The Gambia, home to just over two million people, and the smallest country in mainland Africa. It’s known for it’s beautiful beaches and smiling people and despite the poverty of the country, it is affluent in positive attitude and bright skies (in both a figurative and literal sense) . As soon as you arrive in the Gambia, it’s a sensory overload; stepping off of the air conditioned plane into 30 degree heat is a bit of a change (my nail varnish began to melt off!). Thankfully having family in the country, I was able to experience Gambian culture at it’s finest. Compound life, home-cooked food, and attempting to learn to introduce a conversation in Mandinka (despite there being 4 spoken languages in the country, that excluding tribal dialects.)
What separates Europe and Africa is the most prominent and vital ingredient in culture and society: food. Looking at the way food in Gambia is so predominantly linked to culture and history, it was interesting to be given a key to the the whole process of African life.
Peoples perceptions of African food, that all they eat is rice and meat is (for what it’s worth) true. Two weeks was the time spent in my father’s country, and my intestines were full of rice and pretty much only rice the entire time.
The Gambia (to sound cliché and using utter food irony) is jam packed with their very own cultural variety. The antithesis of English food and food set-up, Gambia’s food is consistent in it’s layout: rice as the stable carbohydrate, with a stew or sauce consisting of either fish or meat at it’s base. They also love their spices, so they do not shy away from adding copious amounts of it to their food! The peppery taste of their food does sometimes out-taste the actual taste of their food , however their traditional dish, and my all time favourite food, Domoda is far from excessive. Domoda is the Gambia’s most famous dish, a peanut butter sauce with a selection of meat and vegetables served with rice, sounds simple yet a genius of a dish was born from it. Tradition is a vital and integral part of Gambian culture, and food is the driving force behind why the country is full of tourists, that and the sweltering heat.
Gathering in large groups, depending on the numbers of guests, large bowls are brought in from the kitchen and we all gather to the middle of the floor and take a seat. Forks and spoons are handed out, and in some cases, there are none, and the lids are lifted. The aromas that are emitted from the bowls conjure up a large sense of nostalgia and memory of being a child amazed at the quantity and beauty of the food we were about to eat. It’s then a case of tucking in, eating in our own corners, mapping out the ratio of rice to sauce and sauce to meat. It’s a kaleidoscopic atlas in which you are to map your point of entry and line your own personal bowl within the bowl. Belly’s full, to round off the perfect meal, is the perfect drink. Attaya tea, a type of green tea is boiled and brewed in a ritualistic and sleek dance creating an extremely sweet hot tea in a small shot glass being drunk and passed to the next person.
The whole process of eating an African meal is about community, coming together to enjoy each others company without judgement or negative assumptions, no television or radio, and a remembrance of unity during colonial rule and slavery; that no other can infiltrate the true culture of the Gambian.