ACCRA, Ghana — I have not yet dined seated on a mat with the Sierra Leonean chef Fatmata Binta, but I could relate when she explained how sitting on the floor and sharing a meal from a single dish builds strong community bonds. When she described how she and millions of other Fulani children learned important values around the lunch bowl, I brought up how I used to watch my Senegalese host uncle patiently teach my host brothers how to share using the small portion of meat and vegetables at the center of the bowl.
“Exactly” she said, her eyes lighting up. Binta, as she prefers to be known, is a 37-year old woman with an inviting face and warm features. She gets a sparkle in her eyes when discussing something she really cares about, and I had clearly touched on something. “Food and eating are how we pass on traditions,” she added excitedly, “and there is no better place for that than the lunch bowl.”
I spoke with Binta, an award-winning chef on a quest to valorize Fulani food and culture, last month in a trendy coffee shop in Ghana’s capital, Accra. There are around 25 million Fulani people spread across nearly every country in West Africa who are often associated with nomadic herding despite the fact that many are farmers. Over a few hours, Binta and I discussed everything from the Guinean Fulani diaspora to milk fermentation methods to the differences between the Fulani languages across West Africa. Having won multiple awards for her “Dine on a Mat” pop-up restaurant serving Fulani cuisine in Ghana’s capital Accra, Binta now wants to use her newfound influence to change the way people think about Fulani peoples.
Binta was born in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in 1984. Her parents, who were in their late teens, had recently moved to the muggy coastal city of 450,000 people from a small village nestled in the temperate Futa Jallon highlands in Guinea. The young family was following in the footsteps of thousands of other Guinean Fulani, who since the mid 1800s had been migrating to Freetown and had established a small mercantile community. Despite their small numbers, Guinean Fulani cornered a few key markets such as slaughterhouses, diamonds and transportation, which attracted more migrants from Guinea such as Binta’s parents fleeing political repression and seeking economic opportunities not available at home.
Growing up, Binta remembers her father working 12-hour days in the city’s informal bus system while her mother and grandmother raised the children, cooked all the meals, kept the house clean and sold food and snacks for pocket money. Her grandmother operated a small lunch shack where she sold Sierra Leonean staples for 25 cents a plate and her mother made small cakes that she sold at the family shop by the city’s only cinema. When I commented that they were continuing in the entrepreneurial spirit of previous generations of Fulani in Freetown, Binta laughed and summed up simply: “My people are into business.”
In March of 1991, civil war erupted in Sierra Leone when rebels tried to overthrow the government. The first few years of fighting took place outside the capital, but life in the city nevertheless changed completely amid food shortages and steady erosion of basic infrastructure. In 1997, after a military coup and a rebel advance on the capital, Binta’s parents decided it was safer to temporarily return to Guinea.
“At first I was nervous,” Binta said, recounting the 500-kilometer journey along potholed roads. After two days, her family, along with dozens of others from Sierra Leone, descended on their small ancestral village outside Pita, Guinea, doubling its population overnight.
While initially uncomfortable in such a rural setting, Binta was excited to meet her extended family members whom, until that point, she knew only through stories. Now instead of helping just her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, she was part of a big team of aunties and cousins who were preparing food for a few dozen people. “They did not have much,” she said of her Guinean family, “but sharing food was their way of being kind to neighbors and family.”
Binta still had household chores in Guinea, but instead of fetching jerry cans of water from a neighborhood tap, she was pulling water directly from the well. Instead of buying charcoal and wood from the street corner, Binta and her peers collected firewood directly from the forest. “Everything in the village was slower,” she said. “You really appreciate things more when you see where they come from.”
She was also exposed to very different ways of preparing food. Instead of buying single-serve packets of crushed hot pepper, she helped her grandmother tend, harvest and sun-dry small hot peppers. She also gained a greater appreciation for fonio, a small nutty grain indigenous to West Africa, which was a rare treat in Freetown. In Guinea, she saw how crucial the crop—which matures quickly and prefers poor soils—was as a back-up during the “hunger season” weeks before the main harvest was ready.
In the village, everyone gathered for lunch, the main meal of the day. She described how her elders instructed her to sit up straight and proud, regardless of how she was feeling inside. She was reminded to take food only from her sliver of the bowl and not to encroach on others’ areas. She particularly remembers their stressing the importance of not wasting food.
After a year, when the fighting subsided in Freetown, Binta and her family returned home. As her father worked his way up the transportation business, life changed and her mother and grandmother no longer sold food for pocket money. Binta finished high school and later attended the University of Freetown to study international relations. With her bachelor’s degree, she got a job teaching English in Spain, so, like her parents before her, she set off to a new place, eager to explore the world and herself.
Becoming a chef
Binta’s teaching job in Spain did not last long and she soon found herself struggling to make ends meet. Thinking back to how her mother and grandmother supplemented their income in their early years in Freetown, she decided to try her hand at selling sandwiches at a nearby school. They were a hit and she was soon taking orders for the following day and still selling out.
However, her Spanish visa soon expired and she had to leave. At the time, Sierra Leone was in the midst of the horrific Ebola epidemic, so she moved to the Ghanaian capital Accra. Lost in a big city, she felt aimless trying to find an office job. Looking back, she realized she had relished the independence and creativity she had experienced selling sandwiches in Spain. She applied to the Alpine Center, a hospitality program with schools around the world. A few months later, she landed in Nairobi, Kenya to undergo formal chef training.
Initially struggling with culture shock going from West to East Africa—East Africans are too quiet, she joked—she came to love Nairobi and learned a lot in the program. Following her graduation, she found a job in a hotel restaurant, but quickly grew bored cooking what she described as the same bland, rootless, uninspired food. After much soul searching, she decided to quit her stable job, and return to Accra to pursue her own vision.
When Binta landed back at Koltoka International Airport in Accra in 2018, she wanted to draw on her culture and personal history to create something that felt authentic. After weeks of planning, she invited a dozen close friends to her apartment, had them sit on a mat on the floor, and over a few hours served an assortment of dishes inspired by her Fulani heritage. She told her friends to spread the message on social media that she was setting up a reservation-only pop-up dining experience she was calling “Dine on a Mat.”
The dishes Binta served were her take on the foods she had eaten growing up in Freetown and during her sojourn in Guinea. Her clientele, mostly upper-class Ghanaians and a handful of tourists, generally viewed millet and sweet potato leaf sauce as poor people’s food. However, when cooked with dawadawa, fermented African locust bean seeds that give a deep umami flavor, and served in attractive bowls, it became part of a high-end dining experience.
Binta told me how guests often associated Fulani with cattle, expecting to be presented with large slabs of meat. Instead, she served fresh milk and yogurt, explaining that Fulani only slaughter animals for special holidays or selling the meat, and are more likely to eat organs than a steak.
Beyond the cuisine, Binta’s Dine on a Mat allowed her to re-create, just for a few hours, the sense of community she experienced as a young girl in Guinea. In Accra, a city of 4.2 million people, everything moves so fast, she told me. No one has time to sit and talk. Many people eat alone. She herself had felt a sense of ennui when she first arrived.
With Dine on a Mat, she now plays the role her mother, aunts and grandmothers played in Guinea where they “used food to bring people together.” The experience forces friends and family to sit on the floor together for a few hours to share food and conversation. “I don’t want that kind of eating to disappear,” she said.
It took a while to catch on, especially in the COVID pandemic, but word spread and Dine on a Mat started to become popular in Accra’s burgeoning culinary scene. When many of the city’s top restaurants were looking to Europe and Asia for inspiration, the Ghanaian food critic and photographer Adwoa Fofie told me, Binta’s focus on indigenous grains and spices was particularly interesting. “She’s opening our minds up to exploring our traditional foods in a new way.”
* * *
If Dine on a Mat started as Binta’s way of connecting with her Guinean Fulani heritage, as she grew more interested in Fulani foods, she started learning about the different kinds of Fulani who live spread out across West Africa. The breadth of Fulani experiences really hit home the first time she visited a small Fulani community on the outskirts of Accra. She was taken aback by how different the Pulaar language she learned to speak growing up was from the Fulfulde spoken in Ghana, even though both came from similar historical roots.
There were other differences too. Guinean Fulani have been settled for centuries, have established large towns, a deep culture of agriculture and constitute 35 percent of Guinea’s population. However, Fulani in Ghana have settled only in the last hundred years and live in small villages on the edge of towns where they have looked after other people’s livestock and are often excluded from Ghanaian nationhood.
As Binta learned to adjust her Pulaar to be understandable to Fulfulde speakers, she also noticed many similarities. In both Guinea and Ghana, she was welcomed with the same simple dish, lacriri and kossam, steamed broken maize or millet swimming in slightly fermented yogurt. Meals were taken on a mat. Everywhere she went, people spoke of pulaaku, a generalized set of values including humility, tolerance, bravery and self-respect, that defined Fulani identity.
During her trips, Binta took copious notes and photos. When she returned to Accra, she incorporated what she had learned into her Dine on a Mat experience. She made time to go to Mali, and later Liberia and Nigeria, where she spent days at a time in rural communities cooking with the women and expanding her repertoire of Fulani culinary traditions.
One tragic commonality she noticed in her travels around the region was anti-Fulani sentiment. In Freetown, people would sometimes deride Fula as foreigners, but they were never physically attacked. In Ghana, however, she noticed that Fulani were often pathologized as violent and deemed capable solely of banditry and so-called farmer-herder conflict. Non-Fulani in Accra warned her to be careful around Fulani. Upon arriving in Nigeria, she received threats on social media, accused of associating with terrorists and bandits.
While Binta learned more about the challenges Fulani face across the region, her food was receiving critical acclaim. In 2021, she was awarded the Rising Star Award at the Best Chef Awards in Amsterdam. Last July, she won the Basque culinary world prize in Spain, known as the Nobel Prize of gastronomy, which comes with a 100,000 euro prize. “It feels good to be recognized,” she said humbly, “but the work is just beginning.”
Binta wants to use her prize money to help develop rural communities in northern Ghana. She is currently planning to build a center for women from rural communities to learn various crafts and grow fonio grain for export. She also wants to use the center to preserve and pass on traditional cooking methods. She envisions a chef-exchange program in the future, with West Africans travelling to Spain and Europeans coming to Ghana for residencies.
also hopes her new celebrity status can help change the narrative about Fulani across the region. She described feeling a deep sense of accomplishment when people walk away from Dine on a Mat with a deeper understanding of the richness of Fulani traditions, different from the from their representation in the media.
Fofie, the Accra-based food critic, told me that Binta’s work is “forcing us to have the conversations that we need to have.” After a dinner with Binta, she added, “diners are not looking at Fulani as ‘these are just the people who own cattle,’ but they are just people like everyone else… She is forcing us to confront our biases.”
As she looks forward, Binta wants to move beyond just confronting the negative stereotypes about Fulani. She recently started actively promoting the role Fulani foods such as fonio could play helping feed people amid the unfolding climate catastrophe. “People blame Fulani for everything,” she said at the end of our conversation. “I want people to see that Fulani traditions could actually help save us.”
 For more of the Guinean Fulani diaspora in Sierra Leone see: Jalloh, Alusine. Muslim Fula Business Elites and Politics in Sierra Leone. Boydell & Brewer, 2018. doi:10.1017/9781787442344.
Top photo: Binta in a cow paddy in Ghana (photo provided by Binta)