Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Dinner Party

pot·luck (pŏt'lŭk') n. A meal at which each guest brings food that is then shared by all. Also called potluck supper.

shit·out·ta·luck (shit'out'a'lŭk') adj. What you are if you try to plan a potluck in Nigeria.

A clash of cultures always makes for an entertaining, if not entirely successful, evening. Last weekend, a sextet of VSO volunteers made the trek to Birnin Kebbi in the extreme northwest of Nigeria to visit Coco Roschaert, a fellow Canadian VSO volunteer posted there. I’ve mentioned Coco in a previous post. She has earned the admiration of many of us by volunteering in Nigeria despite her visual and hearing impairments. After visiting her in Birnin Kebbi, I think it’s safe to say that our admiration has grown exponentially. Travelling to BK is like travelling back in time to March of this year when I was convinced that Nigeria was a slightly dustier version of the Sun. Since that time, my hometowns of Kafanchan and Kagoro have received much needed rain, resulting in cooler temperatures and greener pastures. BK has not been similarly blessed as of yet, so the increase in heat made me groan as Kristel and I made our way to the heart of the desert surrounding the town. It didn’t help that I managed to spill my weekend’s supply of sunscreen all over the crotch of my pants as we rode in the car, making it look like I was extremely excited to be on the trip.

Arriving in BK is somewhat like reaching an oasis, and we both breathed a sigh of relief when we passed through the arches defining the outer reaches of the community. Coco’s intervenor, Marufat, met us in the motor park and led us to their house a short distance away. Marufat’s role as intervenor requires her to be a kind of super interpreter, acting as both eyes and ears for Coco as she makes her way through the day. Coco still has limited vision in one eye, although the Usher’s Syndrome that she suffers from will likely rob her of that as well in time. For now, her eyesight allows her to communicate with other people through lip reading and writing notes. (For more about Coco and her experiences in Nigeria, check out her blog at .)

As we were the first to arrive, Kristel and I had the opportunity to visit the school where Coco has been working since her arrival in March. Set up to provide classes for children with hearing and visual impairments as well as those who are physically and mentally challenged, the school houses about 350 students in all. It was slightly surreal to be in a schoolyard where children are freely running around and yet totally silent. Kristel and I were led around to all of the classes and introduced to all of the children, and like all of the other kids we’ve met, they enthusiastically greeted the batauris. At the end of the tour, Coco met up with the other teachers working at the school and confirmed they would be coming to her potluck dinner the next night, with an emphasis on the explanation of the term “potluck”.

The arrival of the other VSO’ers later in the day was followed by a visit to the army barracks on the outskirts of town, the only location in this Muslim town that is permitted to serve alcohol. For some reason, the site reminded me of those old films showing the effects of nuclear bomb tests, where everything in the desert is blown away by the blasts. Putting this unfortunate association behind me, I pulled up a plastic chair and sat with the others on the concrete platforms that dotted the landscape like landing pads for tiny helicopters. The next day was spent close to home, with treks to the market to buy supplies for the dinner that night being as far as we dared to travel in the heat that crept steadily upward.

Preparation for the dinner began in earnest in the late afternoon, and Coco’s kitchen was soon a flurry of activity as we began peeling the vegetables and making the salads. As with many of the smaller centres in Nigeria, the variety of vegetables in BK is fairly limited, but the local selection was supplemented by what we brought with us from our hometowns. The courses prepared were best described as eclectic, with macaroni and potato salads finding a spot on the table next to the sliced mangoes and a bowl of sardines sitting next to a plate of corned beef artistically rendered as a happy face. By six o’clock, the prep was completed and we complimented each other on the feast we had created. With the food that the other guests would be bringing, there would be more than enough food for everyone. With full hearts and empty stomachs, we waited for the teachers to arrive and the party to start.

The gang from the school arrived en masse and filtered into the living room. A slightly larger group than expected, about a dozen people, all very hungry and very empty-handed. As we greeted them, the VSO’ers all came to the same terrible realization. There wouldn’t be nearly enough food to feed everyone. Backing out of the living room with smiles on our faces, we bolted for the kitchen for a huddle and a mad search for any supplies still unused. Rummaging through the fridge, we found a pot of spaghetti sauce that had rested undisturbed for a few days. Uncovering it and expecting the worst, we each took a quick smell and put its viability to a vote. The “yea”s won a tighter contest than the one decided by hanging chads, so we had found the sauce for our jollof rice and pasta. Splitting the VSO team in half, some of the group headed back to the living room to be hospitable and stall our visitors, while the others remained in the kitchen to quickly come up with our main courses. As with most volunteers, Coco’s kitchen is best described as spartan, so even finding pots and pans for the cooking required the juggling skills of a circus star.

Eventually, a pair of guests recognized that something was strange, so they paid a visit to the kitchen to find vegetables and spices being tossed around in an effort to create a semblance of Nigerian dishes. Rolling up their sleeves, they jumped in to prevent a culinary disaster and international incident. Meanwhile, the other guests in the living room pulled out their cellphones to provide the music for an impromptu Bob Marley dance-a-thon. Rice and pasta in hand, the VSO’ers and recruited chefs brought the final pieces of the meal to the table and invited the guests to come up and serve themselves, at which point the guests refused to budge and said they expected to be served.

Now, I know this is a cultural thing and we shouldn’t judge others too harshly, but it was all the VSO’ers could do to keep from saying, “Get off your arses and come to the table.” Eventually, a compromise of sorts was reached, as two of the women from the school agreed to serve the men in the room. And they served monumental portions, with food heaped on each plate delivered. The VSO’ers tacitly agreed to wait until all others had been served, so we watched with hungry eyes as the food steadily disappeared from the table. If there had been a window, we would have pressed our noses against it. Finally, the last teacher was served and the VSO’ers descended on the table for the remaining scraps. Thankfully, with a few exceptions (notably the corned beef smiley face), there were still helpings of everything available, albeit none to compare with the mounds of food served earlier.

The meal consumed, our guests thanked us and took their leave, at which point the VSO’ers collapsed on each other and brought out the cake that we had decided would be our little secret. To be fair to our dinner guests, the concept of potluck is a foreign one to them and receiving a request to bring food to a dinner party must have been like being asked to buy your own birthday present. But the evening was not meant to be a strictly Nigerian affair – it was a chance for two groups of people to get together and experience each other’s culture, including the notion of a potluck. In the end, it felt much more like the VSO’ers were catering their dinner party, and that’s unfortunate. Hopefully, Coco will benefit in the long run from the evening, because she can use the friendship and support of the people living around her. If that proves to be the case, then the dinner party will have been well worth the effort.


Anonymous said...

Maven and Muse that weren't! It's true that sometimes things have to go that far along before you realize that you're not really "on the same page" about something communicated previously. I had a similar, less pleasantly ending, experience in Kenya.

Anonymous said...

The joys of food culture. What can one say. Potlatch among Canada's West Coast First Nations is the exact opposite of what you describe: to an extreme the hosting nation will give away everything to accommodate the visitor, even if that means descending into abysmal poverty. Among the Mediterranean peoples of a by-gone era [and in some cases still practiced today], generosity to sojourners and strangers was considered the sine qua non of civility -- so different from the more suspicious cultures that have arisen after centuries of invasions. One reads in Homer's Odyssey stories of the give-and-take between openness and suspicion aimed at strangers who arrive on your doorstep. In some desert climes, where survival is about finding the oasis between expanses of heat and dust, there are many unwritten rules and requirements around the sacredness of the wadi/oasis. To poison the well is to create a disaster of mammoth proportions -- it is not just bad manners; it is a lethal blow at the sojourner.
There's a great food story Genesis in the "Old Testament" [Torah to Jews and incorporated into the Koran] about Abraham. His nephew Lot had been kidnapped by a rival tribe [along with his sheep -- which were probably more important than shepherd], so old Abe and his fellow tribesmen went on a rampage, rescured the shepherd [and the sheep] and slaughtered the rival tribe [to a person]. Now filled with bloodlust, this tribe of semi nomads was making its way back to their own territory and happened to be passing by the city [one of the few at the time] called Salem [the future site of Jerusalem]. Realizing they were on the path of distruction from this group a yahoos fired up from battle, the King of Salem [Malkesidek by name (sorry for the bad spelling)] came out of the city [in the hope of keeping this group as far away from the women as possible] to greet his "neighbours" with the 'gifts of hospitality' -- bread and wine. And here is the tradition where bread and wine -- the communion of Christians, the symbols of Exodus freedom for Jews -- went from being offerings of hospitality to symbols of peace and celebrations of life [over against the potential for death, rape, murder and destruction].
Sharing food is so symbolic -- it is more than just about sustenance; it's about communion, community, freedom, the journey of life, hospitality between oases that makes the difference between life and death. Whatever one's religious or social background, we can never forget that food is just as much about life's meaning as it is about life's nourishment. We need to feed the mind/heart/spirit as well as the body/stomach.
In retrospect, it would have been interesting to ask the group at the Pot Luck what they thought this was all about. Explaining the concept of potluck is one thing; discussing why one even bothers to come together as a group of strangers is quite something else. What's the point? is it simply to be fed and to feed or is there more to being there in this place with these people at this point in time?
Was there a sense of reward among the local teachers? -- since they were doing a good job, now they were being invited to a feast as a reward for a job well done. If so, then why would they bring food to their own reward event?
Was there an abiding sense of being on the receiving end of charity and/or generosity? since this group of volunteers work for an NGO they must have sufficient sustenance to hand over to us who are the have-nots in this situation, so we will sit and wait til we are served our due as those in need....
or was it simply the case that as a guest you are 100% a guest and expect to act accordingly? since to do otherwise, such as to provide food, is to change the roles in ways that might be insulting to the host... on the one hand, to bring food is to usurp the perogatives of the host and that is unacceptable....or even worse, to bring food is to send a message to the host that they are not good cooks or are bad providers, hence the need for me to feed myself in your house.....
The subtle side of food sharing is almost untapped in meaning....all I know is that in certain cultures you have to be careful about what you bring to the table or the evening...and I don't mean only in emerging economies.
Finally, as something dear to my heart and my family heritage as an Italian, let's never forget that food, whether eaten alone or shared with others, is an event that calls for celebration...the King of Salem shared wine to gladden the heart and dull the sword, and bread to fill the stomach and stop the grumbling, and in the end he created an abiding symbol of life and life giving celebration.
Keep on celebrating, no matter how meager or how abundant. As my dearly departed 87 year old Dad used to say, waking up every morning was a miracle all by itself; having coffee with his best friend and wife of 67 years made it all the richer.
Have fun....victor

Dave T said...

Glenn - should have bought some KFC to feed all those hungry people. Hope all is well - Dave T

Christine said...

Glenn, glenn, glenn....

this was one friggin' hilarious piece of work I've read in the scores of blogs in my lifetime... well written! I could not stop laughing ;-)
No NEW friendships made, but old ones strengthened. Love you all VSOers for it.
The other "guests" snubbed me at work ever since.. I think it's because I told Marufat that it was rude for them to say they promise to bring food, then don't.
See you soon!!!!

Anonymous said...

That was hilarious!

I remember being asked to lunch by my friend in University and I showed up with no money because I thought she was going to pay. I wasnt a cheapa$$, I just assumed - if I am invited for lunch by you, they it's on you - this is the way it worked in Nigeria.

I also remember my first BYOB party in at University years ago - I could not reconcile being a guest with being a host at the same time. In my opinion (back then) these were distinct roles.

I kept thinking: why am I going to a party with my own beer? Why not 1) drink at home OR 2) go to a bar and pay for the beer

I understand it now but I still need to explain this concept to visiting family and frankly sometimes, I am backed into a corner and find it's a hard sell.

One thing is for sure, potlucks make partying way cheaper and you get to try different types of food (and experience different types of food poisoning)

Perhaps the Nigerian teachers thought they were partying with ex-pats that make load$$ of money. You dont see folks arriving at Ted Rogers party with LCBO bags or a 6pack ;)

I am joking, I think your next potluck with be a success now that everyone knows how it works.

Great blog/stories.