BAMAKO — After fleeing militant occupation in northern Mali, a renowned restaurant owner has brought his special blend of grilled lamb to Bamako. The homesick displaced northerners who flock to the restaurant daily say the food is medicine for the body, and the spirit.
Bella Tandina works front and center at his small, smoky rotisserie in Bamako.
He cleaves and carves the roasted lamb straight off the bone. He tosses on some spices, a glob of mustard and a handful of chopped onions before wrapping the order in brown packing paper.
He says that is the butcher's song. It is in the local Songhai language, but its message is secret. He says they sing it when they want to move the meat immediately. He says whoever hears it will come running, even if he is not hungry.
The regulars smile. They are used to Tandina's dry, straight-faced sense of humor.
Before handing over the order, Tandina holds out a morsel of meat that his customer, Abdourahamane Babi, dutifully nips out of the butcher's hand.
Babi says he gives you a taste, otherwise you would devour the whole order before you get home and your family would be mad at you.
Like Tandina, Babi is from the northern town of Gao, where he says grilled meat is a key part of their culture.
Babi says there is nothing more beautiful in life than when the weather is good and you are sharing a meal of grilled meat and tea with your family and friends. And for the best meat, he says, you have to come here.
Tandina runs what locals call a "dibiterie" in French. The grilled meat shacks are ubiquitous throughout the Sahel, but this one is unique.
He calls his restaurant the Pharmacy of Health and himself, a doctor of meat.
He says he created the rotisserie in 1984 and he is a doctor of his trade and an expert in meat preparation. His food, he says, is an elixir and he knows the proper dose. Everyone asks him for his secret, but he says he just replies that the secret is to eat well and you will understand.
Tandina shows a well-worn photo of a northern delicacy he has prepared for presidents and dignitaries.
You take a camel, he says, and you put a cow in its stomach. Then, he says you put a sheep inside the cow. Inside the sheep, he says you put couscous and chicken. And inside the chicken, he says you put an egg.
The daily fare at the Pharmacy of Health is just lamb.
Albadjahamane Tandina comes to the Pharmacy almost every day.
He says they are 1,200 kilometers from home and this has become a meeting place. He says seeing each other, sitting around to talk and laugh, boosts their morale. They are trying to adapt to life in Bamako, he says, but they are homesick.
Most everyone calls Tandina by his self-proclaimed nickname, "One Close," or "Dr. One Close."
Tandina says he was looking for a way to explain in English that he is at the pinnacle of his profession. It is closed, he says, there can be no one after him. He is the best.
Last year he won the first-ever "festival of dibi," a regional meat-roasting competition held in Bamako in December 2011. So much has changed since then. 2012 has been a year of upheaval in Mali.
The south remains locked in a political power struggle triggered by the March 22 military coup. Al-Qaida linked Islamist militants control the northern half of the country.
Tandina moved his business to Bamako in May, shortly after armed groups seized Gao. Customers joke that they did not flee the occupation; they simply followed Tandina and his rotisserie truck.
But in the more serious moments that are admittedly rare at the Pharmacy of Health, they shake their heads in wonder. How did this happen?
Modou Tangana says when he left Timbuktu in April with his family, he never dreamed the crisis would last this long. Certain things, he says, are in the hands of God and cannot be controlled. All they can do, he says, is wait.