Eating in Mali is – like all other basic life functions – tremendously more difficult and infinitely more times likelier to get you sick. There is an entire ceremony to every meal; the men sit around their communal food bowl on the ground and the women sit around theirs. Starting with the oldest man, the men pass around a tin can full of water to “wash” their hands i.e. dunking them in a basin of increasingly dirtier and dirtier water. The eldest man says a prayer, and in unison all the men plunge their right hands into the food bowl which is usually full of either toh or rice. Everyone squeezes their clump of food and shoves their entire hand into their mouth up to the knuckles to ingest every last morsel. If there are any pieces of meat or vegetables in the sauce, they are usually left in the middle for it is considered rude to gobble up the solid matter – in fact, it is considered polite to grab the chunks of sheep tripe and toss them towards the other side of the food bowl and insist that their guest eats the good stuff. “A dun, a dun” No one talks, the men just stuff their faces until they can eat no more, at which point one licks their hand clean, says “Barika” (thank you) to each and every person sitting around the bowl, and walks away.
Only after the last man can eat no more, the women and children may begin this procession on their own. Often a family only owns one bowl, so the women and children essentially eat leftovers for every meal. And anything the women and children don’t eat goes to the dogs and the cats. The animals know that they are served last, so they put up a fight to not be forgotten.
It goes without saying that Malian men have everything going against them when they try dating American women.
All of this pomp and ceremony notwithstanding, eating in Mali is really animalistic. I say this not because we are eating with our hands and without conversation, but because the whole time we are surrounded by very hungry animals. Dogs have learned to wait for their human masters, but cats have no patience and so we have to put a grass basket on top of them while we eat. But the one species which no one in this country has ever figured out how to keep from the communal food bowl is the chicken... Until now.
I fucking hate chickens. They are the worst animals ever. They are not cute, they are not cuddly, and they do not ever appreciate the company of humans. Chickens cannot be tamed, they have no respect for their human masters, they are dirty, filthy animals which eat carrion and garbage and they carry all sorts of parasites like worms and giardia cysts and amoebas which they can transmit to people. The only reason why God put these obnoxious creatures on this Earth was so that humans could chop their heads off, pluck their feathers and slow roast them over a fire with a garlic-pepper glaze so that we could savor the flavor their succulent breasts and chew the dark meat on their haunches.
Having lived amongst locally-raised, organic, free-range chickens for almost a year now, I can personally attest to the value of factory farms. By letting these awful beasts enjoy their natural liberty and walk wherever they like means that they too swarm around the communal food bowl when tigadegana is served. I have to swat cocks away with my left hand while I eat with my right, and these persistent fuckers cannot take no for an answer and try to make a run for my rice and peanut butter sauce over and over again. I don’t care what miniscule emotions might be felt in these vermin’s pea-sized reptilian brains – it is within the rational interests of human beings to cut off chickens’ beaks, cut off their claws, and force-feed them cornmeal in 12” x 12” chain-link cages so they become delicious sacks of plump white meat via minimal interaction with man.
A week ago something ticked as I was trying in vain to eat my tigadegana while simultaneously swatting away ravenous chickens. I had had enough.
“Ça, c’est absolument ridicule! J’en avais assez!” I proclaimed, stormed over to a small wooden table, brought it back to the circle of men and put it under the food bowl.
Karitie apparently thought this was a pretty ingenious idea, “If you raise the food on a table, … then chickens can’t reach it! Why haven’t we thought of this before?”
And from that day on, we have always eaten from a table.
And the world will never be the same.
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