Blue: A Special Gift

Group at well GOODI continued to go on trek, sometimes with Sainabou or another auxiliary nurse, sometimes alone. An orderly/driver took me from the Basse Health Center to a distant village where a family lived whose child had been hospitalized. I wanted to call on the family to see how the child was doing and perhaps offer nutrition counseling.

As was so often the case, several people crowded around the Land Rover as we arrived, all talking and laughing and extending their hands to greet us. A man, a leper with badly deformed hands and feet, greeted me. He extended his stub of a hand and I felt no choice but to shake it, quickly realizing, at least hoping, that he was no longer contagious. As I grasped his hand, I saw in his eyes a warmth toward me, a look that I’ll always remember.

A man standing near us left and returned, carrying a live chicken and gave it to me. “Abaraka.” Thank you, he said quietly. I wondered if this man was the leper’s relative, perhaps his brother.

Binta had shown me how to carry a chicken in the crook of my arm and I did so now as I made my follow-up call. No one blinks an eye when someone carries a live chicken, not even the chicken. I named her Blue, for her unique color. She would be a welcomed addition to our flock, adding to our daily egg collection.

We’d heard the expression “pecking order” without realizing its full significance. Mosalif had bought our first four birds all at the same time, so if there was any adjustment, it wasn’t obvious. But when I arrived home from trek and could finally set Blue down, I couldn’t believe the ruckus. The other chickens flew at her, pecking at the poor thing. She defended herself as best she could. Feathers flew, the noise was unbelievable. By nighttime they seemed to have it all sorted out and Blue filed in with the rest of them, at the end of the line. The next morning it was as though she’d lived there all her life.

 

From Eggs to the Pot

Chickens JonPicture courtesy of Jon Stevens, Growing Gardens for Life

 

It seemed much of our time and effort at home went into food. The chickens created some work. Using a flashlight at night, when the chickens were subdued and didn’t seem to mind being turned upside down, we examined their cloacae. If it appeared dry and unyielding, the hen was likely past producing eggs. She would soon be in the stew pot.

Bruce tried several slaughtering methods, none worked very satisfactorily. Cutting off their heads left a chicken running around, getting sand in the carcass. Bruce heard that if you held a chicken by its head, gave it a quick jerk, the neck would break, thereby killing the bird, but keeping the body intact, avoiding the macabre running around. I watched as he tried it, watched the chicken again run across the compound without a head. This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Bruce opened his hand and looked at the head with a startled little face looking up at him.

Bruce finally found a good way to slaughter a bird. He held the chicken, gently stroking her neck, speaking softly and once the hen was lulled, he would quickly slice the neck. It made us sad each and every time, but if the chicken was through giving us eggs, we needed to slaughter her. We couldn’t afford to do otherwise.

Preparing a chicken for cooking is a chore: Gutting, de-feathering, and cutting up the bird, all without the benefit of running water was a sticky messy event, then making the stew. We found local chickens too tough for frying or barbecuing.

A hen will lay an egg without a rooster’s input, so to speak. In order to have chicks, of course, a male has to fertilize an egg. Chickens ovulate every day, but a rooster’s sperm lasts several days so that eggs are fertilized as they are formed. Mating can take place every seven to ten days in order to maintain fertilized eggs.

We had one rooster, George, a gift to me while on trek. George took his role very seriously. Every afternoon when we opened the chickens’ gate to let them forage, George crowded ahead, knocking the hens aside. He then stood at the exit, blocking the way, and nailed each hen as she tried to emerge. It was a noisy business with indignant clucking and lots of flying feathers.

Our other big food effort was growing vegetables. We had fair success with gardening, but that also required a lot of work and constant watering, which meant hand-hauling buckets of water from the well. Sometimes we borrowed a wheelbarrow from the UN shop and collected sheep, donkey and cattle droppings to add to our sandy garden soil.

It all took time and energy.

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Egg: The Perfect Protein

Chicken CookingFrom: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

 

We needed chickens to supplement our protein. I had seen live chickens for sale at the market, but when I talked to Binta, the woman in our compound, I learned these chickens were past laying eggs and sold for meat. She apparently told her husband Mosalif that we wanted chickens.

The next morning when Mosalif came to our door to greet us, he asked if we wanted him to buy chickens. Work that day would take him into the bush and he could buy young hens for us. I asked how much money he needed and gave him money enough to buy four.

Unfortunately, Bruce needed to meet with the UN project lead in Yundum and would be gone for two days. But knowing that we would be getting chickens, he had fixed up the other outside passageway of our hut as a chicken coop. Africans didn’t coop up their chickens since they didn’t eat eggs and had no need to gather them. Besides, they reasoned, why eat an egg when, left alone, it would grow into a whole chicken. Binta’s chickens roosted wherever they found a safe place, often in one of the empty compound huts or on a tree branch. Since we didn’t care to have an egg hunt every day, we needed to confine our chickens for at least the night and part of the day.

Bruce cobbled together a gate to keep them in. We found straw for them to make their nests. To begin with, we could feed them rice that had already turned buggy. While downriver Bruce planned to buy real chicken food, a by-product from peanuts. We began grinding up egg shells to mix with their food so that the extra calcium would ensure stronger shells.

At the end of the day, Mosalif stopped by with four young chickens, two of which he said would give us eggs right away, the other two would produce soon. I was thrilled.
Only having had dogs and cats, I worried that the chickens would run off, maybe join Binta’s brood. To make sure they knew where they lived, I tied strings to one leg of each of the four chickens, long enough for them to get to a nest, drink water and eat rice. My intention was to only do this for one day, until they were used to their surroundings.

On that first day Mosalif came over in the early evening to see how I was doing with the chickens. When he saw the strings, he knelt down to get a closer look. Mosalif was Fula and since I didn’t know that language, he and I conversed only in Mandinka. “A mong beteata.” This is not good, he said, watching the chickens trying to walk around, lifting the tied leg high, giving them a strange gate.

“I am afraid they’ll run away.”

He looked somber, but in thinking about it afterwards, I’m sure it was all he could do to keep a straight face. “You have fed them, Mariama. They won’t run away.” He carefully removed the strings. “When it is dark, they will come back to this place. Then you close the gate.”

Well, I wasn’t at all sure about that, but I’d give it a try. Sure enough, at dusk they all filed into the chicken coop as though they’d done it all their lives. I closed the gate behind them.

During our stay in The Gambia, we derived great pleasure, entertainment and nourishment from our chickens. We were the only volunteers in-country with chickens and I marveled at that. Once a week we enjoyed an egg dinner, usually an omelette, and eggs for breakfast once or twice a week, plus I used eggs in puddings and other desserts. I found I could make a double boiler by inserting my covered enamel bowl into my large pot filled with water and prepare a very good cheese souffle or a delicious bread pudding, both dishes using four eggs.

Even though there were plenty of nests, two or three chickens often crammed into one nest, African style, like people on bus seats. Our flock grew, some we bought, many were given to us. At the most we had seventeen chickens.

We named our chickens, names that seemed to fit their little personalities: Ruth Schultz, Blue, Kunta Kinte, Myrtle and Penny, who was the color of a copper penny, and two that we called Sisters because we got them at the same time and couldn’t tell them apart.