Essays from exile: The oporoko chronicles

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

for you Mrs. C!
Princess of  the Earl of Sandwich!
Your eyes are teasing me again…

I am hungry. Very hungry. And hunger drives my brain cells to a certain point of brilliance, that hell-nirvana that my adversaries, and quite a few friends, call stark raving, certified lunacy. And as always happens when hunger places my growling stomach under house arrest, I commence esoteric ruminations, thinking deeply profound thoughts, or as my detractors would say, hallucinating. I am wondering for instance, when will Chinua Achebe, the world’s greatest writer of all times, get the Nobel Prize for discovering the Internet? Achebe lives! Yes, when will that brooding god of the white man’s letters sue the United States Government for stealing his ideas about a world without boundaries? Achebe lives! It is a poorly kept secret that Chinua Achebe discovered the Internet but the white man took credit for it. Achebe lives!

The white man has what we in Africa would call chutzpah if we were Jewish. I can’t believe that the white man is claiming that he discovered the Internet. Hell, any dolt who has read Achebe’s legendary book Things Fall Apart will readily come to one incontrovertible conclusion: The Internet was a deep dark secret in Achebe’s fecund brain way before the CIA became three measly letters in Washington DC ’s bureaucratic alphabet soup. Alphabet soup! Sandwiches! Today is Monday! Yesterday was Sunday and on Friday, my lover cooked me a pot of fresh fish peppersoup and I forgot to eat it on Saturday because I hid it so well on Friday. I hid my lover’s peppersoup from my weekend friends, pretend food critics, interlopers whose job it is to fawn over my lover’s cooking while eating it all!nigerian-soup-ewedu-egusi

I am hungry. Very hungry. Where did I keep my lover’s peppersoup? I must be at that age when I must write down the exact location of all the good stuff that I have stashed away in all my hiding places. I know exactly what I have hidden from my friends, my children and my lover – assorted delicacies lovingly cooked for me by my lover, bars of ice cream, cookies, US dollars… But first I must remember the locations of all my hiding places. I tell you, the aging process is a humbling, if not humiliating experience. In the beginning of the beginning of the twilight of my life’s journey, I am wondering, what goes first after the flight of youth; sex or memory? It is a brilliant question, and I know the answer to the riddle. But first I must go fetch my answer from its hiding place. Along with my lover’s fresh fish peppersoup.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And profound thoughts come rushing at me like large Americans assaulting McDonalds’ at lunch time. I am thinking of lunch. White folks have sandwiches and they have recipes. Everything is calculated. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. But man, she doled out pots of heavenly miracles from the bowels of that “kitchen” behind our compound. What passed for the kitchen of my childhood was severely allergic to things like measuring spoons and recipe books. My mother doesn’t do recipes. Never did. She cooked just like she lived her life; she made things up and it was a glorious mess. That delightfully chaotic tradition of making things up as life demands was passed on to my lover. For which I am immensely grateful. My lover doesn’t do recipes. Never did. Our kitchen in America does allow for fancy notions like measuring spoons, cutting boards and recipes. But my lover regards those notions er kitchen utensils as decorations. Show me a Nigerian woman who cooks egusi soup with a recipe and I’ll show you a white woman who garnishes her ogbono soup with carrots and cucumbers. No, my lover doesn’t do recipes, perish that thought. And like my mother’s cooking, my lover’s cooking reminds me every day that it would be sheer murder for her to divorce me.  If she deserts my sorry ass, who else will cook for me in the grand tradition of our ancestors?  I know this Nigerian dude who was embroiled in a bitter, nasty, divorce proceeding with his wife. He was willing to pay child support, alimony and all other forms of divorce ransom just to be free of his miserable marriage. Under one condition. He requested the court to grant him ogbono soup alimony from his wife. He made a strangely compelling case that his soon to be ex-wife had a moral, if not legal obligation to continue to provide him ogbono soup since he had become addicted to that sauce of gods. The judge granted him ogbono soup support on one condition – he had to provide his own pounded yam. He died a few months later of food poisoning. The ex-wife was never charged with murder – apparently the fool ate all the evidence before he died.

I am hungry. Very hungry. And I am thinking of the sandwich, that veritable substrate of multitaskers. I know now why the white man landed on the moon several moons before my people. It was all thanks to the sandwich. The white man discovered the sandwich. What has the sandwich got to do with the moon? I don’t know, I am hungry and hunger causes me to hallucinate. All I know is this: when the white man wanted to go to the moon, he created the sandwich. The sandwich fosters progress. You see, you can eat a sandwich and do other things at the same time, like drive, think, use the bathroom… Show me any Nigerian who landed on the moon after a meal of pounded yam and ogbono soup and I’ll show you someone suffering from the terminal stages of malaria. I can happily say that the Nigerian will never go to the moon. Because the pounded yam is like the jealous wife that our ancestors nicknamed “The Only One.” After a good meal, Americans like to indulge in a scrumptious dessert, like chocolate cake or ice cream. After a good meal of pounded yam, the only dessert you want between your lips is a toothpick. The pounded yam is delicious history posing as the present tense. The pounded yam was meant for farmers and warriors, not us, sedentary civil servants. We eat like farmers; we have no farms. But I love the pounded yam, nonetheless.

stockfis cod body-500x500It would be nice if our meals came in the form of sandwiches so we can get some serious work done and stuff our faces at the same time. But they do not. Who has ever heard of rice and stew sandwich? What would the bread be made of, scented banana leaves? Who would want to eat such a creation? Jeff, my American friend loves to drive his jalopy, eat a corned beef sandwich, play with his smartphone and talk to me while ogling scantily clad girls preening on the streets. All at the same time. Yet, he has had only four serious car accidents this year. Let me just observe that it would be extremely unwise to do anything else while attacking a mound of pounded yam and ogbono soup. Certainly not while driving. Indeed, the last Nigerian that tried to drive while eating pounded yam and ogbono soup did not live to repeat that foolishness. He died with his car wrapped around an Iroko tree. He died happy though. The dude died with a beautiful grin on his face, with a healthy ball of pounded yam coated in  egusi soup in each fist. Now, my people, that is how to die. After his death, his people went to the dibia, the wise man up the hills. And the dibia said that the fool deserved to die because he allowed his enemies to feed him pounded yam while driving his dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle on Nigeria’s death-traps euphemistically called roads.

I love ogbono soup, especially one stocked with chunks of smoked fish, tripe, ox-tail, cowfoot, snail and goat meat and stockfish. Panla! Oporoko! Stockfish!  Dried cod, aka stockfish comes from Norway and is compelling proof that the Norwegians are light-skinned descendants of our great country Nigeria. Stockfish has a distinct odor that some of its detractors have described with adjectives that are unfortunately unprintable. It is no secret that we Nigerians consume stockfish in great quantities. We normally cook it for a long time to soften it otherwise it would do great damage to your teeth. If you have teeth. I love stockfish, smell and all. It is an acquired taste, I must admit. And the smell, oh, the fragrance lingers on like a bad relationship and it clings to you all the way into corporate board rooms: Hear the white man ask “What is that interesting smell? Is that your cologne?”

I was in secondary school when the Nigerian Civil War ended. That war claimed a million people, thanks to the Western world’s generous insistence on supplying both sides with weapons of mass destruction. After the war, the West, eager to assuage its guilt in supervising a pogrom, embarked on a “rehabilitation” effort, a grand initiative which involved flooding us with bales of stockfish, bags of wheat and tons of powdered milk. I did not understand at the time why I was being “rehabilitated.” My side of Nigeria did not see a whole lot of that unfortunate war, but I was happy to humor white do-gooders by happily dining on tough strips of stockfish dried milk and “wheat” foo-foo. I quickly learnt that I had bad teeth plus I was lactose intolerant. I also found out that I could do a mean 100 yard sprint to the latrine after ingesting powdered milk. Every ten minutes. I should probably sue the white man for feeding me tubs of lactose intolerance. Except that the evidence is long gone down the latrines of my childhood.

As I was saying, it is impossible to do anything else after feasting on a mound of pounded yam. Well, anything else, except sleep. You have no doubt heard the story of the newly-wed Nigerian lady who complained to her mother that she was always physically exhausted because her husband was in the habit of demanding (and apparently getting) sex every night. Her mother assured her that if she fed her husband a mound of pounded yam every evening, the horny goat would go to sleep! It apparently worked because I can report that they are still happily married. Only in Nigeria. American women feign headaches to get out of having sex. Our women drug us to an impotent stupor with great balls of pounded yam!

I don’t take lunch to work. Well I did once. And the experience was a disaster. You see, I don’t care much for the sandwich. The whole concept of stuffing meat between slices of bread, I find quite fascinating. Not so our children. I can honestly say that our children are not Nigerians. I believe that my children were probably switched at birth; they have no genetic affinity for pounded yam. Instead they treat hamburgers and hotdogs with the reverence that I normally reserve for a bowl of piping hot rice and goat meat stew. Now, that is a meal! I wish it would come in a sandwich so I can get some work done in the office during my lunch break. My fellow workers come to work with their lunch boxes. They arrange their lunches in these cute little boxes like intricate art work – there is the sandwich, the potato chips, the carrots and the apple and sometimes the cookie (biscuit!). One day I brought my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. Ovaltine tins? Well, you are probably aware that the Nigerian is the world’s greatest recycler. Let me just say this: It is highly recommended that you do not assume that the ice cream container that resides in a Nigerian’s refrigerator houses ice cream. The jar container may have contained ice cream once upon a time but today, the real contents may be egusi, ogbono, peppersoup… I must be really hungry. Sigh!

Well, this one day, I took my lunch to work in two Ovaltine tins. One tin held my pounded yam and the other housed my ogbono soup. Man, my ogbono soup was chock full of strips of goat meat, smoked fish, stock fish, ox tail, cow foot, tripe, and snails the size of an elephant’s ear. Everything was fine in the office until I tried to microwave the ogbono soup. Someone in the office must have had major issues with the fragrance ensuing from my ogbono soup because that evil someone called the 911 emergency line. The ensuing fracas was a great theatrical production. You would have thought that terrorists were attacking America again. Specialized crisis teams swooped down on me and my ogbono soup; we are talking Hazardous Materials (HazMat) teams, fire trucks, ambulances, and grief counselors (some idiot apparently thought someone had died inside our office kitchenette). I would say more about this humiliating experience but my lawyers have asked me to refer all questions to them until the conclusion of a pending lawsuit where I am asking for a few hundred million dollars as compensation for the assault on my dignity. And I want my Ovaltine tin of ogbono soup back from the HazMat lab. Those assholes took my ogbono soup that houses my snails! It took a lot of ingenuity to smuggle those snails past Homeland Security at the airport.

So, acting on the advice of my lawyers, I don’t take lunch to work anymore. I do miss chomping on cow foot, ox tail and stockfish at lunch time. I don’t know what it is about the fragrance of stockfish that drives ordinarily reasonable Americans insane. I used to have an American room-mate, George Wallace, a quiet kid from rural Alabama; a kid used to chomping on chitterlings, the African-American cousin to ngwon-gwon that delectable dish of the gods that materializes from the offal of cows! Well, George Wallace was my room-mate until that fateful day when he walked in on me boiling stockfish. He walked out of my life in disgust, sputtering the sage words: “Damn! That shit stinks!” I love stockfish, but I won’t lie, that shit stinks! I know a highly revered Nigerian professor here in the United States who has banned the cooking of stockfish in his home. Apparently, his neighbors confronted him about a certain smell coming from his kitchen on certain evenings and accused him of trying to bring down the property value of their homes. One day, he overheard one of his neighbors thinking out aloud about calling Immigration on his illegal ass. So he stopped cooking stockfish and switched to eating sandwiches instead. Who wan die?egusi soup2

I am at work. I am hungry. I don’t want a sandwich. I remember; my lover is at home today! Today is her day off! There is a god! Suddenly a force jerks me up, hands me my car keys and my cellphone and shoves me out the door of my office. I am going home to eat! I wave my Blackberry at my colleagues, “I am going home for lunch! I’ll be right back! Call me on my cellphone if you need me! The brunette peers at me from the top of her horn-rimmed glasses like an all-knowing owl and her eyes tell me what she is thinking:

 “What is it with black men and sex? Can’t even wait to get home in the evening! Sheesh! Lawd have mercy! No wonder they never landed on the moon!”

I don’t care! I am going home to eat real food. Real food! Good sex! Who cares? Same difference!

My lover meets me at the door. She doesn’t seem too excited to see me!

  • Wetin you dey do for house? Why you nor call say you dey come house, abi dem don sack you again?
  • I dey hungry!
  • Dem nor get sandwich for una office?
  • I say I dey hungry!
  • Wetin u go chop!
  • Anything! Anything wen nor be sandwich!

I am hunched over heaping helpings of my lover’s cooking: fresh fish peppersoup, jollof rice, garnished with delectable strips of goat meat, tripe, ox tail, stockfish and snails the size of an elephant’s ears. Life is good. For one hour I am living an analog life in delightful defiance of the chaos of a digital world that was forced on us by thinkers like Chinua Achebe, people with over-sized brains. The delicacies of Africa soothe my stomach and dull my senses and I am now thinking rational albeit mundane thoughts. And I am thinking… What is all this about Chinua Achebe and the Internet? Did Philip Emeagwali really claim to be father of the Internet? Hmmmm! Did we pay our mortgage this month? What about last month?  My lover’s eyes hover over me, caring but anxious. She warns me about sauce dripping on to my white shirt. She worries, if I stain my shirt, I would have to change it and what would the amebos at work think – you went home to get “some” at lunch time! Who cares? My stomach just had sex! We are happy! Tell the amebos to go munch on a sandwich!

Epilogue – For Mamaput!

I wake up
deep in the bliss for the ignorant.
I pat my great stomach,
try to still the little lions
roaring away their message.

Lunch time!
Relax lions, I say
Your cage, my belle,
nor be sound proof!

Or do you insist on disgracing me
before these disinfected lords?
Well if you insist,
meet mama put, nomad,
hotel on ten toes,
magician-owner of a zillion hat tricks
that thrill the stomach’s heart.

Help me down, will you? she asks.
I love the smell of rice trapped in scented leaves.
And the bovine and Aquarian secrets
trapped in their own stews
are my delight!

Mama put
I hope all your particulars are correct,
I growl in mock cop style,
the style that warns molue driver
that particulars will never be correct
save that naira note
is completely lost
amidst the said particulars.
she replies in mock danfo driver fashion
resignation and hopelessness
all over her face.
I go try!

OK Mama put, put roun’about!
(that is the cow’s intestines for you)
put towel!
(tripe for you)

Put ponmo!
(that is the hide for you, very delicious!)
Mama put
your kidneys are too costly!
OK put one. One I say!
Abi na you go pay? What of your liver dem?
I hope dem nor rotten today?
Put one!

Cow leg? Cow’s legs, ke! Not today!
Tomorrow maybe. These legs are becoming too costly!
And besides they could be carcinogenic.
You know these cows certainly go places with those legs!

Mama put, how’s The Head of State today?
(that is the fish’s head for you, really delicious I tell you!)
Our Head of State dey, he’s fine, she replies coyly
OK just one!
Now, how much be my bill?
Three thousand Naira! Mamaput! You wan buy house
wit my money! Crook! Dreamer! Elemu!
Here’s your one thousand ojare!
If you don’t like my money give am to polis!

Notes:

The sandwich is a food item typically consisting of two slices of bread between which are laid one or more layers of meat, vegetable, cheese, or other fillings, together with optional or traditionally provided condiments, sauces, and other accompaniments. The sandwich was named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, although it is unlikely to have been invented by him. It is said that Lord Sandwich was fond of this form of food because it allowed him to continue gambling while eating. The name of the earldom comes from that of the English village of Sandwich in Kent —from the Old English Sandwic, meaning “sand place”.

Source: Wikipedia.org, the free encyclopedia