On the Road to Niamey
I have just been reading the excerpt in The Globe and Mail today (November 2, 2011) from Robert Fowler‘s book, A Season in Hell, his personal story about being kidnapped and held for 4 months by al Qaeda in Niger in 2008. When the information first came out about where the abduction took place, my husband and I remembered the area well and could picture the very road on which his nightmare began. We had a very different experience there.
Back in the ’70’s we were teaching in West Africa for 2 years as CUSO volunteers and, during one school holiday break, we were driving in Niger in our bright green Volkswagen beetle. We had already traveled through southern Nigeria, Benin and Togo, then north through the Republic of Upper Volta (now called Burkino Faso), to Niger, at which point we would head back to our home in northeast Nigeria. The roads were tricky to navigate, to say the least, and we had experienced many flat tires along the way.
While on the road from Ouagadougou (pronounced oowagadoogoo) to Niamey, within a few kilometers of the the Kennedy Bridge which crosses the Niger River (named for President John Kennedy and just completed) we had the 2nd flat tire of the day. Looking around us at the dry, barren landscape, there was no sign of a village nor people within our sight, and we sat for a while thinking about what to do next. We made the decision that my husband would take the flat tire to be repaired, which meant a walk/hitchhike to Niamey in the heat of a typical well-over 30ºC. day, while I would stay in the car. I locked the car doors and settled in with a book, having no idea how long I would be waiting.
Within a very short time, I saw a horse and rider coming toward me and I rolled up the windows. Seated imperiously on the horse was a magnificent looking, if daunting, figure. A man, who we had learned to recognize as a Tuareg, dressed in indigo robe and turban and wearing a long sword, was coming toward the car. And there was nothing I could do but to watch and wonder what would happen next. What would this man from a nomadic warrior tribe do?
He rode his horse right up to the car, dismounted, and walked slowly around, clearly assessing what I was doing there. He then stood completely still, at the front of the car with his back to me, for the next 4 hours. Needless to say, I was more than somewhat leery of his presence but, as time passed, I relaxed and came to realize that he was protecting me. His presence became a gift, not a threat, and he stayed in that same position until my husband returned with the tire repaired and a story of his own.
Of course, much has changed in the world since this little story of ours, and on the same road where I was fiercely protected, Robert Fowler, Louis Guay and their driver, Soumana Moulaila, were kidnapped by three Tuaregs.
Since this is a food site I will include here a Nigerian food memory. Below is a recipe for a typical dish, called Peanut Stew here, but there it is called Groundnut Stew, tear-inducing hot and served with mashed cassava, a large root vegetable. We used to buy the groundnuts at the local market and have them ground to a paste by a local resident, using a massive mortar and pestle. For vegetarians, this dish can be made without the chicken and different vegetables may be added.
African Chicken Peanut Stew (adapted from recipe by Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes)
2-3 lbs. chicken legs or thighs (or boneless, skinless thighs to save time)
3 T. vegetable oil
1 large onion, sliced
1 3″ piece of ginger, peeled and minced
6-8 garlic cloves, chopped
2-3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
4 c. chicken or vegetable stock
1 c. peanut butter
1 c. roasted peanuts
1 T. ground coriander
1 t. cayenne, or to taste
Salt and black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
Heat the vegetable oil in a large soup pot set over medium-high heat. Salt the chicken pieces well, pat them dry and brown them in the oil. Remove and set aside.
Sauté the onions in the oil for 3-4 minutes, stirring often and scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes, then add the sweet potatoes and stir well to combine. Add the chicken, broth, crushed tomatoes, peanut butter, peanuts, coriander and cayenne and stir well to combine. Bring to a simmer, cover the pot and cook gently for 90 minutes or until the chicken meat easily falls off the bone and the sweet potatoes are tender. (If not using chicken, cook only until vegetables are tender.)
Remove the chicken pieces and set them in a bowl until cool enough to touch. Remove and discard the skin. Shred the meat off the bones and put the meat back in the pot. Adjust the seasoning for salt and cayenne, and add freshly ground black pepper, to taste. This is traditionally a very spicy dish, but you can adjust it to your own taste. Stir in the cilantro and serve with simple steamed rice.