Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tales from the Edge of the World: The Yoghurt

I admit I have a problem with dairy products: I cannot get enough of them. And don’t give me any low fat, no fat, reduced fat, skim-milk products, either: I have been known to add Half & Half to friends’ skim milk to make it more palatable to me. I crave rich, creamy, fatty dairy products like other people crave chocolate or coffee. I must have it, and preferably several times a day. So, when I first visited Mali, I was reassured to find out that they are one of the largest livestock producers in Africa. Where there is live stock, there are cows, and where there are cows, there is milk, and where there is milk, there is yoghurt/cream/cheese/quark/sour cream/crème fraîche…. So even if there are other quality of life issues that I must contend with in Mali: I will get my dairy fix and all is well….

My optimistic outlook began to be somewhat challenged in Bamako. Shortly after my first arrival in 2005, I noticed huge billboards everywhere announcing “Mali Lait” and its various products, especially their yoghurts! Good stuff, I was thinking, and I started to look for a store to buy some. Problem is that I cannot really tell which store sells what: the sign over the store is usually not a good indicator of whether or not they sell yoghurt. You have to enter the store and look for a refrigerator. Or a freezer that only works enough to be used as a refrigerator. Which you don’t know until you open it, or ask. So you start asking the merchants for yoghurt. Considering that there are all these “Mali Lait” billboards along the roads, I had to wonder why the merchants look at you like you have two heads, or like they never heard of yoghurt. (It also makes you wonder about the effectiveness of the other most common billboard, besides “Mali Lait”: the one where they warn about the dangers of AIDS and HIV infection. I sure hope that that public awareness campaign is more successful than the yoghurt one…) Ok, so wandering from store to store was not a very successful strategy. I resorted to another one: asking people where I was staying if they can find me some yoghurt. Success: this way I eventually was introduced in Bamako to the famous “Mali Lait” yoghurt, and it satisfied all my German expectations of a good dairy product: it came in a little cup, and it was creamy and cool and full of milk fat!

I was a happy camper, until I moved on to Mopti, where I had to begin my search all over again. This time I was staying with PeaceCorps Baba, who considered my desire very dubious, and only relented after numerous requests. I am not sure if he just thought it unnatural to want to eat yoghurt, or if he doubted my ability to digest Malian yoghurt, but eventually he introduced me to a new product: “Mali Lait” yoghurt in a little plastic baggy. Oh, it is like drinkable yoghurt, and you can bite a little hole in the corner and you can suck it out of its baggy, and it, too, is delicious and passed the German quality inspection with flying colors. (When I became very violently ill after a couple of days with a random intestinal bug, PeaceCorps Baba swore up and down that it was the yoghurt, that I never should have eaten in the first place. He sat in his living room and told all of his family, his entourage and all of the visitors that day of my illness and what caused it, and they all sat around and shook their head at the risk taking behavior of this foolish German woman.) But it was too late: I was hooked! I had tasted Malian yoghurt, I knew that it existed, and I would no longer take “no” as an answer….

So this time around Bamako posed no challenge. I knew what I wanted, and –granted, I had to ask for it a couple of times – I eventually had my yoghurt every morning, with a banana and some delicious dark Malian honey. Life was good. Until I got to Timbuktu. There, to my horror, I was told by the one merchant in town who deals with French butter (another holy grail of dairy products in my book, and usually where you can find one you can find the other…), that there IS NO YOGHURT IN TIMBUKTU. Well, just shatter my world, why don’t you! Did the man really understand the impact that his words had on me? I think not. I couldn’t believe it! This would seriously impact the quality of my life there in Timbuktu. It is much harder to face sand storms, scorpions, outhouses, and endless meals of mutton meat without any yoghurt in sight. Soon I resorted to a new strategy: I would make my desire for yoghurt part of my social palaver with people: everybody who I spoke with for more than 2 minutes (the standard length of social greeting) had to endure my questions about yoghurt. No, they all shook their heads: there really is no yoghurt here in Timbuktu. Boy, it was going to be hard living here. In January my friends all came and left after a couple of weeks, and they, too, had to endure my constant whining about the lack of dairy products in this town.

And then, one day when it was just me and Malé and his friend Mohammed, and I started yet again about the yoghurt, Mohammed said: Oh, there is a woman just down the street. She makes and sells yoghurt, and he will get me some tomorrow morning. Just like that. The same Malé and the same Mohammed who had been listening to my yoghurt cravings for over a month now. Why, I asked them, have they not told me about that before? They evasively stammered something about, oh, they did not think that I was talking about THAT kind of yoghurt. What kind? The delicious, cool, white, creamy, rich kind that Mohammed brought for me the next morning? Yup, that’s the one that I was looking for. And so, every morning after that, Mohammed brought me two little baggies of homemade yoghurt, and I couldn’t have been happier! I ate it with Mango, with bananas, with honey, and I ate it even when I had yet another mysterious intestinal episode. The only time I did not eat it was when the woman’s daughter got married and she did not make any. I was a little shaken up, but I understood. Sort of.

Now that we have resolved the yoghurt issue, I can move on to the cheese issue. No, they all say, there is no cheese to be had here. But then one day Malé told me that the Tamashek make cheese, sometimes, somewhere, somehow, but he cannot imagine that I really want to eat THAT kind of cheese. Well, there is just one way to find out, and I will, next time I am in Timbuktu….

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