September 23, 2003 - Youngstown Vindicator: PCV Cory Ballantyne teaches that Safe eating demands food be peeled or cooked

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Cameroon: Peace Corps Cameroon: The Peace Corps in Cameroon: September 23, 2003 - Youngstown Vindicator: PCV Cory Ballantyne teaches that Safe eating demands food be peeled or cooked

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PCV Cory Ballantyne teaches that Safe eating demands food be peeled or cooked



PCV Cory Ballantyne teaches that Safe eating demands food be peeled or cooked

Safe eating demands food be peeled or cooked

By COREY BALLANTYNE

SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR

"Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads; fish heads, fish heads, eat them up yum!"

In the United States, this goofy song from 1978 by a group called Barnes & Barnes was funny because my friends and I took it for granted that it was total nonsense.

"In the morning, laughing, happy fish heads. In the evening, floating in the soup!"

Here in Cameroon, I don't sing so gleefully about this real-life occurrence. Fish heads are a delicacy served to the guests of honour (Cameroonian spelling, influence of the British), and upon arrival, we Peace Corps trainees had that distinction.

Obstacles to eating properly here stem generally from the bizarre (that is, unfamiliar), the shockingly unhealthy and the unsafe. Fish heads are in the "unfamiliar" category, as are several species of starchy roots sort of like potatoes: tareau, manioc, patate.

Before I encountered a fish head, I had written that the thought of it "makes me shudder. It makes my esophagus shudder too."

Somehow, I escaped being offered fish heads at first, and the delay was in fact perfect. It was just long enough not only for me to come to terms with the idea but for my French to reach the level where I could share with my host family the humor of my predicament.

When two cooked fish appeared on the table, I timidly requested to try a head. I said that in America we don't eat fish heads, we throw them away, and all the trainees "are afraid of" fish heads.

A few simple sentences in broken French, but we had a good laugh over it all. They showed me how to eat the fish. The head has meat just like the rest of the fish, plus eyes and various bones.

When I pushed the eyes aside, my "dad" took and ate them. He explained, and demonstrated, that people eat the cartilage and even the bones. He showed me how you flatten the little, spiky, sideways bones against the spine so they don't poke you in the mouth as you chew them.

I nibbled, and then chewed, on some bones, but they didn't break up or get softer, so I wasn't sure I knew what to do, and I eventually spit them out.

Safety first

Not all unfamiliar foods are scary, though. Boiled bananas or plantains in tomato sauce with bits of carrot went from just-palatable to good after the first several times. Fried plantain chips (with crispy edges) are a welcome break from routine foods here. And fresh, tropical fruits are the one food, other than imports, that many of us truly enjoy.

If you are already at risk for a heart attack, eating in Cameroon would probably bring one on. Virtually everything that is cooked here is drenched in oil. (And almost everything is cooked, for reasons of sanitation.) People make no distinction between meat and the fat that is on it, so sometimes your chunk of "meat" is at least half fat.

Our first week in Cameroon, we stayed at a hotel in Yaoundé where the cooks also would not serve any vegetable without drowning it in salad dressing or mayonnaise, both of which I happen to hate, and we had almost no opportunities to eat anything elsewhere.

I found meals so revolting that my food intake was slashed roughly in half for that first week, and I wondered if I should go home before I starved. I guess it's all because there are a lot of things here that can kill younger people than heart disease does.

When we moved from the hotel to our training site, the town of Bandjoun (West Province), safety concerns took the place of the salad dressing and mayonnaise.

The hotel had been carefully selected for food safety. Make no mistake: We owe our respect to the staff there because food safety in Cameroon means knowing what you're doing and going the extra kilometer. The Peace Corps medical officer's guideline for food here is, "Cook it, peel it, soak it in bleach [with water], or don't eat it." Why, you ask? Well, one wise, song-writing, guitar-playing volunteer puts it this way. The song is named, "The Oral-Fecal Route," a term which we (here) all know well is a "route of disease transmission."

Song lyrics

With a sweet smile and tone of voice fit for Sesame Street, he gives an intro something like, "Well, boys and girls, if you [poop] near a river, and someone down river drinks from that river or if a kid [poops] in a field, and you eat a vegetable grown in that field if ..."

And then, as a total surprise, it is in simple French that he breaks into song, with the refrain, "Comment est-ce que le caca entre dans la bouche?" In English, "How does the poop get into your mouth?"

Every word of the song is serious, and the only reason it made a roomful of volunteers and trainees laugh hysterically is its refreshing bluntness about a subject that I, for one, had quietly resented.

Anything here can have trace amounts of sewage on it: Your hands if you used a public bathroom, because there is usually no soap there. The water that comes out of your faucet because tap water is not purified, at least not adequately.

Your dishes because you've washed them in tap water. The ground, even in town, because someone missed the hole of the school latrine and then other people tracked it all over the schoolyard and beyond.

And anything that has touched the ground, including many fruits and vegetables. And anything that anyone's hands have touched. The possibilities are endless.

In Africa, you quickly forget to be very embarrassed to mention such topics because you really can't go a day without thinking about the health of what goes into or out of your digestive tract, and there is no one who doesn't have frequent problems.

But it's one of those things about the Peace Corps experience that give rise to some of the best laughs you could ever have.

So what do we eat? For liquid, I boil a pot of water about once a day, let it cool overnight, and then filter it. I don't eat the apples because I refuse to cook, peel, or bleach them, but we eat bananas, guavas, pineapples and mangoes. (They are all peeled.)

Tasty treat

If you visit Cameroon, don't leave without trying the three-inch bananas: bananes du village, or bananes traditionelles, they call them. They have a sweeter, tangy, buttery flavor. And you think you like pineapple? Let me tell you, you don't know pineapple unless you've eaten it in a region where it's grown. It's so sweet.

My little brothers and sisters here, ages 2-8, get more excited about fruit than about candy. When you don't buy anything for lunch except a large amount of fruit, one of my fellow trainees has rightly named it "the brat diet." That is, the diet of people who are too picky to thrive in Cameroon, which would be the average American.

The only sources of protein that I don't mind are eggs and beans. Hard-boiled eggs are usually found in buckets on the heads of little kids, who are along city streets or at long-distance bus stations.

I guess travelers and busy urbanites find the eggs to be a convenient food. And Roger, the proprietor of "chez Roger" ("Roger's place"), probably saw his revenues quadruple when Peace Corps trainees moved into Bandjoun and discovered his rice and beans for 250 francs. He bought new curtains. It's better that way than if we tried to get other cooks to change.

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Story Source: Youngstown Vindicator

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Cameroon; PCVs in the Field - Cameroon; Health Education

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