By Calista Pearce
When you are in the field, flavors and textures that would normally repel you become acceptable and even welcome, as a change from the everyday food. (I’m talking about you rice and beans and you rice and lentils.) At Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) in South Sudan we have joked about making a field cookbook for the creative, strange, and delectable concoctions international protection officers have invented. One of the best is my former program manager’s tuna salad. Take Ramen or instant noodles, break it up and mix in canned tuna. Add some canned peas or corn. Season with whatever herbs or spices you have. Enjoy! The craziest was when we raised a toast with shots of balsamic vinegar. We had to celebrate my team leader’s one-year anniversary of being in South Sudan somehow!
My favorite concoction is that same team leader’s signature field dish: tuna spaghetti. The first time he made it I thought it sounded…unappealing. Tuna? In a spaghetti sauce? I tried it and was converted. Delicious! My team leader made it for my birthday last year. I was set to enjoy it, when shooting started across town. We could hear and see flashes of gunfire, as well as tracer bullets streaking. One landed in our compound near where we hunkered down. We made security phone calls and it later died down.
I knew there was a high chance we would be evacuated to the United Nations (UN) peacekeepers’ base nearby. I knew if we got any dinner there, it would be mostly rice. I could not let my tuna spaghetti go to waste! My teammates felt the same so we grabbed our quick-run bags and sat in the land cruiser. Quick-run bags are supposed to be packed, in case we have to evacuate quickly. It has things like your passport, money, drinking water, food, a flashlight/torch, and anything “essential.” (I’m talking about you, Kindle and iPod.)
Ready to go, we feasted on tuna spaghetti. It was the tastiest birthday dinner ever. My teammates insisted they arranged the “fireworks” show of flashing lights and bright streaks. One teammate kept dashing in the tent for additional items. The quick-run bag next to his chair began to look more like a slow-waddle carryall. Oh, how we laughed.
As you maybe can tell, taste buds are not the only things that transform in the field. International non-governmental organization field staff (not just NP staff) tend to develop a dark sense of humor to cope. The day of my birthday was memorable for terrible reasons. In the morning a UN helicopter was shot down nearby. The four-person flight crew was killed. In the afternoon we managed, after weeks of trying, to have a meeting with a former non-state armed actor. He had accepted amnesty and was a re-instated state military commander. I encountered my first child soldiers in the process. There they were, boys of ten or twelve lounging by the water borehole in fatigues and carrying guns. Smaller boys hung around them looking like they could not wait to join. By the time it got to the birthday dinner under the “fireworks” it had all been a bit much. We needed to laugh.
We weren’t evacuated that night. I eventually went back to my own safari tent. The next day we kept working on civilian protection. This continued into the next week and the next month. We kept eating rice and beans or lentils, enlivened with more concoctions. Once I spent six hours trying to roast pumpkin on a charcoal stove. We experienced more gunfire, shelling, and eventual evacuations. The things we found to laugh at got stranger. That is part of what makes it possible for us to keep peacekeeping, when our best efforts seem like a drop in an ocean. Change is heartbreakingly slow but change does come. In the meantime, we continue to eat tuna spaghetti, drink balsamic vinegar, and be merry in the field.