Tag Archives: abundance

A Dairy Story, Part II: I promise to stop writing about goats. After this.

With six litres of goats milk in my fridge, and nothing else to do after some rooftop yoga (choreography by crazy redhead swiss women, music score by neighborhood construction workers and teenage footballers..) I went home to make some serious amounts of yogurt.

my bounty..

Not having a thermometer makes things interesting, but I managed to keep the milk at a not-quite-boil, and then cool it down to about 110˚. (According to my Bulgarian yogurt-making website, this is when you can hold the tip of your finger in the milk for 15 seconds without wanting to cry. I had many burned fingertips before getting to that point.)

just below boiling point

The incubating part was easy. When it’s 100˚ out during the day, and you spend two hours heating up the kitchen to some ungodly temperature, there’s no need to worry about the fecundity of the bacteria. Just to be sure, I swathed my pots of probiotics in kitchen towels and bedsheets and left my home-made sauna for the night. (Pores cleared, toxins all sweat out.)

impromptu incubator

Because I am neurotic, I woke up the next morning to thoughts of the previous night’s project, wondering if maybe I hadn’t let the milk cool quite enough, or what if it cooled too much?? Paranoid, I got out of bed (mind you, it’s not even 6am at this point), padded my way to my kitchen that had evidently remained at elevated sauna-like temperatures all night long. I unwrapped the still-warm casseroles, and uncovered the most beautiful cultured creation ever. Paranoia, placated.

successss! (to be enjoyed daily, preferably topped with fruit and honey.)


Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

Today is Saturday, my second full weekend in this city. I don’t know very many people in Bamako outside of my colleagues and a couple of Peace Corps volunteers here and there, so basically I had the entire day in front of me. The perfect opportunity to do a little city-field research.

I’m working for an NGO that works with smallholder farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, but my big agricultural passion (yes, I’m going to completely dork out here) is urban agriculture and urban food systems. Bamako is a city of about 2 million people and the fastest growing city in Africa, at that. Other cities across the continent are also expanding at such a rapid rate that the urban systems in place are not equipped to provide for the growing populations. As it is, unemployment is extremely high; people with degrees are jobless or working in unskilled labor, hoping for something better.

Urban ag is (and has for quite some time) been a way to fill in a lot of gaps: it offers job opportunities, feeds people and their families, supplies markets with much-needed produce that is often difficult to transport from rural areas (poor road systems, lack of cold storage, small-scale producers with limited means to move their goods), and helps to green cities that are often dusty, dirty, and littered with trash. And the influx of rural people brings with it a lot of agricultural know-how, to add to a population that is usually already quite agriculturally inclined.

yams and onions and cinder blocks

Mamadou Touré is managing two small plots of land just down the road from my apartment. The owner of this urban garden, Sanou Coulibaly, has been there for over sixty years, since sometime in the 1940s, but is too old to do all of the hard labor herself. Unfortunately for me, Mme. Coulibaly, who was cutting the green shoots off of freshly pulled onions, doesn’t speak much French, and the seven words I know in Bambara would not have really made for much of an interview, so I spoke with M. Touré instead.

M. Touré has been working on these small plots for several years now. He is growing patates (yams), onions and lettuce, mostly because that’s what grows easily and is easy to sell. Every day, anywhere between eight and ten women will come to this mini urban farm and buy the produce that is harvested to sell on the markets – the same neighborhood markets where I buy my produce. It’s an independent operation – not part of any co-op or association, so all of the organizing is done on a person-to-person basis, and very much depends on the relationships between the market women and these urban gardeners. From what I understood, the women are the ones who determine the price for what they buy. Especially considering the size of this operation – there’s no cold storage or post-harvest production, whatever isn’t sold or eaten goes to waste.

That’s not to say there’s a lot of loss here. M. Touré also feeds his family with what is grown; the same goes for Mme. Coulibaly and the five or six other people I saw working there. As I sat in the shade under a giant tree with a few of these people, a bunch of baby chicks ran around us in that crazy uncoordinated way they have, meaning there are big chickens somewhere, laying eggs and probably being eaten, too.

The two plots – which amounted to about a hectare of land – is irrigated by hand from a well dug under that same tree. Bamako’s water table is high enough that well water is readily available. That doesn’t make it easy, however. When I asked what challenges or obstacles he faced in this business, he looked around at all the beds and mused that if he had a motorized pump for the well, things would be much better. He sometimes works until 3 or 4am, just to get everything watered and to pick what will be sold the next day. Urban ag offers possibilities, but it’s not exactly a glamorous life.

After leaving this small venture, I went to one of the markets where M. Touré’s vegetables are sold. A head of lettuce for fifty cents, two eggs for just about half that. As I looked around me at this market, I realized that most of the produce that was there was probably grown within five or ten miles of where I stood. This extensive network of farmers and market women has established itself in a way to take care of a city that isn’t entirely able to take care of itself. I’m going to talk to another woman a little later this evening who has a small plot next door to my building, and hope to venture out near the river soon where several hectares of land are being used to feed the people of this huge city.

Every time I pass by one of these urban plots, I think about the grocery stores back home and the fact that I have no clue where my broccoli or leeks or tomatoes came from. But it’s quite possible that the onion I sautéed for lunch today was one that Mme. Coulibaly picked from her garden sometime earlier this week.

Culinary Adventures à l’africaine

When I went about creating this blog – mostly in anticipation of being in Mali – I didn’t think at all that it would be a food blog. Yes, avocados and agriculture are inherently linked to food and to eating, and so I guess in the larger sense, this is intrinsically food related. However, I was in the kitchen last night cooking dinner after having done some shopping at a couple of local markets (no way I’m going without toilet paper, and there is only so much tolerance I have for sterilizing water every morning to drink).  Less than $3 got me a bunch of carrots, four tomatoes, three large beets, a head of cabbage, two giant plantains, two green peppers and three of the hottest little chilies I know. On the other hand, I think I paid almost forty dollars for things like toilet paper, bottled water, salt and pepper, a small jug of milk and a few other house essentials.

tomates et bananes

While in the process of opening a can of mushrooms (don’t judge me) with a sort of pokey devise that doesn’t at all resemble any can opener I grew up with, I realized that cooking in Africa is a total adventure in and of itself. Especially when you find yourself in a kitchen that you didn’t outfit yourself; whoever did equip it clearly did not come from a house outfitted with three crockpots, enough dishes to serve fifteen, various gadgets to perform various (seldom necessary) tasks, and more kinds of flour than I am proud to admit.

With the know-how of someone who has lived in an African kitchen, I hacked open the can of mushrooms (I promise, they really are tasty), chopped up an onion, and found a skillet buried in the cabinet somewhere.

onions sautées

I then, for the second time that day, set about taking my life into my own hands turning on the gas. Opening the gasket as little as possible, I said a small prayer and lit the stovetop with my lighter. “Low heat” is not something this range does well, unless there are two burners going at a time, in which case you have to open up the gas a bit more and play with the levels. Otherwise, flames will be at a roar.

my attempt at a slow simmer


my humble little stovetop

Boiling water in a small casserole to make rice, I suddenly understood better why all the ‘ceeb’ you get in Senegal has the crispy stuff on the bottom of the pan. If you try to steam rice over a huge flame, it will crisp. Granted, crispy rice is delicious – a delicacy, some might even say – but that’s not what I was going for. Dancing between the gas tank and my two burners, juggling the sputtering rice pot and some sautéing vegetables, the only thing I was missing is a unicycle, and I would have been a bonified kitchen circus act.

un repas délicieux

The meal turned out delicious; or maybe it was simply the fruit of my labor that was so satisfying. Either way, I don’t think I will be wont for a interesting culinary adventures over the next several months.

No, I’m not going to Bali

Surrounded by tote bags full of clean laundry, bottles of vitamins, books that I hope I have the desire to read in three months, and a travel backpack stuffed with my yoga mat, sunscreen, and a first aid kit, among other things, it still hasn’t completely registered that I step on a plane in less than twenty-four hours.

DC was hit with an ice storm earlier this week. The city woke up to a shiny (and rather beautiful) coating of frozen water over everything. Temperatures had been in the twenties, the wind wailed through the night, and I was woken at 5am by my (admittedly quite responsible) neighbor chopping and scraping away at the ice on the sidewalk. Next time this week, I will probably be praying for anything resembling ice; temperatures in the twenties – even centigrade – will seem cold and unusual. Par for the course.

Anyway, this week – my last in Washington – I’ve made a tetrus board out of my schedule in order to hang out with everyone I love, I’m running around getting all of my errands done, using up the miscellany of food cleaned out of my pantry (which, I should note, has been quite the success, if not the impetus behind some bizarre and inventive recipes!), and in general trying not to think about what next week’s meteorologic predictions mean. A month ago or so, I made a DC ‘bucket list’, to motivate me to do things in DC that maybe I wouldn’t do if my time here wasn’t so limited. Two Fridays ago I took a personal day from work and hung out at the National Gallery (an amazing place to wander around) and the Hirshhorn.

on a power box somewhere near logan sq

Monday I spent walking from Columbia Heights to Logan Circle to Dupont to Penn Quarter and back again. It’s been wonderful to have a few days to myself – it’s like winter vacation when I was in elementary school (minus the obligatory uniform of snowpants and mittens) – I finally have the time to explore the city I’ve lived in for almost three years!

cute little thing

It’s funny trying to pack and deciding what I will wear and use and hopefully need over the next several months. I got a two week free subscription to an audiobook website and downloaded The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith; books I might not have the time and/or impetus to read in print form.  Other books I am bringing with me include:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Markets and States in Tropical Africa by Robert Bates
  • Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Morrison
  • What is the What by Dave Eggers
  • Teachings of Rumi by Rumi
  • The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Bhagavad Gita, the brilliantly insightful Indian scripture
  • La lenteur by Milan Kundera

I also fully plan on spending more money than is advisable in the Paris airport to buy a few more books to round out my stock. And maybe a trashy magazine or two.

Everyone keeps asking me if I’m excited. My response is, of course, ‘yes’, but to be honest, it’s hard to be excited about something that is completely unknown and somewhat abstract. I don’t know who my colleagues are; I don’t know what my office or apartment will look like; I have only a vague idea of what my daily work will consist of; I don’t even know what language I’ll be speaking on a regular basis. My excitement is completely abstract. I’m excited about the potential facing me, about learning and experiencing and seeing and doing things completely foreign to me.

I walked all around DC again on Wednesday – Columbia Heights to Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle and back up 18th St, taking pictures of the most random things, but things that seemed beautiful in the moment.

i love the texture of these

Moss growing on the walls of Malcolm X park; a puddle in the sidewalk reflecting the trees; a statue juxtaposed against a beautifully colorful mosaic; the fire escape of a building behind my brother’s apartment.

not so many puddles in Bamako

Nostalgia isn’t quite the right word since I’m still here – is there such a thing as anticipatory nostalgia?


retrospective no. 6: juicebox gardens and looking forward to january.

a garden in cartons

This garden caught my eye the second or third day I was working in the office in Kinshasa. It’s under a tree right next to the pool in the yard outside the office. Something about it is so beautiful: simple, utilitarian, creative, colorful… I’m not sure who put it together, but anyone could have. It’s not exactly the kind of project requiring a degree in agroforestry or soil sciences. It’s just a few cartons growing herbs and flowers and other small plants. But it’s brilliant.

I’m home for Thanksgiving and thinking back to the spread we had on our table yesterday (and the containers upon containers of leftovers now in our refrigerator). Two turkeys, stuffing (vegetarian and regular), potatoes, squash, salad, cranberry sauce, bread, and more vegetables. The array of desserts was even more obscene. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say there were seven different kinds of ice cream.

I am extremely grateful for the abundance in my life (and not just food abundance). I wonder, however, where the line is between opulence and excess. What does it mean to have such a huge spread on the table? How is it any better than a dinner with just enough food for the people there? I understand the social implications of food: feeding someone to show you love them or care for them, gathering around a food table to share in a feeling of community, preparing food together and spending time with people you love. Somehow these feelings were partly lost on me yesterday.

I wish it had been more about family and sharing, and less about a display of food that could have fed a small nation. A simplistic version of Thanksgiving could be just as nice. To ensure that we only have as much food as we’ll eat – and not be weighed down with more leftovers than the amount of food we brought to begin with. Don’t get me wrong; I love Thanksgiving. It’s by far my favorite holiday and I would never want to do anything to take away from what it is. This year, however, there seem to have been forces at play that adulterated the real meaning of my favorite day of the year.

Black Friday sales starting on Thursday or even before; the less-than-subtle infiltration of Christmas and Christmas consumerism; the ridiculousness of the production (do we always have to out-do ourselves from what we did last year?)

I’m moving to Bamako in January. And trying to simplify my life between here and then – become a little bit more minimalist, so-to-speak. Thinking about the non-essentials in my life feels like a direct contradiction to the dinner we had last night. This might be a bit of a stretch, as comparisons go, but I was slightly disturbed by the consumption and the need to produce. Could we have done with less? (Okay, obvious answer is yes. Next quetion: how, exactly?) How can I make do with less, what do I have that I don’t need or that I could get rid of?

Over the next couples of months before I leave, my project is to scale back. To minimalize what I own and have and buy and use. I’m not sure exactly where to start, or how serious I want to be about it, but I think it’s a good exercize in simplicity and in analyzing my life a bit.

A life like a garden in juice cartons – simple, utilitarian, creative, colorful.