My Experiences with Meat in Africa

At the Franklin County Extension annual meeting last Friday the keynote speaker was Dr. Chris Raines. According to his website: Chris is the Extension Meats Specialist and is an Assistant Professor at Penn State University in the Department of Dairy & Animal Science. He researches factors that affect meat quality, and helps meat processors, large and small, national and local, with the quality and safety of the food they produce.

Chris’ talk was an eye opening exploration on the importance of the meat-processing industry and the challenges that meat processors face, while dealing with an organized, vocal opposition who wants them shut down at all costs. I highly recommend his blog: As one who works in a discipline, forestry, that is also much criticized (but not as vociferously) and misunderstood, I could really sympathize with his point of view.
The program inspired me to think back on the experience of my wife, Sheri, and I, when we were Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) from 1979 to 1981, and when we lived in Burkina Faso and Senegal from 1981 to 1987, working on forestry projects in international development.  In the Sahel region of Africa the diet is heavy on starches like rice and millet. Yet, meat is critical to the diet and vegetables are not readily available for much of the year. Here are a few vignettes.
In the village of Beregadougou
We spent the first part of our Peace Corps experience in this village in southwest Burkina. As in most villages, the market came to the village twice a week. Cattle for market day were slaughtered in the morning. According to custom and Islamic dietary rules, slaughter is by slitting the throat so the animal can bleed out.

With no refrigeration everything had to be sold the same day! At the meat stall we told the butcher how much meat we wanted. He would hack off pieces to weigh. The meat would be wrapped in brown paper to go in our market basket. Since most people cooked their meat in stews, no one was concerned about the cuts. The butcher would smash the bones to expose the marrow for cooking. Being picky Americans, we would take out all the bones!

Upon the recommendation of Peace Corps, most volunteers brought meat grinders with them to turn the often tough beef into hamburger. We bought chickens live. I well remember slaughtering, cleaning, and plucking our Christmas chicken.
We lived in Burkina’s second largest city, Bobo Dioulasso, when I taught at the National Forestry School in Dinderesso. A hugely popular food option was the porc-au-four, prepared in small restaurants all over town. Each day a pig would be roasted in a brick oven. By noon time it would be ready. There was nothing better than bite-sized chunks of pork seasoned with salt and hot peppers, with onions and french bread. All this was chased with the local Bravolta beer. Even Muslims were known to send their Christian relatives to buy a meal!
Raising Hogs
At one point I got the idea of raising hogs in the yard behind our house. One of my colleagues, a young Burkinabe forester, told me how his grandmother earned her living doing it. I bought a piglet form her and was soon on my way. We built a mud-brick, walled pen behind the house. The pigs ate millet-beer (dolo) mash that was left over after brewing. We also got the hulls from a neighborhood miller who ground corn and millet for local families.
At the height of the project we had four or so animals. One of the sows gave birth and we raised the piglets. They were loud, but fun to watch! Fortunately we had helpers for all the work and construction. 
When it came time to slaughter the pigs I took them to the local slaughterhouse, which had recently been rebuilt with the help of Dutch technicians. They even had a veterinarian on staff to inspect the carcasses.
We had one of the hogs roasted at a porc-au-four and  threw a big party. Everyone enjoyed the feast.
They say that with hogs you use everything but the squeak. We cured hams. I learned that the boars’ meat was very strong and it is possible to over-salt the meat. We used all the scraps to make head cheese or scrapple. Even the ears went into the mix. It made a very tasty dish.
The French Style Butcher
At one point in Bobo a local entrepreneur opened a butcher in town. All of us expatriates were thrilled to have a cleaner place to buy meat, especially if it was guaranteed clean and fresh. The butcher had been trained in France. He knew how to prepare all the cuts. We really enjoyed the roasts tied with string. He even experimented making hamburger American style. His sausage was also excellent.
The French love rabbit, which they display in the meat case with the heads and feet attached.  It took some time to get used to seeing the furry heads and feet, and skinless bodies laid out!
Buying meat in Africa, we learned to watch for freshness. In the tropics meat turns green and goes bad after a day. We learned to like our meat well done! To be honest, the meat counter at American stores seemed much too tame when we got home!
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