Thursday, January 21, 2010

Surviving the holidays in Mali. (Yes, I am alive and well...)

Okay. So one of my New Year's resolutions was to blog more often. I'm (half)convinced that the fact that it has taken me until January 21st to post has everything to do with the crazy-busy weeks we've had trying to get prepared for our pilot launch and nothing to do with my resolve, but hopefully I can prove it to you in the weeks to come. I have lots of new and exciting things to share, but first a quick recap of the holidays...

These past weeks have been a whirlwind of fête-ing, working, working, and fête-ing some more. As you know, we celebrated Thanksgiving à l'Americaine and then Mali's equivalent, Seli Ba, descended upon the country -- hundreds of thousands of sheep gave their lives for several days of mutton meals.

 yes, I helped...

After capping off the holiday with a lovely breakfast of sheep's head soup, I gave my own silent thanksgiving that it was finally over and we could go back to eating Rice and Sauce. (Note to self: protein is an evil drug capable of making one say regrettable things.)

 happy photo à la malienne

All in all, Seli Ba was a joyful three days of brightly colored bazin outfits, loud music, young children offering blessings (for small change), and endless saluer-ing. Such fun.

Just a few short weeks later we said our tearful goodbyes to the wonderful, brilliant and hysterically funny Alex Ruby. After six months with MHOP, tirelessly coordinating the (endless) clinic construction and development, Alex left us in mid-December for the cold days of Washington, D.C., and an impressive tour of medical school interviews. It is a lucky school that can snag this kid. (Yes, I'm talking to you Harvard.) We all miss him dearly, and wish him all the best! Obvi.

Suddenly it was only days until Christmas, and Leona's lovely parents arrived for a visit! The three of them went off on a tour of Dogon country and Devon and I found ourselves all alone. No problem, we had big plans. Both of our mother's families celebrate Christmas in the tradition of their heritage (me Norwegian and she Polish), and so we eat smoked fish, pickled herring, and pickles on Christmas Eve -- and we weren't about to let Mali stop us from carrying on the tradition! We also decided that each of us would contribute one of our most traditional dishes. Devon chose sweet cheese pierogis and I the Norwegian rice pudding that has been our Christmas Eve staple for generations. My grandmother taught me the recipe -- rice, sugar, salt, vanilla and obscene amounts of condensed milk -- and on this second Christmas without her (she passed away Easter of 2008), I was intensely proud that I could carry her tradition here to share with Devon and my surrogate family.

I woke up early on Christmas morning to inform Ami that I'd be doing the cooking for our midday meal, but that I might need a little guidance on how to prepare the rice since it certainly wasn't going to be as easy as opening a bag and boiling some water on the stove. She gladly taught me how to clean the rice, first by rhythmically shaking out all the bran, then by picking through the grains for rocks and bugs, and finally by washing in a complex succession of buckets and bowls. Never having cooked rice over a wood fire, I happily accepted Batuma's expertise as she helped me get the whole business set up. Julgröt isn't that far removed from the Malin seri (sweetened, watery rice porridge) that is eaten regularly for breakfast, so it wasn't too hard to explain what exactly I was intending to do. Of course, I had to make a few modifications to my grandmother's recipe. Malian condensed milk is so thick and sugary that it is intended to be diluted several times to make sweet milk but it worked perfectly. One and a half cans of the stuff, two kilos of rice, two gallons of water, a handful of salt, a pinch of vanilla flavored drink mix, and we were cooking!

julgröt over the open fire

And, wow, was it a hit. Not that I was particularly surprised, seeing as Malians have a somewhat disturbing love affair with rice and sugar.

 kady tested, kady approved

My family, Devon and I gleefully devoured the stuff, and by the time I returned from our meal of (passable) pickled herring and (delicious) pierogis at Devon's house, the entire pot was scraped clean. Sure, there was no snow, no carols, no Santa stockings, Christmas trees or cookies. In fact, until that first bite of julgröt it didn't feel even remotely like Christmas. But the delight of sharing some of my traditions with this wonderful family who has unquestioningly welcomed me into theirs (note the photo of me helping to slaughter our sheep), filled me with the love that only Christmas can inspire.

1 comment:

  1. you look beautiful in that african dress. Can't stop smiling.... and I was starting to wonder about you being alive :-)