Living “Off the Land” in Africa: Finding Homestead Inspiration in an Unlikely Place
I was recently interviewed on a podcast about why I started homesteading, how I learned the skills I know and use now and what advice I have for other homesteaders just starting out.
At first when I received the list of questions I would be asked, I glanced at them and thought to myself “this will be easy.” After all, they were intimate questions about myself, my life and my reasons for homesteading.
And who knows me more intimately than I know myself?
But as I pondered over my answers to these questions, I realized that I didn’t actually know myself as well as I thought I did.
Why did I start homesteading?
When was the defining moment when I decided I wanted to embark on this journey?
Was there a defining moment?
The answer I wrote down in the end sort of surprised me.
I had thought I would say something about how I had always longed to live out in the country even though I was a born-and-raised city girl. And that’s definitely one reason. But that wasn’t quite it.
Then I thought I might talk about this time I went to visit friends out on their rural property and realized how at peace I felt staying with them as they lived the simple life, away from the rat race. That was definitely an “aha!” moment for me and I remember returning home inspired to live a simpler life. But that wasn’t quite the moment that changed me.
Maybe it was when I started watching homesteading reality shows like “Alaska: The Last Frontier” and “Live Free Or Die,” along with Netflix documentaries about people going back to the land. That is when the term “homesteading” started resonating with me and I started putting it all together that this was the umbrella term for the lifestyle I was after.
But even though I didn’t know it as “homesteading” until this point, I knew already that I was on the path toward a homesteading lifestyle.
So then, when did I decide I wanted to live this way? What was the catalyst? When was that defining moment in time that changed me?
Related: Why I Homestead
I’ll admit even now I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact moment or event that set me down this course I’m on now. But since I felt I needed to come up with some sort of a real answer, I said that it began when I was living abroad in Africa and was first exposed to the concepts community, of cooking from scratch with local, seasonal ingredients and of making do with whatever we had to work with.
Travelling helped make me a homesteader
This answer surprised me. I had never really considered how much this trip had affected my future life choices. In fact, I had never considered how any of my travels (and there were a lot in my early twenties) had affected my decision to start homesteading. (Well, actually, I did consider it, as evidenced here in my very first blog post. But I hadn’t really given it too much weight).
After all, when most of us think of homesteading we think of an agrarian lifestyle that is centered around the home, not a nomadic lifestyle that evolves out of travelling the globe.
And yet, I now realize the effect that travelling (and especially that trip to Africa) did have on my decision to embark on this very different type of incredible journey:
- To start homesteading
- To take an interest and active role in where my food comes from
- To go back to the land and appreciate what my local environment provides for me
- To make do with what I’ve got and be grateful for it
And so I wanted to talk a little more about this piece of my background that has helped shape who I am and where I’ve ended up today. Because I didn’t grow up homesteading. I didn’t learn the skills I know today from my mom or dad or even my grandparents.
I sort of ended up here by accident (or perhaps by divine intervention). I don’t know that I ever “chose” this lifestyle. Moreover it found me, and I found it, much the same as two soulmates find each other. And we grew fond of each other over time, and now I can’t imagine my life without it, and I feel safe in its arms.
So, how did a trip to Africa set me on my homesteading path? I’m glad you asked:)
When I was 21 years old I had recently arrived back home from a study abroad trip in Europe. I had just spent 6+ months living in Vienna, Austria and travelling all over Europe. I had officially caught the travel bug, and at this point in my life all I consciously wanted to do was to see and experience as much of the world as possible.
And so when I came across an opportunity to apply for a volunteer program in Madagascar, I applied without hesitation.
The position was with the World Wildlife Fund, an organization that I respected and that aligned with my values and belief in environmental conservation (a value I still hold dear and that informs my homesteading endeavours to this day).
In the end I was one of 6 volunteers accepted to the program. I was beyond excited. Madagascar! Like, who goes to Madagascar? I was officially about to go way off the beaten path for the first time. Little did I know how “off the beaten path” this trip would take me.
To make a bit of a long story short, I didn’t end up going to Madagascar. A civil war broke out and we were advised to cancel our trips until further notice. But I couldn’t cancel my ticket due to restrictions on the airfare I had purchased. I could only change my ticket. So I changed it and flew to South Africa instead.
Only one other volunteer did the same thing. A girl from Australia who I ended up meeting at a market in Johannesburg, and who would go on to become one of my best friends to this day.
As we waited to hear news about when it might be safe to fly to Madagascar, we enjoyed travelling around South Africa together, bonding over wine and new adventures.
Finally after a few weeks we were told that it was still unsafe to travel to Madagascar, and that our placement had been changed to Senegal. Senegal? I had no idea where that even was.
We looked on the map and located it on the coast of West Africa. Dakar is the capital city. The only thing that rang a bell was the Dakar Rally. Everything else was completely foreign to me. But we happily seized the opportunity for adventure and booked our tickets. And we were off to Senegal.
When we landed in Dakar, culture shock hit me like a brick wall. (And I had already been to some pretty intrepid places). But this was next level.
Shoeless children with tattered clothes held buckets up to our taxi windows as they begged for anything we were willing to give.
Women with bright coloured clothing and head scarves carried fruit and other merchandise on their heads as they competed with each other for our attention. And African men yelled back and forth at each other in a mixture of French and Wolof, the local dialect. It was all incredibly overstimulating, to say the least.
On top of the standard culture shock of being dropped in a third world country, Senegal is mostly Muslim, and we really didn’t have a clue what that meant before we got there.
But we learned quickly that the Senegalese people were warm and accepting of us despite our clear ignorance of their culture.
I gained a great deal of respect for these people and their culture while I was there and encourage others not to believe everything you hear about other countries, cultures and religions from the media and from others who perpetuate misinformation. When you get a chance to travel and to meet people face-to-face you truly do realize how much more alike we are than different.
But I digress…
Dakar was not to be our final stop (and thank God, because I don’t think I could have handled the overwhelm of that city for our entire 4 0r 5-month stay).
Instead we were stationed in a small fishing village called Joal-Fadiouth where we were tasked with uncovering the environmental challenges in the area and developing an environmental eduction plan for the local school system (at least, that’s what we ended up doing. As for what we were actually supposed to do there, no one ever really told us. To be fair, I don’t think anyone really knew).
But here we found ourselves, for better or for worse, on this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And some days were better and some days were worse than others.
The work itself wasn’t difficult. We were both educated young women with passion, motivation and resourcefulness to spare. But dealing with daily life and navigating our way in this new world was both challenging and overwhelming at times.
One of the biggest challenges for me was living with limited resources, little to no modern conveniences, sketchy access to electricity and running water at the best of times and, above all else, learning to cook and survive off of ingredients that were foreign and intimidating to me (with no refrigeration and nothing more than a single propane burner).
Living without mod cons: Making do or doing without
You see, up until now I was pretty used to my modern, western, urban/suburban lifestyle where I had access to pretty much anything I could ever want at all hours of day and night, including food.
I was used to eating out and being able to go to the grocery store and buy microwaveable food in packages and a few fresh ingredients that were familiar to me.
But here in Senegal, most everything was foreign. And nothing was processed or pre-packaged. It was a violent shove into cooking from scratch and making do or doing without.
And I failed miserably at it. In fact, for the first month or so I pretty much survived off of bread and butter with Maggi powder seasoning that I would sprinkle on top for flavouring. I’m pretty sure if it weren’t for my Aussie friend who had some basic food and cooking knowledge, I would have returned home sick with scurvy, or worse.
There were no grocery stores. Only the local market. And most of the ingredients at the market were new to me and were unlabelled (or labelled in another language), so I was totally intimidated by the thought of going shopping.
First experiences with the local cuisine
I do remember making an initial trip to the market with our caretaker who gave us a quick tour. Then I remember “helping” her prepare the national dish “Thieboudienne,” which consists mainly of stewed fish, tomatoes, root vegetables and rice and is eaten day in and day out in Senegal.
While it is really quite a tasty dish, watching her throw the entire fish in (head, eyes and all) made my stomach turn the first time I saw it. I was definitely not used to this type of cooking that made use of the entire animal and I admit it freaked me out.
* By the way, I do not use fish heads in my own version of this dish. But all the power to you if you want to try it the authentic way!
So I stuck to my bread and butter and seasoning for a while. I gained weight and I felt sick. I joked regularly that I was probably the only person who had ever travelled to Africa and gained weight. But my diet was extremely poor at first so no wonder.
It took some time getting used to eating the local dishes that were made with all fresh, local ingredients that were new to me, like tamarind and cassava root, and others that were killed the same day as they ended up on my dinner plate like goats and pigs.
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Hearing a goat scream as it had was being slaughtered was not a sound I was used to, nor one that I could easily forget. But I was grateful for goat meat after nothing but fish for days on end. And as I became accustomed to life in Senegal I began to understand that not only was this simply the way of life here, but it was really a positive thing to be so connected to the food that I ate.
To be aware of the sacrifice an animal had to make for me to eat it made me appreciate its life just that much more. To know we could only get certain ingredients or foods at certain times when they were available made me grateful for those foods when I could get them.
Food is so much more than a meal
The way food connected people here was so intimate and almost spiritual. Most often when you enjoyed a local dish you enjoyed it with many other people and ate from the same plate and even drank from the same cup that was passed around. This was definitely strange and uncomfortable for me at first, but it truly was amazing how everybody shared and made sure that everyone ate and drank and no one went hungry.
In the west we are so used to being greedy. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, when it comes to food, shelter, money, things… In this little community in Senegal, everybody lifted each other up. No one let anyone else do without.
Now it wasn’t perfect. It’s still a third world country and there are human rights violations there that you wouldn’t believe. But on a community level, it really opened my eyes to how everybody can contribute to the greater good of many instead of letting others go without so that those with the means to do so could have more. It was a deeply inspiring show of humanity to say the least.
And it taught me a lot about cooking from scratch with local, seasonal ingredients and making do with what was available. Even though I didn’t do a lot of the cooking while I was there, I observed intently as others did. I went to the market with my friend who was savvier than I and learned how to buy a cut of meat and some veggies, cube the meat, chop the veggies, season them and throw them in a skillet to cook over a small flame and that this could be a tasty, healthy and satisfying dinner.
The simple beauty of eating seasonally
I remember when the tides went out and the local women marched out on the mudflats, babies tied to their backs, and dug for clams. I had just never really considered how people could just go out into nature and harvest from the Earth or the sea!
In my experience you just bought your ingredients from the store and they either came from commercial farms or perhaps professional fishermen with licenses. But watching these women harvest claims and feed their families and communities right from the land… it really was a new concept to me at this time.
I remember we had “linguine con vongole” that night. My Aussie friend had the idea to procure some of those local clams and turn them into this favourite Italian dish. It sounds so strange now, but I was really in awe that she could take local Senegalese ingredients and turn them into an Italian dish. It was such a treat and a break from the norm while we were there. I remember that moment being really inspired to get creative and start cooking from scratch and empowered because I now knew it was possible to take whatever local ingredients were available and turn them into a satisfying meal.
The journey home
I came away from this trip really motivated to start cooking from scratch at home. After all, I figured if it could be done with limited ingredients in Africa then it could be done in Canada. And so I started… Slowly at first. I learned a few basic dishes like pizza and different types of pasta and roast chicken. I began experimenting with different ingredients and just having fun playing around in the kitchen.
At the same time, this draw of leaving the city and living a simpler, more rural life began to take hold of me. But it would be a number of years and another trip abroad (this time to Australia to see my friend) before I would actually make the move.
In the meantime I worked on my cooking skills and took more of an interest in where my food came from and how it was produced. I started making a conscious effort to eat as locally and seasonally as possible.
I grew a small herb garden and a few tomatoes. I started foraging for blackberries and wild apples and learning about other local edibles. The homesteading journey (although I did not know it quite yet) had officially begun.
And the more I sourced ingredients locally, the more of an interest I took in preserving them so that I could enjoy them year-round and avoid buying certain ingredients at grocery stores. At first I just learned to freeze fo
ods. Then I started preserving fruits in alcohol. Eventually I began canning and the rest is history.
When we finally made our move out to the country a couple years ago, one of the first things we did was to build a greenhouse and some raised beds. Now we produce much of our own veggies and supplement what we don’t grow with ingredients from local farms and other sources. We cook and preserve and now I have started baking my own bread and making as much as possible from scratch.
This love for making things from scratch has also spilled over into other areas.
I make my own:
- Body products (like sugar scrubs, bath salts, body butters and salves)
- Natural cleaning products
- Medicines out of herbs I grow at home or source from the wild
There is still so much we want to do. One day I want our own chickens and ducks and goats. I want a garden big enough to produce all of our food for the year. I want to learn to forage mushrooms and seaweed and other local edibles. I want to learn to fish and hunt. I want to get better at sewing and knitting and crocheting so I can make my own clothes…
There is so much more I want to do with this crazy homestead dream, but looking back on the girl I was when I first arrived in Senegal, eating my bread and butter and seasoning powder and not having a clue how to cook or care for myself with real food… Looking back on how far I’ve come, I can say I’m really proud of myself (and my husband who has come along with me for this crazy ride).
Some advice for the beginner homesteader
- Start now, wherever you are
- Start small, one step at a time
- Don’t be afraid to try new things
- Don’t wait for everything to be perfect
- Enjoy the learning process
If I had one piece of advice for that girl with her bread who was afraid to cook with strange ingredients because she had never tried it before, I would tell her to take the chance.
Get creative! Enjoy the learning process. If the food sucks you can always start over with a new dish. But don’t be afraid to try something new. Food is an adventure much like travelling, and cooking gives us a first class ticket to experiencing it all.
And if I had one piece of advice for anyone aspiring to live their own homestead dream, it would be to start now, wherever you are.
Whether you live on 10 acres in the country, a condo in the city or a hut in West Africa, do what you can with what you have right now. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect.
You might not have the space to do everything you want right now, but you can work on building some of your skills. Cooking from scratch with local ingredients (whether you grow them yourself or buy them from your local market) is a great place to start.
Chances are you have a kitchen. And if you don’t, go out and get yourself a little one-burner propane stove. I promise it’s all you need to get started on your own self-reliance journey right now:)
“Peace be with you,” friend.