since arriving in Guinea.  I was blessed during my stay in the States to be extremely spoiled by good eating.  In California, much of my time was spent with health-conscious friends who also possessed a talent for cooking the often garden-fresh meals I enjoyed.  On the east coast, my family kept me well fed with home cooked favorites and restaurant meals.

Here in Guinea, the food is nourishing and freshly made, but I must confess that I don’t relish it.  I eat to nourish only, rarely for the flavor or to enjoy my meal.  This brings to mind a discussion we had towards the end of my yoga teacher training.

The teacher was leading the class in a study of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and she was speaking to us of the importance of withdrawing attachment from the material world in order to cultivate a stronger connection with the spiritual.  Moksha, freedom from attachments, is the ultimate goal of practicing yoga.  Patanjali suggests the complete severing of all attachments to achieve this goal.  In creating this separation, Patanjali speaks of the importance of drawing away from the narrative of our lives, observing the passage of emotions without allowing ourselves to be caught up in the sticky details, and to stop identifying with the many masks we wear.

Moksha

Moksha

I found myself agreeing with all of these points and fully understanding the importance of making this separation between the atman, the eternal self within, and the ego.  However, I recoiled from my teacher’s next point that we must also break attachments with the joys of life.  She said that we should not fully immerse ourselves in the joy of music, dance, or relishing of good food. 

For me, dance, music, and food have always served as the fulcrum around which gather friends, family, and moments where we are able to forget our separate selves and remember that we are all one.  I raised my hand and made this point.  My teacher stated that Patanjali’s sutras, written from a dualist perspective, posit that in order to attain moksha, one must relinquish all earthly attachments.

My studies eventually took me away from this perspective and more towards the philosophy that we are all one.  I believe that each experience – painful and pleasurable alike – serves to push us towards our dharma, or life path, and fulfills the needs of our souls.  Though I still believe and live from this philosophy today, that conversation on the wisdom of Patanjali never left me.

The teaching comes back to me now as I find myself torn from the enjoyment that is eating.  Despite only eating to nourish, I still experience the connection of friends and family and I am reminded daily that we are all one.  As I sit to eat, I find myself eating less and chewing more.  I practice Thich Nhat Han’s teaching of mindful eating and place my fork down between bites, focusing on the nourishment available in the food.  Even though the meals aren’t the tastiest, I give profound thanks for the hands that prepare them, the earth and rain that grew the rice, the fishermen who caught the fish, and the sellers that stood in the hot African sun to offer the food up to the public.

Eating lightly also helps me cultivate the Sattvic guna, the aspect of our personality that aligns us with our angelic nature.  The custom of keeping the head covered during the day also is behavior traditionally associated with becoming more sattvic, as is dressing in light or white colors.  I can’t claim to be wearing all white – the brightly colored patterns and fabrics that surround me are too inspiring for that – but I do often find myself covering my head during the day for protection from the sun.  I’ll often drape a covering over my crown chakra when I sit for meditation.

But back to the food – let’s explore what’s available and how people prepare it.  The meats, in order of how common they are:

  • Fish – most often dried, rarely fresh
  • Goat and deer – sold nightly by roadside vendors over smoking grills.  Cut into cubes and seasoned with salt and maggi, the meat is then pierced with a metal stick and cooked over the fire, served hot in a paper wrapping with a sprinkling of raw onion and a generous scoop of mayonnaise.
  • Chicken – occasionally bought to cook at home with the family, not observed sold cooked in the maakiti, market.
Fresh caught fish smoked over large fires

Fresh caught fish smoked over large fires

The vegetables include lettuce, eggplant, okra, carrots, onions, garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, white sweet potatoes, ginger, yucca, banan loco, or plantains, and a very large root vegetable that has the texture of dry yucca when cooked.  There are not many fruits that are ripe right now, in the middle of the dry season.  Oranges, bananas, and papaya are most common.  Breadfruit and guava are also available, but not often eaten or sold.

Seasoning is very limited.  Sauces are made from a mixture of palm oil and peanut butter, mayonnaise, and the ever-present Maggi – a mixture of MSG and other flavorings that is poured on everything from sauce to salad.

A local restaurant is decorated with posters advertising Maggi

A local restaurant is decorated with posters advertising Maggi

Salads, made up of fresh local lettuce, tomato, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, and sliced baked potatoes, are served with a combination of peanut oil and a pink colored vinegar as well as mayo and maggi.  I’ve talked the girls here in the house to leave out the mayo and maggi on my salads.  They wrinkle their noses at this and think I’m a little crazy, but do it anyway.  Coffee is Nescafe served with sweetened condensed milk and way too much sugar.  Tea is also common, brewed from branches and leaves from a tree whose name I can’t recall.  Atayah is a dark tea that’s brewed by the men as they sit in the shade of the nearest tree.  It’s made in small tea pots and served in smaller shot glasses.  One or two glasses make the rounds until everybody has had their fill.

The primary meal of the day is made by smashing whole dried fish with peppers, onions, peanut butter, and palm oil all together in a bowl that looks like the bottom of a djembe drum.

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From there, the mixture is rolled into balls and thrown into a sauce of the same – more peanut butter, palm oil, magi, and whatever vegetables are on hand – usually a few potatoes, yucca, or a sour green vegetable that almost looks like an unripe tomato.  After cooking for at least an hour, the sauce and fish balls are served over white rice.  Anywhere between two and seven people will gather around to share a large platter of food.  As there are only two spoons in the home, most people wash their hands before eating and then eat with their hands.  The rice and sauce are scooped up and eaten with relish.  If there are any leftovers, they are passed to one of the many children always walking around, who sit down and enjoy them.  Oranges are eaten between meals, the sweet juice sucked out and the fibrous part of the orange discarded, to the joy of the goats that wander the yard looking for morsels to eat.

AEsha cooks most meals at the home.  Only 15, she also cares for her mother, who lost the ability to walk last year as well as use of her left hand, the result of a suspected stroke.

AEsha cooks most meals at the home. Only 15, she also cares for her mother, who lost the ability to walk last year as well as use of her left hand, the result of a suspected stroke.

The whole meal is cooked outdoors over two charcoal burners in two pots.  When complete, the meal is divided between as many plates as can be found.

IMAG0090

Because it takes so long to prepare, there is usually only one large meal served each day.  Breakfast is coffee and bread, or bought from a lady walking by with a bucket on her head.  To me it looks like mush.  I haven’t found out first hand what it is as my boyfriend tells me it’s not something I want to eat.  Although dinner is not the norm, we usually have a salad each evening at my request.  The family seems to enjoy it, although they think me strange that I eat so much salad and so little maggi.

Marialma prepares an evening salad.

Marialma prepares an evening salad.

It is not easy to be gluten free here.  Large loaves of bread are sold everywhere and eaten with every meal.  Roadside vendors also offer a variety of deep fried and breaded mysteries – unidentifiable balls of meat or fish..  Other common edibles sold in the market include hard-boiled eggs, deep-fried banana cakes – sometimes made with bananas and sometimes with plantains, and my favorite – popcorn.  Plain and lightly salted, this has become a safe snack I know I can eat that won’t make me sick and will serve to hold me over until the next meal.  Children, who are eager to be the ones to sell something to the foti, are the most common vendors of popcorn.  They walk with large buckets on their head that have small plastic bags of popcorn that sell for 1,000 frank guineas, or about a dime.

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