Having braced myself for another several months of bland rice and assorted badly curried tinned food in varying shades of brown a la South Sudan, I have been pleasantly surprised by the diet in CAR so far! For a start it is actually possible to get fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables here in comparative abundance – mangos, papaya, bananas and pineapple all appear in our kitchen so absurdly large and engorged with juice it’s like they were grown on steroids. Likewise a spinachy type leaf, avocado and assorted yams and roots all feature on a daily basis.
The only low point so far has been some sort of fish dish so full of small bones that despite the good flavour each mouthful was fraught with peril and required meticulous picking through to avoid choking on a fragment. Owing to our long work days we have a lovely local man who cooks for us – Mathieu - who moves about the kitchen in a quiet methodical way, and rarely seems to speak above a deferential whisper.
Weekends the team fends for itself – Saturday is a regular pizza night, and Sunday is whatever whoever gets hungriest first makes for everyone else. This Saturday morning just gone, I discovered Mathieu had a hidden talent, as when I started capering happily about the kitchen in anticipation of the pizza that evening; he joined in the dance too, displaying a surprising amount of energy and rhythm for so somber appearing a personage! He also has a wicked little cackle when something tickles his sense of humour, as it did when I asked him to prepare a local speciality dish for us...
With the onset of the rainy season here, the already large insect population has burgeoned - mosquitoes first and foremost, leading to a sharp increase in the number of malaria cases at the hospital – dejected fatigued adults and hot miserable babies. But in addition to the mozzies, it is also the season for a certain type of flying ant to swarm, known locally as “terme”.
These bizarre insects appeared in biblical numbers literally overnight, like one of the plagues of Egypt, and proceeded to cluster in enthusiastic droves around any faint light source, then come daylight shed their gift of flight as rapidly as they had started, leaving their fluttering lacy wings blowing about in their millions and literally thousands of plump nut-brown carcasses wriggling about the floor like the finale of some sort of insect apocalypse.
And owing to their (allegedly) high protein content, they form a routine part of the local diet here at this time of year...
I’ve never been one to pass over on the chance to eat something weird and wonderful, so one morning on my way to the kitchen picking my way gingerly over the slightly grisly insect strewn floor of the hallway (it was like walking over a carpet of crisps) I called to Mathieu and attempted to convey to him that it might be fun to cook up some of them alongside lunch and see what all rest of the team thought of it. After a few minutes of the usual bewildered miscomprehension that forms the basis of most of my attempts at conversation here, the penny suddenly dropped – I don’t think it helped that it was such an odd thing to be asking at 7am in the morning when most people aren’t thinking past their first coffee fix of the day – and he started laughing like I have never seen before. Five minutes animated discussion followed in which I caught the words “salt” and “oil” but not very much more, and I left him cheerfully sweeping the floor, and occasionally breaking once more into gleeful laughter.
Lunchtime came round – and you know what, curried “terme” tastes surprisingly good. Or at least much like slightly curried anything does which is to say not bad. Texture was like... actually, I have no analogy for that. Sort of squishy and slightly crispy all at once. I took a healthy serving and Ben our techlog even had seconds. Pity was reserved therefore for poor Lesly, who arrived late at the lunch table and after taking only a casual glance at the bowl in front of her, supposed it to be aubergine and chowed down on a large mouthful.
It's only a matter of time before Waitrose starts stocking these in their World Food aisle!
A brief silence was followed by a slightly muffled wail of disgust as she realised what she was chewing on. Kudos to her though, she didn’t spit it out, although one can hardly blame her for not having much of an appetite afterwards. Mathieu was most gratified to see so much of his creation eaten, and earnestly offered to make the dish again the next time the ants swarmed... happily for Lesly at least, they haven’t done so since that day.
Another delightful insect that inhabits these parts that I haven’t yet learned the name of, but have been reliably informed by another expat, has the habit of laying it’s eggs in the fabric of clothes hung out to dry, the larvae of which then hatch out and borrow into your skin, creating a largish spot which must be really, really interesting to squeeze a week or so later. I have been assured in vivid detail by a girl it happened to, that it was like that famous Alien scene in miniature.
It is therefore necessary to have all clothes ironed at a high temperature to kill the eggs in situ. And I mean ALL clothes. Mama Pauline does our washing and ironing, and thank god, since I think the last time I ironed anything was sometime back in the early noughties. So it is thus that all my crumply linen trousers sudden have poker straight folds pressed into them, as do my knickers. My bras are likewise daily unfolded to reveal a network of fearfully and wonderfully created creases and take a few minutes diligent pummelling before they can be worn without giving me a silhouette reminiscent of Madonna back in her Blonde Ambition years.
But really, it’s a small price to pay considering the alternative!