Friday, March 31, 2006

Food … and Eating … in Lui

Father Bob’s thoughts on Daily Bread in Southern Sudan are more profound and moving than I can live up to. So I’ll just follow-up his comments with a few more details about food and eating rituals as I observed them in Lui.

And, of course, I’ll go on and on and on …. You've come to expect that of me, right?

I’ll start by saying “amen” to Bob’s comment about their generosity. It’s more than humbling. The words fail me – when I, a plenty-plump American, realize that these folks are giving us more food in a day than they eat in a week.

Here's Deborah with Anna, one of the women who prepared our food.

After I had been there for a few days, the women allowed me to see inside the tukel where they prepared our food. Mind you, the temperature there is well over 100 degrees everybody day. And they cook this food inside one of the tukels – with fires burning, oven baking. I do not know how they endure that heat.

In the weeks before the trip, we received a “packing list” from the Diocese. It recommended that we all take 2,000 calories/day of “power bars” for the trip. Fortunately, Sandy was one of those who had said we could contact her for logistical assistance – since she had visited Lui two years before. So call her I did. And I vividly recall that conversation. I was simply thinking about my luggage and weight restrictions when I asked her, “Do we really need to take enough food to sustain us for the whole trip? Did you feel hungry while you were in Lui?” She replied in a careful way. Here’s what I understood of her reply. No, she had not felt hungry. To the contrary, when she looked around her and saw how starved people were, she just lost her appetite, so – even though she didn’t eat as much as she would have eaten in the U.S. – she never felt “hungry” in Lui.

As it turned out, I had exactly the same experience. Once I came home, people asked me about the food. “How was it?” “Were you hungry?” It just does not compute. To be brutally (and perhaps too frankly) honest, the food in Lui was mostly a “dud” for me. I didn’t enjoy any of it. (Except for the awesome greens we had on the last day there – about which, more later.) It was repetitious. How many meals in a row do you want to eat rice and beans?? And it was under-seasoned for my American palate. (But I understood that, for they can’t even get salt without importing it and paying a premium price.) But ya know what? None of that mattered!! Meals in Lui are not “events.” You merely need enough food to keep body and soul together, as the saying goes. Something weird happened in Lui. Food just quit mattering. I hope future travelers to Lui have the same experience.

I promised to talk about the “greens” we had on that last day in Lui. Having not seen a single vegetable the whole time in Lui, when we found greens on our dinner table that day, some of us were way beyond jubilant. I asked what kind of greens they were – collards? mustard? turnip? I could not imagine. Deborah advised we just eat and enjoy them and inquire later. And so we did. … Later she led me to the kitchen where I talked with our cooks and asked them about the source of those wonderful greens. Our cooks did not speak much English, so much of the exchange was through hand-gestures and scant English. But if I understood correctly, the “greens” were the leafy part of the bean plant. Head-slap to myself! Of course! In a place where every plant must be worked out of the soil with massive labor and resources, of course one would use that plant to the max! The wonder of it – as I realized – is that we harvest beans and peas and discard the leaves. How smart that they would harvest and use the foliage of the bean plants!

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