From the Series: Decameron Relived
Piri was feeling sad and lonely. He was tired of always eating the same thing, and longed for the time before the hiders abandoned their fields and scattered into the bush. He also missed the songs they used to sing, before they became hiders, and the games the young ones used to play, when they lived in villages and still traveled by road. Sometimes, he felt a little frightened. Most of the time, he was just bored out of his mind.
Piri had flown up and down the country as an explorer of sorts, looking for tasty treats and trying to pass the time as he waited for things to come back to normal. Even the trees had stopped bearing fruit. Widows’ tears had corroded their roots. And the ants had burrowed so deep into the ground that he couldn’t even recall what they tasted like. Often all he could find to try appease his hunger were chilies. The ones that grow in this part of the world are off the Scoville scale, but all Piri could taste was their sweet sun-ripened flesh.
One morning, flying over Inhamarga, a deserted communal village that once straddled the main road, Piri defecated.
The seasons passed, but time seemed to stand still. The hiders were getting skinnier and skinnier; stinkier and stinkier. There also seemed to be fewer and fewer of them.
Then, after the rains one year, there was an announcement on the radio: the two enemies had signed a peace accord. No one knew for sure what that actually meant, but, little by little, some timidly came out of their hiding places, squinting and scarred. After all they had gone through, they weren’t too sanguine about the future.
When Piri flew over Inhamarga again, he spotted something different. Someone had built a house. And right behind this house stood a lush chili bush.
Rachida and her husband had decided to open a small shop in Inhamarga, right by the side of the road. People were coming back with demobilization money and the couple saw an opportunity. It was potentially perilous to venture out so soon, but with so little left to lose, they decided it was worth the risk. They had lost their five children, their future walking sticks snatched away, just like that. By the end of the war, Rachida had cried all the tears that a body produces in a lifetime.
Rachida got up at dawn one morning to clear the overgrowth behind the shop. She had long stopped sleeping during the night. Only in the early afternoons, when it was too hot for anything of consequence to ever happen, would she sometimes give in to exhaustion. The work was demanding but also pleasantly rewarding. Shrubs had grown dense and tall—almost as tall as Rachida, who, machete in hand, plowed through the thick growth, as small beads of sweat formed on her temples and between her wilting breasts. The sun was only beginning to rise, drawing the silhouette of the palm trees around her, when she noticed the chili bush.
Rachida’s eyes started burning. The chili bush reminded her of her mother who used to love spicy food. The saying was that only drunkards liked chilies, but Rachida couldn’t quite recall why that was. She thought it was nonsense anyway. The bush had thousands of tiny bright red and green chilies pointing proudly towards the sky. Beacons of hope in a desolate land.
Rachida couldn’t quite remember her mother’s hot sauce recipe. The war had played tricks on her memory, embellishing some parts of the past while clouding others over completely. She could still hear her mother cooking. The rapid rasping of the coconut grater and the rhythmic thud of the mortar pounding ground nuts and cassava leaves. The war had forced women to cook quietly. She knew she would need lemon juice, a bit of oil, a few pinches of sea salt, and a lot of sun.
Nestled in a majestic mafureira, Piri looked over Rachida as she tweaked the proportions until the mixture was just right. Mesmerized, he fluffed his feathers. For the first time in sixteen years, Piri felt comfortable. He decided to stay in Inhamarga for a while longer.
Rachida then carefully poured the sauce into empty gin bottles which she left in the sun for a week or so. The sauce would help her swallow her food, especially on days when there was only plain rice to eat. Business was slow, but it was better than just sitting at home thinking. Rachida kept busy to stop thinking. Her husband relied on gin for that.
A man with matted hair and glassy eyes came by the store to purchase three cups of cowpeas. His shirt was so worn that it was almost only symbolic.
“How much for the hot sauce?” he asked, in dialect. The bottles were neatly lined up on top of the concrete wall that fenced-off the backyard, hiding in the light.
“It’s only for o consumo de casa,” responded Rachida, in Portuguese. But the man insisted. He had a bag of coins that was burning a hole in his pocket.
Piri looked on, captivated by all the commotion. Feeling a little less lonely every day.
Rachida would pick a chili in the morning and by nightfall, there were already three new chilies in its place. She made a new batch of sauce. And then she made another one. Today, dona Rachida is a household name across the country. You can even buy her sauce at Shoprite.
At first, clients like the man with the matted hair and the glassy eyes would furtively appear to purchase foodstuff, small portions of this or that, before scrambling back to their dens. Rachida’s customers had grown numb after all this time in hiding. And now her hot sauce was rousing them out of their stupor, making them feel again.
The road, which ran right through the middle of the village, was starting to reawaken, even if only very tentatively at first. It was still a treacherous place, more pothole than tarmac, lined with carcasses of ransacked vehicles. Motorists often simply drove on the soft shoulder, at least in places where the brush hadn’t fully encroached it. There was a rumor that many years after the end of the war, a car was blown up by a landmine hidden in a pothole right in the middle of the road. It used to take almost an entire day to drive the 250 miles from Inhamarga to the capital.
Before long, the hiders, who were no longer hiding, started clearing fields in which they planted cassava, maize, and groundnuts. Some even started growing tomatoes and garlic. The land was generous after having been left fallow for so long. They also built small houses to sleep in, like in normal times, and carefully swept the paths that were safe to borrow. New neighbors to sell things to; new neighbors to drink with.
Inspired by Rachida’s success, some resolved to produce their own chili sauce. Peace had made hunger even more difficult to swallow. Rachida may have omitted one or two ingredients when she gave them the recipe, but only the most discerning chili heads would ever notice. It was impossible to resist the bright red bottles glistening in the sun. Anyone passing through would stop, whether they liked it hot or not, to buy something.
The last time Piri flew over Inhamarga, there were twelve or thirteen chili sauce producers selling their wares by the side of the road—more per capita than anywhere else in the world. The people of Inhamarga were able to purchase cloth and soap, and to properly bury their dead. After surviving the war, they could start living and loving again.
Perched high on a branch, Piri started singing again.
There really is a dona Rachida who makes chili sauce in a road-side village in southern Mozambique. I’ve passed through this village countless times over the years, always stopping to purchase a couple of bottles of chili sauce, while fantasizing about the chili fields stretching behind the houses lining the road. I decided one summer, building on my anthropological interest in human-plant relations, while also indulging my love of chilies, to undertake ethnographic research on chili farming in the area, only to have my romantic image of the place completely shattered. Not only were most of the chilies used in the thriving local chili sauce production imported from elsewhere, but none of the residents I met cared much for chilies—my host family even expressed concern about my own chili consumption. No one cared for chilies except dona Rachida, who told me the story of how her and her husband had moved to the area shortly after the end of the war—a story that I’ve fictionalized to think about serendipitous multispecies entanglements and to situate the losses and disrupted rhythms of the current pandemic in relation to those of other uncertain times.