Friday, June 10, 2016

Akassa: A taste of community in Benin

After a couple weeks of travel around the country, meetings and various other engagements, returning to village feels like coming home.  Not only is my actual house a place of quiet (well, save the kids and goats) but everyone here feels like family.  When I arrived on Tuesday, after a treacherous bus ride that resulted in me getting splashed in vomit, I was greeted with a running hug from Alphonse, who has become my little village shadow.  He follows me everywhere and cries when I go home and close the door.  This morning, he sobbed for 15 minutes when I wouldn’t let him come over because I had to shower.  One thing they don’t warn you about Peace Corps is that, after a while, you’ll forget where home is.
Alphonse and I, happily reunited.
While Adourekoman used to be simply the village I was assigned, it has become that village that I was gifted.  The people, the work and the comfort I feel make every day back feel like I won the Peace Corps lottery.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are hard moments.  But those are far outweighed by the joys of watching the village embrace change, move towards development and include me in that process.  And, even when we aren’t tackling big projects, it’s nice to be part of the celebration.
This weekend marks two major events in village.  First, it is the death anniversary of my best friend’s father.  She has been working tirelessly to prepare 16 matching tissu outfits for the ceremony and it’s been fun watching everyone pitch in.  It is also the “liberation” ceremony for the apprentice seamstresses in Okouta.  The five women have passed their exams and are being “freed” into the world of employment.  After years of apprenticeship, they are so excited to work on their own and finally leave, what some would view as, a life of modern servitude. 

After boiling, the liquid layer
is separated from the corn sediment
through a series of sieves.
Sabine fills plastic bags with the
hot akassa mixture
In addition to the clothing preparations, the women have been busy making akassa, a typical Beninese dish consisting of corn flour.  It’s been a “all hands on deck” effort as they made bags upon bags of the globby white mash for all the weekend’s festivities.  The process starts by grinding dry corn kernels into flour.  While some do this by hand, most villagers send the grains to a mill down the road where they pay about 50 cents to grind the contents of one cement sack (think a large reusable shopping bag).  Once the flour has cooled, it is boiled until it reaches a milky consistency.  Additional flour is added and the pot is left to cool, allowing the corn meal to settle to the bottom.  The liquid layer is drained off and stored overnight, while the corn meal (sediment) is discarded (and often fed to the pigs.) The next morning, the liquid undergoes another sieve separation before being boiled again.  During the boiling, a small amount of sediment is added until it becomes thick, like a heavy pudding.  While still hot, the women spoon it into plastic bags and tie them off, leaving the akassa to cool in the form of small balls.  The akassa stays in the bags until served, often cold, with a side of spicy pepper sauce and fish.  It’s not my favorite, but it’s Benin’s delicacy!

Akassa, bagged and cooling for the big fete!
Learning how to prepare local dishes has been one of my favorite ways to learn about my community and the culture.  Even more importantly, the women always think its funny when I struggle to stir the contents of a pot that’s bigger than my body and hotter than the surface of the sun!  (And humor is the key to cultural integration success!)


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