Garbanzo Beans for Breakfast
The other way to get meat in Bechem is to raise it yourself. St. Joseph’s Teaching Training College provides an entire campus complex of houses and apartment buildings, garden space and common areas for their faculty, staff, and students. Within the crumbling yellow concrete walls, families live communally, keeping small plots of land to grow banana, mango or plantain, and trading cultivated fruits or baked goods with their neighbors. And they are encouraged to bring small livestock operations. Walking the pathways that weave across campus, I often encountered a roaming chicken, white feathers dusty with kicked-up red dirt. Once, a loping goat followed me all the way down the road to the mango tree, unabashedly munching the grass around me as I sat and read. Her floppy grey ears swung absent-mindedly in the hot air, swatting at dizzy flies.
The families at St. Joseph’s rarely ate the animals they raised, instead selling their milk or eggs for months, before slaughtering the animal to sell its meat too. They kept livestock animals for business, not cooking. But their business model was clearly casual, not large-scale or industrial. There were no feedlots, no rows of battery cages, no artificial insemination or growth hormones or antibiotics. I saw a lot of poverty in Africa, and big holes, chunks of absence when it came to material possession and the comfort of a secure source of food and income. I didn’t meet anybody with Type 2 diabetes or the luxury of turning down a steak. I didn’t meet a single smoker.
It’s difficult for me, in the face of all this, to come to any singular conclusion. All I know is that the people relegated to eating bushmeat were the ones who lived in mud huts out in the forests, outside the limits of anything called a town. I know that on the southern coast, the number of fish the villagers catch on any given day directly equates with the amount of food they can eat that night.
I know that I was very quiet in Africa, and very quiet about it when I returned home after my two-week trip. Whenever anyone asked me about the experience, I told them I was “still processing,” to avoid having to talk about what I saw, what I learned, or what it meant to me. I didn’t know. I know I fluctuated wildly between rage and hope, between deep sadness and motivation. I know when I came back, I decided it was time to start writing again, in earnest. I know that going to Africa pushed me back into the world I wanted to live in, and the activism I’d slowly, without noticing, abandoned. Because it reminded me of what’s at stake in the choices we make about what food to eat. Africa made me see how important food was, by looking at the lives of those who don’t have the same choices.
I know that Adjoa would be embarrassed if she read this. She wouldn’t say anything. But she loves her life. I’ll hate myself if anything I write here comes off as pity, because Adjoa doesn’t think of her family’s food choices as degrading or even limited. Every single day, when she rolled out of bed at three in the morning to begin baking bread to sell on Saturday at market, she slipped on her loose-fitting purple t-shirts and leggings. And she walked silently out to her kitchen, straddled a bench and began mixing flour and water, kneading until her dark hands turned as white as mine. And while she worked the dough, palms flat against the tough gluten, she sang,
Joy like a river, joy like a river, joy like a river in my soul.