Bad Sauce, Good Ethnography

Essay Excerpt

In 1984 Paul Stoller, an anthropologist, and Cheryl Olkes, a sociologist, travelled to Niger to conduct a study on the medicinal properties of plants used in Songhay ethnomedicine. Since both Stoller and Olkes were seasoned fieldworkers among the Songhay, they had experienced the pleasures of Songhay hospitality. And so when they came to the compound of Adamu Jenitongo, in Tillaberi, they were not surprised when Moussa, one of Adamu Jenitongo's sons, insisted that they stay in his mudbrickh ouse. They were not surprisedw hen AdamuJ enitongo, an old healer whom Stoller had known for 15 years, gave them his best straw mattresses. "You will sleep well on these," he told them. They were not surprised when the old healer told Djebo, the wife of his youngest son, Moru, to prepare fine sauces for them.

Stoller and Olkes had come to Tillaberi to discuss the medicinal properties of plants with Adamu Jenitongo, perhaps the most knowledgeable healer in all of western Niger. They planned to stay in Tillaberi for two weeks and then move on to Mehanna and Wanzerbe, two villages in which Stoller had won the confidence of healers. During the two weeks in Tillaberi, Stoller and Olkes ate a variety of foods and sauces. Some days they ate rice with black sauce (hoy bi) for lunch and rice with a tomato based sauce flavored with red pepper and sorrel for dinner. Some days they ate rice cooked in a tomato sauce (suruundu) for lunch and millet paste with peanut sauce for dinner. All of these sauces contained meat, a rare ingredient in most Songhay meals. When Songhay entertain Europeans-Stoller and Olkes for example-the staples of the diet don't change, but the quality of the sauces do. Europeans are guests in Songhay compounds; people do not pre-pare tasteless sauces for them!

People in the neighborhood had the same perception: "They have come to visit Adamu Jenitongo again. There will be good food in the compound." In good times a host spares no expense. In bad times Stoller and Olkes quietly slip Adamu Jenitongo money so he can fulfill his ideal behavior.

The arrival of Stoller and Olkes in Tillaberi that year, in fact, was a bright beacon that attracted swarms of the "uninvited" in search of savory sauces. At lunch and dinner time visitors would arrive and linger, knowing full well that the head of a Songhay household is obliged to feed people who happen to show up at meal times. (Stoller and Olkes, 336-337)

About the Author

Paul Stoller has been conducting anthropological research for 30 years. His early work concerned the religion of the Songhay people who live in the Republics of Niger and Mali in West Africa. In that work, he focused primarily on magic, sorcery and spirit possession practices. Since 1992, Stoller has pursued studies of West African immigrants in New York City. Those studies have concerned such topics as the cultural dynamics of informal market economies and the politics of immigration. The results of this ongoing research has led Stoller to the study of the anthropology of religion, visual anthropology, the anthropology of senses and economic anthropology. Stoller's work has resulted in the publication of 11 books, including ethnographies, biographies, memoirs as well as two novels. His work is widely read and recognized. In 1994 he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2002, the American Anthropological Association named him the recipient of the Robert B Textor Award for Excellence in Anthropology. He lectures frequently both in the United States and Europe and has appeared on various NPR programs as well as on the National Geographic Television Network.

Cheryl Olkes is head of the African Arts Collection at Chatham College.

"This magnificent collection was bequeathed to Chatham college by Dr. Cheryl Olkes, class of 1970, upon her death in 1998. Numbering more than 600 works of African art, Dr. Olkes intended the collection to be used for study and exhibition. She hoped that Chatham students would come to a better understanding of African culture by examining, researching, and writing about these tangible "points of contact" between ourselves and the work's creators.

Cheryl Olkes was a Chatham success story. She graduated from the college in 1970 with a B.A. in English and immediately entered Ohio State University, where she received an M.A. in Journalism in 1971. She then entered the University of Texas, Austin, where she received a Ph.D. in Communications in 1978. Her dissertation addressed the potential uses of mass media in the Republic of Niger.

In the 1980s Dr. Olkes lived in Africa among the Songhay people of Niger. Her experiences are recounted in a book she wrote with her husband, anthropologist Paul Stoller, titled In Sorcery's Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship Among the Songhay of Niger, 1989. The book is still used today as a college textbook.

Dr. Olkes collected African art during her many visits to the continent. She later owned and directed the gallery Harmattan African Arts in Washington D.C. and was an active supporter of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art."

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