Making a pie in Mali for Christmas

Market, Bamako, Mali

Market, Bamako, Mali

So you’ve come to Mali to teach school. You’re thousands of miles away from home, missing family and in a couple of weeks you’ll be celebrating Christmas.

You and your roommate decide to host a dinner for your fellow volunteers, a motley group of singles and one married couple.

Chicken will substitute for the turkey. Plenty of potatoes and veggies to be found in the market. Nothing to simulate cranberry sauce, but dressing and gravy are doable. Your roommate’s copy of Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook is a godsend as good old Fanny’s recipes are basic and you can find most of the ingredients, if not all the spices.

Now for the sweets. No way to make shortbread. Cookies, sure, but are they really festive enough?

Then one day you trot off (ie walk slowly in the heat) to the market near your house to buy some veggies, and there, in a little three-walled shack made of corrugated tin, you spot a barrel of liquid, identity unknown. You speak enough Bambara to ask what it is, but you don’t understand the answer.

“Let’s buy some,” your friend says.

“What for?” you ask.

“She shrugs. Maybe we can figure out what to do with it.”

She’s the cook so you agree and head home for a jar and trudge back to the market where the vendor fills it for you. You take it home and put it in the fridge.

The next day, you see that the clear liquid has solidified to a white paste. You dip in a finger and rub a bit against your thumb.

“Texture of shortening,” your friend says, then gives it a sniff and a lick. “Let’s try making a pie.”

“A pie! What will we use for filling?”

Back to the market, the big one downtown this time and there you find a variety of tinned foods from China fortunately with pictures on the labels. You choose apples, buy a couple of tins, take them home, thicken the juice with flour, and proceed to make the crust.

Because there are no plastic bags (or containers with lids) to be had, you keep the flour in a calabash bowl covered with a cloth. You take off the cloth, tap the sides of the bowl, spin it and tap again. Tiny bugs (flour beetles? flour mites? weevils?) scurry up the sides. You tap and spin until satisfied the flour is bug free and measure out the amount needed. You refuse to worry about germs. Your rationale? The heat of baking will kill them.

And, the pie? Delicious. The pastry the flakiest you’ve ever had. Only later do you learn that the liquid you bought at the market was the very Shea butter now found in skin care products.

P.S. I’m off to Mexico for a month, where I once tried making shortbread for Christmas, but it was so hot the dough melted.


Gingerbread Houses


Another treat of the season here in Victoria is the display of gingerbread houses. Whether built by professionals or amateurs, they have taken the art to a whole new level. Pick up an envelope, put some money in it, and vote for your favorite. We had to vote several times as they were all so amazing. And, appropriately, the donations go to help fund Habitat for Humanity.




Merry Christmas from Westjet

WESTJET WAS FOUNDED in 1996. With three aircraft, five distinations and a philosophy of “just because you pay less for your flight, doesn’t mean you should get less” has grown to a staff of 9,700 flying to eighty-eight destinations and is now Canada’s preferred airline.

My family and I have flown with Westjet often and always encounter friendly, courteous staff and efficient service.

Now, here’s the perfect corporate donation and yet another reason to love Westjet.

Christmases far far from home


My first Christmas away from home was in Mali. My friend and I were volunteers with CUSO*. We made pie crust from buerre de karite (yes, the same karite that’s used in skin care products). We found the karite oil in a big barrel at the market, bought some and took it home not knowing what it was. We put it in the fridge and a few hours later decided, by the texture and taste, that we had a perfect shortening. We bought canned apples from China and made a pie. It was a huge success with all the Canadian CUSO volunteers. And no, we did not have a turkey.

Two years later I celebrated Christmas in Hawaii. Santa wore red shorts, red flip-flops and a perfect Santa hat to go with the long white beard that covered most of his bare chest. Pineapple and poi for dinner? No. Instead, we enjoyed a traditional turkey feast at the hotel.

A number of years later it was back to Mali and off to the village of Faladye to spend Christmas Day with our friend’s family. We took French bread and bottled water with us. Raymond’s mother butchered a chicken Christmas Eve and we gnawed on the tough old bird which was served with millet liberally mixed with sand and grit.

While most Malians are Muslim or animist, Raymond’s family is Catholic and the village boasts a large brick church. I’m not religious, but as we walked to church along with the villagers that night for midnight mass, it seemed perfectly natural to anticipate meeting Mary and Joseph around the next corner. Turning our gaze from the mud-brick walls to the star filled sky, a sense of peace washed over us, heightened no doubt by the silence of the savanna.


The service and songs were in Bambara, the carols played on a balafon. When we joined in the “fa la la la“ chorus, the children in front of us spun around to stare, wide eyed, mouths agape. We winked and continued singing. After the service everyone lined up outside the church to shake our hands.


For the past number of years, we’ve been in Mexico for Christmas. We have had tamales and flan, both of which are delicious, but we missed the traditional dinner especially the leftovers for breakfast the next morning which is the best part of a turkey dinner so now we cook a turkey on the barbecue.  We also have a piñata on Christmas Eve for the kids and we spend part of Christmas afternoon body boarding.

All so different from the white Christmas of home in Canada, with snow, and frost and sleigh rides, and Santa’s reindeer, but all equally enjoyable.

Joyeux Noël! Felix Navidad! Merry Christmas!

CUSO = Canadian University Service Overseas established in 1961. Note: Peace Corps was also established in 1961.

New Traditions

We’ve been coming to Mexico for several years now and have adapted our Christmas traditions accordingly.

Christmas Eve:

We gather around the pool with our Mexican friends and family. Of course we have a piñata filled with Mexican candy. The children take turns whacking it, starting with the littlest. For added drama the older kids are blindfolded and spun around a couple of times before they are allowed to try hitting the piñata. All of this is accompanied by hoots and shouts of encouragement. For a touch of Canada, we bring little tubes of icing and gingerbread men cookies for the kids to decorate.

Christmas Day:

We again gather around the pool, this time with Canadian friends and family. My husband cooks a turkey on the barbecue. I make a cabbage salad. The cranberry sauce and gravy mix come with us from home, although I may not have to cart them here in the future as I noticed the other day that more and more of these specialty items are now available at Wal-Mart in Puerto Vallarta. We also bake my mother’s favourite cookies—shortbread and date balls—at home the day before we leave and bring them along. Why don’t we bake here? We tried a couple of times, but cookie dough, shortbread in particular, does not mix well with the heat and humidity. We do manage unbaked brownies though, for the requisite touch of chocolate.

And it’s a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad to all, and to all a Happy New Year!