I went to Kagbere to study food. Sometimes, this meant pulling the intestines out of a chicken. Other times, it meant walking through thigh-high swamp water on the way to pull grass out of the ground – grass, by the way, that looks an awful lot like the stuff that’s supposed to stay in the ground. Most of the time, though, it meant that I got fed. I went to Kagbere to study food, and I got fed.
This sounds like a reasonable cause-and-effect sequence; it’s even got a conveniently philosophical shine to it. I went looking for truth or some approximation of it, hoping I could find small answers to big questions. I asked my questions and drank my (treated) water. I’m pretty sure at one point I ate the very chicken I pulled internal organs out of. And somewhere, amidst all this eating and consuming, I was served my truth, the answers to the questions I brought with me, in a way I couldn’t write down in that part of my notebook I ambitiously left blank for field notes. My project appeared in front of me three times a day, that much I realized and tenki ya’d God for, but what was also on that plate, swimming in cassava leaf and palm oil, was the cosmology I thought could tell me something big about the world and my place in it. But it took me a while to see this – a few days sweating and eating weren’t enough. It took Yai Marie.
Yai Marie lives toward the Chief’s end of the village, just before the tiny town square, in a house with a porch railing that looks like it might have once been blue, twenty years ago. There’s always laundry drying on lines strung from the porch’s ceiling, and the house seems like one of Kagbere’s larger ones, until you realize that twenty-four people live in it. Twenty-four. This is an important fact about Yai Marie: she takes in people, widowed, divorced, or otherwise single women with children and no place to go, and gives them a chance of survival slightly wider than the one Landogo’s (publicly, at least) male-dominated society hands to women with no man to belong to.
Yai Marie is one of those women herself. Her husband died years ago, and took with him any claim to ownership of that once-blue house. But when his family came to reclaim the property, Yai Marie refused to leave, in effect becoming one of those rare Landogo women who live independent of male support. This is what you need to know to understand how Yai Marie moves around the village, physically and politically. She doesn’t walk, but glides. Her eyes demand from you an enormous amount of respect. She once led the injojo maa gbee gbea, the reckless woman’s dance, and she acts as an arbitrator when there are problems between women in the village. She’s a big deal.
I didn’t know any of that the first time I cooked with Yai Marie. What I did know, having sat at someone’s cooking fire once before, was that it would be smoky and impossibly hot, that I’d spend the minutes I wasn’t dripping sweat into my eyeballs trying to be helpful and take copious notes, and failing at both but not really minding. Yai Marie squatted to my right, over a pot bubbling with the beginnings of that day’s stew – to which she added, as Allie and I watched, yaibas, sugena, chopped “green,” njagaa paste, kpolona, and palm oil. Little onions, tiny, spicy peppers, a leafy plant called “green” that grows in her garden, groundnut paste, salt, and that oily, orange liquid that formed the basis of everything I ate for four weeks: palm oil.
When we arrived Yai Marie was rolling the groundnuts on a flat piece of wood, pushing down rhythmically with a glass Coke bottle to grind the nuts into smaller, finer pieces, until they finally formed a paste. It looked simple, easy even; a few days later I tried it for myself and went thirty seconds before realizing it is definitely neither of those things. The nuts refuse to get any smaller and the bottle, under my hands, sends pieces flying, a reminder that every nut that falls off is one somebody doesn’t get to eat. And I think Yai Marie knew this too, because when she was done she scraped every bit of njagaa paste off the board and into the pot, even the smallest of pieces. Nothing is wasted, so everything can be consumed: the kitchen hut forms its own kind of conservation of energy.
Like every other women in Kagbere, she doesn’t cook alone. Sarah, at fifteen Yai Marie’s youngest daughter, sat to my left in the circle, perched on a stool quietly chopping the green in her hand. Her grand-daughter, Mata, squatted between Sarah and I, and to Sarah’s left sat Tapia, the daughter of a woman Yai Marie had taken in.
Between narrating for us the movements of the kitchen hut and renaming us pan Loko – Allie became Alicie, and I became Julina – Yai Marie ordered Mata, Tapia, and Sarah around, wordlessly requesting them to chop this, or stir that, or fetch that bowl from over there. She herself remained a fixed point in the cooking hut’s circle, stirring imperiously; the younger girls revolved around her, handing her ingredients as if it was second nature. When I asked later how they learned to cook, all three of them looked at her, as if to say that a childhood spent revolving around the three stone fire’s center of gravity was preparation enough for a lifetime of managing the kitchen hut’s messy universe.
Allie and I watched as Yai Marie made that day’s meal, doing our best not to get in the way of this flow of energy and production and chopping knives. As the process of production neared its end and the period of consumption approached, we closed our notebooks and got ready to leave; we had just eaten, and had no intention of intruding on Yai Marie’s meal. She handed us an enormous plate of food and, thinking it was a gift for someone else, we gave her our thanks and our fama oo nwe a indis, and stood up to leave. We sat down again, twenty seconds later, when she handed us two spoons. Her only two spoons.
At this point something must be said about the food we had eaten that day so far, and the food we would spend the next three weeks either eating or failing to eat. Breakfast, when it wasn’t simply bread and sugared-up granat paste, consisted of eggs fried with flour and what seemed to be hot dog meat, served with coffee or tea to the tune of angry bumblebees. Lunch, no matter the weather or day of the week, was heavy: rice with some variation on the ever-present palm-oil-and-something-else-stew, and a lot of it, all of which had to be eaten if you wanted to avoid incurring Yai Mata’s disapproving glare. Between the heat of the dish – Yai Mata never went easy on those little red peppers – and the heat of the day, I never finished digesting lunch until a few hours after dinner. The day Allie and I cooked with Yai Marie was no exception.
But she gave us her spoons, and we suddenly understood that we weren’t leaving anytime soon. I looked at the plate – a large, round platter piled high with rice and sauce – and my stomach churned; I felt sicker a moment later when I realized we hadn’t been called to her kitchen hut to learn how to cook. We had been summoned to get fed, and it didn’t matter that the food was too spicy or that we had already eaten or that neither of us had really adjusted to the taste of anything yet. Yai Marie had cooked for us, and – as we would whisper to ourselves, chewing fast and half crying, half laughing at the absurdity of the situation – if Yai Marie gives you food, you fucking eat it. And so we did. All of it.
Nobody quite understood our Yai Marie maxim when we staggered back to the mango tree. It probably didn’t help that, by that point, we were not only crying and laughing, but also clutching our stomachs in a way that clearly signaled discomfort. But that phrase, and that experience, came to define how I saw food for the next two weeks. It forced me to stop trying to separate my project and the grains of rice (and truth) I was chasing from the reality I suddenly found myself it; it forced me to start accepting, with grace – and a little Pepto when nobody was looking – all the rice, truth, and/or answers I kept being fed, without ever getting the chance to ask in the way I thought ethnographers were supposed to.
That afternoon, in Yai Marie’s kitchen hut, I ate half a plate of rice and granat stew, and I realized: when someone gives you food in Kagbere, it’s not because they think you’re hungry. Food – those innumerable combinations of palm oil, fish, chicken, cassava, and potato leaf that are all different but after four weeks all taste like palm oil – does not signify the process of being hungry and getting fed that I had always thought it did. In Kagbere, almost everyone is hungry, and almost no one gets to eat as much as they should: in a universe like this, food becomes a marker of position, of value created and exchanged. Food orders the hierarchy of this cosmology, this conception of the world; it tells you where you stand, what you can do, and who you can do it to. Food acts as the currency of love and power, of relation, of creation. It acts as the currency of everything.
Everything – especially on the days I didn’t sleep well, or woke up with a new set of bug bites – is a frustratingly huge amount to attempt to explain. Grains of rice, on the other hand, are equally all-encompassing, and much easier to get a methodological grip on. So I followed them backwards, beginning with a completed dish and regressing through the process of making a meal. My understanding of this new universe began with what I found right in front of me, immediately upon our arrival in Kagbere: a plate of food. Boiled, piled high with rice and plassaus, and given to me by Yai Mata, Kempson’s wife and the formidable manager of our food supply.
Yai Mata stood every day behind a wooden table laden with the food for our meal, her hands on her hips as she waited – always impatiently, it seemed – to dispense the meal. Every lunch and dinner, we lined up dutifully under the mango tree, some of us eagerly and some of us reluctantly; deals were made to eat Carrie’s rice or ask for seconds on Memo’s behalf, and at one point or another all of us complained that there was no way we could eat the food that day. But no matter what we muttered or how much we groaned as we stood in line, each of us smiled and asked Yai Mata how her day was when it was our turn at the table, complimenting the palm oil mix and saying Obanga, enough, apologetically, as if our limited abilities to each huge amounts of rice and plassaus reflected a moral failing we would one day have to answer for. Yai Mata, in other words, drove us all crazy, and all the woman did was feed us.
But, as I learned at Yai Marie’s, food means more than what’s sitting on your plate, and in handing us lunch and dinner every day, Yai Mata gave us her respect and her disapproval, her judgement on where we landed on her own personal scale of good and evil. We learned to read the food like tea leaves: lots of meat meant you were doing well, keep up the Krio chit-chat; asking for sauce on the side guaranteed you a reproachful glance; if she took a while picking out pieces of protein for your plate, she suspected your worthiness, and you should probably think about smiling bigger and talking louder next time. Her role as our cook meant that she set the rules of the game: she was the powerful one, and we were hungry. At mealtimes, it didn’t matter how well we were doing with our interviews, or how far we’d come in acclimating to heat and dirt. It didn’t matter how good or bad we felt about ourselves, because Yai Mata told us how to feel, because she gave us more rice than we could eat and frowned disapprovingly at us when we failed to finish it. Food served as the index by which we were measured: we were only worth as much as we could eat, and every day Yai Mata told us as much, with one slow, dreaded movement of her serving spoon.
From my plate, the grains of rice move backwards onto a front porch, and this is where I found myself one morning in Nyanhu, talking with Agnes. I would sit at Agnes’s cooking fire several times, and watch her keep her own messy universe in order, but that day we remained at the front of the house, where she shared with me some details of the life she moved from Liberia to share with her husband, Joe. They moved from Liberia to Nyanhu in 1995, during the war, so Joe could be with his parents for their last years; Agnes arrived with no idea how to speak Landogo and no idea how to cook the food. In their first few years Joe made all the meals – which, Agnes told me, would make any man a laughingstock if he did so now, for the cooking fire is exclusively an all-female domain – and she learned gradually, sitting at other kitchens and picking up Landogo words in addition to recipes. The day she learned how to make palm oil she remembered as the day she became a “real Sierra Leonean woman,” her assimilation process finally complete. For her, as much as for our own group, food was the entrance ticket into an entirely different world order.
I wanted to know, exactly, how cooking ran this world order, and from Agnes a picture emerged of food as a common currency exchanged across fences and family units, as a gift frequently given, because the hospitality of the society – or its interdependence, or something between the two – demands it. Joe (and, as I later learned from Kempson, Landogo men in general) likes to eat on his front porch, sometimes with his sons, and tradition obligates him to offer anyone who passes some food, to call out Baa menhei nwe, come eat, and share what he has, however little it may be. Kempson later told me that “gluttonous husbands eat inside the house,” because they are reluctant to share. The practice of sharing with any neighbor or passer-by is so ingrained that people have the right to simply walk right up to your plate, without so much as an invitation.
The distribution of food here was clearly no Yai Mata-like power play, but something else, something I read as a way of forming and reinforcing village connections. As with the relationship, however dysfunctional, our group formed with Yai Mata because she gave us food every night, sharing the only meal of the day with anyone who chances by your front porch is linkage-forming, an acknowledgement of how closely related – in terms of bloodlines, but also in terms of survival – villages are. Men depend on each other for the compin, or commune’s, help in working their own farm, and women depend on each other for cooking and child-rearing: everyone is linked to someone else, somehow, and almost everyone in Kagbere is a Kanu or a Konteh anyway. From Agnes, sitting there on her front porch, I learned to understand food as a method of constant value return, as an acknowledgement of dependence, and as an expression of love.
Moving backwards once more, I followed the grains of rice from front porches to that place where the woman’s hamper can always be found, behind the house: this is how I came to be familiar with the path to Connie Konteh’s kitchen.
Connie’s kitchen hut, like every other kitchen hut, every other woman’s “hamper,” is behind her house, and her house is towards the Chief’s end of the village, a short walk past the town square on the dusty main road. I never quite learned how to pick out hers from the row of concrete blocks that stood so close together in that part of town; in all the time we spent together, her front porch never played much of a role. What I did learn – what eventually became so ingrained that I could do it at night, without falling down – was the left turn into her space, the duck through a fence of palm fronds, and the walk between her house and another’s, that led to a constellation of kitchen huts.
The palm frond fence marked more than geography: it meant a change of pace, of attitude. It meant that for the rest of my afternoon I would be sweaty and smiling and unable to write anything down. It indicated a sudden entrance into a crowd of kids and chickens and noise, it stood – or stands, because it is still there, even though I am not – as a divider between the dry, dusty quiet of the street, and the noisy, female-powered universe that exists behind the house.
A noisy universe: this is how I came to see Connie’s kitchen hut, located as it was at the center of three other huts behind that block of houses. There were always dozens of bodies hanging in around that collection of kitchen fires, from women who would come over every time to learn my name, to packs of children, of varying ages and stages of health, who all wanted to sit next to me, hold my hand, and watch me write strange words down. The first time I cooked with Connie I found all these bodies a distraction from the task at hand, from the chopping and stirring and general domesticating of the wild I thought cooking would be. It took a few more visits before I realized that the actual task, the real domesticating, was everywhere around me, and was probably at that very moment holding my hand.
Connie ran these afternoons like a performer, with an effortlessness that explains why it took me so long to see the real trick. She’d put a pot or a bowl out and I’d stumble to ask what it was and she would laugh and say “Wait, wait,” as if she was setting up for magic trick, and I was interrupting. She would move me, motion me over to other sides of the small hut, lift lids so I could peer inside various pots and hand me a spoon so I could stir them. She was a patient teacher, and became a wonderful friend. During all of this, though – sometime between holding my hands in hers so I could pluck a chicken of its feathers like a good African wife, and inspecting closely the peppers I de-stemmed – Connie governed the small colony of children that populates the area behind her house, barking orders in Landogo to stop fighting, and removing knives or chicken intestines from curious little fingers. While she taught me the alchemy of cooking, the domestication of wild ingredients I had come so far to see, at the same time she showed me something else: the alchemy of child-rearing, the domestication of wild little people.
Around her cooking fire, holding Saidu or Becky or Almami’s hand, I saw cooking as creation – not only of food, but of humans. Wrapped up in orders to stir a pot or instructions of basic kitchen safety, Connie taught Saidu, Becky, Almami, and half a dozen other children – most of whom were not her own – manners, respect, and love. Sure, these kids play in the street and in the fields, but they spend most of their formative years back there behind those palm fronds, hanging around those cooking fires. And this is where value is added, to food and to people; this is where life is created and sustained. The kitchen hut is where all feeding – physical and emotional – begins.
Power and hierarchy, relation and responsibility, creation and love: these are the things I saw food express, order, and represent. This where that single grain of rice took me. And once I began to see the cosmology in those terms, value became the keyword I chose to describe my encounters with this Kagbere reality – value exchanges, to be exact. Every friendship I formed was marked by the same affection and compassion that characterizes friendships anywhere, in any culture – with one difference. At the end the day I knew that Connie, Tapia, Agnes, and even Yai Marie expected something from me, some symbolic gift or token of appreciation, in a way that felt like payment but that – I hope, anyway – meant something more like love.
The unmasked pursuit of value in Kagbere, freed as it is from the façade of our World’s paper-bill-driven economy, defines relationships and individual motivations. It reverberates in the food system, and transforms the meaning of a single grain of rice. In the two-Leone economy, you can understand these grains of rice as something that confers value and position in the same way our own paper bills do, because they give life. And in giving life, food becomes an index of what is achievable and what is desirable: it becomes an expression of power and love, of choice and control. In Kagbere, people don’t spend their days trying to make money – they spend their days working to produce food, to make life.
Making this life a little easier, a little longer or a little healthier: this is what I think the goal of development is, but it can’t be done without understanding those lives first, and the system of knowledge and value they exist within. (It can’t be done, in other words, without first attempting to cross the human abyss.) This is what I studied before I studied food – development, the project of progess, that noble formula of X amount of money times Y amount of time to equal Z, amount of modernization achieved in some Third World that must desperately need it. The intentions are always impassioned and well-meant, the model neatly linear, forever moving towards a self-sustaining, self-governing society ruled by the rationality of the market and the mechanisms of representative democracy. But these models, mechanisms, and systems of maximization jam up in a place like Kagbere, where the profit sought isn’t money or more products – where it’s simply life instead.
The basic truths of the cosmology I tried to pin down are, I think, these: in Kagbere, forty-thousand Leones, the equivalent of ten dollars, is the fortune of a lifetime, and four weeks is barely enough time to skim the top off the cooking pot of the human abyss. In this context, time and money cease to be markers of this thing called progress that we can’t seem to stop chasing; indeed, time and money cease to be markers of anything at all. X, Y, and Z get translated, misinterpreted, and reappropriated, and there isn’t an easy way to say “modernization” pan Loko, with good reason. The economy of this universe doesn’t run on the same inputs and outputs – value exchanges are certainly everywhere, but they’re ordered by something else. By the noisy, messy universe of the kitchen hut, by grains of rice. By food. Growing it, selling it, cooking it, handing it to a visitor on a plate with a spoon: these become the transactions of value, the surest and clearest ways of expressing power, disapproval, and love.
In coming to Kagbere, I had hoped to challenge Western assumptions of these value transactions. I hoped to find something that would explain and justify the identity I had carved out for myself as a humanitarian, as an other “in charge of reproducing a mythical state which… will probably never exist” (Mudimbe 20). I wanted to know what it meant to be human and to do good for other humans, in and between Worlds that are big and awful and often completely overwhelming. I needed to know if it was possible, this pursuit of progress and goodness; I wanted to see if what rang to true to me in Seattle could still be true in Kagbere, oceans and miles and universes away from anything I found familiar.
And this is where I will disappoint you. Because I think I figured out the answer to what I was looking for, but I don’t know how to express it without telling you a story about Yai Marie, Connie, Agnes, or Yai Mata. I don’t know how to talk about it without talking about food. I don’t know how to abstract or conceptualize what I learned about being good and being human; I can only tell you what I tried telling you before, in Endnote 4. The human abyss has a face, and for me it was Yai Marie’s, calling me Julina and looking me with eyes that told me I was loved, in some impossible, inexplicable way, and that I was capable of doing better. And because of Yai Marie, I make this choice, with every day and with every smile. I try a little bit harder. I try to reconcile what I have experienced with what I have read; I try to exist in this space between the First World and the Third; I try to live within an imperfect inbetween. I try to cross the human abyss.
There is one answer, however, I think I can leave you with. That choice – the choice to try, to cross, to pull the grass and not the granat out of the ground for once – is possible, even if you’re chasing something you think you might never catch. It’s scary and hard and there were days, more than I like to admit, when I woke up nauseous and angry and paralyzed with fear, but those days and that fear subsided, eventually, and it isn’t as difficult to face those “seas of cultural difference” as it sounds at first. Sometimes, it’s as simple as putting a spoon of food in your mouth and chewing.
Whether it’s possible to actually do good, to pilot successfully these projects of progress – whether I’ll really grow up and become that person who saves the world, or Kagbere, or one person in Kagbere – I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters as much as I thought it did. What is important to me now, what justifies sticking with all those theories and classes I spent my first two undergrad years studying, and later criticizing, is this: I have to try anyway. Despite sadness, nausea, and anger; in the face of cultural differences and screwed-up linear models; regardless of bed bugs and ants that bite. I have to accept with grace the platter of food that someone hands me with a spoon, because it never matters how full I think I am – I can always eat more. And I’m not talking about what’s in my stomach anymore. In studying food, in studying humans, I learned that you will always get fed, and the human abyss never stops calling you to eat, or asking you to try.
So baa menhei nwe. Come eat. The human abyss is waiting, and you must be hungry.
 The act of pulling grass out of the ground is, exactly like its Western counterpart, known as weeding, injagana gahana (specifically, weeding granat). Only, unlike the Western act, the plants that are supposed to stay in the ground – granat, binch, okra – are crucial to survival, and when you accidentally pull one of those, not only will you be racked with guilt, but you will also probably get firmly (but lovingly… but firmly) reprimanded by someone who now has every right to look at you as if you were an idiot. This is what’s know as “the realities of the field.”
 Again – publicly, at least. As with many things I’ll go on to claim in this essay, I’m sure this isn’t completely true, and I’m equally sure there’s no way of ever really knowing. The relationship between Yai Marie and her brother-in-law, the purple-robe-sporting JKK, is something whose private truths could shed some light on the public manifestations of Yai Marie’s independence – but, ultimately, ngaikoo. I don’t know. Food let me in on a lot of secrets, but it never told me that one.
 Yai Marie’s eyes count among that (very long) list of things that deeply affected me, but that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get down quite right. I’ve settled on this description for now, though: looking into Yai Marie’s eyes is like looking into a giant sign telling you three things. One, that you might kind of suck. Two, that she loves you more than anyone has ever loved you anyway. And Three, that because she loves you, she thinks you’re capable of sucking a little bit less. So you should really work on not pulling that granat out of the ground anymore.
 The injojo maa gbee gbea is a dance the important women of the village perform when something’s not right: when babies are dying, for example, or the crops keep failing. It happens in the dead of the night – around midnight, two am – when the women leave their houses to dance and sing at all the entrances to the village, wearing only trousers and carrying old pounding sticks.
 A word (or many) on methods. My proposed methodology had me follow a single grain of rice. I arrived in Kagbere with a list of questions asking who cooks, when, where, what and how, and intended to shadow several women as they farmed, cooked, and served. I introduced myself as the student who came to cook. Because my project was everywhere, all the time, it wasn’t necessary that I conduct my research through formal interviews; indeed, most of my field notes came from observations at mealtimes, and pages of illegible scribbles I managed to take down on the days I sat at Connie or Yai Marie’s cooking fire.
These afternoons were billed as “cooking lessons,” though to this day I remain doubtful of how much cooking I could really do if left in a kitchen hut to my own devices. I usually sat and observed and kept up a conversation pan Krio as best I could, and tried not to screw up too badly whenever Connie assigned me a small task to attempt. Though I was laughed at pretty much from the second I sat myself down in a kitchen hut and picked up a knife, I was laughing too, and I’m certain that the afternoons I spent stirring pots, ladling soup, or washing green – the three tasks, it was eventually determined, I could be trusted to do without close scrutiny – enabled me to form friendships with Connie, Yai Marie, and Agnes in a way I don’t think I could have done as easily in a formal interview setting. For that, I am grateful. The “food girl” label did attract some unsolicited romantic advances, but in the end it served me well.
In addition to kitchen huts, that single grain of rice took me to both Yai Marie and Connie’s rice and granat fields, where I spent several mornings weeding granat, planting rice, and being told to take my time, peengo baatii, every five seconds. I spent one morning in Nyanhu with Agnes, talking about food and the act of feeding, and another in Kagbere pestering Kempson with questions. Several interviews I sat in on with Allie, Memo, and MC, and the language lessons Kempson gave regarding food words and gift giving, also proved incredibly helpful in defining and refining my conceptions of food in my – surely skewed and incomplete – understanding of Kagbere’s cosmology.
There’s always something, however, a proposed methodology misses, and what I didn’t realize would become so crucial to my project – in the same way it was crucial to our group’s physical survival – was the act of eating. Yai Mata, Kempson’s wife, cooked, served, and generally lorded over us three times a day, and it was during the mealtimes she set that I observed, in the most personal way, the hierarchies, power, and emotions that food can represent. I emphasize the personal nature of these observations: it was me eating that food, after all, me sitting in the kitchen hut or accidentally pulling granat out of the ground, and what I tasted and learned to be true is heavily flavored by my own preconceptions, personality, and world view. This paper is by no means an objective menu of the tastes, truths and cosmologies you can find in Kagbere. It is only the few I had the chance to try.
 Early on in the trip Mata and Tapia appointed themselves Allie and my guardians, respectively, and that day they were in their element, staring and prodding and translating for us with an combination of energy and obnoxiousness only thirteen-year-olds seem to exude.
 I’m pretty sure my aborted fieldnote attempts render me a failure of an ethnographer, but I wasn’t too bothered by it. There’s nothing quite like a group of small children giggling hysterically at your attempts to chop something to convince you to quit taking yourself so seriously.
 Or, in the context of agricultural development: X amount of genetically modified seeds times Y number of subsistence farmers equals Z, the problems of world hunger solved. But you cannot abstract someone’s life, culture, and cosmology in that way; the cooking fire will blow smoke in your face, and send your paper bills flying.