Food is always a good topic in any country. No matter where I work or whom I work with, my colleagues and me we either rave or complain about the food that we are served in the various country offices we get to work in or the hotels we get to stay. News about where the good restaurants are is probably the first thing exchanged upon arrival. It is often stressed by local staff to eat ‘proper food’, but what that means differs from place to place and can differ quite a bit from my personal taste. For West-Africa it can entail a large amount of meat, either a ‘brochette’ of goat, sheep or otherwise chicken, coming with different sauces and when lucky an assortment of vegetables. Niger has been a good surprise so far, although the preference for meat exists they do have their vegetables in order. Moreover this time I am staying in a guesthouse where I can cook myself and it offers another opportunity, to share a meal with your colleagues. This time I am here with a French humanitarian colleague – who must hold the record for number-of-words-per-minute-in-French, a jovial humanitarian colleague from Rwanda and my colleague from the office in the Hague, originally from the UK. The speed at which you form a shared household together with in principle total strangers never ceases to amaze me, but then again most of us are habituated to adapt quickly.
Shared meals can become a habit soon as well and Friday night we had an excellent pasta prepared by one of my colleagues. After a while we got to speak about food itself and the way it it is eaten. In Niger apparently you have to be very quick at a party. Whenever there is a buffet or roast of a sheep or goat offered, the minute it is ready you have to run to go there, as people literally strip the buffet or offered goat/sheep and even manage to put it in plastic bags to take it home. A thing which may raise eye brows for outsiders, but is quite logical as in many occasions this is a cultural habit grown out of scarcity or the risk of missing out. When you grow up in a large African household the minute food is served you have to be quick, otherwise your siblings may take your share before you. Our Rwandan colleague testified to this and he shared the story of his adopted son. He had already 2 children when he came across a toddler of about 2,5 years old. It was not long after the Rwandan genocide and the boy was ill and malnourished and his family had been killed. Together with his wife he decided to bring the boy to the hospital at least to ensure he would heal. The boy got better and quickly after started eating, and he ate in large amounts and very quick. He was in clear survival mode. His wife commented to let him be, he had a lot to catch up on, but my Rwandan colleague was somewhat worried at the amount of food the boy ate. He became big fast! At first he had not decided to take the boy in permanently, they wanted to take him to a care home and prepared him for this, but once at the care home the boy literally grabbed the tire of the car, cried and held on. Neither of the family members thought it was a good idea anymore to leave the boy behind and they then decided he would become their son and brother. The boy is now a grown man in his twenties and they did have to instruct him not to collect a mountain of food when they would start dinner, but for the rest he is more than fine and considered a real son to share many meals with and more.