Friday, Sept. 26
Nearly everything the Ndi Wamba family eats, they harvested with their own hands.
That means there isn’t much variety in the food. Eating here isn’t so much for pleasure like it is at home, but for survival.
The diet revolves around starchy tubers or root plants that are boiled, mashed and served as a lump of mush, often in a banana leaf, alongside a sauce.
Yes, this is as bad as it sounds.
But once I learned to identify various forms of mush, I realized some taste significantly better than others. Same for the sauce. So if you luck out and pair decent mush with decent sauce, you can actually have an enjoyable meal.
Villagers cook one meal at night and eat it for dinner, then reheat it for breakfast and, if there’s any left over, as a late-afternoon snack before cooking again that night.
At the Ndi Wamba family compound, each mother cooks a meal in her open-fire kitchen for her children, and they added a plate for Father when he was alive. As a guest, I played his role, which meant four plates of food appeared before me each night, no matter whose kitchen I was sitting in.
Obviously I couldn’t eat that much. But food is an offering, and it’s rude to turn it down. So I ate a little bit from each plate — more from the meals I liked — and gave the rest to the kids.
In the morning, again, four plates of reheated food were delivered to Father’s house, where I slept. I ate what I could get down, then saved the rest for the children, who came scavenging for food after school. Some students buy lunch during the day, but this family can’t afford it.
So what exactly is the mush made of? The staple here is macabo, which looks pretty similar to potato when it’s harvested. I helped peel some the other day, and it’s so hard directly out of the ground that I wouldn’t have guessed it was edible.
But once it’s boiled and mashed, it can be consumed in the traditional Cameroonian way: grab a piece of the pile with your right hand, roll it around in your palm to create a ball and dip it into the sauce. Eating without utensils is fun, so long as you don’t think about how many people shook your hand that day. (Cameroonians shake hands with everyone they encounter.)
Using a simple rating system for village food, macabo comes in at a 2.
1 = makes me gag
2 = not so bad
3 = actually like it
Corn also is popular here, and they eat it in every way imaginable: fresh, grilled, dried, crushed. The mush form is called couscous. Not Algerian couscous, the kind we eat in the States, but mush couscous, served, of course, in a banana leaf. It’s usually accompanied by sauce made of peanuts or tomatoes or cooked spinach.
Rating: 3. My favorite of the mush options.
Then there’s manioc, which I think translates in English to cassava. I can’t stand it. It’s most often served in the shape of a rod that’s rightly called “baton,” or stick.
Rating: 1. Ugh.
When I’m lucky, a plate arrives with something other than mush, such as boiled potatoes, rice (which has become expensive here), yams (not the sweet variety) or my personal favorite, beans and corn.
Sometimes in the mornings, families prepare bouillie (pronounced boo-ee), a sort of hot porridge that can be drank from a cup or slurped with a spoon. I’ve seen it all over West Africa — it’s popular for babies — but never with the same name or ingredients. Here it’s made from crushed corn, although you’d never guess it. I love the stuff. Give me bouillie for breakfast any day over mush in a leaf.
There’s one other food the Cameroonian diet wouldn’t be complete without. Actually, it’s more of a spice: piment, or crushed red chili peppers. They add an unbearable amount of the hot stuff to every dish to liven up otherwise bland meals.
The Ndi Wamba family apparently noticed my aversion to foods prepared with the hot spice. Now, before adding it to a meal, they remove my portion.