How to Make Tchoukoutou

PAGOUDA, TOGO

DECEMBER 1980

Turn on the shortwave radio. Listen. John Lennon has been shot, the BBC World Service says, outside The Dakota in New York City. Listen again. Yes, John Lennon has been shot and killed.

No one in your village knows who John Lennon is. No one in your village knows who The Beatles are or, really, where New York City is.

Feel a long way from home.

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You will have a lot of free time, the Peace Corps says, so it is good to have a hobby, like playing the guitar, learning the local language or raising chickens.

Choose a goat instead. Hey, how hard can a goat be?

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After spending most of the morning trying to teach your students the subtle yet significant difference between the present perfect tense and the present perfect continuous, jump on your Mobylette and ride to Ketao, where there is a market every Wednesday.

The market in Ketao is known as a tchoukoutou market, because the market is mostly tchoukoutou stalls, wonderfully snug spaces, some covered with thatch and some with corrugated iron, where you spend most of the afternoon sitting on a plank, drinking millet beer from a calabash.

Do this every Wednesday afternoon for two years.

When the drinkers in your stall finally drink that big clay pot dry, it is time to buy a goat. Choose a buff-coloured goat, barely weaned from its mother. Haggle, but not too much.

Tie its back legs together with some twine. Then tie its front legs together. Sit on your Mobylette and gently place the goat on your lap, with its back legs between your thighs and its front legs resting on the handlebars, like a Hindu praying.

About halfway to Pagouda, wonder what that warm stuff seeping through your shorts and dribbling down your legs is. Keep your eyes on that dicey dirt road a couple of kilometres later when something else starts to seep through your shorts and dribble down your legs.

Watch your neighbours wet themselves as they watch you pull up in front of your house with a goat between your legs.

Tell them its name is Bob.

JANUARY 1981

Bob is not well today, hanging out on the front porch, coughing. Possibly a cold. Feed Bob millet, even though millet is expensive and not normally fed to goats.

Do not let the neighbours see.

FEBRUARY 1981

Teach your youngest class the colours today.

Take fruit with you, like bananas, mangoes and oranges. Hold the fruit up and ask, what colour is this? Wonder why, when you do that with the banana, they all scream YELLOW and fall on the floor, laughing. Wonder why bananas are funnier than other fruit.

When told the headmaster would like to see you, go to his office and knock on the door. Apologise for the noise today, explaining you were teaching your class the colours and, for some strange reason, they really like yellow.

Learn a new word in the local language when the headmaster tells you yellow means fuck.

APRIL 1981

It is deliciously cool this morning, so put on that University of Wisconsin sweatshirt you have not worn for a while. But before you put it on, give it a good shake. When a lizard plops onto the concrete floor of your bedroom, give it another shake. Watch an even fatter lizard tumble out.

Remember that day a couple of months ago when you woke up late, dressed quickly and ran across the road to the school. While teaching class, you felt a strange spasm in your groin. And then you felt it again. And then again. When you got home and stepped out of your jeans, you found a lizard inside, all but dead. You put it on the windowsill, where it stayed for some time, breathing deeply.

MAY 1981

Bob is obviously pregnant.

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Buy a rope and tie Bob up, just outside the kitchen door where there is some shade.

The millet is sprouting and goats must be tied up to stop them eating the shoots. Listen to the teachers at school who tell you goats not tied up will be shot. Watch the soldiers shoot two goats just down the road from your house, tossing the bodies into the back of their truck, no doubt for dinner.

Wonder why, then, La Grosse, your neighbour, who is usually so nice and easily twice your size, is yelling at you and setting Bob free. Tell her daughter, in French, what the teachers told you. Tell her about the soldiers. Tell her you do not want Bob shot. Tell her you do not want the soldiers to eat Bob.

Try to listen patiently as La Grosse’s daughter slowly explains that you do not tie up pregnant goats, that everyone can see Bob is pregnant, including the soldiers, who will not shoot or eat Bob.

Suffer Bob’s cold looks for a couple of days, with even colder looks for that rope. Bob lies on the front porch like some sort of watchdog, calmly gestating, chewing her cud and coughing up the occasional mango pit.

JUNE 1981

Go house hunting. Or, actually, mud hut hunting.

Decide you and Bob do not want and definitely do not need that big colonial-style house, with its big living room and its two big bedrooms, its kitchen and its bathroom, its shower and its toilet, its electricity and its running water – though both of you will miss the front porch.

Decide you do not want to live across the road from the school, with students knocking on the door all day long. Pesky students who tell you teachers usually sleep inside houses, not on the roof, and goats are usually kept outside, not inside houses. Telling you goats do not have names, like Bob.

Tell your fellow teachers, who all live in mud huts and who hate you for that big colonial-style house across the road from the school, that you are moving to a mud hut in Kawa, which is not so much a village as a hut here and a hut there in a green valley between two mountain ranges. Where no one even speaks French.

Tell them you are doing it for Bob. And, of course, for Bob’s baby.

KAWA, TOGO

JULY 1981

Write a letter to your brother in Wisconsin.

Tell him you now shit in a thatched outhouse the size of a telephone booth, often surprising rats there who, confused, drop down the hole. Tell him you now shower outdoors in the sunshine, scooping seriously cold water from a big clay pot with a calabash, water brought every morning from the village well by your house girl, Makalawe.

Tell him Kawa is about twenty minutes by Mobylette from Pagouda and, when you come home on Friday afternoons, there is a small market selling tomatoes and onions under the baobab tree beside your hut. Tell him it is, of course, a tchoukoutou market, but you can also eat dog meat there, roasted over a wood fire and dusted with red chilli pepper. Tell him dog meat tastes quite nice, sort of like beef but a bit stronger.

Tell your brother your mud hut is lousy with scorpions. Tell him you stepped on your first scorpion the other night and, having watched far too many Hollywood movies, thought you were going to die. So you jumped on your Mobylette and rode like mad to the hospital in Pagouda.

You were lucky. A nurse you play basketball with was there. Tell him how he filled a humongous syringe with something and plunged it into your foot, blowing it up like a balloon. Wow, you said. What was that? I feel no pain. Morphia, the nurse said. Morphia? you said. You mean morphine? You just pumped a pint of morphine into me?

Tell your brother someone could have hammered nails through that foot a week later and you still would not have felt a thing. Tell your brother you keep something in your hut called the scorpion medicine and, whenever you step on a scorpion now, Makalawe fetches the scorpion medicine and pours you shots until the pain stops.

Or until you just no longer care.

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Wonder what is wrong when you pull up on the Mobylette and are met by an unusually worried Makalawe. It is Bob, she says. There is a problem with the birth. Turn the Mobylette around, telling her you will bring La Grosse.

La Grosse knows goats, but also keeps some guinea fowl and a passel of pigs. And she makes the best tchoukoutou in Pagouda. Tell her daughter, in French, about Bob. Tell her her mother must come to Kawa to help Bob. But La Grosse has never been on a Mobylette and does not want to go. It is Bob, her daughter says. It is Bob. Watch the back tyre as La Grosse finally agrees to go, wrapping her arms around you like she does her pigs when she castrates them.

Wonder what that crowd around your hut means, but relax when Makalawe appears, smiling. It is okay, she says. Bob is okay. Laugh as the baby bounces around the baobab tree, while Bob lies there, with those Buster Keaton eyes, chewing her cud.

Listen to the old man, telling you, in this village, the birth of a baby goat is celebrated with food and drink. Hear the whole village agree. Yes, much food and much drink. Tell Makalawe you need food and drink for everyone in the village, that you will pay. Be surprised when food and drink appear so quickly from huts all around the village, including guinea fowl and rice, gumbo soup and foofoo. And, of course, a number of rather large pots of tchoukoutou.

Laugh when the old man tells you, a couple of hours later, there is no such tradition.

Decide to name the baby The Beaver.

goats two

AUGUST 1981

Do not shop at the market in Pagouda, a miserable tomato and onion market and most certainly not a tchoukoutou market. But when the Fulani pass through town with their long-horned, hump-backed cattle, go to the market early to buy a wonderful hard cheese called wagashi from the women and some pretty tough beef from the men.

While everyone haggles over the head, ask for some of the sirloin at the neglected end of the bony beast. Take the beef home wrapped in teak leaves. Cut the beef into chunks and, together with some onions and some peppers, crank it through the meat grinder a departed volunteer left you. Toss the scraps out the window and store the mince in your kerosene refrigerator, alongside all that nice cold beer.

When Makalawe asks you not to toss the scraps out the window, ask why. Is it the dogs? Those dogs fighting over the scraps? Swallow hard when she says, no, it is not the dogs. It is her family. She wants the scraps for her family. They will put them in a soup for the foofoo.

When cutting beef into chunks, trim generously.

SEPTEMBER 1981

Learn to wear flip-flops around your scorpion-infested hut, but sometimes forget. Ask Makalawe to fetch the scorpion medicine, which she now mixes, like a proper bartender, with Coca-Cola to make it taste a bit better and last a little longer. Whenever you get stung, word seems to spread quickly through the village, with neighbours dropping by to wish you ‘du courage’, sitting with you until the pain passes.

OCTOBER 1981

Kill three scorpions on a single Sunday afternoon. Amuse your friends back home by stuffing their desiccated carcasses into letters.

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Run to the outhouse every half hour.

Realise you have something inside you that is more powerful than you are, something that gets stronger and stronger while you only get weaker. Realise you are not eating and drinking for just one now, but for hundreds, perhaps thousands.

When the doctor asks whether you have been stupid, whether you have been eating undercooked dog meat at Kawa market, say, well, maybe just a little. Wince when the doctor tells you your gut is packed with parasites, lots and lots of very nasty parasites, including worms, the sort of worms found in farm animals back home. And those worms have laid eggs.

Feel like a bad dog. Swallow eight pills a day until all those nasty parasites are dead.

DECEMBER 1981

Bob is poorly.

Hear Bob cry like you have not heard Bob cry before when you help the vet take Bob’s temperature, anally. Bob gets preferential treatment these days, including house calls, since the vet, his wife and their four adorable children now live in that big colonial-style house across the road from the school. The house has also become the local veterinary clinic. Hold Bob while the vet gives her a shot, hoping it will bring Bob’s appetite back.

JANUARY 1982

Kill three scorpions in less than fifteen minutes.

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Using felt-tip pens, draw a backgammon board on your wooden table. Buy some dice at the market in Ketao. Collect fifteen Coca-Cola bottle tops and fifteen Bière Benin bottle tops.

Ask Makalawe if she would like to learn a new game. Warn her you are very good at this game, that you played it every day when you were at university. Be delighted when she says yes.

Tell her she will be Coca-Cola and you will be Bière Benin. Following a brief explanation of the rules, lose the first game to Makalawe. Lose the second game to Makalawe. Tell her you need to mark exercise books now.

Blame Makalawe for inventing topless backgammon.

FEBRUARY 1982

Bob is obviously pregnant again, her sides bulging like saddlebags. Hope she is right when Makalawe says it will be twins this time.

goats one

YOU ARE NOW READY TO MAKE TCHOUKOUTOU

It takes a full week to make a pot of tchoukoutou, Makalawe says. If you begin on a Tuesday, for example, you drink the following Tuesday.

Pay attention. Write this stuff down.

FIRST DAY

Pour the millet into a plastic wash-basin. Cover it with water to soak overnight.

SECOND DAY

That morning, strain the millet through a basket. Put the millet back into the basin and cover it with plastic.

That evening, rinse the millet with water and, once again, strain it through a basket.

Carpet the floor with teak leaves. Dump the millet onto the leaves and cover it with more teak leaves.

It should be sprouting quite nicely already. Let it be for four days.

SIXTH DAY

The millet has now become a big hairy bunch of sprouts. Take the millet to the local miller, who will grind the sprouts into a warm powder.

Pour the powder into a big pot of water. The rule of thumb, Makalawe says, is two buckets of water for every market-bowl of millet. Give it a stir, then let it be for an hour.

After a couple of games of backgammon, scoop out a basin-full of the stuff on top and set it aside. This is called the ay-chow. Without it, the millet will not ferment. If you are making a lot, set more ay-chow aside. If you are only making a little, a basin-full will do.

Now it is time to cook.

Build a fire under the pot and, using a palm frond, give it an occasional stir. As it begins to boil, stir more often. But when it boils properly, pretty much let it be. After about an hour, let the fire burn out.

Let it cool a while, then pour the ay-chow back into the pot. Give it a stir with the palm frond. When that settles, scoop the stuff on top into another big pot and, when you reach the bottom, strain the dregs through your basket. When the second pot settles, repeat the process, pouring it back into the first pot.

It should taste a bit like boiled wood now.

SEVENTH DAY

Build a fire under the pot once again but, this time, no stirring. Let it boil for about an hour, then let the fire burn out and wait until dusk.

That evening, scoop out the stuff on top and filter the dregs on the bottom. But this time, do not use the basket. Use something finer, like a sieve. Filter the stuff on the bottom three or four times. And filter the rest, too. You cannot filter too much now.

Feed the dregs to Bob and The Beaver, who gobble it up.

You are now ready for final fermentation.

Make sure the pot you use for final fermentation is not a new pot or it will not ferment properly. The older the pot, Makalawe says, the better the tchoukoutou.

Pour most of it into the pot and cover it with a basket, so some air gets through. But keep some back, in case it gets too strong too soon. The stuff you keep back will not ferment as fast and, if need be, you can water the tchoukoutou down with this tomorrow.

EIGHTH DAY

Take a sip.

If it is well on its way, already quite strong, you can add some of the stuff you kept back the night before. It should be ready to drink by noon.

Invite your deeply dubious neighbours round.

Not bad, they say, for a white boy. Bubbly, a neighbour says, with just a hint of pepper. Tangy, another neighbour says, with a trace of the fruit of the baobab tree. Definitely earthy, a third neighbour says, with more than a whiff of Bob.

JUNE 1982

Pack your bag.

Give the goats, including The Twins, to Makalawe. Give the meat grinder to another grateful volunteer. Let the Peace Corps come and collect your battered Mobylette, if they really want it back.

When told La Grosse would like to see you, stop by her house after teaching your last class. Be gobsmacked when she gives you a gift to take home, her oldest tchoukoutou pot, the pot you have drunk from every Thursday afternoon for two years.

Almost cry.

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Check your bag, but take the pot on the plane as hand luggage.

Upset some passengers when you change planes in New York City, putting the pot in the overhead locker, beside their clean bags and their clean coats.

To get to Madison, where your brother and his family are waiting, change planes again in Minneapolis. Drink a couple of beers at the airport bar. Then drink a couple more.

Go for a wee, leaving the pot on the floor beside your barstool. When you come back, see that someone has dropped a cigarette butt into the pot, apparently thinking it some ugly old ashcan.

Welcome home, the butt says.

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