Diverse Africa

Draa Valley, Morocco

Traveling from Senegal to Mali to Mauritania to Morocco is very much a trip from black sub-Saharan Africa to Arab North Africa, as I described in my posts of 09.01.04, 09.01.05 and 09.01.11. In this post, I wanted to discuss in somewhat greater detail some of the questions of race and identity that arise in these countries, as seen through the eyes of someone who is part of both a homogenous culture (East Asia) and an incredibly diverse one (America).

Generically, imprecisely and unscientifically speaking, there are two native “races” in Northern Africa: black Africans, who have until relatively recent times been the sole occupants of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert, and Berbers, who have lived in the area north of the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. In addition, since antiquity, the northern coast of Africa has been subjected to numerous external cultural influences, from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in classical times to the Ottoman Turk and Western European imperialists more recently, the most lasting of these external influences being the Arabs, who stormed across the entire North African coast soon after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Below, some thoughts on race and identity in Africa north of the equator, organized by question and answer.


Who are the Berbers?

The Berbers are a people who have lived in Africa, from the Sahara northward to the Mediterranean coast, for thousands of years. (St. Augustine may be the most famous ancient Berber.) Many look Mediterranean, by which I mean the olive-skinned, dark-haired type that is found from Spain to Turkey to the Levant, but others are quite fair–some as blond as any northern European. Since the Arab conquest of the seventh century, which swept across the entire North African coast, most of the residents of North Africa have grown to identify themselves as Arabs, and the countries of the North African coast, all members of the Arab League, are generally thought of as Arab countries, but the true “genetic” history is that these countries are still largely populated by the people who have always lived here–the Berbers. The Arabs came, intermarried and spread their language, religion and culture, but did not totally replace the native population. That is, the residents of North Africa speak Arabic, are Muslim and think of themselves (to a large extent) as Arabs, but in reality they are principally the descendants not of Arab invaders (who were always small in number) but of a race that has lived in North Africa for thousands of years. (Berbers exist on the European mainland as well–it is estimated that some 10% of the Spanish population is Berber, presumably from the Arab/Berber conquest of Spain in the eighth century.)

Berber man, Taroudannt, Morocco

How come I’ve never heard of Berbers?

To a large extent, because Berber identity has become subsumed by Arab identity. Even though, as I’ve said above, the residents of North Africa are largely descendants of the people who have lived in North Africa since time immemorial, and in a genetic sense are probably not very Arab at all, Arab identity, through language, religion and culture, has come to dominate most of the region, leaving relatively little sense of Berber identity, at least in most of the population centers of North Africa.

However, just as Christianity survived in the mountains of Maalula (see post of 08.05.22) and in the deserts of the Sinai (see post of 08.10.01), and Zoroastrianism survived in the deserts of Yazd (see post of 08.05.14) and in the hills of Abiyaneh (see post of 08.05.22), Berber identity has survived intact in the two greatest geographical extremes of Northern Africa–the high mountains and the Sahara. In the Atlas mountains not far from the coast, communities of “pure” Berbers speak Berber languages and not the Arabic which has become the dominant language of the region. Even occasional signs can be seen in the ancient Berber script.

Berber girl in the High Atlas, Morocco

Berber language sign near Todra Gorge, Morocco

Similarly, in the Sahara live many different Berber “nations,” the most famous of which is probably the Touareg (see post of 09.01.04). Some of these groups may still in some senses identify themselves as Arab, and there is no doubt that Islam and aspects of Arab identity have well permeated these desert populations, but they also retain their native Berber languages and a distinct culture.

Touareg boys, Timbuktu, Mali

What is the future of Berber identity?

Morocco in particular is experiencing something of a Berber renaissance, as late King Hassan II and especially current King Mohammed VI (who identifies himself as part Berber) have promoted a stronger sense of Berber identity, including by teaching Berber languages in Moroccan public schools. To the outside observer, such moves may appear in part motivated by a desire to build a sense of Moroccan identity that is independent from greater Arab identity, not only to strengthen Morocco as a nation generally but also to create psychic distance between Morocco, a relatively progressive and economically dynamic country increasingly oriented toward the West, and parts of the Arab world that are politically or economically more stunted. Already geographically remote from the conflicts of the Levant and the extremism of parts of the Gulf, it is possible that the Moroccan leadership sees in Berber identity a way to create a sense of Moroccan-ness that is better suited to the country’s particular identity and needs.

Friends, Todra Gorge, Morocco

All of which goes to show you the extent to which ethnic identity can be molded by political forces. As I described in my post of 08.12.22, Mauritania in the 1970s went through a transition from being a West African country oriented toward the rest of black West Africa and the former French colonial world to a North African country oriented toward the Arab world through membership in the Arab League. Of course, the real answer is that Mauritania is part black and part Arab/Berber, but at least in some formal ways that country “changed its color” in that period. There are of course many other examples of such political acts of ethnic/cultural definition.


From these points I want to draw one lesson: Africa is more diverse than it is sometimes made out to be.

Timbuktu, Mali

Often, people are guilty of lumping all of the African continent into one homogenous mass–in the ignorant popular imagination a continent of impoverished black people, living alternately in the desert or the jungle. Even those more familiar with the ethnic and social diversity of the continent are likely to think of it in shorthand as a “black” continent with a strip of Arabs along the northern coast. But, in reality, there are many significant and distinct variations within African identity that even a very basic sense of history reveals. Ethiopians and Eritreans speak a Semitic language and have an ancient Christian tradition, making them in some sense part of Middle Eastern history as well as African. Along the entire coast of East Africa, Arab cultural influence is greatly felt in the hybrid Swahili culture. Madagascar is largely populated by people from now Indonesia (see post of 08.08.31).

And all of northern Africa is a place of great cultural diversity, the Sahel a transitional zone in more ways than one. Going from the sub-Saharan south to the Mediterranean, one encounters a mixture of black African Christians, black African Muslims (on the two religions, see post of 08.12.16), fairer skinned Africans of Berber ancestry and then those who identify as Arabs. Indeed, so many of the conflicts that have riled this region–such as those in Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Chad and the Sudan–have been caused by ethnic tensions. Even along the coast, where “Arab” identity seems mostly solid, ethnic identity is to some extent uncertain, as Moroccans and others begin to think of themselves as Berber. (For that matter, even closer to the heart of the Arab world, Arab identity is not something that is uniform–Egyptians, with their incredibly ancient and continuous history rightfully think of themselves as somewhat sui generis and many Syrians and Lebanese are quick to point out their Phoenician or other pre-Arab ancestry (see post of 08.04.25).)

Having a sense of the internal diversity of a place, rather than sticking with a simplistic caricature that wipes out such granularity, is essential to understanding it. And, for a number of reasons, learning about Africa, starting to understand the second-most populous continent, remains for much of the rest of the world a low priority. This post is a small attempt at remedying this defect.

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.


Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)


An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.


Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:


Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?


Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!


British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

Monsieur Cadeau

It is perhaps one of the things that first world travelers dread most about the developing world–more than disease, more than red tape, more than language barriers: begging. Even if you’re used to giving to/ignoring panhandlers back home, it’s different when you’re on the road–there are often more beggars, they single you out as the rich tourist and the wealth gap between you and them has never been more apparent–all of which combine to leave you feeling guilty, stingy and bothered.

Begging comes in a wide variety of forms. Perhaps the best targets of a traveler’s generosity are the elderly and infirm, especially near places of worship. By participating in traditional forms of charity directed at those in clearest need, tourists are able to assist in a way that is consistent with local norms and does not result in an increase in the number of beggars especially targeting tourists. The most memorable group of such mendicants, for me, was a group of women outside the famous rock-hewn St. George’s in Lalibela–nowhere else have we had donations of basic foodstuffs (in our case, bread) so warmly received. Other forms of begging can be somewhat more annoying/troubling. In India, children or women with babies run up to cars at intersections thrusting the babies at windows and demanding money. In Egypt, tourist police and security guards demand tips when no services at all are performed (see post of 08.09.16). Perhaps most devious of all, and one we were most amused to have naively fallen for, young women (also usually with babies) in Shenzhen, China will pretend to eat food out of garbage cans, trying to draw sympathy and cash contributions.

Talibes in Senegal (see post of 08.11.22)

But it is a somewhat more frivolous and nagging form of begging that I want to address in my post today. The post is titled “Monsieur Cadeau” (Mister Gift) because that particular phrase is something one hears all the time in parts of West Africa. It is short for “Monsieur, donnez moi un cadeau” (Mister, give me a gift), which one also sometimes hears, but more often it is abbreviated and strung together as if “Cadeau” were your surname. Or there is “ca va, cadeau” (how are you, gift). This sort of begging by children is common in many countries around the world; children have learned to mob tourists for money or candy or whatever tourists are willing to give, often in an incredibly persistent way. Adding to the annoyance factor is that often the children who do this are not really those most in need (though admittedly still far poorer than the average tourist). In Ethiopia, for example, even seemingly middle class (for Ethiopia, that is) youth in school uniforms will ask for a birr, the local currency. The hounding establishes an undesirable begger/beggee relationship between local and guest, and makes genuine cultural exchange for travelers that much more difficult.

The Rough Guide to West Africa says that the children of the Francophone West African countries are some of the worst offenders, in terms of begging; the children of the English-speaking West African countries to the south apparently have not adopted this behavior so wholeheartedly. So are the French to blame? Perhaps. French tourists did seem more likely to engage in hand-outs–one young French woman we saw in the Dogon had pre-prepared a bag of small toys to hand out. Visiting Haiti in the 80s, Derek was surprised to regularly hear “boom boom?” from young children. He later realized that “boom boom” was not a sexual reference but “bonbon” or candy in french. Part of it may be Lonely Planet’s fault. In the past, Lonely Planet used to suggest that travelers hand out school supplies instead of money or candy, the logic being that you don’t want to turn kids into beggars or encourage tooth decay. But handing out pens only resulted in children begging for pens instead of money, and a large secondary market in pens. The fact is, children will ask for whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be coins (for a “foreign coin collection”) or candy or pens, unless their parents or other local adults stop them. There are plenty of charities/NGOs to which effective donations can be made, and succumbing to children’s requests unfortunately turns the kids into beggars.

What do we like to do? Admittedly, sometimes we have given money (though not to children), or even candy if we happened to have some on hand and were so moved, but what we prefer is to give either photographs of ourselves (we took a picture of you, and now have it on our camera; here’s a little picture of us for you to have) or postcards from back home. This of course takes some preparation–having printed photographs or postcards ready–but it’s definitely worthwhile, because it allows us to share a bit of ourselves and where we come from with people who don’t own cameras and will likely never have a chance to visit the U.S. On the back of the postcards, Derek usually writes a funny little note, which the recipient generally can’t read but may have translated some day.

An elderly Dogon examining the New York skyline, Mali

Some of Derek’s masterpieces, give to children among the baobabs in Madagascar

One story about giving, or trying to give, that may appeal to the cynical traveler, from the city of Gonder in Ethiopia. I do not know what Gonder is like these days, but when we were there, there were quite a few young children in town who made it their business to provide various “travel agent”-type services to tourists. For example, one small boy with a bum eye helped set up a taxi for us to get to the airport. Others would help carry bags or provide directions. Of all these boys, there was one that we grew to despise, because he was clearly more troublesome and deceptive than the others. He was also overweight, an obvious sign of his relative wealth or success. Well, from Gonder we went on a trip to the nearby Simien Mountains, a high altitude range that is one of the many spectacular sights of Ethiopia. We were waiting outside of the park proper trying to hitch a ride to the trailhead, when a minivan drove up, with some tourists. We asked if we could get a ride, and they said sure. When we got in, we saw that the bad kid was also in the minibus. The other tourists had not noticed, as we had, what a rotten kid he was, and “hired” him to arrange their visit to the Simiens. Anyway, we gratefully accepted the lift, and after a visit cut short by Derek’s severe altitude sickness, returned to Gonder. A couple days later, as we were leaving Gonder, we ran into the young woman who had hired the kid and the van. She related to us how the kid had had his mother throw her a birthday party, and then billed her for all sorts of food and beverages that they didn’t even consume. Not having learned her lesson, she bought the kid an Amharic-English dictionary worth $30, even writing a note on the first page to prevent the kid from reselling it. The good kid with the bum eye told us that the other kid had returned it to the bookstore for $10 anyway.

Faces of Senegal and Mali

For all of its political and economic problems, and relative lack of tourist sites and infrastructure, there are some things about sub-Saharan Africa that are for travelers just about incomparable to anywhere else in the world. The two things that pop up most easily in our mind are the colors and the people. Both can be described with the same adjectives: brash, engaging, exuberant. It is something of a paradox for us; in some ways, Africans can be incredibly timid and mild-mannered, but most of the rest of the time, they can be among the most engaging, gregarious and openly friendly people in the world. This is not the sort of polite welcome and forbearance that one receives in Southeast Asia, or the almost formal hospitality one receives in the Middle East, but a sort of slap-on-the-back friendliness that is not afraid to make jokes and laugh, a smile that is almost overly broad, full of life.

I do not have too much to say about these photos, but consider them with this in mind: Africans may be poor but their persons do not speak poverty and despair, but vitality and joy. I begin first with photographs from Senegal, with its Wolof ethnic plurality, then move on to Mali, where up north around Timbuktu live the fair-skinned berber Tuareg.

Ile de Goree, near Dakar, Senegal

This elegant older woman was awaiting her son, who was supposed to arrive by ferry to celebrate her birthday but was running late. For whatever reason, we imagined her as a sort of Miss Havisham, coming to the ferry dock every day, thinking that it was her birthday and looking for her estranged son.

St. Louis, Senegal

The stick in her mouth is a sort of toothbrush; the apparent effectiveness of such traditional tools makes one wonder why we bother with plastic brushes and saccharine-laden paste.


A Fula/Peul herder in characteristic hat

A girl exhibiting a confidence that seems, to me, typically African

Tattoos, especially on women and quite often on faces, are worn by “tribal” women around the world.

From Timbuktu. The fairer people are Tuareg, a berber people who inhabit the regions around the Sahara in Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. The Tuareg held black Africans as slaves until quite recently, and are said by some to continue to hold slaves. The practice was defended to us as a domestic/familial link at this point rather than mere ownership.

From the Dogon Country

Back to Bamako

Food in West Africa

We really didn’t know what to expect, for food, when coming to West Africa. We had never heard of Senegalese or Malian or Mauritanian food, and had no idea what they were like. We also knew from prior experience that, particularly in poorer countries, there can be a pretty big gap between the best of local cuisine (elaborate and delicious, but prepared only in private homes or for special occasions) and what is available for tourists (crude, dumbed down version of local cuisine or faux-western dishes), and feared that we would be reduced to eating plate after plate of quasi-French (bad steak frites) or spaghetti. One thing we definitely did not expect was a great cuisine–we figured that if there were something all that great, we would have heard of it by now, and seen restaurants serving it in the U.S.

Well, were we wrong. Mali and Mauritania don’t really have much of a cuisine of their own to speak of, but Senegalese food can be phenomenal, and I would rank at least a couple of Senegalese dishes among the tastiest in the world. Not only are restaurants great in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, but well-prepared Senegalese food can be found all over West Africa, in recognition of its place as the region’s finest cuisine. Revealing my ignorance, I learned that Senegalese food is also available in other parts of the world, particularly in France but also in American cities such as New York and Chicago. And so, at least when he’s lucky, the tourist in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania gets to eat good Senegalese food, and that is the main focus of this post, although I include below some non-Senegalese dishes as well.

The queen of Senegalese food, and one of the greatest dishes in the world, as far as I’m concerned, is tieboudienne.

Tieboudienne is the French transliteration of the Wolof (the majority language in Senegal) name for the dish, which simply means rice with fish. But the dish is much more complicated.

First, the rice.

The rice, as you can see, is highly seasoned, and simply delicious to eat alone. Perhaps peculiarly, the Senegalese use broken rice, and cook it quite al dente, so that the rice has an almost couscous texture to it, quite pleasing in the mouth.

Then, the fish (and vegetables).

Fish is caught in plenty in Senegal, and that shows in the generous portion of delicious meaty flesh that usually comes with your tieboudienne. In addition to the fish is an assortment of vegetables, including usually carrot, potato or cassava, cabbage and eggplant. My favorite way of eating tieboudienne is to eat, with knife and fork, amounts of fish and vegetables in proportion to the rice I eat, alternating the vegetables such that, with my five last forkfuls of rice I have one small piece of each vegetable remaining. What fun in resource management!

A fancy tieboudienne, at a top Dakar restaurant

Perhaps the best thing about tieboudienne is not how tasty it is, which is of course true, but that it is considered the most basic Senegalese dish and therefore always available, even at the eateries. I can think of few places where the most basic item on a menu is so flavorful, complex and worthy of repeat eating. We never had a bad tieboudienne in Senegal (or Mali or Mauritania), no matter where we ate it, and since it’s considered a sort of common dish, it is also very cheap–as cheap as USD 1 or 2 in Senegal, Mauritania or Bamako (sadly, good Senegalese restaurants are harder to find in Mali outside of Bamako).

The second greatest dish of Senegalese cuisine is yassa. You can get yassa with chicken, or fish, or anything else I suppose, but the most common is chicken.

Yassa is basically a very heavy oniony sauce, almost akin to French Onion Soup (is it possible that there is a relationship between the two?), and sometimes a little sour, as if the sauce is allowed to ferment, ever so slightly. Like tieboudienne, we never had a bad yassa, although the variation in quality was somewhat greater (tieboudienne is always delicious, yassa sometimes just so-so).

Yassa poisson–sorry for the messy plate!

A rather poor yassa, served with pasta in Djenne. Note how scrawny the chicken is! This plate cost USD 4.

A third Senegalese specialty, although one which it has to share with the rest of the region: mafe. Also known as sauce arachide, or peanut sauce, mafe is meat, often beef or mutton, in a rich peanut-based sauce. When done properly, or at least according to the style that i found myself preferring, the flavor is much darker and richer than the peanut sauce that is served in Southeast Asia to be eaten with your satay.

Also common, though less appealing, is soupe kandja. Kandja, strictly speaking, is not a soup at all, but a sauce to be eaten with rice, like mafe. It is primarily made, it seems, with okra or some other kind of starchy, slimy green. For people turned off by okra (which includes me), kandja is somewhat offensive, due purely to texture.

Served onboard our ship to Timbuktu

As I’ve said before, much of a traveler’s time in West Africa is spent on the road, in share taxis or buses, and with the long rides at least some of your meals will be taken on the road as well. A few pictures showing the kinds of meals one is likely to have while traveling on the West African road.

One of the most basic roadside foods, which could almost be described as primitive, is roasted sheep. Roasted sheep is common in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania; the quality was clearly the best in Mauritania, but in Senegal the meat came with spices (cumin). Super greasy.

Breakfast usually means coffee and eggs at a roadside stand. The simplest way to eat the eggs, for a traveler, is a sandwich to go. A basic omelette, perhaps with onions, inside a baguette–not a bad way to start the day.

The selections that might be available at a basic eatery that a luckier traveler’s bus might stop at. Nothing to complain about, in quality.

Eating more local.

One big and very welcome surprise in Timbuktu was that the food was among the best we’d had in West Africa outside of Dakar. While our hosts at Sahara Passion fed us well and included meals with the family in the reasonable cost of the room, a couple of restaurants in town are definitely worth noting and visiting.

As a sign that you are approaching North Africa, couscous and brochettes appeared on more menus. Here, couscous with vegetables and brochettes with sweet potato fries, at the excellent–food well exceeding the deceptively simple setup, to be sure–Amanar, near the Flamme de la Paix.

Even more impressive than Amanar was the Poulet d’Or, located inside Timbuktu’s Marche Artisanal. The food took a while to arrive, but it was all excellent, including this presentation of a local specialty, toukassou. The big loaf in the middle surrounded by a meaty stew is a huge round spongy bread, not too dissimilar from the “dumplings” served in Czech food.

Our Tabaski feast (see post of 08.12.08)

And some local beverages to wash it down!

Despite the fact that Senegal and Mali are solidly Muslim countries, they fall in the category of Muslim countries with alcohol, such as Turkey and the ex-Soviet Stans of Central Asia. (In Mauritania, all alcohol is banned, although the local authorities never found the half-drunk bottle of Jim Beam which we have been carrying for so long on our trip.) First, a Senegalese beer, against a Dakar sunset. Second, a Malian beer, with the Mopti port in the background.

But we’re not big drinkers. Far more appealing was bissap, pictured to the left, which is a cool drink made with hibiscus leaves (also known as kalkade, e.g., in Egypt). The drink on the right is bouye, made from the fruit of the baobab tree. Also delicious. The third picture is little baggies of bissap and a sort of ginger tea, often sold on the street (and of questionable food safety).

Coffee Touba. Touba is a city in Senegal known best for spiritual leadership and second for coffee.

In Mali and especially in Mauritania, tea is king, made in an elaborate ritual involving much pouring back and forth to cool and generate froth.