Country #40: The Gambia

Back to West Africa, and I’m thrilled! This will be my first in-depth introduction to The Gambia, and I’m truly excited about it. A country surrounded on three sides by another country (Senegal), and dominated by a single natural feature (the Gambia river), just the physical dynamics of the place seem super cool. Very ready to jump in, meet some new people via my reading, and have the chance to cook some more delicious Western African food.

Here we go!

 

Wassu Stone Circles
Wassu Stone Circles (Image by shaunamullally, via Wikimedia Commons) Senegambian stone circles (megaliths) which run from Senegal through the Gambia and which are described by UNESCO as “the largest concentration of stone circles seen anywhere in the world”.

Reading Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The desert is a true treasure

for him who seeks refuge

from men and the evil of men.

In it is contentment,

In it is death and all you seek.

-Sufi muwwal

I am a firm believer that if we let it, the landscape we live in can define us.
I’m a person of trees and grass and green. Born in a place that is all of those things, I’ve lived most of my life in the Eastern Deciduous forest zone, or in a subtropical landscape.

But there is very much a part of me that connects fully to the desert. I love the intensity, the wide open spaces; it’s a very different feeling than where I call home. When I get stressed, and all of the noise of the world is starting to drive me a little crazy, I’m always tempted to get in my car and drive until the green runs out. To get to a place where there’s nothing stopping the sun and wind.

Ubari oasis - with lakes in Erg Awbari (Idehan Ubari) in the Sahara desert region of the Wadi Al Hayaa District, of the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya.
Ubari oasis – with lakes in Erg Awbari (Idehan Ubari) in the Sahara desert region of the Wadi Al Hayaa District, of the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya (image by Luca Galuzzi http://www.galuzzi.it, via Wikimedia Commons)

And now I have this book to turn to when I need that feeling. The author, Ibrahim Al-Koni, is Tuareg and it’s crystal clear that he’s intimately in tune with his people’s deep desert roots. His love of that land absolutely bursts out of almost every line of this book; once I started it, I could not put it down.

It’s a tough read in terms of the messages he’s trying to convey; I wanted to scream “Stop it! Go away!” to some of the characters, but that’s offset by the beauty and depth of the story’s protagonist, and the landscape and animals that he loves and honors.

I’m thrilled to have read this book, and have two more of this author’s titles on order from the library. I’m never going to get through my To-Read pile of books, which is really a mountain anymore, but oh well. Just knowing there’s literature out in the world like this can be enough…

Sand dunes of Wan Caza in the Sahara desert region of Fezzan in Libya
Sand dunes of Wan Caza in the Sahara desert region of Fezzan in Libya (image by Luca Galuzzi – http://www.galuzzi.it, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Save

Sweetness from Niger

Been intrigued by that $10 box of hibiscus tea that seems to be popping up everywhere lately? Just keep walking, to the nearest African or Latin market, and buy the real stuff. Known by many different names (sorrel, flor de Jamaica, roselle, arhul ka phool, and on and on), this little red flower is beloved just about everywhere.

In Niger, it’s called bissap, and is the basis of this super pleasing drink. You should make it. Right now.

Dried hibiscus flowers
Dried hibiscus flowers
(image by The Global Reader)

Bissap Juice

Adapted from a recipe at Seeking the Songhai

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups dark red, dried hibiscus flowers
    2 cups sugar*
    2 teaspoons of vanilla
    2 cups pineapple juice

Instructions

  1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven, bring 2 quarts of water to boiling.
    Remove from heat and add the hibiscus.
  2. Steep for at least 10 minutes.
  3. Separate the flowers and leaves from the water with a strainer.
  4. Add the sugar, vanilla, and pineapple juice. Let cool.
  5. Transfer to a pitcher, and serve over ice with few fresh mints leaves as a garnish.
Hibiscus leaves steeping
Hibiscus leaves steeping
(image by The Global Reader)

This also makes GREAT ice pops. I plan on having some bissap pops in my freezer at all times. I’m eating one right now, as a matter of fact.

  • Just pour into ice pop molds, or ice cube trays, freeze, and enjoy.

*Hibiscus is tart, which I really like. I personally found the above amount of sugar to be overly sweet. The next time I make this for drinking, I’ll use less. For the ice pops however, the sweetness level works really well as-is.

Bissap ice pop
Bissap ice pop
(image by The Global Reader)