Many in the United States have just had the joy of celebrating Christmas, a climactic holiday filled with the promise of friends, family, excessive consumerism, a dash of stress, and an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness for whatever collection of people you find around you. One more thing Christmas celebrations often have in excess is food, and Burkina Faso, while devoid of snowfall and dying foliage in the living room, has plenty to tempt the palate.
On Christmas morning I rallied my energy and went to mass where I swayed and danced among the rows of my colorfully dressed and jubilant neighbors. Afterwards I mingled eagerly wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and not so subtly hoping I’d be invited to someone’s house for a Christmas meal. Every Burkinabe family prepares a special meal on holidays such as Christmas, often accompanied by one or two kinds of meat. Rice is most popular, and if you live in my neighborhood every meal is accompanied by popcorn, deep fried cookie tid-bits and (strangely) fried shrimp crackers. As is the Burkinabe way, families are always forthcoming with their generous hospitality and by the time I had finished my rounds, two families and the nuns had invited me to eat. I resolved to head back to my house and prepare my stomach for the pending gastronomic inundation.
On my way home, I received yet another invitation from a neighbor, Arastide, who compelled me to the local cabaret to drink some honey infused millet beer. Honey dolo or ‘hydromiel’ is always a treat for me, but the invitation soon turned into a hostage situation where my neighbor, however polite and generous, refused to release me until I had visited all eight of the households he had in mind. Here is my Christmas symphony in nine (literal) movements.
First Movement: I’m two calabashes of hydriomiel deep. We are sitting on bamboo chairs surrounded by Arastide’s cousin and her eight children. A girl brings us a full platter of rice and peanut sauce with pork. I eat modestly, sharing the plate with Arastide and carefully guiding the food to my mouth using ‘God’s Fork’ (my right hand). I congratulate myself on how well I’ve paced my eating, and feel fully prepared for my next meal with the nuns.
Second Movement: Ah, okay, we’ve come to a second courtyard where there is…more food? I sit next to the carcass of a recently butchered cow and politely spoon more rice into my mouth. Someone offers me dolo. “No thanks, I’ll be needing to walk after this.”
Third Movement: After much effort, I manage to break away from Arastide and make it to the nuns’ place. This meal is in three courses accompanied by beer and French fries and dessert. I taste a little bit of everything and entertain all in presence by talking about Krampus, Santa Claus and my great uncle being thrown into a bag of coal as a child.
Fourth Movement: I had almost made it home this time before Arastide caught me. I am seated among several men who are several calabashes into their dolo consumption. Someone offers me hibiscus wine. “No, thank you- oh. You’re just going to put that in my glass? Okay.” More rice. More sauce. More meat.
Intermission: My feet are dragging, but Arastide still has a spring in his step. He ushers me into the next courtyard where, miraculously, I am handed not a plate but a beer. Politely I open it and feign enthusiastic sips. It’s warm and nearly flat.
Fifth Movement: I have given Arastide my beer and told him I won’t be drinking anymore. He seems perplexed by my inability to keep up. I tell him this is our last stop: I am expected at two other parties, but he only laughs and tells me jokingly that I am his hostage. Indeed. We enter the next courtyard. Couscous this time, with a side of salad and chicken legs.
Sixth Movement: I have thoroughly missed my other two rendez-vous. With abject defeat and mild Stockholm syndrome, I follow Arastide as he proudly leads me to his own courtyard where I will be eating rabbit head. My stomach at this point has gained so much mass that I believe it has taken on a separate personality. Then, a gift: Arastide leaves the room he has installed me in to eat. Alone, I quickly and discreetly replace the piles of food I have been given back into their respective pots. When he returns I am ‘hungrily’ chasing around the last grain of rice on my plate and nodding with approval at the tender nature of rabbit cheeks.
Seventh Movement: We walk across the street. It is getting dark, and I try, for the fourth time that day, to make an excuse to leave. Arastide brushes the aside and leads me into the courtyard of a smartly dressed family. I am given an orange soda and popcorn. I eat the popcorn. It’s popcorn. When we finally make our excuses to leave, I discreetly shove the orange soda under my chair as I get up.
Eighth Movement: Arastide has run out of houses to take me to. He tells me we are going to a local bar to have a drink and dance. Then he will let me go home and wash so I can come back out again and participate in more festivities. I am in no state to be among pleasant company: bloated beyond reason, slightly drunk and exhausted. I begin to plot my escape.
Eight Movement, Encore: Joshua, my new site mate who teaches at the high school, will be the key to my getaway. When he calls me asking if I’d like to meet him at the cabaret by my house, I spring into action with an all-too-eager sense of purpose. After I gulp down my Coca Cola, Arastide agrees to walk me back to my house where Joshua, with his valiant mountain bike-steed and with his mighty helmet, awaits to cause a distraction while I slip away.
The Ninth and Final Movement: I re-emerge from my house after resting for a few precious minutes. Despite my fatigue, I know there is one more celebration I must attend: my neighbor’s birthday party. I surprise her with a ripe papaya from one of my trees and half a liter of ginger juice. Frail yet festive solar light bulbs perched on trees sharpen the gyrating shadows of the dozen or so women dancing to a crackly speaker system. My neighbor, 22 today, squeals in excitement as she hurries away to reheat the meal she has been preparing all day.
I pause to take in everything around me: The dancing women, that giddy children, the groups of men with dolo calabashes teasing each other, the music, the lights, the joy. Suddenly, though a little homesick, I realize with content that I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas. My neighbor returns with full platters of rice, meat, sauce and dolo. Okay, once more.