Pasta, sauce (no meat: onions, garlic and tomatoes with oregano) and cheeseYoghurt with dègè (a kind of millet porridge from the North, delicious mixed with yoghurt)
Third time we ate today. The second time was at a farm just east of the Togolese border; we had been invited there for lunch by the first Beninese I have met who can afford to eat anything he chooses. His choice was chicken and French fries. We needed to switch to 4-wheel drive to make it there; but the place was magnificent. He goes there for a week or more at a time to be away from it all. With one of his wives. The house is simple. Three rooms, I counted; and an add-on for the guardien, an otherwise unemployed man from a neighbouring village. If there is no guardien, we are told, the farm will be relieved of all its chickens and turkeys and Guinea fowl within a couple of days. Unless the farmer himself stays there all the time, which is of course impossible.
Around the house a palm-oil plantation: palm nuts are harvested, crushed and boiled and then the (edible) oil is pressed out. We were shown around, while the lunch was being prepared. Beyond the palm-oil plantation the farmer pointed out another, related type of palm, growing wild. There, he said, that’s what the savages do with those. A tree was lying on its side, a gaping hole cut in the trunk, a gourd wedged underneath to catch the sap. We continued our tour. The savages had cut down a whole forest, it seemed. Our friend was not perturbed. Look, he pointed out, the distillery. And there it was. In a small clearing an upended 45-gallon drum with a fire burning underneath it. A copper tube protruded, bent down, entered a successive series of water filled containers, and ended above a funnel stuffed with cotton inserted into a medium sized flask.
The sap harvested from palm trees is lightly fermented already as it comes out of the tree. The savages (it was his kind of joke) collect it and leave it in large fermenting vats to become palm wine. The palm wine is the base for a potent brew called sodabi. Our host said: that’s English. It comes from so-that-be. There’s probably a bit more to be said for another theory: French, from eau-de-vie. Take your pick. Whatever: it’s strong. And if skilfully made, it won’t blind you. Sodabi is not really approved of among Christians: not because alcohol is frowned on, but because sodabi is associated with the voodoo cult. (Yes, I tasted both sodabi and palm wine. Not bad at all…)
We moved on, skirting the edge of our host’s farm. To the west lies a lake; attached (or not quite attached, it wasn’t really clear) to the Mono River, which marks the border with Togo. In the lake are fish (surprise, surprise) and hippos. But don’t worry, he said, they only come out at night. Pity.
After lunch we sat and talked for a while, then found our way back home by way of Lokossa.
The first time we ate today was breakfast. And it took all of the day between breakfast and pasta to make the visits (yes, the point was not just lunch, it was also to go by a number of villages where the churches to the west of Dogbo are.) I estimate we travelled about 40 km today, and we were absolutely worn out by the time we got home. Heat, state of roads, impressions. And the realization that three meals a day is an exception, really.
While I was cooking the pasta a prayer kept going through my mind, one which we used to say at table. (My brothers and sisters will remember this one.) O Vader die al ‘t leven voedt. (‘O Father who feeds all of life.’ But some more than others.) Kroon onze tafel met Uw zegen. (‘Crown our table with Your blessing.’ Not ours only, though.) En spijs en drenk ons met het goed van Uwe milde hand verkregen. (‘And nourish us and quench our thirst with the good things Your generous hand provides.’ God is generous, much more generous than anyone deserves, but sometimes it still seems unfair.)Leer ons voor overdaad ons wachten, dat w’ons gedragen zoals het behoort. (‘Teach us to beware of taking too much, in order that we behave as is fitting.’ When is enough enough, when does my sufficiency cause someone else’s poverty?) Doe ons het hemelse betrachten, sterk onze zielen door Uw word. (Have us strive for what is heavenly, strengthen our souls by Your word.’ I’m not sure that my soul, for one, is strong enough yet to let go of what is earthly…) Amen.
I couldn’t stop thinking these thoughts, and when we sat down to eat, I told Marijke. She asked me if I wanted to pray that prayer, but I couldn’t. So she did. First time I have heard those words out loud for twenty years or more. Amazing, what this place does to me.