Morning in Makama

December 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

Morning in Makama, the mist holds the night longer than would be normal. Distant drums break the dawn, the birds and roosters seeming to call in time. The neighbours wake before the sun, begin their chatter early so that once it is day it is like it was never night. The sweeping of Maggie’s brush on the floor brings rhythm to my day as I sit and wait for the long golden streaks to fall between the shadows. The far off sounds of children begin to rise.

I enjoy my cup of tea far too much and before I know it there is only one sip left. I don’t feel ready for so many sounds yet, this morning I am feeling slower than most. But this sweet time is too good to waste in bed, the sun has not yet turned our house into a furnace and the air as I sit by the window is kind to me. Here they call mist African snow, and I can understand why as it brings with it the coolest moments you’ll find in Salone.

As the day continues on its way, children with buckets half as tall as themselves scamper together to the well. Soon they will return, calculated, careful and slow, their buckets full to the brim on their heads, backs and necks tall under the weight.

Every morning now a young boy comes to our house with bread carried in a large bowl on his head. He has the best loaves we have found here, soft chewy baguettes they call Fulla bread served behind a shy smile. He cooks his bread in a big oven that all the bakers in the area share and hire for an hour or two each day. Seems such a logical way for everyone to do their small trade.

Other regular traders to our house include a young girl who sells oranges already pealed but with the white pith remaining so that you can cut a hole in the top and suck the juice out. Ingenious!

Young girl comes past our house selling oranges

Such a nice way to buy groceries

Slowly things are becoming more familiar here, cultural etiquettes, and what at first seemed like strange and sometimes bewildering activities are becoming normal. Bit by bit I am getting used to the constant calls of ‘Orpoto’, meaning white man, when I walk down our dusty road. But the friendly and open nature of the people is so welcoming and I’m beginning to figure there’s not much a broad smile can’t solve. It is hard to picture these warm-hearted individuals were part of a civil war so recently passed. You could never imagine on meeting them what they may have been through, normal people with yet another tragic moment in the history of their country, rebuilding their lives.

Our neighbors Watte and little Fatima

Our neighbor Mammy Mabinty who lived in America during the war. She says she misses American food - so much chicken and salad!


rose petal and ginger tea

December 17, 2010 § 5 Comments

Rose petal and ginger tea

Before arriving in Sierra Leone, a man at a spice shop in Morocco gave me a bag of rose petals. At the time I didn’t think much of my gift or of how useful they would be to me at my next destination but they smelled divine and didn’t weigh much so they went in my backpack with everything else. However it wasn’t until I was siting here in the heat of Sierra Leone nursing a runny nose, soar throat and once monthly pains in my belly that I decided to make myself a ginger tea, and on seeing the rose petals sitting on the bench I decided to chuck some of them in too. I was surprised by the velvety warm soft taste; the juxtaposition of hot ginger and cool rose on the tongue; like drinking a cup of love on a sunny day.

I decided to do a bit of research on the health benefits of rose.

Apparently roses aren’t the most romantic flower for nothing; they are said to comfort the heart and emotions. This explains a lot as I find them utterly irresistible and it is with great difficulty that I overcome the temptation to smell every one I pass. Perhaps this is accentuated by the fact that my grandparents owned a rose nursery just outside of Brussels and one of my first memories is of wandering through them with my Oma as a 4-year-old.

When I came across the less romantic properties of rose I couldn’t help thinking that this flower was designed to solve all my problems, especially whilst living in Sierra Leone. Rose clears heat and toxins from the body resulting in a cooling effect (oh sweet yes!), can benefit a sore throat and runny nose, and relieves painful periods. It also contains high levels of Vitamin C, helps the body fight against infection, helps establish healthy bacteria, helps cleans the kidneys, liver and gall bladder, helps remedy gastro, diarrhoea and dysentery, works as a laxative, helps infertility and has a positive effect on the nervous system therefore helps fatigue, insomnia and depression.

So I am thinking it was with some luck or perhaps a future insight that the man at the spice shop gave me a bag of rose petals. And when combined with the more widely known benefits of ginger – boosts the immune, and treats colds, chest infections, digestive disorders, nausea and joint pain – this has become my new super tea and what’s more it tastes so good.

The recipe for rose petal and ginger tea is simple

1cm by 1cm cube of fresh ginger peeled and sliced thinly
1 dried rose bud or a couple of rose petals
1 cup boiling water

Place all ingredients in a tall glass or fine china teacup, and let cool slightly before sipping.

Serves 1


Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

Our flight from Morocco landed in the early hours of the morning so we arrived in Sierra Leone in a somewhat peaceful daze. To get to Freetown from the airport you have to catch a ferry across the bay so on leaving the airport a van took us down a rough and bumpy track to a make shift wharf made from old yellow plastic containers strapped together with rope. Our ferry was a small and somewhat shabby looking enclosed capsule like boat docked to this bobbing yellow rig. Through the haze of my weariness I couldn’t help marvelling that this was the common way to come to and from the International Airport. But the ferry ride was calm and in my sleep deprived state I felt completely at ease in the hands of our crew of young boys, they seemed no older than 16, who one by one dropped off to sleep on the floor and benches until there was just the driver left standing. At first the lights of Freetown across the bay seemed impossibly far away but we arrived just as the night sky glimpsed morning, the mist lightly lifting and phosphorescence in the wake of our boat.

From then on we were tucked under the wing of Dan and Ame, our friends from Australia who Damio will be taking over from as the volunteer program coordinator for the NGO Energy for Opportunity (EFO). Our drive to Makeni, where we will be living, was somewhat uneventful if you ignore the fact that the driver stopped to rotate the tyres on three occasions, and each time we were swarmed by curious children as well as adults trying to sell us bananas or peanuts that they carried in big platters on their heads.

The house we live in is very luxurious for Salone standards; we have a concrete floor, a well, solar power that can run low energy appliances, and toilets – luxurious even though they don’t flush because we don’t have running water.

Three days in and already tiring from a diet of rice with a sauce of cassava leaf, dried fish, chilli and plenty of red palm oil, we embarked on a mission to climb Mount Bintumani, West Africa’s highest peak at 1,948m. This involved taking motorbikes from Kabala, a delightfully cool township in the mountains of the north of the country, to the village of Sinekoro further west, higher and heavenly cooler still. A five-hour ride on a bumpy, beaten up, steep and slippery track, two to each bike plus a pack and enough water for five days and four people, the going was rough but thankfully slow…ish… We arrived at a Village just before a river where we stopped to talk to the chief.
Village scene. Photo by Damian Meoli
At each village you stop at in Sierra Leone, or if you are travelling on foot, each village you pass through, it is kosher that you meet the chief who will ask you a series of questions about where you are from where you are going and what it is that you are doing. We were informed that the river was too high to cross on bikes. So with porters instead of bikes and bitacola (a very bitter nut given as a gift to wish a safe journey) in our pockets as a gift from the chief, we crossed the river on a suspension bridge made of woven vines strung between two trees. We walked the rest of the 8km to Sinekoro.
Bridge made of vines. Photo by Damian Meoli
Bridge ties. Photo by Damian Meoli
En-route at all Villages we were met with what seemed like ever multiplying mobs of waving and excitedly screaming swollen bellied children and of course chiefs and other village officials. This made the 8km walk take us a good 6 hours. Finally we arrived at Sinekoro and with more chief and village negotiations and what seemed like hundreds of onlookers we organised porters for the trek up the mountain the next day and food and a place to stay for the night. I slept surprisingly well on the concrete floor of the school with a belly full of chicken and ground-nut (peanut) stew. The four of us paid about AU$5 between us and had a chicken killed and cooked in front of our eyes in a huge pot on the fire along with a pot of rice the size of a small bathtub. This fed all of us our bike riders our porters and about ten other village folk that for some complicated reason that I found difficult to work out were involved in us being there. I enjoyed sitting by the fire with the two women cooking, their babies strapped to their backs, elegantly moving amongst their work and picking the pots up straight from the fire with their bare hands. A small group of children gathered around us that within about half an hour turned into 30… they seemed to mysteriously multiply wherever you went.
people around fire. photo by Damian Meoli
The next day we woke early to begin our climb to Bintumani. The day began walking through fields of ground-nut with banana and red palm trees growing by their side. We then entered thick lowland scrub, with all sorts of plants I recognised as being weeds in Australia, many of them I remembered from my grandmas garden in Queensland. I began to fret that this barely penetrable path in the stifling heat represented the walk for the rest of the day, however with great relief we entered forested jungle and began to climb steep and steadily. At one point we came out upon a grassy hill, which we made our way across, the blades well above our heads, crippled by the heat, views of the mountain high above us. Soon again we were back in the relief of the tree cover and as we climbed it became cooler with every step. Our guides showed us, and we tasted, the bitterness of the bark from trees that were used for relieving headaches and stomach pains and from a distance we watched monkeys flying from tree to tree.

Finally we emerged again from the forest, but this time not into the heat like below. A gentle cool golden grassy alpine plain materialised through clouds rolling by at ground level. On the other side of this small piece of heaven we made our camp by a stream in the shade. The rest of the mountain before us and steep paths and cliffs behind us, it made for a scenic camp, with views of what had been and what was to come.
We lazed there for the afternoon, washing our clothes and ourselves because our sweaty stench attracted bees that came in the hundreds. That night we slept on the ground with our mosquito net above us. I slept cold and uncomfortable under my blanket waking before light feeling un-rested. Ame and I stayed behind that morning as the boys walked the last leg to the top of the mountain leaving in the just light of the early morning. We boiled water on the fire and lay in the sun. After lunch we started our descent making faster time not that the going was necessarily easier given the steep slippery nature of the path.
morning sun on Bintumani
Back at Sinekoro it was like our last night there repeated. The swollen bellied children gathered again and we ate a meal cooked in enormous quantities on the fire. When we were finished Ame gave the last of our bowl to the children, which resulted in a sudden scramble that lasted 5 seconds and just as suddenly dissolved. If you had blinked you would not have known it happened except for the bowl left empty and spinning in a cloud of dust. I remembered our last night there where one of the cooks had rationed out handfuls of the leftovers to the eager children, now I understood why. As an aside, the swollen bellies of the children are apparently not so much a lack of food (there are bananas and oranges that practically grow wild) but a lack of protein.

The next day we made our return journey to Kabala, my body resented me for getting back on the bike and the trip was worse than the first… I never knew going down steep bumpy hills on a bike was harder than going up. I also kept wondering if the suspension had been shot or whether it was just me. But I was thankful for the breeze when we moved and the pretty views of mountains fields and villages we passed. We were all slightly surprised when we made it with stiff and aching bones back to Makeni by that night.

(All photos in Arriving in Sierra Leone and climbing Mount Bintumani are taken by D except the last one which is taken by Dan)


December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Boats in Essaouira

We had nine days in Morocco en-route to Sierra Leone. It had always been somewhere I had wanted to go. I had been treated to the tastes of their food when I stayed with my uncle in Belgium where his Moroccan friends cooked for me the most delightful stews of vegetable and chickpeas, full of spicy flavour and eaten with bread. Then there was the couscous and tagines scented with cinnamon and sweetened with Mediterranean dried fruits. I remember being blown-away.

However when in Morocco as a tourist I can safely say that I only ate one meal that I was blown-away by and that was a very expensive (by Moroccon standards) restaurant in Casablanca that Damio and I walked into off the street wearing dusty sneakers and sweaty faces. We were greeted and looked upon by the waiting staff with somewhat distain. However, the food was amazing! A lamb tagine with prunes for me and chicken and lemon for Damio. On low couches with stained glass windows, the atmosphere should have been perfect, except for the fact that I felt very uncomfortable and unwelcome.

In general, if you are eating at a restaurant in Morocco all meals start with bowls of olives and bread that vary in quality and flavour. Then you can choose from tagines, couscous, or grills. I found the menu almost always largely meaty with not many vegetarian options and surprisingly and disappointingly rather bland flavours. This was also true in the two cases that we ate home cooked meals. So in general I was mostly disheartened by my nine days of a wheaty-meaty diet. I have to admit that nine days is not long enough to make sweeping statements about the food so I am still willing to believe that there is more amazing food somewhere in Morocco. I was just unable to find it readily. Still, what they did manage was to make their food look exceptionally beautiful, filled with Mediterranean colour.

I also have to say I thoroughly enjoyed a breakfast in Essouira of local crepes ground argan nut and honey, along with fresh orange juice and an espresso – you can sense the strong French influence. Another treat was a dessert of sliced oranges flavoured with orange blossom water and cinnamon or sweet rosewater scented almond milk. Yum!

Preserved lemons for sale on the street


Sheaps head stew being cooked in the Medina in Marrakesh. Something I wasn't brave enough to try.

An unexpected turn of events

December 14, 2010 § 7 Comments

On starting this blog, I imagined it to be full of my homely Melbourne cooking adventures. However no more than three days after its birth my anticipated summer in Australia took an unexpected turn. I was sitting with my sweetheart, who was departing for Morocco and Sierra Leone in 5 hours, lamenting the fact that I was not coming – we would be spending a good five months apart. When it dawned on me. There was no real reason why I should not go! Plus, you only live once, and Sierra Leone seemed a destination that I would most likely never get to in any other circumstance.
It was on! I had five hours to book a ticket, pack my bags, organise work and pack up my whole room. Somehow I managed, and it wasn’t until I was safely on the plane that I had time to think about whether I had done the right thing. By then it was too late, my summer had been determined and to tell you the truth I was nervously excited.

Jet engine

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