Eating Fuul is perhaps one of the more enjoyable experiences that I have had in Sudan. Before sitting down around a low table, everyone takes a moment to wash their hands and appreciate the aroma that fills the room. Once sitting, a large bowl is placed on the table. The bowl contains Fuul. It is a dark-brown paste of medium consistency made from mashed fava beans flavored with chili powder, salt, and simsim, or sesame oil. Often, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese and green chilies are mixed in at the last moment for a little extra flavor. Occasionally, pickled vegetables and a small saucer of chili sauce are on the table as well; round pieces of bread are passed around.
Then, with laughter and talk, everyone digs in. You tear a smallish piece of the bread, cup it with your fingers and use it as a scoop to “catch” the Fuul. As you scoop with the bread against the side of the bowl, you use your thumb to ensure that nothing falls as you bring the food to your mouth. There is something innately intimate about eating this way: the bowl is small and the people close and there is no clear delineation of from whence you should scoop. Hands touch and bread is shared.
We had a wonderful feast of Fuul at my office yesterday. While eating, one of my coworkers mentioned that, while this way of eating Fuul is the most common in Khartoum, many people eat Bosh Fuul. He smiled at me and laughed in a way I know too well to mean that I had missed some joke. “You know,” he said laughing, “Bosh Fuul, Bosh, Bosh.” I did not know. Another colleague nudged me, and said, “Some people think maybe now we call it Obama Fuul,” which was greeted by laughter all around. “Oh…Bush, Bush, like the president,” I said in triumph, “Bush Fuul.” My furrowed brow was enough to indicate to everyone that some explanation was needed.
My colleague’s story began in early 1990. At that time, the new president of the Sudanese government, Omar al-Bashir, declared his support for Saddam Hussein, who was then doing naughty things in Kuwait. This made the United States less than happy with Sudan. The sentiment was not placated by the fact that al-Bashir had taken power the year before through a military coup, something that the U.S. had little patience for. All of this, coupled with intelligence from the CIA saying that the Bashir government was selling U.S. – and UN-supplied food and medical aid supplies on the black market to finance arms purchases to fight the civil war in Sudan, made President George H.W. Bush extremely unhappy.
So, in October 1990, President Bush cut all food aid to Sudan. Mind you, the Sudanese people weren’t exactly living high on the fava bean before this. Access to food plummeted for the average Sudanese family, and malnutrition became (even more) endemic. With the food shortage, came a scarcity of the ingredients for Fuul. And so this staple food, one that many Sudanese eat for both breakfast and dinner, was not enough to feed most families.
So, as with so many things in the world, Bosh Fuul was born of necessity. Sudanese people soon began to realize that, if you took the bread and put it in the bowl first, and then used the water that you cooked the fava beans in as a kind of sauce and poured everything on top of the bread, there was just a little bit more food to go around. The bread soaks up everything from the cooking of the fava bean, yielding a few more precious calories for the family. There are many restaurants that still serve Bosh Fuul, continues my friend, and many people still eat it because they are used to it now.
The story stirred in me thoughts of the fickle causality between policy and impact. Practitioners in the field of international relations are often called upon to provide solutions for problems at a macro level. They research governments and consult with local sources. The issues that they grapple with are large and complicated and, many times, they weigh and measure their advice against truly terrible possibilities.
In the instance of Sudan, October 1990, I would imagine that the policy-makers faced such difficult decisions as these. We have been giving food and medical aid to Sudan, and this is not reaching the people. Instead, it’s being monetized to fund a terrible civil war. It stands to reason that these policies, coupled with al-Bashir’s new military regime and support for Iraq, made slowing the weapons flow to the Sudanese government the top priority. I can’t say that I would disagree with such a policy; in fact, I may have even advocated for it myself.
The ground-level impact of such policies, however, is all too often overlooked. Beneath the rather innocuous veneer of Bosh Fuul lies the story of a starving people: the outcome of a policy that focused on macro considerations. Mind you, I’m not so naive as to assume that the only factor in the food crisis in Sudan in the early 90s was the Bush Administration’s cessation of humanitarian aid. Still, the legacy of those policies – of the famine attributed to them in public discourse – belongs to President Bush and, zooming out a bit, to the United States. Such memories will most likely inform Sudanese foreign policy for years to come. This cycle – from macro U.S. foreign policy, to unintended ground-level impact which, in turn, feeds back into the decisions of a new generation of policy makers – is one that bears greater consideration.
As the meal finished I moved to the basin to wash my hands and my face. “I will take you some time to have some Bosh Fuul,” said my colleague. “I think that you will like it very much. We ate it very often in my house when I was growing up. If you ask anyone they will know what it is.” I turned these words over in my mind and thought it was smart to keep them with me.
The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous and therefore, has adopted the pseudonym,Kris Khawadja . The author currently works for an NGO that deals with governance and democracy promotion, and resides in Sudan.
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