Getting over the Juju with some West African Groundnut Stew
“Gail, please tell your young friend to quieten down until she leaves this country, otherwise she could get herself into trouble, very big trouble.”
The warning came from Sister Teresa who ran the local orphanage, about a ten minutes drive from our guest house, which I had been sharing with Gail, a very attractive American woman in her fifties, Heidi a cranky Dutch Doctor and my boss, Amir another Doctor who was on his first mission out of his native Bangladesh. I had caught typhoid, and had spent three days in bed alternating from excruciating stomach pain, slipping in and out of consciousness and battling fever, yet Sister Teresa wasn’t convinced it was typhoid, she had told Gail that I had been purposely poisoned, or worse still that I had the Juju – a spell cast over me.
It was March 2003, and we were stationed in Kenema, a small mining town, a bumpy seven-hours drive out of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. I had arrived there in the middle of the first scale up efforts of post-war assistance and would be developing a small health-financing scheme in Kenema’s district hospital and health centres. My scheme meant that by charging patients a small fee, the health centre staff could be able to afford to take home a salary, purchase much needed supplies and equipment as well as put a little aside to be able to exempt the poorest of the poor from paying. Health staff in developing countries earn very little. For example in Sierra Leone, a Nurse would earn on average of $20-$30/month, yet would often not see this money for several months at a time. To supplement their income, they would operate their own private clinics, work additional jobs or ask patients to pay them directly – the fee ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. This of course caused even further problems, and prevented the very poor from seeking medical treatment. On top of that, it’s a common fact, that developing country government administrators like to take their cut, so my NGO’s attempts to put some type of transparency into the system, wasn’t exactly welcome news to the powers that be.
It was my first time in Africa, and the feeling I got from flying over the Saharan desert was the same as that initial feeling I experienced when I first stood in the grounds of a remote Cambodian hospital, three years earlier. That almost out-of-body, BIG feeling which I can best describe as a state of grace, or having found your “path”. It hadn’t been an easy few months for me, after two years of living in Asia, I had moved to Québec to be with Philippe, yet although I had applied for residency status, almost a year later nothing had been settled and I was getting antsy just playing house. We had also recently married. Although I certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst family and friends for practically abandoning my new groom at the altar, the stress of moving to Canada and waiting for permission to start life again had taken its toll, so to Africa I went.
In 2004, Kenema was a dirty, dusty, arse end-of-the-world type of place. A diamond mining town; yet the jewels must have gone out as fast as they came in, as I never saw any evidence of those shiny, hard numbers. It was a year after the war, but it was still relatively dangerous, with regular shootings and robberies; the nearby base for the UN peace keeping force, UNAMSIL, a close reminder that things could still get ugly.
For entertainment we had CNN and on Saturday nights, the mostly Pakistani UNAMSIL contingent would put on an open-air barbeque at their base to which they would invite us. We were spoiled with tandoori chicken, naan bread, pakora, dahl, vegetable curry, beef curry, lamb curry, kofta, korma, you name it – but next to nothing was sourced locally, UNAMSIL having to import the bulk of it, as the war had ripped the majority of the local farmers of their livelihoods, not to mention their tools and other supplies needed to start growing. As a result, there was little food about and little to go around.
Gossip constitutes an important part of daily entertainment in an aid workers life. There’s gossip about the staff you are working with, staff you share house with, staff who are working in the house for you, staff working for other NGO’s and even staff you may have known in other missions, who happen to know staff who you are working with now!
Depending on what was going in terms of work, there was anywhere up to 6 staff sharing our guesthouse, with occasional capital base staff visiting. Yet for most of the time, it was usually the two Doctors (who didn’t get along), Gail and myself who lived there. Jo, an Australian who I had worked with in Cambodia had told me about the job, as she had been the Base Manager, but having been offered a temporary position with the UN in Freetown, she left shortly after I had arrived. Heidi was brilliant, yet she was completely overwhelmed. Running the largest paediatric clinic in the country, with a mostly untrained health team, few resources and an increasing caseload of Lassa fever (a strange viral disease), Heidi didn’t stop. She also barely ever smiled and looked like she would collapse at any moment. Our boss was also overwhelmed; yet it was more of case of not having a monkey’s clue about what he was supposed to do. When I caught typhoid, I had spent two or so months in the country, and had not seen him in either the hospital, or any of the many health centres and he had yet to visit the refugee camps where he was supposed to supervise various activities. Although this drove us crazy, we were way too busy to do much about it.
After work, Gail and I would usually ask the driver to stop off at the local Lebanese store who sold a few Western staples like chocolate, some cheese, cigarettes, (and also surprisingly good Chateau wine for cheap). We would then walk over to the market to see if they had any fresh salad vegetables, perhaps an avocado, even some limes. Anything to add a little spice or variety to the dinner that awaited us later. We’d also go back to this market on weekends, and had befriended a number of tailors and had started to outfit ourselves in beautiful and bright Gara tie-die outfits, until we realised that a white lady can never hope to achieve what a black lady can with tie-die.
Kenema Town’s market weaves its way in and around a number of streets in the centre of town. There must have been several hundred stall owners, most of them selling used clothes and shoes that had been sent over by Westerners thinking this would help. There were also a couple of tailors who had set up shop in the market, and then on the market outskirts were the food stalls. This was depressing. For some five months, we lived on a staple diet of fried plantain, cheap packet spaghetti and tomato paste, bony river fish, occasionally some skinny looking chicken and rice, all usually accompanied with a salad of limp lettuce and barely ripe tomato. Gail would be beside herself when she found some cilantro. There was always pineapple, some small onions, but little else. It was a sorry state of affairs.
Whilst I made do with the lack of variety in my diet, whilst recovering from typhoid I had developed an intense craving for – you guessed it – the mother of all healing foods – chicken noodle soup.
Heidi had found me unconscious in bed after I had returned from the office with severe stomach cramping about three days earlier, and had nursed me day and night, calling in the local blood Doctor to run some tests, and watching over me like I hawk, afraid that the seven hours drive would be too much for me. Looking after me was one of the only times I saw her features soften and her take on a gentler edge. She called in Solomon, our cook to see if he could pull together some soup. He did, and about twenty minutes later he came into the bedroom with a piping hot bowl that did resemble chicken soup – but it turned out to be a few cubes of chicken stock and a bit of powdered milk. Too exhausted to try to explain, I had a few mouthfuls and lay back down.
“I know what you need.” said Heidi. She left the room and I could hear her talking on the phone in Krio to somebody. Her voice was light, so I figured it must be Abdul, her husband, a local Sierra Leonean who she met and then almost lost during the war.
The next day was a weekend day, so having no house staff working; we were left to our own devices to cook. Heidi set off early to meet Abdul, who came in from the next town where he ran a local NGO, and the two of them set off to the market. I must have fallen back asleep, but when I awoke a few hours later, the house was perfumed by a smell that could only mean good. I got out of bed and walked down to the kitchen to find the two of them were busy at work.
“Mira!” Abdul bellowed and came over and gave me a sweaty hug.
He was one of the cheeriest guys I had ever met. Always enthusiastic, always smiling, and for the second time I had known Heidi she was smiling. With Abdul around, Heidi transformed.
“What’s all this?” I asked. There was a huge pile of what looked a dark type of peanut butter, and then cubed bits of meat being sautéed with onions and tomatoes. There was also a large slab of a brown substance, which turned out to be groundnut paste, which is essentially a peanut paste.
“It’s groundnut stew – we are making it for you, it’s sure to make you better.”
It did. For the next two days, it was all I ate, and I slowly recovered.
Two days before I was to implement the health financing scheme to the entire health district, and a week before most of the national NGO staff were to be laid off as most of our programs were finishing, our office was attacked by ten armed men, who assaulted the guards, tying one up and then ransacked the place. Shortly afterwards, Gail, my boss and I were advised to evacuate Kenema. Heidi having left for vacation with Abdul a few days earlier.
Four months later I returned to Kenema with another NGO, yet made it a point to visit my old office and guesthouse. Solomon was still there, and we spent a few minutes running through a few new recipes. The NGO was now run by a guy called David S who I heard was later sacked for alcoholism. The health-financing scheme had never been implemented, with most of the printed materials held in a storage room, yet the computers purchased for the hospital administration to manage the project had strangely disappeared. Lassa Fever claimed the lives of the Chief Medical Doctor who was working tirelessly to maintain the virus; his young daughter also caught it and died. Several nurses died from Lassa, not to mention the countless number of children who were unable to be saved.
Gail works for an NGO in Vermont these days, we visit each other a couple of times a year and have remained fast friends. Heidi and Abdul continue to run their medical NGO in Bo, Sierra Leone. Jo works for the World Food Programme. Amir went back to Bangladesh. I don’t think he ever-found work for an International NGO again, at least I haven’t heard his name in the NGO gossip channels. Most recently, one of our HQ offices fired a guy for gross incompetence and misconduct. The news travelled from base to mission and finally to HQ. His name was David S.
- 1 pound of cubed beef for stewing (or alternatively chicken pieces)
- 1/2 cup peanut butter (fresh is best, grind your own at good health stores)
- 2 medium sized yellow onions
- bit of coconut, olive or grape seed oil for cooking
- 2-3 red chillies
- 1 litre of stock (chicken or vegetable)
- 5-6 large ripe tomatoes, or 1 large can of tomatoes
- 2 sweet potatoes
- pinch of ginger
- teaspoon of salt, a flash of black pepper
- rice to accompany (brown is always better for you)
Serve with steamed rice.