The boy who lived in the market, Chad, Africa

The boy who lived in the market, Chad, Africa

Recently, I had the opportunity to work in Chad for a humanitarian assignment. Chad is a landlocked country situated in the Sahelian region of Africa, to which the average traveller probably wouldn’t deign visiting.

Burdened down by years of conflict, the last few years have been easier to Chad, with it now being one of the most peaceful countries in the region.

From the capital of N’djamena I flew to the far south-east of the country, which is greener, lusher than the dry north.  It was also here that several humanitarian agencies have set themselves up and are working mostly in the camps where they receive the influx of refugees arriving from neighboring Central Africa Republic (CAR). The majority of them providing life-saving food security, nutrition or water interventions, as well some providing health and education services.

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I visited one of these camps in the district of Maro, where the immediate future of these people remains as unsure as the 10.4 million other refugees around the world (UNHCR, 2012) with some 28% presently living in Africa.

After the camp, a colleague and I ventured into Maro’s small town. It was the late afternoon, so we had missed the market.  Along the way, we bumped into some Chadian colleagues who were visiting friends that owned a small store along the main road.

The long road reached its red-dirt arms as far as the eye could see.

“Where does this road lead to?” asked my Canadian colleague.

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“The Central African Border is an hour away.”

“This is the road that the refugees take to reach this part of Chad,” they explained.

We spoke for a moment how we could well imagine them arriving by foot, tired, hungry, hoping to find safety, a small place which they could somehow call “home”.

I visited three markets in Chad. One was a few hours drive away from Maro in a town called Sahr. It was Sunday, and the Christians had just returned from church, and were stopping to get lunch staples. We stayed only a little while as a convoy was to expected to escort us to the next town, yet it was a joyful moment when one of the team travelling with us ended up bumping into an Aunt who he hadn’t seen in years.

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From there, we drove some 7 hours west to Gore. My days were packed and intense, yet I had an hour to spare after my last day to take a little walk to the Town Square and market with two colleagues.

Unfortunately, the vendors were packing up for the day, and the market was bereft of both content and customers. While I find markets the most vibrant of places, this one was dark and ominous – a gang of street kids ran past and began taunting us. Not getting what they wanted, they took off again. Turning to leave, I noticed a crumpled heap on the market floor, which I first thought was a bundle of old blankets.  I looked closer, and two eyes flashed up at me. It was a child, a boy of around 8 or 9, his face had the glazed look of those who have been so beaten down and harassed by life, that they acquire a strange sort of stillness, a type of inner equanimity that protects them no matter what happens next.

As my colleagues turned to leave, I couldn’t. What could I do? Offer him a home? A bed for the night? I had neither of those at my disposal.  Should have I given him some money. Probably, yet as aid workers, we are dissuaded from this.

The image haunted me on the way back to base, and the next day I asked a colleague about the plight of orphans in the area.  There was a group of Nuns who helped out street children, but there is little being done with the kids like the one I saw at the market.

I have often thought of the boy since coming home, and am guessing that he probably worked at the market, as the vendor nearest to which he had set up bed for the night seemed to know him. Perhaps he ran errands for him? Perhaps he sold the fried millet balls that there were ubiquitous along Chad’s streets and markets.

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I thought back to the street kids and other orphans I had met along my travels – including Sarat who delivered me my newspaper each morning in Phnom Penh, and Hoa, the jasmine seller whose shared dwelling had been burned down and had come up to my restaurant dinner table and showed me the images on the front page of the same paper.

UNICEF estimates that the number of orphaned children has risen by more than 50 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa over recent years, where an estimated 12 million children ages 0–17 have also lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Orphans and other vulnerable children are at higher risk of missing out on schooling, or living in households that can’t ensure food security. They are also prone to suffer from anxiety, depression and are at a higher risk of several diseases. Whilst other family members, or even the community takes in many orphans, there are others, probably like the boy I saw who has nobody to go.

The day before leaving, I visited the Marché Central in N’djamena. It was a giant, colorful and claustrophobic place. Bedouins had brought in giant baskets of tempting dates, all sorts of meat was being sold in the stifling Chadian heat, and a continual broadcast of hundreds of car engines that were left running in the middle of the market deafened out any other noise.  Taking photographs is dissuaded in N’djamena, yet a group of Muslin women selling saffron, other spices and perfumed oils invited me to sit with them before allowing me to take their photo.  Speaking to them, I discovered that many of the market vendors were not Chadian at all, but from Congo, CAR, Guinea, even Darfur.  I wondered whether their own parents had made the long journey over from their homelands with them, or how many had started off their young lives like the little boy I had seen.

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As Summer ends in Canada, and my own eight year old boy goes back to school this week, I reflect on his life and think how the most stressful thing he has to worry about is who to play with on a day-to-day basis, or how to avoid eating his vegetables.  I find myself increasingly grateful that I am able to provide his little self with everything he needs.  I then send a prayer, a thought of hope all the way to Chad hoping that somehow the boy in the market will receive it.  It’s the least I can do.

Millet croquettes

Millet

Fried millet balls are a typical Chadian street food, which are served with different dipping sauces. Millet being a staple grain in the Chadian diet, these are my own version with onion and ginger.  You can also add fresh herbs or other spices to the mix.  I served mine with a little peanut sauce, but they are just as good eaten alone.

Ingredients:

A cup of cooked millet

One onion

A knob of ginger

½ cup of flour (any type of flour works well here, I used chickpea flour as it fries nicely)

An egg

½ cup water

½ teaspoon paprika

Salt, pepper for taste

Oil or ghee for frying

Method:

Cook up the millet as per pack instructions. In a large bowl mix all the ingredients into a thick paste. Adjust the mixture with more or less flour until you get the right consistency. Form into bite-sized balls and then fry until golden brown on each side. Serve immediately.

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Love, War and Quiche, Marché de Sèvres, Paris, France

I met Edith when we were both working for the same humanitarian organization. Based at headquarters, my job included debriefing returning expatriates from the field.  It was iffy work – half the time they came back exhausted, shell shocked, suffering from some nasty health problem, and a good many would return, hastily drop off their various pieces of paper work, never to be heard or seen from again.

Edith was an exception, despite her mission being in war-ravaged Darfur, she waltzed into my office refreshed and radiant. Shortly afterwards, she was back to see me, ready to help in any which way she could whilst waiting to be sent out to the field again. Since that time, her career has taken her to some of the most devastated countries on earth, including Chad, the Central Africa Republic.  Her and her now husband were also part of the Haiti earthquake relief response.

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As an aid worker, we leave our homes with the key intention of serving others less fortunate than ourselves. The idea that our lives will irrevocably change whilst doing this, and the fact that many of us may not return to live in our homelands for a very long time, is something we don’t consider when we start out on our journey and quest.  It seems, the more we do this type of work, the smaller the world really is, its boundaries and borders begin to break down, yet we also begin to realize that life is giving us back far more than we ever expected.  We find new friends from all corners of the world, many who end up adopting the role of a pseudo family member. Some of us end up with new nationalities, and like Edith (and you can include myself in that example) love can finds us in the most unlikeliest, and seemingly strangest places.

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When I did a call out to some friends last week, asking if anybody was happening to go to market that day, Edith replied that yes, she was off to hers.

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Now living in Sèvres, a small town on the South West of Paris, with her husband, she shops at the Marché de Sèvres for the majority of her groceries. She says this quiche, a rustic beauty in the making, is a kitchen regular, and is made with fresh eggs, feta cheese and olives, and then finished off with slices of juicy beefsteak tomatoes.

Merci Edith et Bon Appétit!

Edith’s quiche

Ingredients:

3 eggs

1  cup of milk

1 large sheet of puff pastry

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

2/3 cup of feta cheese

2 zucchinis (cut into rounds and grilled)

¼ cup black olives

4-5 sundried tomatoes (optional)

2 beefsteak tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Method:

Preheat the oven grill.

Grease a 23cm quiche pan or round deep dish baking pan.

Use pastry to line the base and sides of the pan, pinch down the sides firmly.

Cut the zucchini in rounds, lightly brush with olive oil, and grill on each side until the colour slightly blackens.

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Soak the sundried tomatoes in a cup of water for ten minutes to remove their rubbery texture.

Roughly chop the sundried tomatoes into small pieces.

Beat eggs, and stir in milk, salt, pepper, set aside.

Scatter the fetta cheese into the quiche pan, follow by the zucchini, sundried tomatoes, olives, sliced fresh tomatoes.

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Pour the egg and flour mixture into the quiche pan.

Bake for about 35 minutes or until the quiche springs back when touched, and takes on a nice golden top.

The inside should be moist, but not runny.

Serve with a green salad, a glass of red wine and dream of Paris.

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The Stones tell Stories in the Bohemian and Beautiful Bale, Istria, Croatia

I’ve always been a fringe dweller, seeking out the sacred and surreal, most at ease in the company of fellow misfits, romantic runaways, free thinkers, drawn to dive bars and hidden away cafés, have lived in seven cities, am best of friends with Scientists and Surgeons, as well as poets and petty crooks.   If I could conjure up an ideal place to live, or just somewhere to visit over and over again, it would involve the sea, the sun, music (preferably Jazz), great food, a foreign language, and all of this shrouded in some kind of mystery, magic, something a lot like the town of Bale in Istria, Croatia.

Winding up a stone paved drive, some 140 metres above sea-level, Bale is a small hill town, which is crowned by the baroque St Julian church, only five kilometres from some of the most pristine (and quiet) beaches in Istria, Croatia.

Whenever we travel, my husband usually takes off early in the morning and does his fox-like circumnavigation of where we’re at.  In actual fact, I can thank him for finding many of the markets I have been to, as before I’ve even woken up from my jet-lagged slumber, he would have already scoped out half of his surroundings by bike, boat or foot.  And that’s how we found Kamene Price or  Stone Stories, a groovy treasure of a restaurant/hotel in the middle of this enchanting and bohemian town.

Misha, the chef, an effervescent and unassuming beauty from Dalmatia, poured us a drink and sat down to chat with us against the candle-lit stone wall.  She told us that the owner, a reputable photographer, likes to travel, and through his travels has made a lot of friends from near and far, and well, these friends would often visit him, and so he opened Kamene Price, first to have a place to entertain, but also because he loves to bring like-minded people together, to talk, to eat, to just be. There are poetry readings, theatre nights, and just a few weeks after our trip, Kamene Price also hosts a Jazz festival.  We were tired that night, so headed off early, as we had a long drive back to Italy the next day, yet we promised Misha we would call by before we left.

The next day, we stopped in for brunch, and this time in the sun drenched terrace, surrounded by curios, creeping vines and whimsical furniture, I wished for a small moment for  something just like this back home in Montreal. I asked Misha how she decided what to cook for the restaurant. She explained that there was no menu, instead she would head off to the local market each morning, with her favourite cookbook (The Dalmatian Mother’s Cookbook) often in tow, and that would be that.  That day we had a light self-baked swiss chard pie, served with a purée of the most delicately spiced red lentils.  My husband said there couldn’t be a more perfect meal for him. She also cooked up a quick fresh tomato and basil spaghetti for our son, who gladly gobbled it down.  Before we left, we toasted my last glass of rakia in Croatia, this time infused with pungent rose-hip.

Bale has a small morning market selling fresh fruit and vegetables and fish, yet for a larger market, we ventured into the seaside town of Rovinj in Istria, some seven kilometres away.  Another mesmerizing town (albeit much bigger), the market is situated along the harbour and sports some of the Mediterranean’s finest; olives and olive oils a-plenty, truffle infused products, lavender, peppers, chili, ropes of garlic, the reddest tomatoes, aubergines.

After we said good-bye to Misha, I noticed a sign on the restaurant’s stone wall which wrote of how that legendary free spirit and romantic runaway, Giacomo Casanova had once lived and loved in Bale.   In the opening chapters of his autobiography Histoire de ma Vie (History of my life) he advises his readers that they “will not find all my adventures. I have left out those which would have offended the people who played a part in them …”  yet I bet that in Bale, that if you lean back and put your ear against it’s ancient stone walls, you may just hear a thing or two about that old guy called Casanova.

For further information on Kamene Price, visit their website: http://www.kameneprice.com/

Misha’s swiss chard pie

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion

1 large bunch swiss chard

1 1/2 cups of shredded cheese (e.g. cheddar, parmesan, fontina)

4 eggs

1/2 cup milk

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon of paprika powder

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

1 teaspoon of baking powder

Directions:

  • Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Wash and pat dry the swiss chard. Cut off the ends of the stems, and then roughly chop up the chard.
  • Sauté the onion until translucent, and then add the chard, and sauté a few minutes until tender (but not wilted).
  • In a large bowl, whisk in eggs, and then add milk, grated cheese and mix through. Fold in bread crumbs and baking powder.
  • Season with salt and pepper, and the paprika.
  • Pour into a round, lightly oiled baking dish.
  • Bake for up to 45 minutes, or until golden brown and the pie springs back when you touch it.

From Market to garden. How growing your own can help save the planet.

From Market to Garden. How growing your own can help save the planet.

One of the great things about my local market, Marché Jean Talon is that come Spring, many of the fruit and vegetable vendors use their market stalls to sell young seedlings to be taken home and planted in the hope of harvesting your own bit of market fodder.

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A market stall selling vegetable seedlings. In a few weeks time, the plants will be gone and the first summer vegetables will take their place.

My gardening experience started early – most Australian backyards are quite large, so growing up my Dad would plant rows of different fruit and vegetables and then get us kids to help him out with the planting, watering, weeding.  There was also a chicken and duck coop, which provided the garden with a steady supply of nutrient-rich manure. Years later, my parents left the suburbs and started a market garden, and would often relImagey on my siblings and I to help get the harvest ready for market day.

Growing up, I wasn’t always fond of gardening. I couldn’t understand the fuss, considering how much easier it was getting your greens from Woolworths. Then, years later, as I started to work in aid and development and would return home after having spent time with Vietnamese rice farmers struggling to make do, or refugees around the world who had been forced from their homes and were now either growing or raising their dinner in a space as big as my bathroom, I began to appreciate this thing called gardening.  My husband and I bought a cottage with a piece of land a few years ago, and I am fortunate not to have to rely on my small garden for my livelihood, but meeting and working with these people has fostered a respect of where our food comes from and more importantly how difficult it is for many people to feed themselves. In the past decade, the effects of climate change have caused havoc with already poor nations, and there are growing numbers of rural persons who are either being forced off the land, or stay and struggle whilst they to try to find and preserve enough water for their needs as drought becomes more of a commonality rather than occurrence, take gambles with alternative food sources, or sell off productive assets when harvests fail.

In many countries, both developing and non-developing, the soil has been so over-worked and depleted that it is no longer arable.  In very simple terms, healthy soil comes from alternating what you grow, avoiding pesticides and using compost. Maintaining a garden gives off oxygen, helps reduce erosion and keep temperatures moderate. The average kitchen produces almost 100 kilos of waste each year, by keeping a compost bin, and then adding this to the garden, we create soil that retains water, drains better and provides nutrient-rich plants that can withstand harsher climatic conditions. Plants also attract wildlife, which are threatened because the plant kingdom is failing them, and the plant kingdom is failing because mankind is letting it down. You don’t need a degree in agricultural science or even to be a humanitarian to understand the simple adage of what goes around, comes around, and today, more than ever before, it’s those of us that do have more, who need to be mindful of those who have less, as sadly, our earth cannot sustain us like it has done so in the past.

This doesn’t mean we all have to uproot ourselves and go back to land. Earlier today, I had stepped on my city balcony to bring in some clothes and noticed a neighbor planting cherry tomatoes in an old bucket, another was growing spinach in a plastic recycling bin, and several other balconies were sporting pots full of different herbs. We can all do our bit, whether it’s in a balcony box or on a farm.

Plant your own backyard garden

I used an area of 3 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. I filled it with black earth, about five buckets of compost and some peat moss. It’s amazing how much can grow in a small place. Here I have tomatoes, swiss chard, spinach, fennel, squash, zucchini, radish.

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My vegetable garden.

Plants need to be exposed to at least 6 hours of sunshine. I planted taller plants such as tomatoes to the western end, to avoid shading the other plants.  Asides from the tomatoes, most of the plants don’t actually need a lot of room, and when the lettuce and radishes (planted to the East of the plot) are picked early in the season, it will leave room for spreaders such as squash and zucchini.  Because I eat a lot of salad during the summer, I also have an additional plot just for salads such as chicory, rocket, mesculun, as well as flower pots for herbs and edible flowers.

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In an old washing barrel, I planted fingerling potato, and kept a separate garden box for lettuces.

For some tips on small-space gardening, read my article in Readers Digest, or have a look at the books written by Canadian urban gardener Gayla Trail.  Want to know more, but don’t know where to start? I began by reading novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Mineral about her year spent living off the land, and more recently have got to know the work of maverick farmer Joel Salatin, otherwise known as the High Priest of Pasture who will get you running for cover every time you go near a Coles, IGA and yes even the old Woolworths supermarket.

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The first of the swiss chard. Ready to be sautéed with some olive oil and garlic.

Make your own Tomato sauce, Marché Jean Talon/Jean Talon Market, Montréal

It’s tomato season time, so at our place, it’s also tomato sauce making day. How to make your own tomato sauce? Get down to your local farmer’s market and pick up a few barrels of the reddest tommies, gather some friends, chill a little wine, and read on…                                                                                                                                         How do I love thee, tomato? Let me count the ways. I love them for breakfast, Catalan style, with the pulp squashed onto a piece of garlic-infused toasted bread and drizzled with a little olive oil.  I’ll make an Antipasto Caprese which will see them sliced up thin and layered with boconnici, red onion a little basil. Yesterday, I picked a couple of the cherry variety straight from the vine which then went into my waiting mouth . I add them in my curries to calm down the heat. Like a good Aussie, I’ll squeeze ketchup (or sauce as we call it back home) directly into a hot pie or sausage roll. I hide it in a soup so that my little boy can’t tell. I have sneaked in some vodka and got juiced with a couple, and the next day I’ve drunk them clean to help me recover. I’ll broil them, bake them, squash them, squeeze them, I can chop them, pulp them, but my favourite of all is to cook them up as sauce and can them.

When moving to  North America, I quickly realised that with such a short growing season, many people do can a great deal of produce and enjoy it during the long stretch of winter.  My local market, the Marché Jean Talon/Jean Talon Market which is in the heart of Montreal’s Little Italy, provides a fruit and vegetable canner with all the good bounty they can wish for – not only tomatoes, but peppers and beans and pickles and chillies and its to Marché Jean Talon I go to each fall to get my tomatoes.

Although I have been canning tomatoes since arriving in Canada, last year, with a growing boy (who loves spaghetti, rosé sauce and chilli) I ran out mid-winter and decided that this year, I’d make a double batch; one for our tiny Montreal apartment, and another to keep in our cottage pantry, where we do a great deal of cooking over the weekends.   Over the years, I have also tweaked and modified my canning methods, mostly because I have actually had huge batches of sauce either spoil and have to be thrown away, or not make it to the can at all.  This year, having run out of canning jars, I asked the nice ladies at Quincaillarie Danté (a couple of streets back from the market) for some tips, and having followed their methods, produced a fresh and tasty sauce, none of which has spoiled.  Over the years, I have also accumulated various tools and props used to make the process easier, but several of these you can do without.

Canning tomatoes is also a great ritual to do with others. This year my friend Sofi, a foreign correspondent, who like me, has taken the year off from work to study, and is someone I can talk to about food and war in the same breath, joined me to make a big batch in the city. My friend Amélie, who has done this with me several times before, recently moved into a condomonium and has started a tradition of pooling together the condo owners in her building, and this year, they cooked up a huge 100 litres!

What you need:

  • Tomatoes!  I choose Roma as they are the traditional sauce tomato, but I have also mixed Roma with Beefheart
  • A big bunch of fresh basil
  • A big pot (if you have two, one for boiling, the other for cooking, even better)
  • A tomato sauce machine.  (aluminium ones sell for around  $35 at most good kitchen stores, but you can manually de-skin and core the tomatoes yourself).
  • A big wooden spoon.  Preferably,  GIANT wooden spoon
  • Bit of sea salt
  • Mason jars
  • Lids and seals (change seals every year)
  • Heat-proof tongs
  • Funnel (for pouring the sauce into jars)
  • Time

Method

  1. If you have time and space, buy your tomatoes a couple of days before canning and lay them outside.  The Italians say infusing them with sun, makes for a richer, juicier sauce.
  2. Wash tomatoes
  3. Put tomatoes in a boiling pot of water and cook until skins split (about 7 minutes)
  4. De-skin and de-seed tomatoes. Either do this manually with a pairing knife aftery waiting for them to cool down, or put them through a “cluck-cluck” machine (called so because of the noise it makes) which will do the job for you.  If using the machine, make sure to pass the tomatoes through twice to make sure you get out as much of the meat as possible.
  5. Now put the tomato pulp into your pot and simmer for about two hours, stirring often. If you like a thicker sauce, cook until you feel the consistency is ready.
  6. Whilst tomatoes are cooking, wash your basil and hand pick leaves, enough for one leaf for each jar.
  7. Half an hour before your sauce is done, put washed jars into your oven and heat the oven to 250 degrees celsius. The trick to successful canning is heat – your sauce and your jars must be hot to the touch, otherwise your sauce will spoil.
  8. About ten minutes before both the jars and sauce is done, pop your lids and seals in a pot of hot water and heat until boiling, then turn down the heat, yet keep these warm until you need them.
  9. With your tongs, take out 1-2 jars out of the oven at a time and place on a towel.  With the funnel, pour the sauce directly to the jar, leaving about an inch from the top. Place 1-2 basil leaves ontop of the sauce, the herb will infuse and parfume the sauce.
  10. Now take out a seal from the water, dry it quickly, seal it in place and then take a twist top lid and lightly close it, being careful not to tighten the jar. It should not be loose, but neither too tight.  Wipe down any tomato you may get on the lid, the seals and lids must be clean.
  11. Repeat this process until all jars are done.
  12. Sstore the jars in a box and cover with a blanket and leave in a safe spot for 48 hours.
  13. Test for spoiling by unscrewing the lid and turning the jar upside down, if the seal falls off, your jar has not been canned properly and you either have to reheat your sauce and repeat steps 7-12 again or keep the jar in the fridge and use it within two weeks.

Et voila!  I use my sauce in pasta sauces, it’s consistency is perfect to add in soups, I also add it to curries and stews and over the top of baked tilapia, in ratatouille, chilli.  It’s a healthy, ready made base in a jar, without the nasty preservatives which are found in your typical supermarket shelf variety. A can of tomatoes cost me about $1-$1,20 jar to make, yet tomatoes, like a anything made-a-plenty, should be tithed to your friends and family, yet hopefully this year, I’ll be kept in tomatoes, both in town and in country!

Market information:

Marché Jean Talon/Jean Talon Market (http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/Jean-Talon/)

Quincaillerie Danté (6851 St Dominique, Montreal, QC H2S3B3/https://www.facebook.com/pages/Quincaillerie-Dante/171010306265493)

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