OPINION: Jollof rice and other matters
I was amused to no end the other day by the storm-in-a-tea-cup matter of jollof rice, our own very dear jollof rice, when the irrepressible and dramatic CNN reporter Richard Quest paid a PR visit to Lagos Nigeria.
A Nigerian government official who may have been mandated to do public relations for his ‘imaginary in-laws’ in Senegal argued that jollof rice is a delicacy from another country! And I said, ‘our own dear jollof rice? Something that I grew up on, looked forward to eating, and made a feast of each time it graced the table? Something my mother, like most mothers, my sisters and later my wife became expert in preparing? Something that was a must-eat at parties, whether by the rich or the poor? What did it matter to me anyway if jollof rice as the man knew it was first prepared by Senegalese or Congolese or Hottentots?
A hot argument then followed on social media. You know, the social media world is a dark place. You can hide behind your phone, lie down on a comfortable bed or the hard surface of a mud house in Koko and insult anybody in the world. People are allowed to pontificate on subjects they know nothing about. Some abused the Nigerian official, calling him names I can’t mention here in a respectable paper. Jollof is Nigerian. The word ‘jollof’ derives from ‘Wollof’. God punish you for taking our jollof away. You could have for nationalistic reasons have remained silent! All kinds of inanities! It’s called social media, report yourself, show your ignorance or your nakedness, literally or figuratively!
By the way Richard Quest’s visit was quite sweet. You know, with Quest reporting positively from Lagos about our dear native land, the world would take notice. His voice, his zest and aplomb could be seductively infectious. One could easily miss it when he is sugar-coating after having enough reasons to do so. He stressed the positive, needling us a bit on the power generation and supply problem, and assured the world that we were up and about, about our national challenges. Which was good; with a President who has sworn to wrestle kleptocracy to the ground, we should be happy and advertise it. It does not really matter that the hero is supinely reclining somewhere in a cold room in the Queen’s country, receiving treatment for age-related issues, much unlike our hero in the epic.
There was something somewhat disquieting about the nature of the broadcasts. Did I feel that it was essentially image-laundering? Wondered why he didn’t go to Abuja, report from Abuja, the seat of the nation’s government. I wondered aloud too whether he summoned all the big officials, including our Oil Minister to a dark spot in a dark night in Lagos to report to the bright world. Is it because Lagos is the commercial capital of the country? Well, that is for another day. Let me return to the heart of my narrative, the jollof rice matter, lest I be accused of gerrymandering like a female story teller!
Well, jollof rice! I grew up on jollof rice. We looked forward to it every evening, as soon as rice took over the favourite spot for dinner. Time was when rice was especially for occasions; then it became a Sunday affair. These days, it is a must for every family every day, such that some, particularly daughters of delicate disposition, eat it three times a day with dodo. May be it is because it is easy to prepare. Indeed, with some tomato and pepper and onion blended or chopped and thrown into a pot of boiling rice, with some palm or vegetable oil, be sure that jollof has arrived, the type my mother used to refer to as ‘okpariku’, (how-for-do type of jollof); it is also the typical students’ version. Others add all kinds of stuff to make it more than the ordinary jollof. For those who know, jollof has different grades, different quality. In Pidgin English, we say ‘jollof pass jollof’!
While thinking about the jollof rice matter one of the things that came to my mind was whether we have now made jollof rice a money spinner, a national and cultural asset, whether we now export if to the world as the Chinese have done with their cuisine. I also wondered whether we have started growing rice to feed the nation or to feed the world. Have we developed our brand of rice that we could universally push as ours? I once visited a Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. I had been in the U.S. for some weeks eating what we in Delta State would call ‘menemene’, and was therefore hungry for ‘swallow’. Two friends, one from India and the other from Palestine accompanied me to the restaurant in the hope that they might take a bite. When they took a look at the mound of pounded yam in my plate they decided to watch I would demolish the hill. I wasn’t amused that my food could not attract the taste bud of my international friends. Yet I was able to dine in Indian and Chinese restaurants.
I do hope that going forward the Nigerian version of jollof rice would take us forward in cultural tourism. Picture a long queue of visitors arriving Murtala Muhammed or Nnamdi Azikiwe Airports respectively and the sweet aroma of our jollof rice hits their nostrils and they ask ‘where is that aroma coming from’; and their guide would say ‘it’s Nigerian jollof’ and they spend the day eating jollof till they drop! Of course the rice would be harvest from Egbema in Ekiti State or Abakaliki in Ebonyi State. The protein in the delicacy would be Nigerian goat meat or beef from Kaura Namoda, not Niger Republic or Chad or some miserable hamlet in the desert outside Nigeria. Picture also a signpost at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco carrying ‘Nigerian Jollof Available’, and there is a long queue of Chinese and Japanese visitors jostling to have a taste of our Jollof.
So when we eat jollof or sardine or ‘corned beef’, let us remember that we can easily produce those items here in Lagos or Kano or Warri and build up our foreign reserves. That it doesn’t matter who cooked the rice in a special way first; what matters is what we have done with it. As Sapele wisdom says, a girl may have passed through many hands; it is the man who finally keeps her in the house as wife that can be said to have won the jollof of her heart, the ultimate trophy!