“I CAN COOK A CHICKEN!” I finally screamed at my obstreperous counterpart who is always claiming I can’t do this or I can’t do that.
In a Senegalese village, them’s fightin’ words. I would either have to back it up with actions or back down to Ibrahima’s (my counterpart) former accusation. The thing is, I am sick and tired of people telling me I can’t do things because of their inaccurate assumptions of American people.
You can’t cook. You can’t pull water from a well. You can’t plant trees. Money comes out of your ears! Everyone knows Americans don’t work.
Unfortunately, I have learned that this is what the people of this world do to each other. Before I came to Africa how many times did I hear,
You are going to have to eat bugs! You should get the septum of your nose pierced with a bone so you fit in. You are going to have to wipe your butt with banana leaves. (No, actually I wipe my butt with my hand, thank you.)
In any case, as much as I understand that these claims come from the inability from people all over the world to understand each other, (let’s face it, it’s much simpler to think what we want about everyone else and move on with the little worlds we’ve created for ourselves), I could not take another one of Ibrahima’s patronizing statements that I did not understand Pulaar and I therefore did not understand the question Samba Sane, his hose foret boss was asking me.
I did understand. Samba Sane said he wished I could cook him a chicken American style because that’s what he really wanted to eat today. Since lunch was about to come out, naturally I thought he was just joking, because that’s the way it goes in Senegalese culture. So I told him I could cook a chicken, but it would be different than how they cooked chickens here. This is when Ibrahima cut in, in his usual rude and loud way,
“HEDDO, HEDDO, Mariama. Listen, Listen, Mariama. We don’t care if you can cook a chicken where YOU are from. The point is, you cannot cook a chicken HERE.”
And thus my story begins.
“I CAN COOK A CHICKEN!”
“Catch the chicken then,” Samba Sane cried. “If she says she can cook a chicken, then by God, we’ll have American chicken today for lunch!”
Ibrahima nodded solemnly and narrowed his eyes at me, absolutely not believing that this was possible.
My stomach squirmed like a pit of worms and my heart galumphed around my chest like a rogue donkey. I forgot about the part where you have to kill and gut the chicken. It’s not like they were going to run down to Baker’s Grocery Store and bring me home a bloodless, gutless, and ceran-wrapped chicken. Now I was regretting all of those times that I threw a huge fit when my parents asked me nicely to come down to the barn and help them butcher the hundred chickens we did every year. Why couldn’t I have just been interested in where food actually comes from? I berated my younger self.
This is why. Because I was twelve years old and the world was against me, including my chicken murdering parents. I thanked them, as I find myself doing often these days out here in the African bush, for forcing me to come down to help, even if it was only to cut off the legs and put the body in a freezer bag. These memories/nightmares would be my only guide to cleaning the chicken before I cooked it.
I stood up tall and brushed off my skirt, then I went to help the boys corner and catch the chicken that was running around free as a bird (pardon my cliché) in our compound at this very moment in time. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it all.
Once again, the can’ts were hurled my way.
“Mariama, sit down. It’s slippery and you will fall if you try to help us,” said my oldest brother Sidou.
“Mariama, you can’t catch a chicken, it’s too fast for you,” said Boobacar, the uncle that comes to help plant during the rainy season.
Only Caba, my dear, sweet eleven-year-old brother, who’s always on my side and rarely says I can’t do something, nodded at me and gave me an encouraging wink.
Well that chicken was squawking and scrabbling through the mud like he knew the part that came next and when there was no escape except to try and fly over me, he gave it a shot. You have to admire his effort. I snagged that rooster out of the air like it was a rebound in the district basketball finals and ripped it out of its airborne state in triumph.
Can’t catch a chicken my ass, I muttered darkly in English as everyone, including the chief, cheered.
1 point for Mariama. 0 for Ibrahima Camara.
There is no such thing as a grill in the village of Sinchurio Samba Foula, but the boys brought out the big tin charcoal heater that they use for large pots of attaya when we have lots of guests. As Sidou got the fire started up, Ibrahima slit the chicken’s throat. I suppose I could have done it, but thankfully, this is traditionally the man’s job, even when the women do the rest, so I was spared the horror. I watched the blood spurt from the rooster’s neck and the life flicker out of its eyes. For a moment I panicked, thinking of what came next and tried to call my Mom to hear exactly where I needed to start the cut that would allow me to open the chicken and take out its guts. Just my luck. I was completely out of credit. I would have to do this alone.
With the knife dripping blood, Ibrahima nodded to the chicken lying lifeless at his feet.
Bismillah, he said to me. Which basically can translate here as, Give it your best shot, white girl.
I picked up the chicken by its two feet and went into my hut and then into my backyard. I put the dead chicken on the cement slab next to my bed. Okay, I thought. Now I need to pluck it. I remembered that it was much easier to pluck the chickens if they were first soaked in boiling water.
Caba to the rescue! Just as I turned to see where I could get some boiling water, Caba was carrying in a pot of water to put on the charcoal stove that had been placed in my backyard.
“Wallu lan?” I whispered to him. Will you help me?
He smiled the smile that I have learned to love so much that said, Did you think I would do anything else?
When the water was boiling, we put the chicken in a bucket and then dumped the boiling water over him. Sure enough, the feathers came out as easy as pulling baby crocodile teeth. Caba and I both plucked furiously until there was a huge pile of white and brown feathers next to my moringa tree nursery. The chicken was starting to resemble the plastic encased chicken of my university grocery store days.
Next came the part I dreaded. The gutting. What was worse, I thought I could remember Mother making a slit around the bird’s unmentionable region, but I could not remember exactly where. Furthermore, although Mom is tough, I do recall she always wore plastic gloves to reach in and pull out the organs in one steaming handful. I had no such gloves, nor would we be throwing away a pile of highly delectable and edible chicken insides.
This is where Caba comes in. I managed to slit the chicken from bum to sternum and cut off its wings, legs, and neck to boot. These I put on the lid of one of my host mother’s bowls, since Senegalese do not usually use plates. Caba and I crouched in a tiny shade patch beneath the orange tree in my backyard as I tried to swish away the hordes of flies that came calling like thousands of tiny grim reapers on the pile of dead meat I had assembled among the baby cashew trees.
Caba sorted through the pile of organs, examining each slimy piece like a jeweler examines the stone he is about to cut into a diamond. I watched him pull out what I assumed must be the stomach, tear out the lining, and plop the smooth unsoiled part onto the pile with the rest of the meat. Thank god my gag reflex has receded into my past life of bubble baths and electric stoves. Hopefully my readers can keep theirs in check as well as they sully on… He plucked out the heart, squeezed it like a grub, proclaimed it was perfect, and put it on top of the buzzing meat pile like a cherry on an Ice cream Sunday.
All the while, my other little brother, Boye, has been running to the bitik down the path to get my other ingredients.
“Mi sokli basalli, lagge, jimbo, doole, e lamdan,” I told him. I need onions, garlic, Jimbo (a seasoning that no good Senegalese woman cooks without and is the equivalent of a small block of MSG’s), oil, and salt.
We gave the meat a thorough dousing with cold water from the well, rinsing off the blood and other fragments of dirt and leaf matter that had collected sometime between the first squirt of blood from the rooster’s neck and when Caba and I squatted in our makeshift tree nursery kitchen in my backyard.
I whipped up a rub for the meat with the ingredients Boye brought me and finally the meat was ready to grill. My final salvation of the day was the lining of care packages that my Mom dutifully sends me almost every month. Earlier this year, I told her that the mice cannot get into the package if it is lined in tinfoil. This is true, and thankfully I had saved the tinfoil so that now I could use it to wrap and grill the chicken.
As I tore off pieces of tinfoil, rubbed the chicken down with oil and doused it in spiced up onions and garlic, my amazing brother Caba worked the flames like America’s Next Top Chef (is that a show now-a-days?), deftly turning the tin-clad chicken with only a spoon and leaping away when the oil caught fire. I prepared and he cooked and by the end of the first meal I have ever cooked in a Senegalese village, both of us were covered with chicken blood, ash, oil, and sweating profusely. With the sizzling and perfectly grilled chicken piled high on the plate, roasted garlic and onions sprinkled over the entire entre like confetti, I presented the platter to Samba Sane and my dumbstruck counterpart.
“TA-DA!” I yelled, stepping from behind my curtained doorway and into the compound. I curtsied as I handed over the chicken platter to my counterpart, not attempting to hide my pride and glee at my apparent victory.
100 points for Mariama. 0 for Ibrahima Camara.
By this point, many people had gathered to see if it was true that the toubaco, Mariama Camara, was actually cooking an American chicken lunch. The women gaped and everyone clapped as Ibrahima’s eyes grew wide at his first bite and Samba Sane proclaimed that my meal was “Absolutely delicious!”
I disappeared into my backyard to let them enjoy the meal, while Caba and I munched on the leftover spinal cord, neck, and stomach in peace.
“Thanks,” I told him quietly. “What would I do here without you?”
He just laughed and shook his head.
When I went back out into the compound, the entire chicken had been slicked clean. Only the bones were left and even some of the smaller bones had been crunched through.
“Jooni, hay goto halata mi wowata defude, on nani!” I said to the people who were still gathered in the compound.
“Now, no one will say that I cannot cook ever again, do you hear me,” I said to everyone, but I was looking straight at Ibrahima. The man has many faults, but who doesn’t. He was able to duck his head and laugh a little bit, probably cursing the day this strong-willed, pig-headed American girl walked into his life.
“It’s true,” said my brother Sidou. “No one can say that you do not cook now.”
So I guess you could say, this has been one of my biggest victories in life. It’s funny how we all come here trying to save the world, plant big tree orchards, and teach people that education is the best choice for their futures. And really, do we in the end make that big of an impact? Maybe the goats will eat all of trees. Perhaps the children will continue to marry young and not go to school. But it is the small things that people remember and cherish. It’s telling the girls that yes, in fact, they can catch a ball just like the boys can. It’s picking up a woman’s fallen mangoes that have rolled out into the street before a donkey cart can run them over.
Even if the obstacle isn’t ceran-wrapped and ready, it’s finding the courage to pull the guts out the butt and cook up that chicken!