Céebujën, or, How to Eat
Mame-Bineta turns a wary eye on Leah, whose fingers are prying into the flesh of a cooked carrot for the third bite in a row.
“You don’t like fish?” she asks, in French.
“I don’t eat meat,” Leah says, with the smile that is almost apologetic but closer to smug.
“It’s fish,” says Mame-Bineta.
“Yeah, no…” Leah carries on with the carrot.
“You didn’t get any rice in that bite,” Mame-Bineta notes. “Let me show you again.”
“Yeah, no, I’m fine.” Leah chews and swallows her carrot, then scours the dish for other vegetal matter.
Pickings are slim. A few of us have been trying to sneak in similarly one-dimensional bites of solo carrot or eggplant or turnip, but most of us heed the reproval behind Mame-Bineta’s look and our hands shy away, diving into the fish and the rice once again. When she turns toward us we resume our formerly earnest efforts to shape our rice and fish into the graceful oblong balls she’d demonstrated—look, if not succeeding, we’re trying! Most of us, anyway.
Leah is a vegetarian. Which may or may not be okay, but Leah is never simply Leah: because she refuses not to be, she is always Leah the Vegetarian. She is either at a meal and skirting the meat by absurd radiuses, or not at a meal and talking about how difficult it is to skirt meat by such absurd radiuses.
The thing is, there are other vegetarians among us. Still others don’t eat fish. But they’ve never said so. They avoid it quietly and politely. When meat is tossed to their side of the bowl they acknowledge it and smile, tacitly thanking the woman who tossed it. They still won’t eat it (and eventually another diner will claim it), but they won’t draw attention to it. They’ll even deny their identity when necessary: they’re allergic, or they’re feeling sick, or they’ve had enough already.
They’re well-behaved vegetarians.
Honestly, it doesn’t seem quite right, but I can’t seem to recall any other way to get along.
There’s a fine line between not being a stubborn jerk in a new country with different norms and customs, and standing your ground in order to prevent others from exercising their stubborn tendencies against you and your norms and customs. It’s a strange line to toe in all aspects of life in Senegal, but toe it you must. No, you won’t lie and say you’re married to make people feel better about your being a single young lady walking the streets of Dakar—but you also won’t confess you’ve had a boyfriend, or several. This is also to make them feel better.
The same goes for the line between trying to make people feel better and trying not to offend them. Most accommodations you learn to make are to make people feel better: to get along with your families, with their friends, in the market, in class, and anywhere else you might interact with people. There’s unspoken reciprocation with this kind of accommodation: you won’t talk about your boyfriends, and in return people will (maybe) stop trying to set you up with their every young-ish male relative. And by set up they probably mean marry, but they don’t mention this, either. To make you feel better.
On the topic of food, however, here is where you, non-native, stand in relation to those lines:
You must accommodate, because this is a matter of not offending people—deeply.
This goes for the following:
i) dietary preferences,
ii) the degree to which you (think you) are full,
iii) the number of times you (think you’re supposed to) eat in one day,
iv) the degree to which something tastes satisfactorily to you,
v) where you eat (including, but not limited to: indoors or out, room of the house, between which other diners, format of seating (including, but not limited to: floor, stools, benches, chairs, sand, someone else’s lap, your feet, someone else’s feet)),
vi) when you eat (as a precise time – different from item (iii)),
vii) with whom you eat, and
viii) the ambiance in which you eat (including, but not limited to: level of conversation during the meal, language the meal is conducted in, degree of teasing you must tolerate without protest), and
ix) the manner in which you eat (including, but not limited to: forks and knives, forks and spoons, just forks, just spoons, your hand, a fork and your hand, your hand and occasionally someone else’s hand).
At the beginning, there was no logic to it. There seemed to be no sense to the customs and rules. I didn’t understand.
Sometime during my first week in Dakar, I was leafing through American students’ research projects when I found one called “Céeb ak Jën, or Fish and Rice: The National Dish of Senegal.”
I opened it. At the top of the first page, I read:
Céebujën dee ko roof, mbaa sa jekker fase la,
If you don’t cook céebujën well, your husband will leave you.
What I did understand was that this was very, very serious.
I arrived near midnight on January 31, 2011, to spend a few months studying in Senegal. I met the other students who would be studying with me in a confused fashion at the hostel the next morning, shaking hands over a continental breakfast of cereal and croissants.
Within hours we were formally introduced to céebujën.
At lunchtime, our professors-to-be passed around a number of mats to spread on the floor. We were instructed to toss our shoes aside and sit in circles of about five on the mats. Each group was in a circle around nothing. Then the empty spaces were filled with sprawling platters of céebujën: fields of bright red rice with mounds of vegetables surround several remarkably intact portions of fish. It was difficult to assess precisely how large the fish were, or how many there were: their bodies was divided between the platters, a head cropping up here and there between peculiar small green eggplants and massive carrot halves.
“Seven,” my neighbor whispered into my ear. “I think that makes seven fish.”
The professors divided themselves among our circles. The one called Mame-Bineta took her place on my other side. With a benevolent smile, she demonstrated the technique for consuming the meal placed before us:
1) Pick and choose the bits and pieces of food desired. It doesn’t have to be a bit of everything at once, but you tend to incorporate, say, a little potato, eggplant, and fish within a ball of rice.
2) Using a rolling motion (think steadily squeezing stress balls – but don’t squeeze too hard, you’re not actually stressed; it’s mealtime in Senegal), form the glob of ingredients into a nicely shaped ball that holds together. It doesn’t have to be perfectly round: often they turn out oblong, like footballs, in the pit of your palm. It’s alright. Angle it appropriately to
3) Put the bite in your mouth. This is where actual execution of the method diverges and takes one of two possible routes. The first we will call the Mame-Bineta Method, and the second is What Actually Happens:
a) The Mame-Bineta Method: the bite enters neatly and you are able to chew and swallow it.
b) What Actually Happens: the bite is not as cohesive as you thought and falls apart in your fingers on its upward voyage. Your aim is also off and rice lands around your mouth and chin. This you wipe off with the back of your hand, and there it stays for the remainder of the meal. You have also lost that stretch of skin on your hand as a potential napkin. Use the rest wisely.
This is why Mame-Bineta was giving Leah the Senegalese stink-eye. Which is a much more respectful version of the Western, in that it came off more as amusement than judgment. And this is why none of the rest of us could do precisely what Leah was doing, going for one ingredient at a time instead of struggling to make fish behave as glue. She was doing it knowing full well she shouldn’t, and she would reap the consequences.
Because, of course, it wasn’t really about Mame-Bineta’s disapproval. It was a warning. It was foreshadowing. It was a glimpse into a future filled with a lot of food. A future stuffed to the brim with the phrase, Il faut bien manger: You must eat well. It was a future where eating well meant as much as was humanly possible.
By the end of our stay, our capabilities of consumption were positively prodigious.
We were introduced to other traditional meals: yassa ginaar, chicken over rice in an onion-laden sauce; thiou yapp, rice and meat in a tangy tomato sauce; maafe yapp, rice and meat in peanut sauce. The presentation was always the same: an ample shallow dish with a bed of rice, scattered vegetables, the meat in the center, and the sauce over all.
It was up to us to equip ourselves with rice, muddle it with sauce, and bring modest portions of vegetable into each bite. The meat, it turned out, was none of our business until it was flung toward us as we ate from our side of the dish.
“The mother or maternal figure is usually the one to divide the meat,” Mame-Bineta explained. “She will distribute it evenly, except probably more for the men, and not more for you until you have eaten what you have.”
The first part of her explanation proved true. Her distribution theory was more or less so, except for the part where there was, in reality, no waiting for us to finish what we already had. Food just kept coming.
But we were many, and I thought, it can’t be so bad. As long as there are other diners around, it can’t be so bad.
My host father was the one to take me to my homestay at the end of the first week. My brother, he said, was still at school, and my mother was at her mother’s, cooking and taking care of her because my host grandmother was very old and sick. My host grandmother was probably not in any condition to be aware she was my host grandmother.
I didn’t know much about it yet, but I did know that meals cooked à la Sénegalaise were no Easy Macs. Mame-Bineta had alluded to the hours spent cooking for us at school.
When my host mother and brother came home, and my mother told my brother to lay out the mat and arrange the benches, I was skeptical. To set everything up when there were hours of cooking ahead seemed cruel. Despite another huge lunch, I was, to my surprise, hungry anew.
Within ten minutes, we were seated and dinner was being served.
My father brought three forks. He passed a fork each to my brother and me and kept one for himself.
My mother brought out the dish and set it down.
It was different.
Instead of a bed of rice, there was a bed of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. Instead of scattered vegetables, there were heaps of French fries. Instead of sauce, there were streaks of sauerkraut around the plate. And at the center, instead of meat, there were thick slices of a reddish-pink, perfectly smooth substance.
“Bon appétit,” said my host mother. She reached in.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Corne boeuf,” she said.
I’d never actually heard the French term before, but I deduced that there was nothing else it could mean: corned beef. My first family meal in Dakar was corned beef, French fries, and sauerkraut.
Despite the different ingredients, the same customs applied. I had a fork, but I was to use that fork and that fork only, and I was to scoop up ample bites with a bit of everything, to keep me chewing steadily for a while.
After a number of bites as large as I could fork, I felt the familiar feeling of hunger fading fastsquashed from my memory by the food. Hungry? Had I ever been that?
I slowed down.
“Are you alright?” my host mother asked immediately.
“I’m fine,” I said, with a fine smile.
“Alors, mange,” she said. So, eat.
I continued, slowly. When my mother asked again, I replied with the same and added, “Just a little full.”
“Il faut bien manger, hein,” she said.
The expression is a sly one. The French il faut can translate to one must, you must, we must, or simply equate to a sort of universal truth, an inevitable tenet of nature in the manner of il pleut, or it’s raining. What’s raining? It. It just is.
It was the expression I would come to hear countless times, daily, for the remainder of my stay. The tricky part wasn’t with the il faut—it was the bien manger, which means to eat well. What eating well really means in Senegal is eating a lot. Ambiguously put, the expression means, Eating well is essential—but really it means, You have to eat a lot.
From my family’s mouth, more specifically: I had to eat a lot.
“Oui,” I agreed, “but I have bien mangéd.”
“Well no,” she said. “Mange.”
I tried again. “J’ai bien mangé,” I assure her, “and now I’m full.”
She eyed me awhile. I played with a piece of lettuce, trying halfheartedly to fold it. Then I realized it might seem like I wanted to eat it, which would suggest that I only needed more encouragement—rather, pressure—to eat more. I set my fork down. I wondered if this was appropriate or not. I wondered if I was supposed to keep eating.
Finally she shrugged. “Eh ben,” she murmured. She was defeated. I had won. This time.
Then my father leaned in. “Are you trying to be a model?” He mock-jabbed his fork in the direction of my side and laughed.
My mother got up and went into the kitchen. My brother got up and began to clear. My father was still chuckling and still eating.
I wondered if I was allowed to get up if I was done—help clean, play with my brother, do anything other than eat. Rather than do the wrong thing, I resolved to remain sitting with my father in what I thought a rather companionable silence.
After several wordless minutes he looked up.
“You’re still here?” he said. “Mange.”
In class, we had a debriefing about our homestays. There were no major concerns, until the talk turned to food.
We had all encountered more or less the same problem: contrary to the US, where there tend to be a lot of pressure—particularly for women—to fad-diet and never overindulge, there was altogether too much encouragement here to test the limits of our intestines.
“My family really wanted us to clear the dish, and I only have really little siblings who couldn’t eat that much, so I had to do it,” said one student.
“My family had gotten twice the amount of fish as usual to celebrate my joining the family,” said another.
“I didn’t have too much trouble,” I confessed. “My parents pushed it for a while, and I ate more than I wanted, but after I said I was full a few times they left me alone.”
Eyes turned on me in envy.
“I did get some good advice on how to keep eating once you’re full, though,” I added.
After our second dinner together, my host father had said, “When you’re full, you just need to take a minute and sweep it out like a broom—” he made a downward sweeping motion with his hand along his torso—“and keep eating. Easy.”
I tried a little harder to take a few more bites when they asked me to, slowly, but I couldn’t do much sweeping.
The following meal, he was decidedly more enthusiastic.
“Il faut foncer,” he said, bringing a fist down firm and fast along his body this time. Foncer can mean a few different things, but his gesture made it very clear in this scenario that it meant you had to pack, or punch, it down. Just punch the food on down.
“And then you’ll feel better.” He sat back and smiled.
“Don’t you think the fonceing will make me feel sick?”
He laughed. “No, no. Then you’ll be able to eat plenty.”
It’s not just how much you eat: it’s having a hearty appetite for every element of a meal. If you’re truly well, you will enjoy everything from the rice and vegetables to the fish or meat. You’ll relish it all from the sauce smothering the meal to the spicy palm oil that will also probably be dumped on without your consent. You’ll accept everything from the glasses of local cold drinks like bissap, bouye, and gingembre to the near-unbearably sweet and foamy attaaya tea served in three rounds after every meal. To turn any part of it down is a signal that something is wrong.
“Even if you just take one more bite every time they tell you to eat,” Mame-Bineta said, “try. Even tiny ones. Even if you’ve already eaten, and you go to someone else’s house where they are eating, and they invite you to eat, sit with them and take at least one bite. Just show them you are happy, you appreciate their invitation, you like their food. Take one bite, and then tell them thank you, you already ate but thank you very much.”
We’d all grown up in a culture that allowed individual preferences and dietary needs. Whether we were just full or because we were vegetarian or because green eggplant made us gag, the trouble was that most of our Senegalese families wouldn’t realize exactly what was wrong when we turned something down. It just looked like bad manners.
It shed light on what was so wrong with what Leah had done at that first meal of céebujën. If you take a huge hunk of carrot to eat alone, you’re taking a lot away from others who want to include just a little carrot in their bite. You may also be making an inadvertent statement about what you think of the other ingredients. You’re eating all that carrot, and only one piece of the meat? You think it’s overcooked, don’t you? It’s too fatty for you. You don’t like the way it’s been prepared. You don’t like it. You’re unhappy.
And if you’re a guest, being unhappy puts your hosts in an awkward position. Their goal is to respect you as a guest, and ensure at least a certain level of contentedness. So if you give the impression you’re unhappy – especially when you’re actually not at all—it’s unnecessarily cruel.
So just try.
“My family had goat face at my first meal,” someone said in another discussion. “It looked really gnarly, and I thought it was going to be so terrible.”
“And?” Leah asked, face scrunched up.
“Most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,” he said.
I lived with my host family the way my host brother did: as with an aunt and uncle. Malik was their nephew; his mother was working in the US, making money to send back. We both called our parents Tata Sophie and Tonton Magou—diminutives for Aunt Sophie and Uncle Magou.
Mine was not typical of Senegalese families. Not only was a three-person family tiny by Senegalese standards, but none of the three were home very often. My father worked long hours and would most often come home around ten or eleven; my brother had a window for dinner between the end of school and his evening class, and then he went to bed early; my mother spent all day at her mother’s. On weekdays, I might see Malik in passing, but mostly I’d chat with both parents over a late dinner and head soon to bed. I started to stay late at school to work, not wanting to spend too long in a dark empty house. I liked my family, but it was a lonely arrangement.
Toward the end of that first month, on a Sunday, my mother said, “You’ll come with me to my mother’s in Sicap.”
“Should I bring anything?” I asked.
“No. Oh, no.” She let out what sounded a little like a snort. “You won’t need anything.”
The initial altercation at the house in Sicap was with the goats in the shed by the gate. We entered and began to follow a path around the house, presumably to get to the front door, and as soon as we got to the corner there was a gigantic bleating at my right elbow that sent me into the opposing wall. I had noticed the shed, but had failed to peer in and see the three happy goats in the dark there, chewing hay and butting one another and apparently calculating the moment to send guests into an optimum state of alarm.
When we made it down the path, we came to a large courtyard, where a man sat in a plastic lawn chair off to the side, his oversized cap pulled over his face.
He soon stirred and pushed the cap up to expose his eyes.
“Asalaa maalekum!” he said.
“Asalaa maalekum,” I said, then smiled and shrugged.
A grin broke over his face, and he said more things, eagerly, which I can’t transcribe: at the time, all I had down was the greeting.
I shrugged again and offered a helpless laugh.
In as startling and abrupt a manner as the bleating that had been my first greeting, he joined me in my laughter – only he seemed to make a mission of outdoing me, wheezing and slapping his knees. His hands on the bright fabric of his pants brought my attention to his tracksuit, green with a yellow stripe up each leg and a golden lion over the breast: Senegal’s soccer symbol.
I looked for Tata Sophie but she had vanished. I waited for the laughter to subside.
As soon as it did, it was replaced by a faint pattering that grew and gathered until suddenly out of a side door burst a cloud of children. A few stopped upon seeing me and resumed their play where they were; others came right up to my legs. One boy kicked my shoe.
“Viens,” he said, Come.
He grabbed my hand to drag me there. We passed the children who had kept their distance from me and they scampered, clustering at the feet of Tracksuit Man.
“Musa, Musa, Musa,” one of them began to repeat, tugging at his pant leg.
“Waaw, waaw, waaw,” said Musa. Yes, yes, yes. The exchange went on as we entered one of the rooms.
Inside was another child, a little girl no older than two, propped up between the cushions on a sofa.
“Regarde,” said the older boy: Watch. He proceeded to engage a younger boy in a wrestling match. At one point he came alarmingly close to bashing the boy’s head on the marble floor.
“Attention!” I moved toward them. Soon as I did the older boy stopped and gave me a toothy grin, suspending his opponent above the ground. Deadlock. I gave up and sat on the couch beside the young girl to watch.
As per Tata Sophie’s instructions, I brought nothing, save a few pens and a notebook. I brought a pen out and all eyes snapped to me. The older boy forgot his game and promptly dropped the other boy. The little girl, who until now had been quiet and complacent in her cushions, started scrambling for me.
The boy came and stood at my knees, fidgeting but patient. The girl started grabbing.
“Attends,” I said; Wait. I pulled out the notebook. The fidgeting grew more desperate. The other boy was at my knees now, too.
I gave a pen and sheet of notebook paper to each child. The boy took his tools somberly and sat right down to work. The girl snatched them and flung herself across my lap, on her stomach, to start hacking away at the paper with the ballpoint tip.
After a while I noticed she was watching me with an odd look. She made her method clear when she ran out of paper and segued smoothly over to the clean white fabric covering my knees.
“Hey.” I took her under the arms and lifted her off, propped her back in the cushions. “Non.”
She sat for a minute completely still, then dove back into the canvas of my white linen pants.
“Nooon.” I moved her further this time and resettled myself on the opposite end of the sofa.
This time she didn’t wait. I finally let her go at her masterpiece on my skin, drawing the line only when she came to the finale of my face.
At long last, someone else came. It was a young woman, carrying a bundle of cloth on one hip. I looked at her with what I hoped was visible desperation. She looked at me, too perfectly raised one brow, and looked away.
The boys rolled out of her way and she spread the cloth in a large square across the floor. She smoothed the folds with her feet and walked out.
Suddenly there was commotion outside: clattering, heavy footfall, voices.
I lifted the girl off my lap and went to the door. Outside in the courtyard were a lot of people. All of them family?
Of course they were. This was the family – my family. This was where they all were. This was how it was supposed to be, clatter and clamor and bleating and all. Everyone was finally here.
There was more fuss once they spotted me in the doorway. My name was flung around the gathered lips; I was flung around the gathering, patted and smoothed and kissed on both cheeks.
Finally I saw Tata Sophie emerge from a little room that looked like the kitchen. Behind her the woman who’d brought the cloth, the bonne or maid, was carrying a dish full of food. Tata Sophie led the bonne’s way into the dining room. Gradually the rest of us followed.
Someone, during the flurry outside, must have come in to finish preparing the room for dinner, because the lights were dim and there were candles flickering about the room.
But the quiet was eerie, too complete. Someone muttered “Putain, Karim,” and I realized the candles were not for ambiance. The power was out for the second time today. It probably would be at least once or twice more, an inconvenience commonly attributed to the president Abdoulaye Wade’s son, Karim, responsible for infrastructure and other useful things. I also realized some of the “candles” were flashlights, standing on end.
Once the Wade family name was taken in vain over the electricity, we sat down around the dish. Tata Sophie bustled me into place between Musa and herself. Musa leaned over, muttered something I didn’t understand, and began to wheeze again, but Tata Sophie shot him a look and it turned to whisper, a soft steady “whii—whii—whii—” of laughter in my ear.
And then, as it died down, there was no sound. For the first time, without voices or the hum of electronics or even the drumming of rain or the whir of cars on the street, it was silent.
After a moment Tata Sophie murmured something, and everyone’s hands began moving in to eat. I don’t know if it was a prayer, or simply a “Start, already,” but the meal began. Sound slowly filtered back in: swift words in Wolof; the kids clamored over their separate dish outside.
Within moments it was noisy as ever again, but somehow it was lessened from the lapse. Rather, the noise existed with more purpose than before. As soon as the meal began everyone was there together, and everyone was there for the same reasons: to eat and feel full, taken care of, better; to talk and catch up, express, share news; to sit for a spell and do nothing other than be calm and well. This was a break in the day to stop working and moving and rushing and, hell, even just sitting in a tracksuit deciding how best to bother the American houseguest.
As we all slowed down, I heard the first “Mange!” For an instant I was worried it would grow into a chorus, and they would all bear down on me and hands would begin pushing their neatly-rolled balls of food toward my mouth, but no such nightmare happened. Every diner took a turn raising his or her eyes and saying, “Mange,” but the more I listened, the more halfhearted it sounded; the more simply bored. It seemed to be just another part of the meal, in the given context. Mealtime, Scenario 7: Eating With A Foreigner: Encourage Intermittently. It became almost comforting. Whenever I started to feel left out of conversation in a language I didn’t understand, someone would say mange and I would be filled with a strange sense of purpose. That was how I could contribute to the meal – for the time being, anyway.
There was some gloominess when I finally filled up and refused to mange any more, but once the meal was over and the dish and mat were whisked away – and after a brief digestive lull – chaos was restored.
And rightly so. Rambunctious, abrasive, incomprehensible chaos. It had purpose, though, too: I’m not sure how else they could have made me scramble to learn Wolof so fast, without inducing a maddened desire to figure out what was going on.
I like to think I worked some of it out. Au moins, je sais manger.
At least I know how to eat.
Molly Bradley, an American raised in France, currently resides in New York City. She holds a BA from Oberlin College and an MA from Columbia Teachers College, and edits Klipspringer Magazine and Carbon Culture Review. Her writing has appeared on The Equals Record, The Toast, Defenestration Mag, and Splitsider. Photo by the author.