Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cow Oil

I am at a loss for what to do with the bottle of golden liquid gifted to me this afternoon. "Cow Oil," the lady said. If I had been asked what the uses for such a product were before now I would have guessed some sort of ointment for a chapped udder. Now I know it as a cooking ingredient distilled from milk through a method as yet unknown to me. If seems to be pure milk fat. My Fula friend Maimuna Jallow makes a habit of giving me various agricultural products at the end of my visits, but the usual bottle of fresh milk or sack of peanuts has a more mainstream variety of uses.

I was given the invitation for the naming ceremony yesterday morning and promised milk and the aforementioned "ninsi tuloo." I had meant to make a trip to Mana Koto, the nearest Fula village, to check on the one-stringed violin I had commissioned from the local jali anyway so I rode over in the late morning. Upon arrival I made the rounds greeting in Pulaar as well as Mandinka. I know very little Pulaar, but people appreciate it when you make an effort, even if you can't carry on a conversation past the pleasantries. I brought my guitar, which always adds an extra air of prestige to any occasion. Having a toubab jali grace your wedding ceremony seems to be roughly the Gambian equivalent of having a minor celebrity grace your wedding or Bar Mitzvah in the states. I am fast becoming the Gambian Flava-flav.

After managing to turn down two of four offers for questionable food, I eat some millet porridge with sour (a.k.a. spoiled and chunky) milk and fried goat meat with onions and bread. The latter is actually quite good, and I manage to stomach enough of the former to pass for a polite guest. I play a few tunes which are deemed "sweet," and elicit the inevitable requests for lessons and offers to buy the instrument. I finally relent and attempt to teach one of the more polite men a few chords, but after ten minutes of clumsy fumbling he calls it quits. "Thank you, you tried."

As the afternoon begins to heat up the men all sit in the narrow breezeway of the house chatting and drinking attaya. As I usually do at Fula gatherings, I feel a degree more separated than I usually do, as I can only make out tiny fragments of the conversations. Thus I have no idea what is going on when the men begin to file out and walk to a neighboring compound. My former guitar student tells me that lunch is ready in the next compound. "But we just ate." "Now we eat again." A brief walk sees us to the imam's compound, and the meal is initiated again with greetings and then a the mumbling of a small prayer with cupped hands extended to receive the blessings. It is benachin, not particularly bad or good, and I eat a bit more on ceremony. The Imam tries to talk to me in Fula. "Mi nani chet-do."- I speak Mandinka. This does not meet his approval. He is the kind of older, well-dressed gentleman who carries an air of importance around him heavy enough to break the backs of smaller egos. He ruffles like a bit like a bloated rooster and says something derogatory. I explain, to those in the group who understand mandinka, that I live in the nearest village, have lived there for less than a year and have not had instruction in or even much direct contact with their language. I am merely here because I was invited. I ask how many of them speak my native language. None raise their hands. "Language learning is difficult," I say, and that ends the conversation.

After lunch and prayers, I sit and fiddle with my cell for a bit, waiting for lunch to arrive. No reception bars. This village is off the road, and off all but the most detailed maps. Muhammadou, the compound owner, runs up to me excitedly and tells me that a marriage has just been arranged, and in a nearby compound the terms are being agreed on. He and Maimuna drag me over to see "their culture." We come to a hut with a low roof that we have to duck low under to enter. The hut is dark save for the light coming in under the roof and through the curtain that blocks the door. There are two four poster beds of rough hewn wood tacked together and covered with sweat-stained sponge mattresses. There are people sitting in every possible space, or so it seems until an ancient man and middle-aged woman scoot apart to make room for me.

There is a definite air of amusement at the stranger in their midst--the chet-do toubab, or White Mandinka. Maimuna tells them something that makes them all nod and say "Bisimilah"- Thanks be to God, or, in general usage, you are welcome. Then the negotiations begin. The congregation produces a pile of kola nuts and dalasi coins which are placed on a plastic mat in the center of the room, and the mother of the bride and the father of the groom sort through and discuss them. I add two coins of my own, which are met with many nods and grunts of approval. They then place the tribute in a plastic tea kettle usually used for washing hands and, well..."other" bathroom functions. After this a large wad of money is produced and it is contemplated thoroughly by both parties. Once it is deemed adequate it is passed around for all to see so that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the transaction and subsequent marriage. The cash is then also placed in an identical kettle, and the two kettles are passed around for some ceremonial reason. When they are passed to me I try to take them one at a time but am hastily told that this is improper, and I take one in each hand as everyone else does. Once they have been weighed by each pair of hands in the room, they are given back to the mother of the bride, who evenly distributes the kola nuts among the congregants and pockets the money. With that, the ceremony is complete, and the crowd disperses.

Back at the Bah compound, lunch is ready, yet for some reason I am placed in a separate room with my own food bowl. I can never quite decide if this distinction is to honor me or if they don't think I want to or am able to eat with my hands from a community bowl. Either way it is strange, as I ate from a community bowl less than an hour ago. My food bowl is enough to feed a family of four, and after eating two breakfasts and one lunch already I am in no condition to gorge myself, though the food is quite good. After finishing and insisting repeatedly that I can't eat anymore, I start to pack up my things to head home. "Wait, wait! Your milk! Your cow oil!" I had almost forgotten. A fanta bottle filled with warm golden liquid corked with a wad of blue plastic and a water bottle full of fresh milk are produced.

The next morning, back in Barrow Kunda, I wake up and make myself a cup of tea on my gas burner. As I sip it, my host brother's younger wife comes to the door with my breakfast of millet porridge. I thank her and take it, putting it on my cooking table, when I notice the golden bottle with the blue plastic sticking out the top. I grab it and go to my door, opening it, and ask my host wife to come back. "This oil, some Fulas gave it to me. What do I do with it?" She stares at it, thinking a moment. "I don't know. I'm not a fula."

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