Monday, November 23, 2020

African foods that have no name in European languages

Sao on the tree in Douala
There were myriad consequences to colonialism in Africa, and as we know, most of the continent still hasn’t recovered. But I will leave that discussion for the experts in geopolitics and history.One of the consequences is not much discussed: the vocabulary of food products, in particular of fruits, leafy greens, and vegetables.

If an item doesn’t exist in the “West,” i.e. Europe and North America, it didn’t get a name. For years, there was little travel within the African continent. It was more expensive and convoluted to go from Douala to Dakar than from Douala to Paris. 

Nowadays there are many more African airlines, and even if you are on your way to Paris or London, from an African metropolis, you can make a pit stop in Addis Ababa, for example.

But if you are going to another country, and would like to eat your favorite food, how do you know if you can find it in that country? For that matter, even when you travel to another town, and you are sure that the greens you love exist there, how do you ask for it if you don’t know what it’s called?

I found out very coincidentally that what I knew as “prune” in Cameroonian French (plum), sao in the Douala language, also existed in Nigeria. They resemble Italian plums, hence the nickname. In the ibiobio language, they are called eben. This is a savory, slightly oily fruit that is not eaten raw, but boiled or grilled. In Douala, when it’s in season, you will find it at sidewalk vendors, barbecuing it along with corn, to be eaten together. Sao are a little oily, and a little sour. They don’t keep at all: they spoil in a matter of days, so it would be very difficult to export them. I did find another name: Safou.

One word that did migrate: gombo, i.e. okra; the word traveled with Congolese slaves to America, and became the famous Louisiana soup called gumbo.

Below I created an ongoing list of names of a variety of African produce and spices, as well as a few cooked dishes, in as many languages as I can obtain. I’d love it if you’d send in the name of an item in your own language, if it’s not already there, and add your country if you don’t see it. I’ll list the contributors, too, if they accept.

  1. Soya, suya: grilled meat on skewers (Nigeria, Cameroon)

  1. Maffe: peanut sauce stew (Senegal, Cameroon)

  1. Kiling-kiling (maloukhieh in Arabic, Jew’s mallow in English) (Cameroon, Egypt)
    Note: the above is prepared so differently in Cameroon than in the Middle East that I didn’t recognize it. The Lebanese in Cameroon informed me that it was one and the same as the main feature of a beloved dish, well known in Egypt and Lebanon.

  1. Bewole: a mild green leafy vegetable that is a bit similar to spinach (Cameroon)

  2. Ndole (Cameroon) - Bitter leaf in Nigeria.
    Note: Ndole is known not only as the green: leaves from a bush, super bitter unless treated with kaolinite, but as not only the most famous dish of the Duala people, but also in the meantime it is almost like the national dish of Cameroon. It is prepared with dried tiny shrimp, groundnuts, meat, and more.

    Ndole leaves cooked on an open fire

  1. Fonio - unknown in Central Africa, as far as I know, but very well known in West Africa (Senegal, Mali). It is a little similar to Amaranth, but much faster to cook.

Note: Chef Pierre Thiam is bringing it to widespread attention in the United States..

  1. Sao: “Official” name: Safou. A bit like the cooked version of avocado. In other Cameroonian languages: sa (Yabassi), saa (Bankon/Abo), bitoho (Babimbi), atchip (Dschang/Bamileke).

  2. Jangsang is a spice that resembles a hard chickpea, but otherwise has nothing in common with anything European or Middle Eastern that I know. It is crushed in small quantities and added to stews for a very distinct flavor.

    Jangsang spice 

  3. Eguzi (Nigeria), ngondo a singreti (Duala/Cameroon): ground dried melon seed, and the sauce made with this main ingredient.

  4. Okazi leaves (nigeria), from a climbing vine, which makes a slimy soup; it exists in Cameroon too, probably in the South and Northwest (near Nigeria), but it may have another name.

  5. Fufu (Cameroon and others), putu (South Africa), sadza (Zimbabwe), ugali, posho: as per The Guardian's "Hit me with your ugali stick": "In much of Africa south of the Sahara the base of a meal is a flour (from ground cereals, yam or cassava root) boiled with water. Fufu, ugali, posho, mealie-meal, nsima; the name changes with region and language, but is usually translated as 'porridge'. Which isn't very accurate - proper ugali or fufu is more stodge than soup, something with a texture close to window putty." Fufu and its brethren can also be made from maize. Sometimes it is called couscous in Cameroonian French, but it's not the North African couscous.

    Cooking fufu in a traditional kitchen in Abo, Cameroon

    12. On a note related to fufu, cassava sticks in Cameroon are called miondo, and in Congo they are chikwangue. In French they are called bâtons de manioc.


  • Many thanks to contributors to this list (which will be updated with additions from the readers!): Amélie Essesse, Epee Ellong, Faith Adiele, Atim Oton, Stephie-Rose Nyot.

  • The vocabulary is not written with the phonetic alphabet. 

  • The article from The Guardian was written in 2008, but it's worth perusing the comments and links. The question of Sub-Saharan food becoming mainstream/popular is on its way to being answered, thanks to the many chefs from various countries, and the internet; there is now a large contingent of Nigerian-Americans, and recipes are even being published in the New York Times, albeit apparently rather modified for American palates. And what a great cooking blog link: The Congo Cookbook

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Stop Filming Us: a movie set in the RDC

 "Stop Filming Us" is one of the selections at the Mill Valley Film Festival this year. 

It's a documentary set in the city of Goma in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the shore of Lake Kivu, close to Rwanda. 

It's a multi-faceted view not only of the town and its inhabitants, but also how so many Sub-Saharan Africans have to grapple with the consequences of colonization, Young Congolese discuss the need to "decolonize one's brain," and the fact that many traditions, legends, and more have already disappeared from the collective mind.
The issue of the multitude of foreign NGOs in Goma is also brought up.

From their website:

Screening note: This digital screening is available to view between 12:01am PT on Friday, October 9, and 11:59pm PT on Sunday, October 18, and is available to ticket buyers and passholders within the United States.


Dutch documentarian Joris Postema sets out to show life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s troubled northeast beyond the bleeding headlines of western news. What he ends up with is a stirring reflection on the complexities of cross-cultural representation. While training the lens on the former Belgian colony’s own image-makers—artists, photographers, and other filmmakers—Postema also flips the script to capture the frank, spontaneous exchanges among his largely local crew about what they should be shooting. Problems immediately arise with seemingly innocuous decisions like where they each should sit for a discussion and persist into bigger decisions like where to point the camera and who gets to ask the questions. The Congolese themselves are divided about the value of this, as they openly confess, but for Postema’s intended audience of do-gooder westerners, it’s a real eye-opener. As one crew member puts in the easiest terms imaginable, "the problem is not here with us but there with you." TV5Monde | CFI French Cinema Sponsor

Via the Festival, you can only watch it until October 18, and have to live in the United States. However, I'm sure it is and/or will be available on other platforms.

It's a thought-provoking film, well worth the watch for all those interested in the future of the African continent.

Monday, April 20, 2020

A modern fairy tale from By Kids for Kids about the Coronavirus epidemic

The By Kids For Kids podcast - usually recording in-studio stories narrated by the under 15 set, for the listening pleasure of children all over - had to quickly reconvert to doing the podcast remotely, as the entire world shelters in place to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is their "intercontinental" narration of a modern fairy tale to explain the need for confinement and the many challenges it presents. Children from Germany, South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, and Australia participated.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Africa-centered activities while hunkering down

In happier days - a celebration
You're home, you're bored.
What activities can you do that you usually don't have time for - and you have an affinity for, or a relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa?

Of course we can start with the news. Much of it is depressing - about how many cases of Covid19 are in Africa, who passed away - all sad and frightening.

However there are bright spots! Among fashion designers and tailors/sew mistresses around the world, a Rwandan designer is creating masks made of African fabric. They are not medically approved, but at least there is a physical barrier.

Other activities:

- Submit a film to the Mobile Film Festival!
As per their site: Founded in 2005, the Mobile Film Festival is an international Festival of short-length movies, based on an simple principle: 1 Mobile, 1 Minute, 1 Film And further: The Mobile Film Festival is a 100% digital festival, thus aiming at reaching the largest audience. Yet, its short and creative format, as well as the technical quality of the films, enable a broadcasting of the films on all screens: smartphones, computers, TVs, cinema theaters, …

- Listen to all the music, old and new, from Africa. These are some of my favorites:

Cameroon (which I know best)
  • all the old Dina Bell songs: the first one I ever heard, and learned to dance the Makossa to, is "yoma yoma," a Cameroonian classic. I also adore his romantic songs, such as "Essèlè Nika "(loosely "let [me] be") - I was trying to obtain the entire text translated from Duala, and now found it in the comments! - or "Sophie." It appears that with Dina Bell, either you love his songs or you are indifferent. I love them!
  • A more intellectual yet popular Cameroonian singer is Toto Guillaume, one of my favorites, another makossa dance piece is "Mba na na é" (1981).
  • The world-famous Soul Makossa is from Manu Dibango.
  • I would be remiss if I didn't mention (from the older Cameroonian set) Ben Decca, Grace Decca, Ekambi Brillant, Charlotte Mbango, Prince Eyango, André-Marie Tala, and the list goes on. Petit Pays, who's become too crude in recent years. Please feel free to enter your favorites in the comments!
  • Richard Bona, who is such a talented musician that I don't know where to start. He started with Harry Belafonte and now plays all over the world, including with other musicians and bands (Salif Keita, .
  • I discovered Soraya Ebelle last year, she has a wonderful voice.
  • And let's not forget Zangelewa! That was the Cameroonian song that inspired Shakira's famous Waka Waka song. I watched an interview on 60 Minutes, and she never mentioned that this was not her original song!
My personal favorites from outside Cameroon
  • While watching the series "An African City*" I heard the song "Monkey Money" sung by Lady Jaywah, which was so much fun, and funny too!
  • The hit in the eighties or nineties was Premier Gao. The lyrics are worth nothing, but great for dancing.
  • Angélique Kidjo is still going strong, well-known in the United States: she just had to cancel a concert in Carnegie Hall, along with a plethora of other musicians, such as Yemi Alade. They sang together in "Shekere." 
  • And the incomparable Fela Anikulapo Kuti. 
  • And the incomparable Miriam Makeba.

- In order to understand a little of the songs in African languages, learn one on Je Parle L'Afrique 2.0. At the moment the base language is French, but English will be next. Among the languages taught: Bassa (the founder's parents' language), Duala, Wolof, Bambara, Lingala, Haoussa, Yoruba, Ewe, Pulaar, and many more!

- Watch African movies and TV shows.
  • Above I mentioned "An African City*," a series originally on YouTube portraying 5 young professional women in Ghana.  Netflix is showing an African series: Queen Sono
  • Movies on Netflix 
  • The classics by Sembene Ousmane, for example Camp de Thiayoré (shattering) and so many more.
  • Films by Henri Duparc such as "Le sixième doigt."
  • An African movie won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (2020 has been cancelled): "Atlantics" - by a female director to boot.
  • The Shore Break - true story set in South Africa
-  Read novels - here is a list of five novels written by female authors I read last year.

This is a very incomplete list, and I welcome all additions!

* Not for the young set - rather R-rated.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Mboko Lagriffe - Cameroon design goes flying

A few years ago, I wrote about Mboko Lagriffe's "Barbebuexpo" in Douala: a novel way of organizing an art fair.

In the meantime, he has not been idle. He continued painting, organizing bi-annual Barbecuexpo art fairs, designing household items, but the big "coup" has been to win the competition for a new design on Royal Air Maroc (RAM) airplanes.

In 2016, Royal Air Maroc organized a competition, Wings of African Art, to decorate the exterior fuselage of its airplanes. The jury president was Mehdi Qotbi, head of the National Foundation of Museums of the Moroccan Kingdom, and included artists and critics of renown. There were three winners: Mboko Lagriffe from Cameroon, the Franco-Moroccan Sara Ouhaddou, and Saidou Dicko from Burkina Faso. Mboko Lagriffe also won the public vote. 

The "Love" Royal Air Maroc plane (photo: Dayot JC)

The Love plane in the air (photo: Guillaume Février)

Painting: Frontières Irréelles (Unreal borders)

"Flower Mask" mug (photo: Orphee Noubissi) 

"Return from the field" mug (photo: Orphee Noubissi) 

Flip flops (photo: Orphee Noubissi) 
The three airplanes are in the air, currently serving Royal Air Maroc's 80-plus destinations. Kudos to RAM for this initiative. Next, a design competition for the uniforms, perhaps?

What's next for Mboko Lagriffe? He is planning to launch his home accessories line worldwide via Amazon... we hope, soon! I have 2 mugs of my own, purchased in 2016, that I guard jealously, as it's difficult for me to get new ones at the moment.
My mugs, purchased in 2016.

Articles in French: