Street Food

To fully discover a country one needs to eat its street foods.

I remember wandering the streets of Guangzhou with my brother looking for something to eat. We ended up at an open store front with tray upon tray of deep fried food on a stick (I once wanted to open a restaurant called “Everything on a Stick.”) At the far left hand side of the middle row was a tray filled with skewers of deep fried baby birds. My brother being who he is (love the kid) went straight for them. As he bit into the first baby bird I remember him saying, “It’s not so much that I can feel the bones breaking or the innards exploding in my mouth. I don’t mind that. The thing I don’t like about this… it tastes AWFUL!” The point of the story being that for Eric and I to understand the culture we needed to taste the food that people grabbed on their way to work, on a date, or window shopping.

While there are no deep fried baby bird sticks here, there is still a very interesting world of street food to be had.

One of the staples of my diet is a wonderful thing called Bui (not sure of the spelling) that I always eat with a Benyay (again… not sure of spelling.) Bui is ground corn (the most common), millet, or tapioca (my favorite and most uncommon) cooked with boiling water. That’s it. When cooked it becomes very liquidy and easily drunk from a bowl. Every morning when I go to school I sit out front before my first class and get 25 CFA (5 cents) worth of Bui (a small bowls worth) and a Benyay (deep fried dough ball) for another 25CFA. One can always tell women that serve Bui because of the large plastic tubs covered with a simple insulator of plastic and cloth sitting on a crude wooden table in front of them. There is something about the warm lumpy stuff that really satisfies an early morning hunger.

Another one of my main food sources is Wachi: rice cooked with beans (everything here is very simple.) You can spot a Wachi women (I like the ring of that…) by a large metal tub that contains a giant lump (the rice and beans) wrapped in plastic and cloth. It is ordered by price (100CFA is what I normally get), scooped out by hand (her RIGHT hand of course! That’s the clean one!) and placed into a plastic bowl. Sitting next to the metal vat are usually an assortment of different size stainless steel, lidded pots. In each pot (sometimes there is only one) is a different sauce (but always palm oil based and very very red.) There is usually the fish chunk sauce (I stay away from that one) and sometimes the overcooked goat chunk sauce (usually stay away from that one… sometimes I get brave or inebriated and end up tearing at a few pieces… not the best idea.) Occasionally you get lucky and mixed in with the fish sauce are pieces of a local “cheese” called Wagash, deep fried to the point of breaking your teeth (SOOO GOOD!) I put cheese in quotes because I’m not 100% sure that it really IS cheese. It is cheese in the sense that milk (or some dairy product) was somehow made hard (my cheese making knowledge is not that extensive). One can purchase Wagash at the market in large red (they die the outside with millet to help preserve it) wheels stacked on a metal tray carefully balanced on a women’s head.

While I love the taste (most of the time) of the street food, my favorite part is the interactions that take place while eating. There is something bonding about sharing the food of another’s culture.

In the future I will write about other street foods and specific eating experiences.

Until then…

The Market

I am lucky by Peace Corps standards. I can get lettuce every day of the week.

Where others are happy to have a market every 6 or 7 days, I live in the second largest city in the country. That means I can find fun things like onions, lettuce, green peppers, and wonderful wonderful soy cheese (how I crave protein!) at the Grande Marché (main market) EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK! When I go to visit friends I usually bring along a large bag of food to put a little meat on their skinny skinny frames (Peace Corps diet works WONDERS!) Some of my friends have to bike 4km to find a loaf of bread, other friends are lucky if they can get tomatoes in their village.

I usually stop at the market on my way home from teaching. The market is a large concrete structure (uncommon except in the largest cities) with wooden framed and metal roofed stalls overflowing on all sides. I usually park my bike at the Post Office across the street. In getting to the post office I cross a lane of oncoming motorcycle, ox cart, car, and people traffic. I swear that crossing will be the death of me! But it will be worth it for all the wonderful food it has given me.

I lock my bike with the blue Chinese made (everything comes from China around here. God bless Globalization's cheap prices) bike lock and cross back over the street. All Peace Corps volunteers have "their lady" at the market. All that means is the one veggie seller who was lucky enough to be nice to you on your first week at post that you have continued to go back to. My lady has a great smile and very fresh veggies. To get to her stand I need to duck into a small covered walkway boarded by stands on both sides leaving about 2 feet of space to walk. The first stand on the right as you enter the small walkway sells rice. They probably have 7 or 8 different types of rice in huge bowls sitting open, waiting for some nice person to take some home. On the left is a stand with the same large bowls only filled with beautifully orange palm oil. You usually buy it in small slender see through bags that are kept in yet another bowl. They kind of remind me of buying fish when I was little and the fish store guy putting them in bulging, water filled plastic bags, only here it is palm oil and smaller.

The next stand sells fetish items. The three main religions of Togo are Christianity, Islam, and Animism (aka Voodoo) A fetish stand sells things for voodoo ceremonies: gnarly bone handled knives, different size rusty and non-rusty nails (gotta be able to chose!), an assortment of dried skins and furs from something that used to be alive, and powders of all color and consistency. Animism is an old religion still practiced by many people in West Africa. I have friends that live in small villages (small villages way out in the wild are the biggest practicers of the traditional religion) who tell stories of Witch Doctors doing demon dances, chicken sacrificing (what a nice welcome!), and other interesting (sometimes kind of scary) stories. I don't see much of it as I live in a largely Muslim city. The extent of my exposure to the practices are the occasional talisman (string with various things from the fetish table attached to it) hanging in a tree next to a house to ward of spirits.

After the fetish stand I enter the concrete structure that houses most of the food sellers. All the ladies that work in this corner section know me and try to get my business. But I walk, saying hi to everyone, and head straight for my lady. She always has a great pile of lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, green beans, and the occasional (what a great day when they are there!) eggplant. Everything is ordered by price. For example I say I want 100 CFA (that's 100 West African Francs, equal to about 20 cents) of lettuce, 100 of cucumber, and 200 of eggplant (that comes out to 4 small heads of leaf lettuce, 1 cucumber, and 1 or 2 medium eggplants). She puts it all into one of the ubiquitous black plastic bags, adds a cadeu (Present in French) of a pile of green beans. I then look for someone with nice tomatoes. Everyone specialises in a couple of veggies, selling only them. Tomato sellers always stack their tomatoes in pyramid piles of either 50 or 100 CFA (10 or 20 cents). For that you get about 4-6 small tomatoes. I finally leave followed by calls to buy potatoes, more tomatoes, and all other sorts of wares. I cross back over the street and get a loaf of bread for another 100CFA that's a soft crusted baguette (one of the only good things the French did in Africa (I like to pick on the French) was teach people how to make bread.) I finally unlock my bike and head home.

Travel in Togo

In the US we take getting around for granted. Most people have cars. Others, like me who at 23 is still licenseless, use public transportation to get where they need to go. Paved roads connect almost every house, shopping mall, and school.

In Togo there is one paved road that runs from the capitol in the south to the most northern border with Burkina Faso. There is nothing else. If you turn off this main road you turn onto pot-holed, dirt roads that can become impassible during the rainy season.

To make travel in this country even more difficult imagine a population that can not afford to send their children to school for $8 a year. Then ask yourself if that population owns cars.

There is no public transportation. There are no local airports, no local or national bus routes, no subway systems. The way people get around here is a wonderful thing called a bush taxi. In my opinion it is wonderful wonderful capitalism at work at its best. In a market economy if there is a need of a service, that need is filled by an individual who hopes to profit.

A bush taxi in its simplest form is a car that drives along the national route picking people up along the way and then dropping them off along the route closer to their final destination. That sounds fine.

In reality bush taxis are cars that have been out of service in the US or Europe since the late 80s that are shipped to Africa and sold for a couple hundred dollars. These are held together and driven until they literally FALL apart on the side of the road. I was once in a bush taxi that had to stop 4 times to pick up different pieces of the car that had fallen (muffler, hub-cap, some pipe from under the car, and a strip of metal about 6 inches long… Guess none were that important.)

It makes sense for a driver to want to fill his car as full as he can with people. I have been in a basic 4 door sedan that is meant for 5 (driver plus 4) filled with upwards of 11 to 12 people. That works out to 4 up front (two in the driver's seat and two in the passenger seat… sometimes three in the passenger seat) and anywhere from 5-7 people (and we arnt talking small children… We are talking full grown adults) jammed into the back. There are also larger passenger type vans that normally hold 15 people. They have the front section (cab) and then 4 rows of benches. I have seen these cars filled with as many as 30 people. There are no seat belts, no air-conditioning, and only rarely a window that will open. You have no idea how after being crammed into the back seat with 5 other people for 4 hours you CRAVE the luxury of Economy Class flight.

For example, if I want to travel to see my friend who lives 40k away I walk to the main road. I stand and wait for a bush taxi to pass in the direction I want to go (there are only two ways to go in a place with only one road.) He stops, I jam into whatever space I can find and we are off. It takes a car about 25 – 30 minutes to travel 40k (about 25 miles) in the US. Now imagine that you were driving a bush taxi where you have to stop every few miles to "show your papers" (wink wink) to the police at a checkpoint, not drive over 30 miles an hour for fear of hitting one of the pot holes (craters), and stopping every few minutes to pick up or drop someone off. That normally 30 minute car ride turns into a hellish two hours. Try to imagine not being able to get out of a crouching position for hours at a time. For the longer trips (it takes about 6 hours to get to the capitol from my city) there are no bathrooms. Every once in a while the car will pull over next to a field and everyone (women included) get out and do their business.

While it is never fun to be stuck in a car with 29 other people, 4 chickens, and a goat it is amazingly interesting. No one complains. It is just the way life goes.


If I am walking down the street in the US and happen to see someone I know, I either try to avoid making eye contact so as not have to say anything or give a quick head nod and a, "Hey." If I am feeling friendly I might throw in a "What's up?" But after having done my small duty, continue on my way.

A typical exchange on the street here would go like this:
(This local language is called Kabye. I am also writing everything out phonetically as there are letters used that we don't have in English)

Person 1: Un-la-waa lay (Good morning)
Person 2: Yaa. Alafia. (Yes, it is good.)
Person 1: Alafia way? (How are you?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Toe-mee-ai yo? (How's your work?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Halow yo? (How's your wife?)
(Note: If the person has two or more wives, not uncommon, you would say, "Pay-way Alafia?")
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Pia yo? (And your children?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Plab-tassi. (See you later.)
Person 2: Plab-tassi. (See you later.)

Along with this exchange both people slightly squat down, putting their hands on their knees in a sign of respect. I have seen women carrying huge bowls filled with vegetables on their head squat down without even thinking about it. In the local language of my city, Kotokoli, towards the end of that exchange both people make a sort of grunting sound back and forth. Just a little "mm" or "ungh." They go back and forth grunting for sometimes upwards of 10 seconds.

(After all other greetings)
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn

Its almost musical, kind of like a song being passed back and forth.

I have asked many people why they do that. The only response I get is, "That's just part of it." It's such an interesting way to greet someone, seemingly not saying anything. But that's just how it's done.

Sometimes in Kabye after all the questions the person being asked will shake his hands back and forth and go, "Ya ya ya ya ya." That basically just means, "Everythings great."

There is something about the idea of asking about someone's life that I really like. While it does get a little old to be asked about my work 10 times a day, it is still nice to know that that human contact is there. This is a culture that values the relationship between people.

ps. Sorry I havnt posted in a long long time. I spent a wonderful Christmas at home with my family and am just now getting back.