You know what they say about crap flowing downstream.
They must be talking about Moammar Qaddafi and his “invitation” to “relocate” to “Three Rivers”: Burkina Faso, where the Black Volta (Mouhoun), White Volta (Nakambé), and Red Volta (Nazinon) literally meet.
Honestly, I prefer the Lower Volta, on the Ghanaian coast toward Togo. Where farmers raise shrimp and shallots. Where learning the language, Ewe, is easy and fun, and comes with this finger-snapping handshake that’s like dancing: you can do it only if the other person does it at the same time. Where the same people invite you to (Christian) churches for weddings and (animist) shrines for funerals.
But enough about Ghana for today. We’re headed to the Upper Volta, getting the 411 on a country that not many people outside of the African Union have opinions about, or could even find on a map.
Now, if it were me, I’d fly to Accra and travel 250 kilometers/155 miles ‒ a mere 7 hours by bus ‒ north to Kumasi. Spend the night at a guest house on a dirt road, run by 2 widows who cook suspicious fish, questionable porridge, and untouchable tomatoes. The next morning, I’d take another bus north…until people started speaking French.
(But, Moammar, since you’re you and you’re driving, point your Mercedes caravan south-west through Niger for 4,800 kilometers/3,000 miles to Burkina Faso’s capitol city, Ouagadougou. I hope you have AC; it’ll be 35C/95F and 90% humidity. At least.)
I can tell you right now, learning French will be a major challenge. I’ve been to French school and French teachers don’t mess around. I doubt you have much of a gift for languages because when you speak on Arab TV, you’re subtitled in Arabic. (Qaddafi speaks a Libyan dialect, so even Arabs from other countries can’t really understand him.)
First up, new lodgings for you. Remember that seaside villa previously owned by your son Saif al-Islam, with the infinity pool like you see in Architectural Digest? Nothing like that.
Something modest, overlooking the savannah.
Take heart. Eventually, you’ll be looking out at the Mediterranean Sea again…through prison bars. Better yet, looking out at the North Sea from the Cour Pénale Internationale in The Hague.
Meanwhile, lose the brocade robes and get some chickens, for brochettes de poulet later. Nobody in Burkina Faso will look at you twice. If you’re living large in Ouagadougou with all that gold and cash you smuggled out of Libya over the decades, especially in a 4-star hotel that until recently had a portrait of you hanging in the lobby, you might as well wear an “Escaped Dictator” sign on your back because some average guy earning $1 a day is going to take the Libyan opposition up on its generous finder’s fee.
Since the Burkina Faso government recognized Libya’s National Transitional Council last month and Interpol has a Red Notice out on you, staying inconspicuous might mean doing some of your own cooking. I know you’ll be homesick for Sharba Libiya (because I am, too): a spicy lamb soup so easy I recommend it to helpless dictators.
Start with vegetable ghee, “samn” in Arabic. You could use oil, so why ghee? Simple food chemistry. You can fry at a much higher temperature without setting off all your smoke alarms.
Sear pieces of lamb ‒ good color outside, still raw inside. (Properly cooked lamb is PINK, people, not brown). Add parsley, onion, and tomatoes. Just enough water to cover ‒ no need for veal stock ‒ and bring to a boil. When you add the orzo, ajoute aussi un peu de persil et des feuilles de coriandre.
Season generously with cayenne pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Or hararat, this great Libyan spice mix you can make yourself, or buy at an ethnic grocery store….by the kilo.
Literally as the soup bowls leave the kitchen, and not a moment sooner, add mint ‒ crushed dry is fine, shredded fresh is best ‒ and a splash of fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
For anybody but you, Moammar, I’d make mhalbiya (rice pudding) for dessert. Libyans flavor it with ‘atr (geranium extract), but orange blossom water will do.
Then I’d make some ka’k hilu (Libyan pretzels with sesame and fennel seeds) for myself.
At Le Cordon Bleu, we learned to drink while we cooked and, compared to the fundamentals of Islam and humanity you’ve already obliterated, this sin hardly even registers. Try the Burkinabè specialty banji, palm wine (fermented palm sap), partaken liberally by the 40% non-Muslims in this secular country. Or, if you’re still on the wagon, there’s always zoomkoom, a non-alcoholic “soft drink” made with millet flour.
Think really watery pancake batter flavored with lemon, ginger, and sometimes tamarind.
You might be in Burkina Faso for awhile and, for all the wrong reasons, you’ll give thanks for every meal. Just imagine if you’d sought exile in Russia!
There’s great Burkinabè cuisine in Paris, if you know where to look, and I do.
La Goutte d’Or is a gritty neighborhood in 18ème. At the famous Marché Barbès, in daylight and with local African friends, I buy more than I can realistically carry on the Métro of colorfully exotic, embarrassingly cheap ingredients you can’t find anywhere else in Paris.
Since it’s just as risky to shop when you’re hungry, we’re at the restaurant Etoile de Burkina near Place Hébert. On August 4.
Accidentally celebrating the anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution. Learning why Burkinabè cuisine is called “l’émotion par les sens.” Sharing food with people who aren’t even at our table.
Riz gras, Burkina Faso’s national dish: rice cooked in fat with tomatoes and spices. Tô, bitter millet dough, with gombo (okra sauce) and yams on the side. Pan-fried fish, their beady eyes staring up at me from the plate.
Foufou, which in East Africa we call ugali: grits without butter or salt, formed into pasty polenta-like cakes. Brochettes upon towers of brochettes beside bowls upon bowls of delicious sauces.
Then a Burkinabè spin on a Sénégalese classic: Poulet Yassa.
Chicken stew with garlic, generous lemon, super generous onion, and any orphan vegetables you find hanging around. Mustard, if you can believe that. Red Hot Chili Peppers, which isn’t just a band.
Served with a Mòoré garnish, to celebrate: “Laafi bala!” (Peace! Health!)