After my trip to Cameroon I had to go to the UK for a week, for a conference. We were in the south coast town of Hythe, where I had never been before – a pretty little place with a historic canal (known as the Royal Military Canal, built at the start of the nineteenth century as a defence against Napoleon) and a very windy seafront. We had blue skies and sunshine for the whole week, and I thought it must have given a very good impression of England to my international colleagues.
Not that any of them said anything. Perhaps I am too polite – or just too cowardly – but I never really criticise the countries I am visiting to my hosts, in fact I usually go out of my way to find something good to say. For example I can’t honestly say that I really like the food much in West Africa. Some of it is nice, but overall the impression is of endless meals of rice served with gristly bits of meat and bone, with any flavour obliterated by too much chilli, pepper or salt. But I would never say that if asked. I might go as far as to admit that they don’t eat enough vegetables for my liking – but I would either find some aspect I like or I would be non-committal rather than criticising it.
However observing my African colleagues in the hotel dining room, and at a very nice fish restaurant, there was no such restraint. They turned their noses up, they laughed in disbelief that we could eat ‘such stuff’, they smothered everything with salt, or they just left it uneaten and asked if there was any way they could have some chips, or some ice cream. “You mean the Queen of England eats this?” one of them asked me, about a very nice salmon fishcake.
I was amused though also annoyed, and embarrassed for the poor restaurant staff. Then I wondered whether it is better to tell the truth as they do – perhaps I am just being patronising by always trying to avoid criticising anything from their culture?
Talking of food, I added on a day to the week there so as to have time for some shopping, and the most important part was the trip to Sainsburys. I had heard much about the terrible price rises so was curious to see whether they matched those here in Senegal. In fact I saw no evidence of them at all. Sainsburys Basics pasta was still 19p a packet, the same price as it was when I left the country 18 months ago, whilst here the same size packet has risen from 35p to nearly 90p during that period. I tried to avoid the dairy products as I knew I couldn’t transport them, which is too frustrating when the prices in Senegal are enough to make you cry. £1.78 for a litre of milk!
Still, I was able to fit a couple of packets of pasta in my case, and somehow I also successfully carried back a whole punnet of nectarines and another of wonderfully tasty organic cherry tomatoes. Needless to say, I didn’t share any of it with my African colleagues on my return!