Travel and Food Bronze Winner: Everybody Plays the Fou

by Tom Weller

No Chadian village is complete without a fou.  I discovered this in 1993 while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Beinamar, Chad.

The fou is the village crazy person.  Beinamar’s fou was typical of the fous I encountered in villages all over Southern Chad.  A middle-aged man, he wore only a pair of tattered brown shorts. Dirt caked his skin. Dust grayed his nappy hair. Like most fous, the Beinamar fou spent his day stomping the busiest red-clay paths of the village, barking gibberish to the air, and occasionally menacing passersby.

The fou scared me when I first arrived in Beinamar.  Whenever he saw me, he’d come at me yelling, his hands flying in the air above his head like confused bats. In the rare instances when he strung together syllables that made sense, he always shouted about the evil nature of white people and how I should be chased out of Beinamar.

But to everyone else in Beinamar, the fou seemed to be as ordinary a part of the community as the village crier and the chief of police.  They each had a role to play, and the fou, arguably, had the most important role. He entertained Beinamar.  A herd of children constantly swirled around the fou.  They chided him, pelted him with stones, poked at him with sticks, squealed in delighted mock terror when the fou turned on them and growled non sequiturs.  Adults looked on and laughed at the fou’s antics.

I often felt uncomfortable watching these interactions, watching my neighbors go out of their way to mock a person apparently suffering serious mental problems.  To me, the treatment of the fou carried a sharp edge of bullying, cruelty.

But with time, I came to see that the village’s relationship with the fou was much more complicated than it appeared on the surface. I once wondered aloud how the fou managed to survive.  Most of my neighbors worked long, sweaty hours scraping out their existence as subsistence farmers. The fou wandered the village all day producing only laughter.  My friends explained that Beinamar took care of the fou.  People gave him leftovers to eat when they could, a place to get out of the rain when storms blew in.

The treatment of the fou now seems to me emblematic of the cocktail of cutting humor and kindness that I consistently encountered while in Chad, of values and beliefs and practices that were often sharply different then what I typically find in the United States.  The Chadians I lived and worked with were extremely generous.  During my first month in Beinamar I never bought or prepared food for myself.  Instead, I struggled to keep up with a stream of meal invitations and gifts of peanuts, squash, fried dough, bananas, and chickens.

I received special treatment because villagers considered me a guest in Beinamar, but Chadian generosity manifested itself in many ways, seemed almost a requirement of the culture.  Hosts always gave visitors water, and often gave them tea.  Unexpected guests were always welcome to partake when a meal was presented.  Extended family offered an important safety net, providing food and financial assistance for struggling relatives, even taking in children, nieces and nephews, distant cousins, when parents couldn’t provide.

But at the same time, when Chadians saw weakness, they pounced. They seized on nearly every struggle as an opportunity to gawk and joke and laugh.   When adults watched children play soccer on Beinamar’s dusty bronze pitch, good plays received murmurs of approval, but spectators greeted mistakes with a hail of shouted insults and laughter that rang across the open field like church bells. Children showed no more compassion than the adults. One child in Beinamar, a boy, probably nine or ten years old, had no use of his legs.  He got around using his hands, dragging his withered, twisted legs behind him, forever straining to keep up with his playmates running pell-mell through the village center.  For his efforts he received from the other children a chorus of taunts about his slow and awkward movements.

There were, however, some underlying elements of fairness to these attacks.  Because any form of weakness seemed to be fair game, everyone got a chance to deride the struggling, and, eventually, for at least some small failing, almost everyone become the object of derision, even the local Peace Corps volunteer.

The first time I confronted longue sauce, Gilbert lifted the lid off the saucepot with his usual flourish of spinning hand motions and “Bon appétit.”  I appraised the night’s offering, an unfamiliar, greenish-brownish sauce surrounding some pieces of meat the size of child’s fist.

Typical Chadian meals consist of two parts, boule and sauce.  Boule is a dough made by combining pounded grain, usually millet or sorghum or corn, with boiling water.  It is served in a dome shape, piping hot.  Everyone eating rips pieces off of the boule and dips them in a shared pot of sauce.  The sauce could be made of any number of things.  My favorite sauce was thick and brown, made of oil and peanut butter and goat meat.  Other sauces were red and spicy and might include beef or gazelle, almost like a stew.  Chicken sauces were popular and often served for special occasions. The head of the household would reach into the sauce to distribute pieces of chicken.  Portion and pieces denoted status within the group. I always received a meaty back or thigh as well as the gizzard because as long as I lived in Beinamar people treated me with special courtesies reserved for guests.

After setting down the lid from the sauce pot, Gilbert ripped a piece from the boule and dunked it in the sauce.  I didn’t see Gilbert pull his hunk of boule out of the sauce because I was reaching for a hunk of my own.  As I leaned forward to dunk my first piece of boule, Gilbert looked at me.  Light seemed to dance in his eyes.  He looked like a child about to open a present.

“Do you know what you’re doing ” he asked me, his French syllables unusually bouncy.  He glanced around at the two other men sharing our meal.  Slight smiles creased their faces.

“Oui, bien sur,” I answered.  I liked to throw in a bien sur when I felt especially confident.

I plunged my boule into the sauce.  Everyone else stopped eating, stopped conversing.  I paused mid dunk and looked around the circle of my meal companions.  All eyes rested on me.  “Go on,” Gilbert said.

I pulled my boule a few inches into the air, but it remained connected to the pot by a thick rope of sauce.  I redunked the boule, hoping that I had just hit a bad spot and a second pass might make things easier.  But the same thing happened again.  I dunked the boule, began to pull it out, and new ropes of sauce clung to it.  I decided I’d stretch the sauce ropes until they snapped.  I pulled my boule up until it was level with my chest.  The sauce refused to release its grip.  I pulled my boule up and away from the saucepot until it was level with my eyes.  The ropes of sauce grew longer and thinner, became strings rather than ropes, but still they would not break.  I raised my boule above my head, statue of liberty style, but the sauce seemed to be made of equal parts phlegm and tenacity.  It would not be defeated.  Strands of sauce three feet long ran from my raised hand to the saucepot.

I began to make circular motions with my hand, hoping to shake my boule free.  The strings of sauce whipped through the air.  I worried they might smack Gilbert or one of the other men, now hooting with laughter, in the face. Gilbert called, “Coupé, coupé (cut, cut),” and pantomimed holding a piece of boule in his hand while turning his wrist sharply with his pinky extended.  I tried to follow his advice.  I turned my wrist, short, quick bursts.  This seemed to agitate the sauce.  It wrapped itself around my wrist and forearm, before its tentacles finally snapped.

The men sitting around me hooted.  They bent forward in their seats, laughter shaking their ribs.  One wiped tears from his eyes.  They took turns croaking, “Oui, bien sur,” and pantomiming my fight against the sauce.  Then Gilbert told me to try again.

I took a deep breath, tasted the Chadian night air skipping across my tongue.  Hints of dust and sweat and dry vegetation.  And we all fixed our eyes on the pot of sauce, together, anxious to see what round two would bring.

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