In my previous book What is Africa to Me?, an unsentimental autobiography, where I tell the honest truth about myself, I wrote in detail about the leaden years I went through before becoming a writer and I have no intention whatsoever of repeating myself here. I shall merely say that during the years I spent in Guinea the art of cooking was no longer a preoccupation. Eating came down to its purely physical function: filling one’s stomach in order to survive.
Moreover, there wasn’t a single restaurant in Conakry besides the one at the hotel in Camayenne which served up a so-called continental cuisine without ever indicating what continent it was referring to. Sometimes around the edge of the bus station the market women managed to procure some plantains and would sell kelewele or aloko. I left the cooking in the hands of my boy, Ibrahima, a Peul with a famished expression, which did not augur well. Appearances, however, are deceiving. he spent most of his time scouring the neighborhood markets in search of food. Whenever he was lucky enough to unearth a chicken as big as your fist or a tough, stony chunk of meat we celebrated. I would bring out the silverware, a wedding present from one of my sisters, and invite Françoise, a friend from Guadeloupe, who lived three houses down. She had taken advantage of her vacation in Sainte-Anne to bring back a stock of salted codfish so as least she could make accras or cod fritters.
Ibrahima invariably cooked a mafé. Mafé is a dish from Mali very easy to prepare as it only requires meat, peanut paste and tomato sauce. You can also add cabbage and sweet potatoes which given our impoverished state seldom happened. I loved mafé. it did not require palm oil: long before today’s dieticians I loathed this condiment which I considered too greasy and dangerous for one’s health. Consequently, the mere mention of mafé conjures up for me food shortages and a country’s destitution. I had little idea that one day it would turn out to give me a delicious surprise.
No sooner had I settled down in Winneba in Ghana where I taught French than I was invited to a literary afternoon in Accra. it forced me to drive back into town, sixty kilometres along a dangerous road busy with large trucks. Yet I didn’t hesitate for one moment. it had been too long since I had attended a meeting for intellectuals. I was going soft in the head. to think that at the age of twenty I was capable of holding forth with brio on sticky topics such as “Can the pursuit of happiness justify an entire life?” For the time being I had trouble helping my children do their homework.
I therefore headed enthusiastically for the Mahatma Gandhi hall on the University of Ghana campus at Legon, a grandiose, imposing edifice built by Kwame N’Krumah. I was the only person dressed as a European in the midst of a riot of flowing embroidered boubous and gigantic head ties. The crowd seemed oddly debonair to me since I had lost the habit of joyful convivial smiles. The speaker was a writer by the name of George Awoonor-Williams little knowing he would be assassinated by terrorists during the Westgate massacre in Nairobi in 2013. He explained that from now on he was to be called Kofi Awoonor. To rid himself of the English aspects of his name was an act of faith. He insisted on the debt we owed to Africa and the need to rehabilitate her. The discussion that followed was lively. I noticed a young writer whose name was Ayi Kwei Armah whom I was to meet again years later in the US during his never ending exile. Regimes came and went and nobody wanted him. At the time he was hotheaded and determined. He would repeat:”Do not be afraid, above all don’t be afraid of those who govern us.”
Once the discussion was over Kofi Awoonor came over and kindly invited me to the dinner that was to follow. I was dumbfounded since I was neither a writer nor journalist. The honor that was paid me was probably due to my status as a foreigner from a place so far away. I therefore headed out with the group of guests. I got the wonderful feeling of resuming my seat in the family of humans.
Beyond the gates of the university Accra was a lively mixture of noise and disorder. Strains of high life sounded all around us. Passing in front of a garishly illuminated house with doors and windows wide open, the voice of a singer rang out, repeating the popular refrain: “Akepete-shi is no good Oh! No good Oh!”
I have never liked Accra. I always thought its bustle rather vulgar. Yet there was something pleasant about walking through the noise of the night with this warm-hearted company after having been deprived for so long of intellectual nourishment. The restaurant was called “A la Reine Pokou” and to tell the truth, it wasn’t much to look at. Waitresses with outrageously straightened hair dyed red and breasts and buttocks spilling out of their uniform, circulated with their arms loaded with dishes they set down on the tables. I looked at the menu. With amazement I read the speciality was mafé. A waitress set down a plate in front of me brimming with food. Besides the mutton I recognized smoked fish, snails, small crabs, spinach and a variety of bitter greens called agu. Agathe, the owner, came and joined us since she was the mistress of one of the professors. She was a very pretty woman despite her ugly wig. She sat down beside me and told me she was French-speaking, originally from the Ivory Coast.
“I have never tasted such a wonderful mafé!” I exclaimed warmly.
“It’s because my cook prepares it in the Ashanti manner,” she replied flattered. “I don’t know how she does it. And yet I’m Baoulé, the same people, you know.”
I did know in fact. Of course I knew about the legend from Ivory Coast when Queen Abra Pokou had to flee the Gold Coast and was forced to cross a river with her suite. Amidst the tumult her son drowned and she had moaned “Baoulé” meaning “My Son is Dead.” That’s how she gave the name to an ethnic group which was to flourish in Ivory Coast. Once again I was deeply impressed by how the language we speak (even if it is borrowed as my intellectual masters claimed) draws people closer!
Because we shared the same French language Agathe and I felt we had known each other for years and were practically friends. We began to chat, oblivious of the general conversation. She confided that the university at Legon was a hotbed of anti-establishment opponents to Kwame N’Krumah’s regime. Her partner wrote inflammatory articles in the university journal. As a result she dreamed of taking him to the Ivory Coast where he would be safe.
“At least Houphouët-Boigny doesn’t put people in prison.”
“I can’t understand this opposition,” I murmured disconcerted. “It’s surely better than when the British were here.”
“Perhaps,” she sighed. “But it’s far from what we dreamed of.”
“Far from what we dreamed of?” But weren’t we naïve to imagine that in next to no time our peoples would be educated, clothed, housed and happy? Independence was a terrible purgatory with the promise of happiness.
On parting we exchanged addresses. When she heard that I lived in Winneba she exclaimed:
“Have you heard of Pedro Leal? He owns a restaurant on the beach where they serve great food and especially an excellent mafé.”
I promised her I would check him out. But there were my numerous obligations as a mother to take into account and so two or three weeks passed before I had the time to visit Pedro Leal. A former fishing village, Winneba was not a very pleasant place. It was poorly lit and the streets were furrowed with ruts and strewn with garbage.
Half a dozen shacks were strung out along the beach cluttered with seaweed and objects of every sort such as bicycles without handlebars, barrels of oil and even the skeleton of a jeep without wheels. All of them housed restaurants with different names: Pedro Leal’s was called “Saudade.” Like all the others it was nothing to look at. Poorly lit, four or five rickety tables looked out at a black sea which collided with a sky still streaked in yellow. Not a single customer. Pedro Leal was a tall, lanky black guy whose age was difficult to guess despite a resolutely white mop of hair.
“I’m sure you’ll love my mafé,” he exclaimed, very pleased with himself. We sat down at table laid with glasses of the local alcohol.
“I’m from Guinea-Bissau,” he told me. “For 20 years I was a steward in the merchant navy on a route from Bissau to Recife in Brazil. I was treated like a dog by those Portuguese swine. Can you imagine, I caught pneumonia and almost died. but they didn’t think twice about kicking me out without a cent. I was incapable of looking after myself. I was lucky in my misfortune and got to know a woman, A Ga, from here. her country, Ghana, had just won its independence and was endeavoring to offer a new life for Africans. Everything was free. She had me come here and admitted to the Korle Bu Hospital. Unfortunately she died from a dengue fever she caught I don’t know where. After a few months I moved here to Winneba; I missed her and the ocean so much I couldn’t get over either of them. The pain has now subsided a bit. I cook all my mother’s recipes in this restaurant. I never paid any attention when she used to do the cooking: it’s not a boy”s place. Suddenly it all came back to me.”
At that very moment the waitress brought me my dish of mafé: a real delight but radically different from the one I had tasted at the Reine Pokou restaurant. No smoked fish or shellfish but seasoned with tamarind and spiced with aniseed.
I often returned to Pedro Leal’s restaurant, not only for the mafé but also to listen to his stories which invariably tore the Portuguese to pieces.
“Lisbon is a terrible place. if you collapse in the street the cars will run over you and nobody will bother to find out what happened. I lived there for a year, unemployed, trafficking drugs to survive like everyone else: cocaine, heroin, marijuana, anything goes.”
I loved listening to him talk of the ocean. Twice a day, braving the reef and the currents, he would slip on his black lycra swimsuit, dive into the sea and head out towards the horizon. Soon all you could see of him was his white hair foaming above the green waters. Then he would swim back to the beach and fall on the sand to dry in the sun. the ocean, he told me, was a mistress you never tired of. You never felt like cheating on her. She possessed you entirely.
One evening, I took two Togolese, M. and Mme. Tehoda, my only friends in Winneba, to have dinner at the restaurant. they were parents to six adorable little girls who got on very well with mine. M. Tehoda taught revolutionary filmography. I never knew what that meant and I never attended any of his projections in the institute’s huge movie theatre. He was no bigger than his oldest daughter aged ten. Yet this fragile little man had been accused of having a hand in the assassination of president Sylvanus Olympio and escaped with his life thanks to the incredible help of his friends in the opposition. He strongly denied having committed such a crime but I only half believed him. He proved himself to be an uncompromising idealist who could justify any kind of excess. He was particularly sad that day and downed four glasses of white wine one after the other.
“I have just received news of my mother,” he lamented while his eyelids drooped over his protruding eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks. “My cousin called me to say she fell in our compound’s courtyard and has broken her leg. She’s got to remain three months in plaster and now I won’t be there beside her when she dies.”
Used to his fits of depression, his wife, a matronly woman, scolded him sharply:
“Enough of this nonsense. You know full well that Grunitzky’s government is on the verge of collapse and we’ll be able to go home.”
She had barely swallowed two mouthfuls from her plate than she exclaimed:
“That’s not a mafé! I’ll invite you to our place and you’ll see what a real mafé tastes like.”
These uncompromising words reminded me of Adélia’s. Real? Wrong? What does that mean?
Going from what I had just experienced I concluded that the same dish, in this case mafé, varied according to who prepared it. Based on a common recipe of groundnuts, tomato sauce and meat, all sorts of modifications were permitted. Cooking is an art. It relies on an individual’s fantasy, invention and freedom. Cookbooks are merely gadgets for dummies. There is no such thing as fixed rules and binding directives.
The following week the Theodas invited me for dinner. Mme Theoda served up a plain mafé. Her husband, who was a heavy drinker, had concocted a cocktail with coconut milk, Cinzano and a very expensive blue gin you could only find in stores where you paid in foreign currency. I was knocked out on my very first glass. M. Theoda was overjoyed because the university was on strike.
“Africa doesn’t need universities,” he repeated in his high-pitched voice. “What we need is professional training where our youth learn the techniques to put an end to our backwardness.”
“Be a little more ambitious,” intervened his wife who loved to contradict him. “In the 16th century we already had prestigious universities.”
Theoda shrugged his shoulders: “Sankoré! I know, I know! Nevertheless we’ve never been able to make a darned nail or bolt.”
“Those who have invented neither gunpowder nor compass”: Aimé Césaire’s verse echoed in my memory but given my drunken state I was unable to take part in the discussion and remained silent.
You can well imagine that my time in Ghana didn’t boil down to tracking down the different places where they cooked mafé. However a final anecdote comes to mind. When I returned to Accra to work, on evenings when I was deafened by my children’s squabbling, I used to go and have dinner in the Akwapim district, a neighborhood close to mine. it was populated by immigrants of every nationality attracted by the city of Accra. There must have been a large number from the Sahel since the sounds of the kora and balafon could be heard through the open windows. Memory is totally illogical. These sounds filled me deep down with a nostalgia which I found irritating. Was I going to regret Guinea where I had led such a lifeless existence and dreamed so many times of escaping? In spite of my anger, however, there emerged the memory of the faces of the men and women I had met and my eyes brimmed with tears.
I was especially fond of the Moro-Naba. They made an excellent mafé, a little like Ibrahima’s, my old boy-cook, but garnished with different vegetables and even cassava. The Moro-Naba belonged to two natives of Burkino-Faso which at that time was called Upper Volta. Issifou the husband, a handsome man, would emerge as a rule around eleven in the evening wearing a heavy double-breasted suit which would have looked well on a trader in the City of London. Yaba, the wife, sat imposingly behind the cash register. In a way, Issifou and Yaba had succeeded. He had managed to be hired as a municipal gardener in a team who mowed and raked all day long the town’s many lawns. She owned this restaurant which was always packed with customers. On my third or fourth visit for dinner she hauled herself out behind the desk, came over to my table and breathing heavily said:
“So you haven’t got a husband!”
I could have replied that I had two, one legitimate and another, but I merely answered in the negative. Yaba immediately sat down in front of me. Her eyes narrowed.
“You’re right. Our men are good for nothing. Issifou wants a divorce to marry a Fanti woman he met here. He says I haven’t produced a single child during the 14 years we’ve been together. I’m of no use. All I do is spend his money. But he won’t manage to get me out of here. If he makes trouble I’ll go and complain to the local committee and then he’ll see what happens to him. here you don’t treat women like at home.”
In fact Ghana could be proud of its social welfare policy which was unique to Africa. Lawyers, social workers and consultants offered all kinds of free advice in the offices of the neighborhood committees.
“I do hope your problems manage to be settled,” I said to Yaba, sincerely moved. “And above all you manage to keep your restaurant.”
“I’ll keep it, inshallah!” she assured me with a laugh.
Despite her outward display of assurance, the next time I went back to the Moro-Naba, Yaba had disappeared and had been replaced behind the cash desk by a young Ghanaian girl very obviously pregnant. Apparently Issifou had had the last word.
I recently discovered a cardboard box containing some old bills, some poor snapshots of my children and much to my surprise two nicely printed menus with the heading “Dinner on April 24th at Maryse Condé’s.” Racking my brains, bits and pieces of the past came back to me. What was this date? It was neither my birthday nor none of my children’s. Who had I invited to this dinner, I who knew hardly anyone in Accra? Why had I had these menus printed? I recall, however, very clearly how suddenly I was overcome with the enthusiasm which forced me out of the closet like a homosexual who decides to reveal his sexual preference. I can see only one explanation for that: perhaps I was tired of being anonymous, a woman without status or appeal. I must have already been burning with desire to draw attention to myself. I was blazing with something whose nature I did not understand. I was not yet dreaming of becoming a writer, far from it. I was to give free rein to this talent, this art of the cuisine, be it minor and feminine, which delights so many people. Ot was only much later and slightly out of fun that I attributed my gift to Victoire, my grandmother, a renowned cook, whom I never knew. I had inherited it from her without knowing it.
I can remember I spent two days in the markets examining and weighing vegetables, checking the luster of the eyes of the fish and sniffing the freshness of the meat. I ended up elaborating a menu to my liking: grouper and shrimp consommé, gratin of black and white snail meat and agouti in a sauce of bitter spinach. I gave up only on the dessert and made do with ice cream.
“Yum-yum, that looks delicious,” the printer exclaimed when I brought him the menu I intended to hand out to my guests, goodness knows why. “Do you own a restaurant? Where is it?”
“No, I don’t have a restaurant,” I replied. “I teach French at the Ghana Institute of Languages.”
Much less appealing. The printer lost interest and merely scribbled out a bill.
I locked myself up for an entire day in the kitchen dismissing Adisa as well as my cook. I remained deaf to the frightened cries of my children who shouted “Are you alright, Mummy?” behind the closed door.
That very evening my reputation as a cook was established in the small circle in which we lived. that dinner took on the proportions of a myth. From that moment on any occasion was a pretext to start again: Ghana’s Independence Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day. to celebrate the tenth birthday of one of my daughters I invited her entire class for what I called a pink lunch composed of pink papaya, shrimp and salmon. Only the sweet potato mash veered slightly orange. this aviary of little girls chirped and frolicked in great spirits but I sensed that they would have preferred hamburgers, chicken nuggets and fries from the McDonald’s that had just opened near Flagstaff house.
When my sister came to spend a few weeks with me I invited fifteen people including three couples from the neighborhood whom I hardly knew. I had barely said hello a few times and their children went to the same school as mine.
“Why are you going to so much trouble?” my sister wondered. “Eating is a passing pleasure. Once eaten, there’s nothing left.”
“It nevertheless procures a few moments of happiness,” I replied.
“Happiness? she said doubtfully. “You call that happiness?”
I was convinced it was. If happiness, as we know, is relative, why not take advantage of it?
Cooking changed my character. Although in love I was notoriously monogamous, in cooking I dreamed of sharing, multiplying and procuring pleasure and delight to as many guests and strangers as possible. And yet I was not exactly faithful. The slightest predicament, the slightest affliction kept me far from my kitchen and because of the ups and downs of my personal life I stayed almost three years without cooking. Yet I can remember full well in every detail one Christmas Eve, the last I was to spend in Africa, in Kaolack, Senegal where I had just met Richard Philcox who was to become my husband. It was not the first time I had celebrated Christmas in a Muslim land and each time I was amazed at the number of Christians on bended knee in the churches. How much longer would this religious tolerance last, already falling apart in many places across the globe? Midnight Mass had been brought forward to 8 pm because of the climate of insecurity that had begun to prevail across the country, an excellent topic for the sermon by the parish priest, a South American, Colombian I believe. He had urged the parishioners to forsake the violence and turn in unison towards the peace and love of God.
On leaving the church the night was so dark it seemed to be staring into hell. It was not at all a silent, holy night. The patter of the Faithfuls’ worn out shoes made the cats and other nocturnal, perhaps malevolent, animals scatter far and wide. For the Christmas Eve dinner we had brought out the dining room table in my apartment onto the balcony. We had covered it with a white wrapper woven with golden thread. Unfortunately we were unable to hide the holes and cracks on the corrugated iron ceiling nor the ugliness of our surroundings. We had been content to hang up colored lanterns to lend a festive note. Since the Muslim baker had refused in horror to roast the suckling pig in his oven, I had had to cut it up in chunks, steam it and season it with all the candied fruit I could find. Browned just right, crisp, almost caramelized, it turned out perfectly. this suckling pig also marked the advent of my new life.
From Of Morsels and Marvels by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, Seagull Books. Distributed by University of Chicago Press. First published in English translation by Seagull Books, © 2019.