Saturday, June 30, 2012

more about food here

Fruits and Vegetables "In Season"

Some of you are old enough to remember when various fruits and vegetables were only available at certain times during the year. When strawberries were "in season" you ate lots of them, but after that, you really could not get them.  With modern transportation and ways to keep food fresh, you can get strawberries any time of the year in American supper markets.  Here things are like they were in the old days, unless you are in Ouaga or in one of the towns along the railway. Even there you can get strawberries only about a month out of the year. 


Right now, it is mango season, which started in April with little yellow mangoes.  They were so small you really could not get much fruit off the pit. I liked to roll them on the counter under pressure, then squeeze the pulp and juice out into a bowl.  It was kind of like eating apple sauce, except that you did not have to cook them and they did not need any sugar to sweeten them.  Next came the green mangoes that are like those you might see in the grocery store in America.  You can cut the fruit from around the pit, score the fruit and bend the skin so you could eat it like Annie and Jay were doing in my blog about light, or even cut it into slices, like  these.
When things as in season lots of people sit by the side of the road to sell what they have harvested.
Mango trees look like this when they are in bloom
And like this when the fruit is ripening.

Other fruits

Bananas grow here if you have a good source of water.  Here are some growing on a plantation next to a river in the south west.
They are also imported throughout the year from Ivory Coast and other neighboring countries that get more rain.

Another fruit that grows well here are papayas. They look like this on a tree.  When you cut them open they are yellow-orange and have black seeds in the center that remind me of fish eggs.  Maybe you know the fruit, but I had never eaten it as a fresh fruit before I came here.
In the bigger cities you can find pineapples, oranges, apples, plantains and coconuts all year round. A seasonal fruit that is somewhat different from what we have is what they call grapes.  They grow on a tree, not a vine, and have large pits with very little fruit.  On the other hand, in a country where there is not much to eat right now, people are enjoying them.  These are not really ripe.  When they turn reddish-purple they are said to be sweet.


In the villages, vegetables are also seasonal.  People are busy in their fields during the rainy season, but after the harvest they start doing gardening.  From November through February or so you can find lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, green peppers, and carrots at the marché.   Even now I can find cucumbers, onions, cabbages, and egg plant.  Here you see some squash, cabbages and egg plants.
 here some lettuce and potatoes
tomatoes and green beans.

Stuff for sauces

One of the more popular kinds of sauce, which I mentioned in the last blog, is referred to as gumbo sauce.  It is made from okra, like this man is holding. You can see the field of gumbo growing behind him. I do not care for the sauce because of the slimy texture, but you can cut the okra into little  round wheels, dip them in some kind of breading and fry them, just to cook then a bit, and they are not slimy.

Most sauces are made from greens of some kind.  Tops of plants are often used, but the thing that surprised me was the number of trees that have leaves that are edible and nutritious.  I suspect that people figured out what could be eaten in hard times like we are having right now because of the lack of rain.  People experimented with anything that was growing and found some that could be eaten.  When I visited a garden with a friend she saw a man pulling weeds.  One of the plants he was about to throw away was one the people of her ethnic group had found was good to eat and she bought a bunch from him.

Selling food to travelers

When you are traveling on a bus, a bush taxi or car, if you stop near a bus station (gare) or have to stop to pay a toll, your vehicle will be surrounded by women and girls (and occasionally men) wanting to sell you something through the window that you can eat or drink as you travel. Popular items are sachets of cold water, apples, hard boiled eggs, and bread.
You also might want to buy something to take to the person you are visiting, or to take home with you, like onions or a live chicken.


Desserts are not a concept here, but there are treats you might serve at a party.  The most usual are popcorn and the shrimp chips we find in Chinese restaurants.  The shrimp chips come as small disks that puff up and get crispy when you drop them in hot oil.  I was a bit surprised to find them here, but a lot of Chinese things are exported to Burkina Faso.
Another treat (no photos of these, sorry) is called gateau, that is, cake.  It is really a kind of  pretty stiff dough which is patted out to the thickness of about an inch and cut into 1 inch by 1 inch cubes that are fried in oil.  The other thing is a dough that is dropped by spoonfuls into the hot oil. They come out something like glazed doughnut holes, but a bit bigger and greasier, without the sugar coating.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Cooking in Burkina Faso

Cooking in villages (and in town)

Most cooking here is done in the courtyard of the home, over a wood fire.  In order to cook, you have to go find wood, and that, along with finding water, are major activities for many women each day. Here are three women who have gone into the bush to gather wood, carrying the branches home on their heads.
 At the marché you will find an area where people are selling wood and charcoal they have made from the wood they have gathered.

The traditional way to set up your kitchen is with three rocks holding up your marmite (pot).  You build the fire underneath the pot.  The problem is that much of the heat escapes around the pot, and the fire may even extend outside the rocks, wasting your precious wood.
The help with this problem, people may build improved wood stoves by surrounding the rocks with the mud they use to make bricks here. This not only restricts the fire to the place under the pot, it also holds some of the heat. You need a lot less wood to accomplish the same amount of cooking with a stove like this. Teaching people how to make this improved wood stoves was one of Janet's projects when she was in the Peace Corps in Mali 28 years ago. Here is an example of an improved wood stove with space for two pots. Dolo, the local beer, is being boiled in both of the pots.
 It is against the law to cut down a tree without a special permit, but it is legal to prune a tree, and that is the way much of the fire wood is produced. People have wood lots where they plant trees that grow fast and will sprout new branches when old ones are cut off.  Here is a truck, loaded with fire wood, on the way to Ouagadougou. When I take the bush taxi or bus to Ouaga we pass many trucks like this along the way.
Yes, even in town most people cook with firewood. I took this picture out of the window of a hotel in the middle of Ouaga. As you can see, the house is just one room, like many in the villages, and the courtyard is used as the living and work space.  It is hard to make out, but they are cooking in the same way as they would in a village.
If you can afford to cook with gas, you may have a cook stove like mine.  Even people who have gas stoves tend to do most of their cooking over the wood fire. Even though you or your children may spend a lot of time finding the wood, it is free, and you have to pay for the gas.

People who make food to sell often cook in a "stone" oven.  Here is one of the places I often buy bread, with some of the kids who sell it posing behind the bread and in front of the oven.
Another thing that is made in this kind of over is "porc au feur", that is, roasted pork.  If you can find a good pig for sale, you buy it, have it slaughtered and inspected by the veterinarian.  A person seeing the pork will see the official stamp on the skin showing that the meat has been inspected and found to be good. The porc au feur man cuts the meat it up into small chunks, and puts it in a big cooking tray, about the size of his oven, to roast. People may buy a sack of pork to take home, or they may sit in the hangar to eat it. You only find people cooking and selling pork when there are a substantial number of Christians in the area.  Muslims, of course, do not eat pork. During Lent, if market day was on Friday, I could not find any pork to buy. I like to get to the place cooking the pork before they put it in the oven.  I buy a piece that is just the meat, if I can convince the person that is what I really want (no skin or fat or bone). Then I can fry it up in my pan at home.  I usually get enough for two meals. I have a fried pork sandwich for lunch and use the rest of the meat in some kind of dish for dinner.

Another kind of meat you often find in the village is goat.  Because about half of the people here muslin, there is a good market for goat meat or mutton. These are usually cooked on a big charcoal grill. The cooked bits are wrapped in brown paper with onion and tomato (if tomatoes are available) and kept warm at the edge of the grill. The contents of the package will include bone, fat and organs as well as the meat.  If I am going for goat, I also try to get there early and get just the meat, although with goat it is a bit harder to get meat without the bone.

Chickens and guinea fowl are also cooked on charcoal grills.  They are cooked with the head still attached, so you see for sure whether it is a chicken or a guinea fowl.  I also think people like to eat the head.

When cooking at home, one of the standard Burkinabè meals consists of tô and some kind of sauce.  To make the tô, you have to have some kind of flour.  You may buy corn or millet at the market.  People here prefer the flavor of corn flour, but I understand the millet is actually more nutritious.
If you can afford it, you may take your grain to a person who has a mill to grind it.  Otherwise you pound it until it is fine, as these women are doing.
Tô is made by boiling water and gradually adding the flour.  As you add the flour you keep stirring the mixture. When it gets to be the right consistency, you whip it until it is thick.  Here is a girl whipping to on one of those improved wood stove
People usually scoop the tô out with some kind of container, like a dried gourd, and let it cool.  The tô holds the shape of the container it cools in.  Then you pile all of this in a pot and people can pull off a portion, dip it in the sauce, and eat it.  I think of tô as a way to get the sauce to your mouth because, by itself, it does not have much flavor. The sauce is often very spicy and salty, so having a very bland base makes it easier to eat the sauce. The two kinds of sauce I recognize are oseille and gumbo.  Gumbo is okra so gumbo sauce is very slimy.  The oseille sauce is a bit like spinach and I can eat some of that with pleasure.
Another standard meal is called riz gras.  It is rice that is cooked in a tomato based sauce so when it is finished, it is sort of pink and has a nice taste.  It is my favorite African dish.  It may be accompanied by a sauce made with tomatoes and other vegetables, and it will probably have some dried fish that has been cooked in it. Perhaps surprisingly, spaghetti with meat or fish sauce is a common dish. Sorry I do not have pictures of some of these things, but I may be able to correct that when I buy a new camera to replace the one that was stolen.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Living without electricity

A friend from John Carroll asked me how I managed to get along without electricity.  When I came to Burkina Faso and realized that I might be in a place without electricity or running water, I decided to think of it as camping out for two years.  Actually I am much more comfortable than I would be if I were camping. 

Light for reading

The biggest challenge for me has been to have enough light to read by, because I read a good deal.  I study French, and read books in French (Harry Potter, books 1-7 and The Three Musketeers) as well as many books in English that I refer to as marshmallow fluff. By fluff, I mean things that don't take much effort to read, like mysteries and adventure stories. At the Peace Corps transit house in Ouaga there are several hundred (maybe several thousand) books, mostly paperbacks, that have been contributed by volunteers.  The book shelves are overflowing and volunteers are encouraged to take books back to their sites.  If all the volunteers returned the books they have borrowed I don’t think there would be space in the transit house living room for anything other than books.

Typical Burkinabè houses tend to be dim, even during the day. The windows are small and there is usually only one window per room, as you can see in this house under construction and the small house in the background.
 Luckily for me, my house was built to accommodate a more European life style. It has bigger windows than typical houses and big double doors that I can open because there are also double screen doors. Here is Jesse coming through them when he was here at Christmas.
 During the day, when the sun is shining, I can easily read by the light that comes through the windows and doors. You can see how light it is at my table in this picture of Jay and Annie enjoying mangos during that same Christmas visit.
In an earlier blog I showed you a picture of my rechargeable 12 volt battery and a fluorescent light bar that I used to read by.   In this picture you can see the battery on the floor and the light over the table where I eat and read.
 After I had three of these light bars short circuit and burn out from bugs getting into the baffle, I decided to try a different kind of light that many people here use. I put two of them on a piece of wood that I can lower or raise like a chandelier.  Until recently they have been my source of light to read by at night. 
 A couple of weeks ago I discovered an even better source of light, that you see above, hanging between the two 15 watt fluorescent lights. This terrific little light uses LEDs that draw a lot less power from the battery, and the light is just as good as the light from the two 15 watt lights.

What do the local folks use?

There are a number ways people get light at night.  In most courtyards there is a cooking fire, and that may be enough light to see by for cooking and eating, but certainly not enough to read by! The most typical types of lights people use are battery powered flashlights and lanterns. These are typical of the kinds of lanterns Burkinabè use.

My neighbor, Prosper, charges my battery with this solar panel.

Burkinabè who earn enough to buy a solar panel have a battery, usually a lot bigger than the one I use.  From the battery they may power fluorescent lights like the ones I used to use, radios, stereos and even TVs..  Here is the big battery Prosper uses, and my little one, getting charged. You can also see his "boom box" charging, and his TV is under the white cover to keep the dust off.

My light sources for things other than reading.

These cute little lamps came with Janet and family last year and are good for giving general light to a room.  I find them hard to read by because the light shines in my eyes.

These odd looking solar rechargeable "light bulbs," were sent to me from the USA. Here they are in my kitchen, but I have strings hanging down in the shower stall and in my "office" where I use my computer and I hang them where ever I need them at night.
 This is a solar chargeable reading lamp which gives a good deal of light to read by.  I would use it if I did not have the battery arrangement.  Along with the light bulbs (above) they are an opportunity waiting to happen.  There would be a huge demand for them in rural areas like where I live, if somebody could just figure out the logistics of importing them and distributing them.

I love this solar chargeable flashlight that was a gift from the parents of one of the volunteers who stopped to visit me while they were touring the country.
If the battery runs out of juice in the evening, I may resort to these head lamp flash lights that give a bright, focused light.  The problem with them is that they attract bugs that tend to land on my face.

A natural source of light at night

It's surprising how much you can see by moonlight.  For a week or so before the full moon you really can see where you are going outside by the light of the moon.  I think I have already told you that one night, shortly after I arrived at my site, I looked out the window and wondered where the street lights were.  After a second I realized there could not possibly be street lights by my house because there is no electricity in my neighborhood. I went outside and realized that what I was seeing was moonlight.  I guess I never realized how much light the moon really give shen it is full. When the moon starts to wane, it still provides a lot of light, of course, but the moon rises later and later each night so a couple of days after the full moon it really isn’t much help when you need it most.

Saturday, June 9, 2012


Hand dug wells

As you will have realized from my blogs about the pump project and the weather, water is a serious problem here in Burkina Faso. The traditional way to get water is from a well that has been dug by hand. People start to dig down in a place where they hope they will find water.  They may make the hole only wide enough for one man to get into it and continue digging, or it may be a well with a wider diameter. In either case, as the hole is dug out, the sides are lined with rocks or, if there is money for it, concrete.  Here is a picture of the interior of a hand dug well that has been lined with concrete.  You can see the places where digging stopped to allow the wall to be cemented if you look carefully.
 Here is a picture of the same well, with kids nearby so you can see how big it is.  Notice the big metal bowl sitting on the cement platform by the well.  It is what many women use to carry water home.  They fill it full and get someone to help them lift it onto their heads because it is too heavy to lift it themselves.  I am forever amazed at the amount of weight the women carry that way.
To get the water out of the well, you use a "bucket" that is made out of part of a truck tire inner-tube. As you can see, the bucket is not really waterproof, but it does the job.
From the picture below you can get an idea of how wide the opening of the well is. Kids often stand on the wall around the well to pull the water up.  I can see this well from my house and when I see them doing it, I worry that one of them will fall in, but so far that has not happened  
 You dig the well as deep as you can during the dry season.  You dig until you hit the granite that you find, perhaps 20 feet or so down.  Then you can't go any farther.  The water you get from these wells is not from the aquifer but is the water that cannot get through the granite layer.  During the rainy season there is a lot of water in this well, but during the dry season the well dries out completely.  Last year there was water in it until February or March.  This year the water was gone in early January because the rainfall was very light last summer.

Water from a well like this would not really be safe to drink because it is open the air, and contaminants can easily get into the ground water you pull from it. Some local folks do drink it, but I expect they have developed immunity to some of the microbes, and they do get sick a lot.

Ponds and Lakes

 Other sources of water, especially for animals and for washing, are the ponds and small lakes that are formed during the rainy season.  There may be a dam built to flood an area, and dirt may be removed from some of that area so there is a larger basin to hold the water. People may dig the dirt out of a small area so water collects there when it rains, either purposefully, to create a pond, or because they have removed the dirt to make bricks. This is a small lake that has been created by a dam.
Water from ponds and lakes is also dangerous to drink because of the contamination by runoff and animals leaving their droppings in the water. Furthermore, they also tend to go day in the dry season. During the rainy season, the pond below comes up about two feet high on the trunk of the large tree in the foreground.

Water from the Water Company

Fortunately, in the town near where I live there is a government owned water company called ONEA that has drilled several deep wells, into the aquifer, so there is water all year round.  The water is pumped from the wells into these water towers.  Every day someone from the water company climbs up the towers and checks to see if the chlorine level is high enough.  If it is not, they drop in another chlorine tablet, like you put into a swimming pool.
While water from the hand dug well is free, you have to pay for the water that comes from the water company. You pay 10 CAF (about 2 cents) for a 20 liter jug of water. Most people get the water by taking these big plastic or metal barrels to a place where they can fill them from a faucet. They are permanently attached to the wheeled carts that are often pushed or pulled by hand, but may be pulled by a donkey, if you are rich enough to have one.
Here is the place where the girls get my water from ONEA.
Here is a picture of the barrel they haul my water it.  This picture was taken in December 2010 when Janet's family was visiting me. My granddaughter, Abby, is watching Peligi transferring the water from the barrel to my green plastic jugs, and my son in law, Jonathan is in the background.
If you live in the town, you may have a faucet in your courtyard.  If you have your own water spigot, there is a water meter that measures how much you have used and you pay a monthly fee based on usage.  I don't know of any houses in my town that have indoor plumbing with running water for showers, cooking or toilets.  That may be just a well, because there is, of course, no sewer system. Even in Ouaga, all the places I know of that have running water in the house use a septic tank.

I have told you before how I treat the water once it gets into the house, but I will repeat it here, in case you did not read the earlier blogs.  As I explained, the water people do not constantly monitor the level of chlorine in the water supply. As a result, you can never be sure if there was enough chlorine in the water at the moment it comes from the faucet. Also because my water is carried in the open barrel and transferred into my green jugs, carried into the house, and dumped into a plastic garbage can for storage, I always put my drinking water through this water filter that the Peace Corps provided for me. I add chlorine to the water after it has been filtered to assure it is safe to drink. Here is another granddaughter, Annie, showing how you pour the water in the top

and how it comes out the bottom.
I also add chlorine to the water I use for washing dishes and rinsing fruit and vegetables.
Finally, here is a canari, a big ceramic jug which you can fill with water.  Because the ceramic is a bit porous, the water seeps out very slow, evaporating and cooling the water inside.  Local people usually have a canari somewhere in their house or court and, when a person arrives to visit, it is customary to offer the new comer a cup of water. I do not drink the water from my canari, but I do put a Nalgene bottle of Kool-Aid lemonade into the canari so that it gets cooled.  70 degrees may not seem like a cool drink to you, but when the temperature is 100+, it is quite refreshing.