I was a Community Health and Water Sanitation Peace Corps Volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania from 1997-1999. Usually, after a slight pause during which they scan their mental atlas, people will smile, „Ah, right. That island off the coast of Kenya." No, not Mauritius. Mauritania is a swath of Sahara stretching from the disputed territory of Western Sahara south of Morocco, to the northern tip of Senegal, from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to Timbuktu. It is the size of Texas and California combined and has a population of roughly 4 million people, two-thirds of which is concentrated in the coastal capital city of Nouakchott. I spent two years in a small Soninké village, population 500, located north of the regional capital Selibaby in the province of Guidimakha.
The first thing I did after finding out that I was about to spend the first two and a half years of my post-collegiate life in Mauritania was beeline it to the nearest bookstore and pull every guide book on West Africa from the shelves. „Don’t worry about it, you’ll never go there,“ one guide said. Another listed practical information and consular contacts, but compared to the thick chapters on Senegal, Mali and other neighbors, this meager showing made me nervous.
Tourist infrastructure in Mauritania is relatively obsolete. You may meet a few intrepid backpackers or wealthy French "explorers" who hire guides and Land Cruisers for week-long soujourns into the desert or you might be nearly run over, as several local villagers have been over the past few decades, by reckless off-road vehicles participating in the annual Paris-Dakar rally. Recent attacks on foreigners however, including the killing of four French natives in late 2007, are doing nothing to promote tourism nor do they represent this overwhelmingly hospitable people in one of the most physically inhospitable environments I have ever experienced.
My host mom and good friend Khujedji, trying to teach me how to pound millet properly.
In addition to recent reports of the activities of extremist cells in Mauritania, journalists often pen portraits of Mauritania’s culture of slavery (astonishingly only legally abolished in 1980, with many claims that it still exists today), the force-feeding of young girls (big is beautiful) and relatively frequent bloodless coups. But what you will read little to nothing about in the press is the fascinating nomadic desert culture of some of its peoples, the proud history of holy Islamic cities like Chenngeti, and the tough as nails villagers, like the Kebe family who adopted me, who work harder than anyone I have ever met, who will always make room around the communal bowl even when there is not enough to feed the family, who are loyal to a fault.My living room, ten years later...
Unfortunately, what Mauritanians could offer in hospitality far outshined what they could offer at the proverbial table. Having traveled through much of West Africa I feel safe saying that Mauritanian cuisine is the worst of what this part of the continent has to offer. The grain millet was the bane of my existence during the first year in my village. I am not a picky eater but I had as much tolerance for millet as I do for elderly German pedestrians (see previous post). I just couldn't bring myself to eat it: mornings in a powdered milk porridge called Sombi which I politely lapped while everyone else slurped away. Evenings in molo ji, literally translated, bean water - it was like eating a bowl of wet sand and I cannot emphasize enough how little I am exaggerating. Wet sand. Go out and eat some. Every night. It will alter your personality.
As things go, at the intersection of necessity and lack of alternatives, I began to develop a taste for wet sand. I began to ENJOY eating millet for dinner every night. And at some point during this period where I too was shoveling handfuls of wet sand into my mouth, it began to rain, and with the rain came green (here I must note that “rain” and “green” in the Sahel are very relative terms). I helped my family gather what we could of the bean leaves before grazing herds of camels, sheep and emaciated cows thinned the growth. My lovely host mothers and sisters thinly - oh so agonizingly thin! - sliced mounds of bean leaves and boiled them together with freshly ground peanut butter to create what I firmly believe is Mauritania’s culinary redemption.After assisting with the preparation, and then being demoted to a mere spectator – as I could never cut those damn leaves thin enough - I put together a recipe comparable to the haako I ate in Mauritania. Spinach, broccoli rabe and other leafy greens have replaced the bean leaves and the natural peanut butter in the health food aisle is the exact same thing as the peanuts we put through a manual grinder. The only thing that cannot be replicated is the millet – grown in the field near our village, beaten off the stalks by hand, dried, pounded, ground, pounded again and steamed until it had finally reached its grainy sandy texture -although I have heard you can track this down in traditional African markets around 125th and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
Fast forward about ten years to this past weekend...since Swabian Frank's delicious käsespätzle, a little group of us with an interest in culture, an appreciation for food and an existence dominated by a kid(s), have formed what we self-depricatingly call the International Dinner Club. After Frank's impressive representation of the homeland, I was up next to represent one of my adopted homelands. I think a few diners may have thought I was kidding when I emailed an advance warning: we'll be sitting on the floor and I hope no one is left-handed.
A typical meal in Mauritania is served out of a communal bowl. The men and any guest of honor are served first, then boys and then the girls and women - or at least that is how it went in my village. A bowl and tea kettle filled with water are passed around the communal circle and everyone washes their hands. When hands are rinsed, everyone is seated in a circle and the bowl has been placed in the center, the eldest or the host says "Bismi'allah" - the beginning of the Lord's prayer, literally, "in the name of God" - and everyone digs in. The rules: never start before your host; eat from the space in front of you, NEVER scoop something out from the other side of the bowl; make sure to roll the haako and millet together in a ball in your hand before putting it into your mouth - this cools the food down and makes it less messy; licking your arm from wrist to elbow, burping and talking with your mouth full are all considered good form; and finally and most importantly, always ALWAYS USE YOUR RIGHT HAND ONLY. And yes, that's why.
The IDC dug in, albeit somewhat timidly at first, and dare I say - they dug it.
Haako (Pulaar) or Futo do Deré (Soninké)
6 Pounds of Greens (About a pound of greens per person – spinach, collards, brocolli rabe all work well)
300 ml natural peanut butter (About 50 ml per person of natural/health store peanut butter (not Jif or Skippy but the natural kind made of nothing but ground peanuts)
One medium onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 smallish/medium red chilli
About 50 ml of millet per person
First, wash the greens. If they are really dirty, do it in the bathtub or another large tub. Several times, til all of the dirt is off. Once washed, grab a handful and ball it up, cut it into thin strips, as thin as possible. Discard stems. Put shredded greens into boiling lightly salted water for 15 minutes or so. Drain most of the water, leaving a little bit at the bottom. Stir in peanut butter. In a pan, heat oil and add diced onion and garlic. Add chilli – you can use fresh chilli or cheat like me and use sambal olek. Put a bit of the spinach mixture into the pan, return to large pot, all together. Let simmer over very low heat for 20-30 minutes. In the meantime, cook the millet (read directions on the package, it’s like making rice).
When ready to eat, spoon millet into one large bowl. Add the spinach sauce over the top, but only in the middle. Make sure everyone has washed hands and dig in... after it’s had a chance to cool down.
Makes great leftovers the next day. My kids absolutely loved it and its very nutritious – high in protein and vitamins.