Well, I finally did it. I knew it was the cardinal rule, but I got comfortable and I got lazy.
See, I’ve found a way to make to more palatable. There is a tiny red pepper that they grow locally. They dry it in the sun, and grind it into a powder. It burns pretty fierce, which is exactly why it is perfect for eating with to. If all I can taste is the burn of little red peppers, I certainly can’t gag from the taste of to and snot sauce. So I’ve gotten into the habit of loading up the pepper at dinner time.
My host mom usually keeps this red-orange wonder-powder in a small can with holes poked in the top (a basic, homemade shaker). Since the shaker is primitive, and the pepper is crushed by hand, the shaker sometimes operates at less-than-optimal effectiveness. Furthermore, since I’m eating to, my right hand is usually covered in some combination of gloppy to and snotty sauce. I always reach for the shaker with my left, so as not to glop or snot the shaker itself – cause that’s gross.
Well this particular night, the to was particular gloppy, the sauce particularly snotty, and the shaker particularly ineffective. The only option in that circumstance is to open the can, reach in with a finger, and manually sprinkle the pepper on this West African deliciousness. I had a choice, go in with the gloppy, snotty right, and get glop and snot inside the shaker (not to mention get pepper helplessly caked on my hand), or go in with the clean, dry left. I wash with soap before meals (and make them do it too), and it was dark, so I made the call to go in with the left.
The first time, nobody noticed. The second time, something about it caught my host-mom’s eye, and she immediately let out a long string of fast, incomprehensible Malinke. I couldn’t understand her, and it wasn’t immediately clear that she was talking to me, so I went in for a third dip. Well, that finally did it. She stood up from her bowl, grabbed the shaker, and continued with the high-pitched gibberish. I swear my Bambara is better than that, but I couldn’t make out a single word in her two-minute long discourse. I got the point, and can’t imagine how sheepish I sounded apologizing.
She handed the shaker back to me, and told me to get back to eating. She demonstrated the proper, right-handed technique, and told me to do the same. My hands were still cover in glop and snot, but I was trapped. Not wanting to prompt another Malinke lecture, I did exactly as she showed me.
I grabbed a little bit of that fiery powder between the glop caked onto my right hand, and rubbed vigorously to get it to fall onto my bowl of to. Convinced that I had done all I could, I dug in for some to, then dipped it into the sauce, then brought it to my mouth. I was already red with embarrassment, but this turned me into a different, more painful color of red. I reached for a water bottle to find it empty. I hiccupped. Tears beginning to pour from my eyes, I resorted to the only option left. I dug in one more time for a tremendous handful of that tasteless glop, skipped the sauce, and went straight to my mouth. I repeated that a couple times, and though it took a little while, it did eventually calm the burn.
… best to I’ve ever had.