Communal Eating in Gambia and Food Etiquette

The Food Bowl:
Refers to the large bowl of food shared by Gambians at meal times (usually at lunchtime), accompanied by a set of table manners you might be considered rude for disobeying. Though toubabs are most often handed a spoon and chair, Gambians squat around their food bowl and eat with their right hand—and only their right hand, as the left hand is used for rather unclean purposes. You are encouraged to eat the Gambian way, as long as you wash your hands first like everyone else.

The method of eating takes practice—grabbing a handful of rice, closing your palm to squeeze it into a ball, and then letting it fall forward towards your fingers to lift it towards an open mouth. When you are called to eat someone might say let us come and "chop".

Never do a full scale finger licking until the meal is complete. Also, you should attempt to eat only from your part of the bowl that is in front of you, as it is rather impolite to eat from another’s portion

If you want to take a piece of meat or fish from the centre of the bowl, tear a piece of it off with your fingers and set it down in front of you first—never pop it directly into your mouth

Most often, the host will break the meat or fish for you and distribute it evenly. With food bowls, first come, first serve—if you wait too long for the food to be comfortably cool to handle, you are likely to miss out on the chow. Conversation is usually kept to a minimum while eating.

Communal eating bowls are usually made from decorated or plain enamelled metal which are about 1.5 feet across. 

 Food Etiquette in Gambia
 When a typical Gambian family sits down to eat they do so around a communal bowl which has a mound of rice which might have a sauce on top or mixed rice like Benachin (Jollof Rice) with vegetables in the centre. It is then placed on a mat (basang).

As an honoured guest you may sometimes be given your own bowl or plate of food to eat depending on the circumstances

Don't be surprised if you are visiting a family and find them eating and be called over to join them for a meal. This is normal food etiquette in Gambia.

The first rule about eating food round a communal bowl is to first wash both your hands then take off your shoes before sitting down on the mat. 

 Indeed shoe removal should be done when entering any family room or hallway. You may be offered a short stool to sit on. In strict religious  families, particularly up-country and with the Mandinka tribe, women and and men eat separately while the kids go to either bowl.

Do not start eating until you see your hosts begin eating and they will usually say the Arabic word "Bismillah" which is an idiom meaning "In the Name of Allah".

 Only use your right-hand for eating. If you do choose to eat with a family in this way you shape the rice into an almost egg-shape before eating it. You may be given a spoon however, the above procedure should still be followed. Keep your hands to your section of the bowl i.e. the part directly in front of you which is about 10  - 15 cm wide. Don't be afraid to ask for a spoon if you don't think you can handle it because as a guest they are only too pleased to offer you a spoon.

However, at intervals you may go to the near centre of the bowl to cut a piece of meat or vegetable to bring back to your section and mix it with some rice before putting it in your mouth. Do not eat any food directly from the centre. Don't be surprised if people beat you to it and cut it for you and put it in your section.

On a word of caution it is the height of bad manners in Gambian society to smell food in front of others before eating it. Furthermore even if you are not hungry it is seen as rude to decline a meal so at least try and take a couple of mouthfuls eating it slowly. 

 However, should you decide not to eat do not watch others eating; you should move away somewhere else until the others are ready with their meal.

When eating keep conversation down to the minimum but do mention how delicious the meal is. Any food that leaves the bowl and into your mouth or falls onto the food mat should be left there. You can request for and drink water while eating. Though it sounds odd to westerners a quiet but audible belch after a meal is considered polite as it shows you have enjoyed the food and have eaten to your satisfaction.

If you have finished your meal you should get straight up and go wash your hands and do not return to the communal bowl for a chat

If you are an adult then you should try by all means and get up before the children. Wash your hands with soap and water. When all are finished you may again compliment your hosts on how delicious the meal was.

While in Gambia you will see some of the above rules being broken but the washing and right-hand rules must be adhered to. If you find yourself eating alone and somebody you know approaches you it is good manners to tell them "come and join me". 

Please note that the above rules are for lunch and sometimes dinner. Breakfast however, tends to be a sole activity normally involving bread though do offer to share if you are in the company of others.

The usual phrase people use when they are calling you to lunch is "Ky Len Nu Ane" and for dinner it is "Ky Len Nu Rerr"