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The Importance of Telling Our Own Stories

by on June 12, 2018
 

Because people will say they want to tell them and use the opportunity to perpetuate a narrative of poverty rather than one of unity, of sameness, of similarities in spite of the glaring differences. One reason why Anthony Bourdain will be missed. Terribly. For the work he did to expand our thinking and our culinary and cultural horizons.

I no longer jump at every offer to be featured on TV, radio and in print. To weigh in on podcasts, be interviewed, to get exposure (you foot the bills – for your time, ingredients, everything else, just so you know). I no longer get so excited that I give up my precious time – evenings, weekdays, weekends, whatever without first checking that what is being offered is aligned with my values and desires.

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Because I’ve learnt the hard way.

I learnt that some people – non-Nigerians have clear notions about what Nigeria and Nigerians are like, and quite often in the wrong and worst possible ways.

  • Like the idea that Nigerian markets do not have different expressions and thus are dark and muddy underfoot
  • Or that old nod to fufu culture, where everything is eaten by hand
  • Or the statements about an unrefined cuisine and help to polish it, to help show it off to the world. Double sigh

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In the last couple of years, I’ve encountered strange requests and unwittingly encouraged mind-boggling conversations in which I find myself defending Nigeria and Nigerian cuisine. Not for defense sake but because I believe. 

It is important for us to tell our own stories, and to have our stories clearly told. That’s why……

I get approached by all sorts of people/ organisations. Of the numerous, two stand out – one was a visitor to Nigeria who had great plans of broadcasting Nigerian cuisine to the world. The second was a European TV station which I’d like to talk about today. About a year ago, I was approached to film a mini-documentary. Things went something like this:

‘….The good news is …. would like to create a mini mini documentary. I’m yet to receive the details of what they are looking for exactly. But they would like it to be finished by December 16th…

I’ll chase them today for more info, so we can start planning a schedule.’

This came from a freelance producer/ filmmaker working with a larger agency. It came with a deadline -16th December.

Unpaid. Mind you.

The producer and I spoke about the plans – I was going to shop in my neighbourhood, where I often go to for groceries. I was going to make a New Nigerian Kitchen salad of cassava and coconut, based on a popular street food combo that features both. Anyone who knows anything about Nigeria will understand how prominent cassava is in our cuisine.

We shopped, I cooked, we ate, and everyone went their merry way.

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*

A few months later, the producer messaged me with ‘bad news’: the news agency had decided not to run the show because it wasn’t Nigerian enough. I wrote to the producer:

Thanks for the update on the episode.

I was quite shocked at the comments and I would like to get feedback across to ….

Prior to the shoot, I shared the goals and expected outcome. I’m Nigerian and I find it a bit offensive that a non-Nigerian outfit believes my approach wasn’t representative. This wasn’t a shoot for a ‘movie’ and it’s upsetting for me to see my time and resources trivialised for reasons that don’t respect my heritage or the multiple perspectives of Nigeria.

I also feel sorry that your time was wasted.

*

When the freelance producer complained, she was told that the reason they dropped the piece was:

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

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‘…a lady buying veggies in a shop that could be anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world’

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‘Then she made a salad’

Let us analyse please:

  • Distinctly Nigerian food and dishes: cassava and coconut aren’t distinctively Nigerian? In whose eyes? Whose gaze? Pray, please tell me what exactly you mean by distinctly Nigerian?
  • In a shop that could be anywhere in Europe or the rest of the world: and pray tell why Nigeria can’t look like ‘Europe’ or the rest of the world. Pray, tell me why ever not? So all of Nigeria looks the same? And all of the shops and options for purchasing fruits and vegetables are the same? I bet you I was expected to trudge through some muddy open market teeming with flies in the sweltering heat. I am so sure that would have made for much better viewing for the white-washed audience
  • Then she made salad! Sigh. Anyone who knows Nigerian cuisine will tell you that salads are interesting because we have a few. If anything, this version is interesting for the use of ingredients, in the way they’ve been used. I made a salad, inspired by the street food snack combination of cassava and coconut.
  • There was nothing typically Nigerian in that footage so it was cancelled by the broadcaster! Nothing typically Nigerian? Who are you? When did you become an authority on Nigerian food? When did you gain agency to say what is and what isn’t Nigerian cuisine?

Some facts:

The world’s largest producer of cassava is Nigeria with a production of 47,406,770 tons in 2013. With a production of 30,227,542 tons, Thailand follows next. Indonesia (23,936,920) and Brazil (21,484,218) rank third and fourth in the world in cassava production

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Cassava has been a staple in Nigeria since the 19th century with the return of the enslaved African people who brought back knowledge and processing techniques aiding the growth of the industry. Cassava can be toxic in raw forms if not processed correctly.

A few dishes with cassava in Nigeria:

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I remember feeling so upset and insulted. How dare you? How dare you decide that your foreign perspective about my Nigerian culture and cuisine is more informed than mine? 

Sigh. This is one reason why we need control of our narrative – to prevent single stories of poverty and filth. #1.

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I saw further exchanges between the agency and the producer in which the agency says

‘Just try to prevent this rich image. A viewer from any other African country should be able to identify’

As long as it doesn’t look elitist. Should be 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. Then prepare a good visually interesting dish with the goods she bought and have her eat with someone who gives a comment

OK, sounds like she doesn’t want to go to the typical outdoor African food market

Ozoz is this elitist/ high society angle -that’s why they didn’t want it was a full piece. The ‘Back to the Roots’ angle is what they are interested in.

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Tapioca, for Mingau

I don’t mind being called names, but to have that name calling done without context, respect for my heritage and even the slightest modicum of reasonable reasoning (and I’m rolling my own eyes) is irritating.

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, story tellers, videographers, stylists, photographers, eaters 🙂 and more. That’s why I pour my energy, heart and soul into the New Nigerian Kitchen.

It isn’t all about new stuff, it is a lot about defining what Nigerian cuisine is, and where it fits in the global context. 

Most of all, we need our voices, to educate, to inform, to ignore with well-placed words if we sense we’re going to be pigeon-holed. It means we all need to come together to create spaces for deepening our knowledge of food. 

Like coaching and mentoring food writers. 

Like the A Table events which are a collaboration between myself and Alliance Francais where the goal is to explore the similarities and differences in cuisine in West Africa with a focus on Anglo vs. Franco. 

Like the Goethe event Food Crossroads

Like the food writing course I’m working on giving at some point.

In the end, why should non-Nigerians who don’t know cassava from abacha or gari, who have no idea that there are a myriad of places to buy groceries in the vastness that is Nigeria be the ones who report on us?

Why?

We need to do more for ourselves and I will.

The end.


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