The art of sharing food: How to deal with communal eating in West Africa

 

The best pieces of goat were flicked over onto my section of rice. I watched elegant fingers tear the meat, one-handed, from long bones piled on top of the communal dish. Those same fingers would then scoop up the food and shape it into a bite-sized ball and deliver it, with an artful push of the thumb, into their mouth. I didn't speak the same language as any of those cross-legged men in long sky-blue tunics gathered in the shade of a courtyard tree, yet that meat-offering gesture spoke volumes.

This was almost two decades ago when, in the town of Bogué in Mauritania, West Africa, I first ate in this manner. I'd already, on many occasions, used my own chopsticks or fork to take food straight from a communal dish but this lack of utensils for transferring food directly from plate to mouth created such an intimacy.

At the end of lunch everyone seemed to have clean hands without licking a finger, while my own right hand was comically gloved in sticky starch. Though my technique did improve as the journey went on. It also didn't take long for just the sight of a colourful wash basin making its pre-meal rounds to get me salivating. If I met someone new after hand-washing, it was perfectly acceptable to proffer a wrist for them to shake or we could bump the backs of our hands together.

For three weeks I travelled the Sahara Desert by 4WD with a love interest and a local guide. In ancient stone towns, sand-logged villages and remote Bedouin tents we'd congregate around yet another dish. Each person would single-handedly mine the triangular section in front of them – like slowly extracting the contents of a piece of cake rather than removing it as a distinct slice. Then mint tea. Afterwards, a small sum of money would change hands.

At our nightly camps in the dunes, as the stars came out, we would meet lone goat herders. They carried fresh camel or goat milk mixed with sugar. A swig of zrig was an offer I found very hard to refuse, not only because it was fresh from the beast and delicious and thirst-quenching but because the generosity felt enormous. Here were people giving their precious sustenance to total strangers without expecting anything in return.

Whether or not to accept is always a personal judgment call and I'm not averse to a polite refusal when it doesn't feel right. Though, if I've committed, I won't obsess over the germ exchange but be consumed by the moment.

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