Here at the CURE hospital, we have really good food. It is important that I say that up front.
The food is good. The only problem is, there is not a ton of variety. There are a few different sauces that they do (peanut sauce, okra sauce, and a few other sauces that I haven’t been able to identify), and they are all delicious, especially when you add this spicy chili stuff that is basically just chopped up peppers. But if you were hoping for a salad, or a sandwich for lunch, you should probably look elsewhere. Don’t even think about asking for a wrap. You can pretty much count on the fact that every day, you are going to get some kind of sauce on one of the following:
Usually its rice. Actually, I started keeping track (informally), and I think I’ve observed a pattern. It goes something like this: rice, noodles, rice, couscous, rice, noodles, rice, noodles, rice, rice, rice, couscous, rice etc.
I do like the food. Really. But it does feel, sometimes, like I am eating rice every day.
Each morning Hassane and I go around the hospital, visiting all the patients. We go see those that are going to be operated on, those that just came out of surgery, and then those that are recovering. The recovering patients usually stay in our patient guesthouse. There is a tree that grows right next to the patient guesthouse, a Baobab tree, the kind that gets really big eventually. But this one is still small. One day I noticed someone had plucked almost all of the leaves off of it. I asked what happened to it, and they told me that they patients have been picking the leaves off because they use them to make sauce. I remember Baobab trees from my childhood in Togo. I always thought they were really cool because they are so huge, but I never knew that you could eat their leaves.
At our hospital, we feed the patients. This sets us apart from most of the other hospitals in Niger, where you have to feed yourself, but it is important, because how can you heal if you are undernourished. But we do not generally provide meals for the people who accompany the patients (usually a mom, dad or grandparent). They cook for themselves. Of course if they are unable to feed themselves (as is often the case) we give them meals as well. Sometimes they come with as much money as they can, and it lasts awhile, but it runs out well before the patient they are accompanying is ready to be sent home. This is especially common if they come from the village. They are not used to dealing with money, and not used to how expensive (relatively speaking) everything is here en ville. It may be their first time to visit Niamey. Their first time to visit anywhere other than a neighboring village – so it would make sense that they would be glad to see a tree they recognize from home growing in this new, strange, expensive place, and that they would make sauce out of it.
I knew all of this, but I was still surprised to learn that they pick leaves off a tree to eat.
I told myself I would remember this the next time I felt like saying, “Why is our fridge always empty?” or “There is nothing to eat in this house?
By “empty,” of course, I mean that we don’t have anything that can be taken out and eaten immediately. I might have to use the microwave. I mean that instead of instant gratification, my gratification will have to be delayed anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes.
By “nothing to eat in this house,” I mean that I might have to actually do some cooking before I can eat. Gratification delay – up to half an hour. Half an hour! Are you kidding me? With that kind of time, I might as well go start picking leaves off a tree.
Drought has come to Niger. It is never very far away. Some countries have an early warning system for tornadoes or hurricanes. Niger has an early warning system for drought and famine. Even in the best of times, most people barely get by, growing enough to live on. Kind of. When there is not much rain, or when, for some reason, the harvest is not very good, the situation becomes critical. In the past few weeks we have noticed at the hospital people who come in, especially from the village, are reluctant to leave. They come up with all kinds of excuses, but the real reason is that they are eating well here at the hospital, and they know that if they go back to the village, they might starve. That may sound extreme, but it is not hyperbole. Starvation is a real problem, and a real possibility facing many people in Niger.
I am starting to realize this more and more. One lady came to the hospital a few weeks ago with her niece. Her niece has club foot, and while she is being treated for it, she and her aunt are staying here at the hospital because their village is too far away for them to come and go all the time. Every morning I practice my (meager) Hausa with this lady, and she always laughs a lot, and says a whole bunch of things that I don’t understand. A few days ago, she told me (through a translator),
“Now that you speak Hausa, you are one of us.”
“Thank you,” I said. That is one of the things I do know how to say.
“Since you are one of us,” she continued, “you have to come back to the village with us when we leave.”
“Thank you,” I said again. I say it a lot.
“But when you come,” she said, “make sure you fill your truck with rice, because in the village we don’t have it, and we are used to it, because here in the hospital we get to have rice every day!”
 It is important to note that there is some variety within the genre of noodles. For example, sometimes we have large, macaroni-type noodles. Sometimes we have spaghetti noodles. On those days, make sure you grab a fork and not a spoon.