Monday, January 28, 2013

The General's Last Stand

As a Peace Corps regional meeting required me to go out of town this weekend, and I am too shamefaced to ask a Cameroonian to petsit my rooster, I had determined that Wednesday—market day—would be The General’s Day of Execution.  The timing was perfect.  I would buy what vegetables I could fresh, prepare the bird, have a lovely cross-cultural eating experience with my neighbors, and leave town Thursday with a clean larder, yard, and (hopefully) conscience.

To this end, Monday I marched across the street to El Hadji Ibrahim’s compound and collared his youngest wife, HadjaKultchimi.   Kultchi is a beautiful woman with liquid eyes and a prominent gold tooth which, taken in combination with her headscarf, give her a roguish air, as though she were a pirate who got stranded in the desert.  I think she speaks a smattering of French, but she always addresses me in Fulfulde, and is one of my sternest critics if I don’t reply in kind, so I plunged right in, refusing to let my lack of vocabulary be a limiting factor.

“I prepare” (this in the present tense, as I don’t know any others) “chicken flesh, at house of me, tomorrow, no, tomorrow tomorrow” (although as I think back, I’m pretty sure I actually said “yesterday, no, yesterday yesterday”, which might account for what followed) “and—I, me, chicken flesh, house of you” (lacking any relevant verbs such as bring or share, I opted for no verb at all, always a sign of strong sentence construction and clear communication) “and I, you, the children, eat” (although I might have said “drink”), “yes?”

To which, miraculously, Kultchi laughed and nodded.  I took her nod to mean, “I have somehow made sense of the gibberish you are spouting, and would be delighted for you to feed an inexpertly-butchered chicken, which will probably be tainted with gore, to my children.”

In fact, what I now perceive it to have meant was, “Oh dear, the white girl’s trying to talk again.  Maybe if I treat her like a gentle lunatic, she’ll foam at the mouth a little and go away.”

Laboring under the delusion that we were on the same page, I roped the lamido’s son into helping me do the deed.  A 17-year-old who drops by my house most evenings that he’s not playing soccer, Yusufa was scheduled for English tutoring Wednesday afternoon.  “We’ll conjugate verbs while we clean the carcass,” I magnanimously promised.  I clearly have a future in education.

Unfortunately, égorging a chicken is neither quick nor clean.  Like the lamido and his senior wife had shown me when I asked for a tutorial last week, I put one foot on the General’s wings and the other on his legs, twisted his head all the way around, and opened the major artery in his neck.  This required significantly more sawing than I was entirely comfortable with.  He let out one deflated squawk before the blood began to run, and I relaxed, foolishly thinking the worst was over.  It wasn’t.  Horrifyingly, he started beating his wings and twitching after his eyes had fallen closed.  One wing escaped from under my foot and wrapped around my arm, so like a feathery hand grasping for pardon—or revenge—that for a terrible moment I irrationally expected him to whip his head around, eyes flying open accusatorily as he breathed “Et tu, Laure?” at my treason. 

But Yusufa held him down, and soon enough he went limp.  I had boiled a pot of water to scald the carcass and loosen the feathers, and we plucked him between the two of us, Yusufa tentatively forming simple sentences in English.

Then came the butchering.  I had watched this, too, when the lamido’s wife did it, but hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

Yusufa pointed to the breast.  “Cut him open here,” he indicated.  I poked with the blade and succeeded in puncturing the stomach, letting loose a stream of undigested soybeans. 

“Umm… not quite like that,” Yusufa murmured, trying to be polite.

Under his amused tutelage, I sawed, hacked, and pulled the General into Purdue-worthy condition, if Purdue started leaving in all sorts of bits the average American consumer wouldn’t recognize, let alone eat. The next several minutes consisted of a repetition of my bemused “Wait, you eat that?” followed by Yusufa’s puzzled “You don’t?” For the record, I drew the line at the feet.

Finally taking pity on me, Yusufa offered to skin and de-bone the meat (which struck him as an odd wish on my part—didn’t I know you could eat the skin? Why was I wasting it?) while I chopped onions and carrots.

Unsure of the finer techniques of barbecuing or deep-frying a bird, I fell back on what I know and prepared the chicken the way I would tofu, in a vegetable-heavy coconut curry.  Yusufa, who would not enter the kitchen while I was cooking in it—gender roles here are nothing if not strictly defined—desultorily flipped through my magazine collection and played with my camera, then, finally bored, melted home.  Evening had fallen by the time I lugged the heavy iron cauldron across the road, feeling victorious. 

Ibrahim’s senior wife, Hadja Manga, received me.  She has a face like a crumpled autumn leaf, often speaks only in Daba, and intimidates me to no end.  I bravely launched into my broken Fulfulde script—“I, me, chicken flesh, etc”—but withering under her gaze, beckoned an older daughter to translate. 

Hadja Manga stared suspiciously down into the pot, poking at it with the ladle I had brought and sniffing deeply.  “Who prepared this?” she demanded, via Habsi, or maybe Hafisou. “I did,” I cried, eager for her approval.  “No, no,” clarified the girl, “who égorged it?” She acted this out quite theatrically with a finger across her throat, shoulders shuddering.  “I did,” I repeated, thinking maybe it was disbelief on their part that I was capable of such. 

Hadja Manga, walnut-shell face a mask, clamped the lid firmly on the pot’s contents.  “We cannot eat this.  Chez nous—the Muslims—the chicken must be killed by a marabout.”

In my defense, it is not entirely clear to me that halal rules on this point are either codified or consistently followed here.  The lamido is as observant a Muslim as most in the village, and if his wife’s a marabout, I’ll eat the General’s feet.  Either way, I think the butcher needs to at least be Muslim—a.k.a. not me. 

And so I slunk home, tail between my legs and pot of curry hanging ponderously at my side.  Determined that the General’s sacrifice should not be treated lightly and that someone should enjoy him while the curry was still hot, I gorged myself that night, taking the leftovers to my friends the nuns the next day.

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