The Bread Oven

Just in case you didn’t notice: Today I have done a bonus blog installment. Be sure to catch my Year in Review which I posted just a couple of minutes ago. Commence reading!

So I’ve formed a new routine in village. At approximately 3 o’clock, I get up from my nap or read sesh, lock my door, bid the chief and my family a good afternoon, and head into the village. When they ask where I am going, I always tell them “to greet the village” which is basically true, although I always head to one place. On the other side of the village, there is a high lofted structure, not quite as sturdily built as a hut, but with more beef than a cattle man’s wobbly lean-to out in his pasture. The roof stands about 10 feet tall at the peak in order to make room for the giant clay oven that is the entire reason for the building being there in the first place. Although the structure has no walls, the roof tapers down until it’s 2 feet from the ground on 3 sides, but completely open on one side so that people can easily walk in and out. Most of the interior is taken up by the gargantuan oven which I could easily fit inside multiple times if I was able to squeeze myself through the tiny door. Think Hansel and Gretel… The rest of the space is used for a bench and another table. This place is called the fou-roo (as it’s pronounced phonetically in Pulaar) or the bread oven.

I love going to the fouroo every afternoon for a couple of reasons. First of all, my best friend in village, Sarajoo, is the baker. Mawdo Sane, Sarajoo’s best friend, always hangs out here too. Throw in a couple of the other guys from village, an attaya pot, and a pack of cigarettes, and you’ve got yourself a typical Senegalese bro-fest, which I happily become a part of each afternoon. I love the company of these guys because they are the ones who teach me Pulaar, joke around with me, and basically let be me the closest to my real self that I can get in village. They have taken to calling me “the big-man Calabante” in English which is hilarious in their unpracticed accent and because of the nickname itself. Calabante in Pulaar means loosely jokester or perhaps even closer, a hell-raiser. Unfortunately, English does not quite have a word that exactly encapsulates what a “calabante” is, but it is one of my favorite words in the Pulaar language. We talk about everything from the price of an Akon concert to if guys are cooler when they ride motorcycles. Almost everything we talk about winds up in good-natured arguing, which is one of the other aspects I love about Senegalese. Pulaars in general appreciate a good joke more than anything in the world. If you can come up with a clever come-back, you will have the respect of a Pulaar for life. I am so comfortable with these guys that it is a shock to all of us when a man from another village comes in to buy bread and doesn’t know me and starts to make the usual sexist jokes.

Just today, a guy came in, didn’t greet me, just said,

“Do you love him,” and pointed a finger in my friend Mawdo’s face. We all just looked around at each other and started laughing.

“Or maybe you want him as your husband,” the out-of-town man continued, pointing at Sarajoo. Both Sarajoo and Mawdo just shook their heads.

“He doesn’t know you, Mari,” said Sarajoo, as he watched me start to bristle. “He doesn’t know how you are.”

Mawdo jumped in before I could retort. “Mariama Camara does not want any of us as her husband. She is the big-man Calabante. We are only her friends.”

With the use of our inside joke all of us started laughing again and the poor out-of-towner just looked around in bewilderment. I’m sure he was trying to connect the dots as to how a white woman foreigner was joking with a bunch of village boys in their twenties. He was still looking around at all of us like we’d lost our minds when he left, bag of rolls in hand.

The other reason I go to the fouroo is because I love the atmosphere created when we all help Sarajoo in the baking of the village bread. It’s so fun to know that we are just a group of friends hanging out, but at the same time are functioning as just one more cog in the wheel that keeps the village running. People love to buy Sarajoo’s bon-bons which he makes by adding extra sugar and butter to the dough and rolling into little biscuit sized rolls. Before sliding them into the oven he brushes a mixture of milk and sugar over the top. After they come out, he brushes oil over the entire roll. Recently, I have commandeered the job of brushing the rolls and lord over my role (no pun intended) with mock authority.

“Brush!” I declare when Sarajoo pulls the bread pan out. He uses a piece of flat wood attached to a pole about six feet long, which he slides to the back of the oven in order to reach the bread. This can be a dangerous kitchen utensil because if you are not paying attention and walk in the limited space behind Sarajoo as he is pulling the bread out, you can accidentally get speared in the gut with the long bamboo pole. One of the other boys hands me the brush with feigned sincerity and gives me the cup of oil as well. Another of them moves a chair out of my way so that I have plenty of room to attack my task. With the utmost concentration and precision I apply the oil carefully to each roll. When I am done, I smile grandly around at my friends as if in anticipation of applause or a gold medal. Although neither of these comes, they dutifully cry out in admiration,

“Mari, those are the most beautiful rolls we have ever seen!”

“Perfection!”

“Wow, Mariama Camara is working hard today!”

Duly congratulated on my efforts I sit back in my chair and always, yes always, except a steaming hot bon-bon from Sarajoo, fresh from the oven and glistening with golden vegetable oil. Now this is the bad part. I realize it’s only one small roll. But unfortunately because I have been there during the entire process, I know how much sugar and oil goes into the recipe. And yet… I cannot turn it down for the life of me. Every day I say to myself, “Today, I am going to tell Sarajoo I cannot accept the roll.” And like the sneaky man he is, he always manages to slip the roll into my hands before I even have a chance to refuse. And once it’s there, warming my palms and deliciously aromatic beneath my nose, I just have to eat it. And so, as you can see, life here is quite hard…

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