Thursday, March 16, 2017



The premise of the book I read from Benin can be described as follows: life is hard and then you die. The author, Olympe Bhêly-Quénum, summed it up even more succinctly when he titled the book Snares without End.

According to Abioseh Michael Porter, who wrote the book’s introduction, while most of his contemporaries in Africa were writing books about colonialism, Bhêly-Quénum chose instead to write an existentialist novel. The book tells the story of Ahouna, who enjoys periods of happiness and good fortune, interspersed with periods of ruin and despair.

Ahouna’s childhood is happy. His father is a prosperous and important man in their village, and, as Ahouna said later, “Life was good. Existence easy.” But good fortune can change in an instant, as Ahouna discovered when his family’s livestock was suddenly stricken with anthrax and when their crops were later ravaged by locusts. Even worse, his father becomes a victim of a tragic injustice, which leaves the family reeling. As his mother observes, “Life, my dear little Ahouna, is a wasteland of rotting refuse, in which men devote their energies to futile, vain things, and build hopes on these. And yet you must continue relentlessly pursuing these trifles, if you want to go on living and feel that you are in fact alive. Everything is linked to these terribly meaningless things.”

In spite of that cheery bit of motherly wisdom, things do get better after that, for quite a long while. Ahouna falls in love, gets married, and starts a family. He is happy tending his family’s flocks, playing music on his kpété (a reed flute) or his tôba (a small bamboo harp). Everything is going well until the day his wife inexplicably turns on him, creating a rift between them that can’t be mended. Things become so bad that Ahouna leaves home, and then his downfall truly begins.

Ahouna seems to go back and forth in his mind about whether his wife has turned him into a monster, or whether he was always a monster and she merely brought this aspect of himself into the open. By the end of the book, his existence becomes a matter of complete indifference to him.

If my description makes Snares without End sound bleak, that’s because it is. This quote from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which appears both on the dedication page and in the novel itself, pretty well summarizes the author’s theme: “Know and believe firmly that your life must be a continual death.”


Snares without End was full of food references, so I assumed I would have no trouble making a good vegan recipe for this post. Boy, was I wrong! I thought I was going to make bean fritters, after reading in the book about an evening market, where “[t]here were cakes for sale, fritters and akassa balls…”. I found a recipe that seemed straightforward enough, and made the bean paste. But when I dropped it into the hot oil to fry, the paste completely disintegrated, leaving me with a pot of oily bean goo.

So I searched the Internet for more recipes from Benin and found one for baby bananas in orange sauce on a website called “Global Table Adventure.” Since there was a reference in Snares without End to the people of the village bringing Ahouna’s family “bunches of bananas, baskets of pineapples, avocado pears, naseberries, cashew nuts and pawpaws,” this recipe seemed appropriate.

It would have been simple enough to make except that I used red bananas like the creator of the recipe had used. I’d never had red bananas before, and they were a little tricky to work with. They don’t peel easily like regular bananas do, and they’re fairly hard, so they take a long time to cook. If I had it to do over again, I’d just use regular bananas. Everything turned out okay, though, helped in no small part by the scoop of vegan vanilla bean ice cream I served with the bananas.


I found several projects in Benin on the GlobalGiving website, so my only dilemma was which one to support. I finally settled on a project to bring education to poor rural children in Benin, undertaken by a British organization called Hands around the World. Money raised for this project will be used to provide flood-proof classrooms in Dogba village. More information about the Hands around the World “Schooling Children in Benin” project is available at

I’ll be on the road for the rest of the month, so there won’t be another blog post until early April. I may post occasional updates on The Booktrekker’s Facebook page, which can be found at When I return…


Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.Providing new flood-proof classrooms has made education a much more secure possibility in Dogba village and the local community. Building a resdential unit in Affame will give good care and a safe home to vulnerable children.

Thursday, March 2, 2017



Beka Lamb, by Zee Edgell, is a novel about not only the coming of age of the title character, but of the country of Belize itself. Beka is a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Belize City, where she is struggling to deal with her family’s expectations at the same time she is trying to help her best friend cope with a devastating situation. She is also caught up in her country’s political uncertainty, as the people of Belize try to take control of their destiny.

Although Beka’s father Bill never wanted her to go to high school, her mother Lilla persuaded him to let her attend St. Cecilia’s Academy. Unfortunately, Beka doesn’t apply herself to her studies, and as a consequence, she fails her first year. To compound the problem, she lies about it, a habit that has led to trouble between her and her parents on previous occasions.

Beka’s best friend Toycie, on the other hand, is a model student. She’s a favorite of all the adults, both at school and in the community. She falls in love with a local boy, however, and her life begins to spiral out of control. Between Beka’s own shortcomings and the crisis facing her friend, Beka must discover an inner resolve she didn’t know existed.

The turmoil in Beka’s life is set against the backdrop of the identity crisis facing her country. Belize was a British colony, with all the problems colonialism entails. Beka’s father, while not necessarily pro-British, is doing well enough under the current political system and doesn’t want to rock the boat. His mother, Beka’s Granny Ivy, on the other hand, is active in the People’s Independence Party and dreams of an independent Belize. To complicate things further, the government of Guatemala wants to annex Belize. It’s enough to make Beka say to her teacher, “Sometimes I feel bruk down just like my own country, Sister.”

Beka manages to work through her struggles and find her way, as Belize inches closer to the end of its existence as a colony. It seems somehow fitting that Belize finally gained its independence in 1981, and Beka Lamb, which was released in 1982, was the first novel published in independent Belize.


There were so many vegan or veganizable dishes mentioned in Beka Lamb that I had a tough time deciding which one to make. Rice and beans, panades (little cornmeal turnovers filled with refried beans), and johnny cakes were just a few of the choices. Ultimately, the one that sounded the best to me, once I figured out what it was, was potato pound.

While attending a wake, Beka’s Granny Ivy asks her if she wants “[s]ome lemonade and a piece of potato pound?” That’s exactly what Beka wants, so “Miss Ivy lifted a heavy brown pudding from a side table, cutting a generous slice for Beka.”

Potato pound is described in the recipe I found on as similar to bread pudding, except that it uses sweet potatoes in place of the bread. The only change I had to make to the recipe was to replace the butter with a vegan spread. With a little splash of vegan whipped topping added, it made for a very tasty dessert.


I didn’t have to think twice about which organization would receive my donation for Belize. Sacramento’s own Joey Garcia, author and advice columnist for Sacramento News & Review, was born in Belize and has founded a non-profit organization called Rise Up Belize! This organization “initiates, supports and promotes educational activities that benefit the children and adults of Belize.” Among other things, Rise Up Belize! operates summer camps and offers high school scholarships for the children of Belize. More information about Rise Up Belize! is available at