Food and cultural identity “Colonial politics cannot stop me”

Racism – More modern than the West would like to see? - Nigeria today: Customers buy  ice cream in Lagos. Years of solid economic growth, gradual economic reforms and energy discoveries have transformed Africa into one of the worlds hottest markets.
More modern than the West would like to see? - Nigeria today: Customers buy ice cream in Lagos. Years of solid economic growth, gradual economic reforms and energy discoveries have transformed Africa into one of the worlds hottest markets. | Photo (detail): Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo

Food and cuisine play a huge role in my identity as a Nigerian. I am inextricably bound to the sweet, sour, bitter, umami and spice of my palate and my love for unrefined red palm oil to the seafood essence and fermented flavours of dry shrimp, to the cleansing broths of spicy ‘pepper soup’ - markers of my culinary and cultural identity.
 

By Ozoz Sokoh

My discovery of Brazilian Acarajé, birthed by Nigerian Akara in 2009, surprised me and expanded my mental identity into the terroir of Black and Blackness. The knowledge that enslaved people held on to foods from home for hundreds of years inspired me to document Nigerian food - ingredients, dishes - and its impact across the world.

One of the ingredients I’ve fallen in love with is cassava, in its many forms. A New World food, which quickly took root in Nigeria and grew to prominence, and is now in the top three of staples consumed. Introduced to West Africa by Portuguese explorers and slave traders around the 16th century, it didn’t become popular till circa 1888 when slave trade was abolished in Brazil (the last country to do so) and enslaved Nigerians returned home, bringing with them knowledge and techniques of processing it (some varieties are toxic if not processed correctly) thus expanding its uses. In addition, colonial powers encouraged and supported its cultivation for its hardy nature: resistant to locust attack and growth in limited water supply.

Often I think about what this means, and what cultural appropriation is. Reading about ‘The Columbian Exchange’, one might revel in the wonders of corn and cassava, tomatoes and more ‘gifted’ food crops, until you realise they were ferried on the seas of slavery.

“One might forget the Middle Passage and the traumas on full bellies of cassava - traumas that live with the descendants of the enslaved to this day, and by extension, many Black people.”

The most powerful consequence of colonialism on cultural identity is erasure - a consistent eroding of the values, language, history, economy of the colonised.

As a food writer and content creator, I earn my living from the work I do with food. Anything that robs me of the time to do this or limits the spaces I can do it in has economic impact. My experiences of navigating the world, telling food stories to preserve Nigerian food culture have been varied.

I know a lot about being Nigerian - born, bred, lived, being - this is a fact and I will not be challenged on it.    
 
In 2017, I got approached to feature in a mini documentary commissioned by a popular German TV station, Deutsche Welle (DW). The producer and I talked through all the details, selected a shoot day and got it done. Then began the wait for it to air. After months of waiting, the producer contacted me with some news: DW had decided not to run it. When I asked for an explanation, I received the following response from the broadcaster:

“You promised a lady that uses distinctly Nigerian food and dishes(1) to turn them into something like a new Nigerian style haute cuisine(2). What we got though was a lady buying veggies in a shop that could be anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world(3). Then she made a salad(4). There was nothing typically Nigerian in that footage, so it was cancelled by the broadcaster(5)”.

My first thought was: “What right does a non-Nigerian have to define Nigerian cuisine for me? To question my culinary heritage and identity?” And as I reflected and delved deeper, all I could think about was a very colonial view and mindset of Nigeria to further a specific poverty-laced narrative, an erasure of my knowledge and most painfully a waste of my time.
  • Racism – In this photo taken, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 workers prepare hamburgers at Johnny Rockets restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. As Nigeria’s middle class grows along with the appetite for foreign brands in Africa’s most populous nation, more foreign restaurants and lifestyle companies are entering the country. Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this photo taken, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 workers prepare hamburgers at Johnny Rockets restaurant in Lagos, Nigeria. As Nigeria’s middle class grows along with the appetite for foreign brands in Africa’s most populous nation, more foreign restaurants and lifestyle companies are entering the country.
  • Racism – In this photo taken on Friday, April 17, 2020, people buy tomatoes from a vegetable market in the commercial capital Lagos, Nigeria. Lockdowns in Africa limiting the movement of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus are threatening to choke off supplies of what the continent needs the most - food. Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    In this photo taken on Friday, April 17, 2020, people buy tomatoes from a vegetable market in the commercial capital Lagos, Nigeria. Lockdowns in Africa limiting the movement of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus are threatening to choke off supplies of what the continent needs the most - food.
  • Racism – Manioc trade on the market in Lagos, Nigeria Sunday Alamba © picture alliance / AP Photo
    Manioc trade on the market in Lagos, Nigeria
Let’s decolonise this conversation:

(1) ‘Distinctly Nigerian food and dishes’. Cassava and coconut are as Nigerian as they come, present in many forms from      street food to desserts and in between.

(2) ‘[…] to turn them into something like a new Nigerian style haute cuisine’. Should I have to justify what I made? Where’s evidence of the broadcaster having done the relevant research and contextual work to understand this salad and why is my opinion - as the expert here - on what haute cuisine is not listened to and respected?

(3) ‘[…] in a shop that could be anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world’. This was perhaps the scariest part for many reasons because I went to a roadside stall near my house. And it begged the question: Were they after a ‘muddy      market’ experience? The market experience for Nigerians is as varied as the European options. Why do I have to fit into a narrative?

(4) ‘Then she made salad!’ In Nigerian cuisine, there are a handful of salads and this interpretation of mine is one I consider amazing, inspired as it is by street food snack. Why isn’t that enough?

(5) ‘There was nothing typically Nigerian in that footage so it was cancelled by the broadcaster!’ And this was the ultimate summary. Everything about this was Nigerian. What agency, authority, right does a non-Nigerian have to challenge what is on my plate? Could I do the same? Could I challenge a German if they presented me with a dish of potatoes I wasn’t familiar with? Would I challenge where they shopped and what the inspiration for their dish was?

“The most powerful consequence of colonialism on cultural identity is erasure - a consistent eroding of the values, language, history, economy of the colonised.”

The conversation continued with other statements: “Just try to avoid portraying      this rich image. A viewer from any other African country should be able to identify with the story'; As long as it doesn't look elitist. Use ingredients that everyone can buy and afford because that's the whole idea behind the concept; a bit of shopping and explaining the local food factor (exactly what I did!). Then prepare a good visually interesting dish with the goods she bought and have her eat with someone who gives a comment”.

These tired tropes of poverty and simple palates, lack of knowledge and cultural understanding and context, a desire to paint a specific picture of Africa are not just legacies of colonialism, they are expression of living, thriving, breathing colonialism and the power dynamics are clear - and active, to force definitions of who people ought to be and how they ought to express themselves, removed from the history, the context, the legacy of who we are.

“The power dynamics are [...] active, to force definitions of who people ought to be and how they ought to express themselves, removed from the history, the context, the legacy of who we are.”

People, cultures, cuisines evolve - and Nigerian, African cuisine can too. We can reinvent who we are and what we do. There is no single story about who we are and where we've been. We make that choice, we have the agency, we decide who, what, when, how. This is why we need food media to grow beyond what it is now. We need food writers, storytellers, videographers, stylists, photographers, eaters and more. That's why I pour my energy, heart and soul into the New Nigerian Kitchen, to establish not only the food of my motherland, but my identity as woman, as Nigerian, as Black, Food Explorer and everything else I choose to be.

Colonial politics cannot stop me.