Freetown, Sierra Leone
You might not recognize Sadia Pratt in the early morning. She wears a long house dress and an apron, orange in places where palm oil has soaked in. Her hair is wrapped in a pastel cloth, and her glasses fog up when she stands over the stove just outside her front door. On a Monday morning, she’s stirring ground nut stew in a dimpled metal pot over the hat. A chicken weaves in and out of her legs as she cooks.
Later in the afternoon, she’ll be prim again, in fresh pressed clothes and small gold earrings. She’ll leave the grueling kitchen heat and preside over her cozy wood-paneled restaurant, laughing as often as she speaks, her round, young face betraying only mirth. Everyone will greet her with what has become, by now, her real name: Mama.
In a city where entrepreneurial spirit is the only abundant resource, Mama’s restaurant has a small following, and an even smaller menu. Mama runs Kieman’s, a small lunch-and-dinner spot off the beaten track here. In the wood-paneled dining room, before a bar with empty shelves, the stews she serves are more than meals; they’re a little piece of history in a country whose capital pulses with the energy of recovery.
Mama opened Kieman’s in 2000, the year Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war techically ended, but few knew whether the peace would last. The restaurant is named after her sons – Aki and Emmanuel – and in the eight years since it opened, Kieman’s has become a favorite of the intrepid tourist. You won’t find it in the growing tourist literature for travelers here, but Mama has a loyal following abroad. Britons, Americans, and Germans who’ve happened upon her Fort Street spot sing its praises on Internet message boards and chat rooms.
“If you tell her in advance that you’re coming ... she truly prepares a FEAST for a bargain price,” one Australian tourist wrote. When told about the Australian, Mama said, “Ah, she’s always sending me people.”
In a post-conflict city full of aid workers and other expats, escaping mediocre “continental cuisine” and finding gems of local dining can be a challenge. The free advertising means Mama’s place is one of the few local eateries foreigners know when they hit Freetown, a destination for native dishes like cassava leaf or ground nut stews. They’re also among Mama’s favorites. “I love tasty foods,” she says. “Can’t you see I’m fat?”
Tasty Sierra Leonean foods give no pause for caloric considerations. The ground nut and cassava leaf stews so common in this part of the world are full of an ingredient that make weight watchers wary: oil. Palm oil is the foundation of many stews here; the oil is tapped in the countryside and brought to town, sold in plastic water bottles, a liter or two at a time. A rich orange in the bottle, the oil turns deep brown when it mixes with cassava leaves, making a stew that looks held together by chocolate syrup. In ground nut stew, a dish colored by the thin purple skins, the oil turns almost pink.
It may be the hints of cinnamon, or a special spice her German friends send – even Mama doesn’t know what it is – but her ground nut stew tastes like more than a thick peanut soup. It’s her mother’s recipe, Mama says. “But I improved on it.”
Food here is, of course, about more than improvisation. To explain its diversity, Americans are fond of using the metaphor of the melting pot. In Sierra Leone, where 16 ethnic groups with different languages and traditions share a country the size of South Carolina, the melting pot is literal. In fact, in West Africa, the cassava leaf and other staples cross not just provincial but national boundaries.
“These are native foods that were brought here when slaves came through,” says Hindolo Trye, Sierra Leone’s minister of culture and tourism. “Freetown was for freed slaves, and when they came here, each one from [a] different place ... they started making what they’ve known before.”
Cassava is a case in point; it is the dietary staple of 250 million Africans. A root with a mild taste, it can be fried like a potato, or ground into a sticky pudding eaten with the fingers, called fufu. The leaves are chopped and turned into a stew.
Food is as much about ritual as it is about history, of course, and in Sierra Leone, cuisine has a place in ceremony. Beans are served at weddings or naming ceremonies, but not on the daily dinner table. Forty days after the death of a loved one, a celebration is held, marked with olele, a bean dish, Mr. Trye says is otherwise hard to find these days.
And then there is the ritual of routine.
“We have a culture of eating certain foods on certain days. On Saturday, the main diet is fufu,” says Tileima Yilla, principal of the Women’s Vocational and Training Center in Freetown. Like most food here, fufu is a dish prepared by the matriarch of a home. “Those who are single ... they will have to go to a restaurant.”
That gives Mama’s place an important social role – and customer base. She prepares two dishes a day, usually stews. Though many Freetownians these days work in offices, they retain a preference for heavy, saucy meals made in the provinces most of them have come from, where men working outdoors needed a hefty meal to get them through the day. On a Monday afternoon a few months ago, the only locals in the restaurant were men. They wish there were more meat in the stew, they say, but otherwise, the day’s menu tastes pretty much the way food should. “Like it used to,” one man says.
It’s easy to forget, in a place like this, that there were ever good old days. In the brutal, decade-long civil war women were raped, boys kidnapped into rebel groups, who punished resisters by chopping off their arms.
But there was a before, even for Sierra Leone. In the old days, when Mama was a girl, there was electricity and water, two commodities that often disappear even before government rationing shuts them off. There were jobs, and with them, the disposable wealth of a middle class. There were department stores with fashionable clothes, and small drug stores filled with comic books that doubled as spelling primers. “Now, if you ask the kids, ‘Spell me ‘Wow!’, they wouldn’t know how,” Mama sighs.
And there were toys, not the improvisations that fill poor villages across Africa today – tiny wooden or wire replicas of bicycles, or the simpler hoop and wheel – but the toys of a prosperous British colony. Mama’s brothers had toy cars; she and her sister had dolls – white dolls. “We didn’t like the way they were making the black dolls,” she remembers. “Always with the big cheeks, red eyes. Sometimes we are afraid of them. We don’t look like this.”
There was choice. Mama studied to be a secretary, but the pay was less than she thought she could earn making traditional cuisine. So she saved, gave up her office job, and built a compound on Fort Street, with a restaurant in front and a home in back. In those days, Fort Street was busy, and she had hopes of attracting clients from the nearby Paradise Hotel.
Then the war came and food shortages: Most of the cassava, potatoes, and ground nuts that made up Mama’s menu were grown in the provinces. When the violence reached the city, Fort Street became a dangerous place. Mama and her family fled, and her little compound was spared from rebel-set blazes by the iron bars and windows.
Peace has brought a flood of international organizations to Freetown, and now secretaries make far more than they imagined they ever could when Mama gave the profession up. But the people they work for don’t usually dine in restaurants like Mama’s. Mostly, her clientele is a loyal, but small, group of locals who love her food.
She gives little thought either to what might have been, if she’d kept her office job, or to what might still be, if she’s able to retire. The past and the future are full of different difficulties, she says, and “life must go on. Who will give you what you need?” She sighs. “So you have to do something.”