Cooking with Fire

On a couple of occasions in recent months I have hosted fellow missionaries and friends at my house in the ELCSL compound for an outdoor potluck and bonfire.  For Americans and Europeans in tropical Sierra Leone, there seems to be something wonderfully appealing and  relaxing about gathering around a bonfire, roasting marshmallows and enjoying a peaceful evening under the nighttime sky.  (Yes, it is possible to find marshmallows in Freetown, and sometimes the night air is relatively cool enough to enjoy a fire.)

One of my Sierra Leonean colleagues was looking at my garden the other day and as we talked together she noted the small pile of sticks and branches in front of my house.  I explained that it was left over firewood and that sometimes when friends came over we built a fire.   She wanted to know what kind of fire I made:  was it a 3 stone fire?

Cooking with fire: the pot is balanced on three stones above the heat. The cook is the elderly mother of an active Lutheran in the provincial town of Bumpe.

This simple question is a great example of the challenges inherent in cross cultural communication.  Even a subject as simple as building and using a fire highlights the different worlds and cultural frames of reference for Africans and Americans.  In this case, I understood her question and could sort out the issues quite easily.   The vast majority of Sierra Leoneans, including my colleague, cook their daily meals outdoors on a three stone fire.   In Africa, cooking with fire is an essential part of daily life.  For those of us who live in the west with electricity and gas and propane, outdoor fires are more for recreation and enjoyment, even on those occasions when we do use a fire for cooking.  I was challenged a bit to explain this, and the idea of roasting marshmallows, to my colleague.

Cooking for a crowd. Using the three stone method, the heat is concentrated and the wood is used economically. In this photo, one pot is for rice and the other is for some type of sauce or stew.

The simple truth is this: it is so easy to make assumptions about what the other is saying or doing in cross-cultural interactions.   It is oh so easy to misunderstand one another without even realizing it.  There is much to learn — about food and cooking, about the values that shape family and business, about how we understand the use of money and time and so much more.   I am immensely grateful to the staff, the youth and the members of the ELCSL for being  my  teachers on a daily basis.

This is the meal I learned to cook today. The photo shows black eyed beans, hot peppers and dried fish. After adding palm oil, the beans were served with rice.

My learning continued in a fun way earlier today when a long discussed cooking lesson took place at my house.  In this case, we cooked with charcoal, a common alternative here  to cooking with fire (although charcoal production, along with cutting firewood both have serious implications for the environment.)

Doris is my cooking teacher, here shown checking the beans in the pot on my charcoal stove. Until today I had only used this stove to grill fish, shrimp and chicken. The bottle next to the stove tells a story in itself: the bottle originally contained communion wine purchased at a Catholic supply store. Nothing is wasted here, so we carried the empty bottle to the market this morning, and used it to buy two pints of palm oil for our cooking.


2 responses to “Cooking with Fire

  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog whic I have been receiving for a few months. I have a passion for Sierra Leone & hope to move there next year to work in community development. Am waiting for God to open a few more doors for that to occur. Currently am a post grad social work student. I have got involved with the local Sierre Leone community here in Brisbane, Aust & they have accepted me with open arms & hearts. Like you I am learning about cross cultural issues & next month will be having a cooking lesson from one of the women who has befriended me. Am also learing to understand Krio which I am fine with while it is being spoken slowly but as you know when people get excitied their speech patterns speed up & well I get lost then. Practice makes perfect so I will keep listening very carefully.

    I think the work you are doing is amazing & I look forward to yoru weekly posting.

    God bless

  2. Kate, Thanks so much for sharing all the simple and beautiful moments of your life in Sierra Leone. I truly wish that I could be there to share the wonderful meal that you have prepared.



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