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June 18, 2011

The Bitter with the Sweet

I clearly recall two of the fears that I had as a child; being attacked by killer bees and being placed in a situation where I had to eat unusual and unappetizing food. The seeds of both of these fears were planted by movies, the second one after I watched Indiana Jones being presented with a bowl of live, writhing eel like creatures. My horror was so great that, despite my love for travel, I resigned myself at an early age never to travel to Africa or Asia for fear of being presented with a bizarre dish that I could not refuse.

Fast forward to 2011 and I am not just visiting Africa, but living in Ghana! Thankfully, I have always been able to find something familiar on the menu and I have even tried a few new things – banku, kenke, palava sauce and guinea fowl, for example. I completely forgot the nightmare, until yesterday.

I traveled to the Northern Region of Ghana to witness the annual culmination of a very successful programme by the World Food Programme (WFP) to keep talented girls in high school. As a part of the trip, I was taken to see the Chief of a town called Yendi. That experience and the history of chieftancy in Yendi is a story in and of itself. We sat in the room, the chief seated on a high chair with his councilmen seated on the floor in front of him. One of the councilmen said some words over a gold coloured pot. He took some kola nuts out of the pot and passed them out to us visitors. I was last in line and very happy to see that there was one short. However, the gentleman next to me began trying to split his nut into two. He offered it to me.

“Ladies are usually better at this,” he said.

“It’s okay,” I replied, “You have it”.

He whispered to me, “Split it in half and take a small bite”. Then he spoke the words of my nightmare, “It will be rude if you don’t”.

He handed me the nut. I turned it in my hand and using my fingernails, I split it in two. In my nightmares the proffered food was always slimy, even moving and so this was tame in comparison. I also thought of the many books that I have read set in Africa where people seemed to relish these nuts and considered them good sustenance when food was scarce.

‘How bad could it be?’ I reasoned.

I took a small bite as I was instructed. The nut appears firm, but my teeth sank in easily. I sensed extreme bitterness on my tongue. I wish that I could think of something that I have tasted before with which I can compare this taste, but I cannot. I took stock of my facial muscles, praying that my horror was not visible on my face. In my mind, I searched my bag for a tissue, then I realised that even if I had one, I could not spit out the nut. If refusing it was bad manners, spitting it out in disgust had to be much, much worse. And so, I summoned every ounce of the upbringing my mother instilled in me, put on a pleasant expression on my face, chewed and swallowed the bitter nut.

(I have since read that the first taste of this nut is bitter but it sweetens as you chew it. This was not my experience, and I am not sure that I will experiment any further.)

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