We’ve had a lot of visitors lately, new to Benin and/or to Africa, who are afraid of food poisoning. I’m going to be really honest here: if you leave Cotonou, have any middle class Beninese friends, eat street food, or do anything but eat at ritzy expat restaurants and prepare your own (vegetarian) food, you’re gonna get food poisoning eventually.
Fish goes bad. Chicken sits out. Beef sits in the hot sun at a market all day. Someone forgets to wash their hands. Flies are everywhere during cooking. A couple of examples:
The family hosting the wedding you’re attending killed the goats three days ago, rented space in a public freezer for the meat, and the power went out. The meat started to spoil, but the freezer owner refused to reimburse the money. Hundreds of dollars have been potentially wested. Instead of throwing the meet away, the family spends a few hours rinsing the meat in vinegar and lemon juice to reduce the smell, then cooks and servers it anyway.
Your host family fries fish and then leaves it out unrefrigerated for several days. In the evenings, they just reheat that night’s portions in whatever sauce is being served.
The power goes out at your favorite shwarma joint between midnight and 7am. Because they close at 11 and open at 8, the outage goes unnoticed, although any refrigerated meat has certainly suffered. Imagine that this happens several times during the week, and suddenly Falafal sounds like a safer bet than that delicious smelling schwarma viande.
You go to a party where a friend is grilling delicious salted goat. It’s mouth watering, and instead of waiting like a smart yovo, you take one of the first slices off the grill, instead of holding off until everything’s throughly cooked. Oops. You’re the only one who got sick, and it was your own dumb fault.
It happens. It’s normal. And it’s usually nothing to worry about, especially since you’re a rich Westerner with access to medicine (Cipro and Pepto Bismal, you are my best friends), you know how to whip up quick oral rehydration salts using ingredients easy to find in the market (water + salt + sugar + lemon), and, in the worst case scenario, you can take Immodium and get the work you need to get done before taking a day or two off to recover.
The point is, almost all of my friends here are Beninese. And my Beninese friends love to party. And my sensitive Western stomach gets upset at their parties all the time. And there are many many many times when I look at a plate and I know that I’m going to regret it later.
And I eat it anyway.*
Because a bout or two of mild food poisoning is nothing compared to the good times I’ve had eating with my friends and family, and all the good will and good memories generated by sharing a plate in good company.
The moral of the story is, be smart, but don’t be afraid of mild food poisoning. It’s unavoidable, so you might as well embrace it. Don’t give up on an opportunity to have a amazing time because you might get sick afterwards.**
* Not recommended for the pregnant, immune-compromised, or the faint of heart. I know some MPH is going to read this and FREAK OUT but seriously, don’t be afraid of food poisoning. It happens to everyone eventually.
** Next post: coping techniques for those times when you really really don’t want to get sick afterwards. ;)