A tale of firewood Mama told me - Bolanle Bolawole

I recently heard that jollof rice cooked with/on firewood tastes better than the one cooked with/on gas. I also heard that jollof rice cooked with/on charcoal/coal sits in-between – not as tasty as the former but tastes better than the latter. I cannot lay claim to being an extra-ordinary chef, even though I was raised to be able to fend for myself and can cook very well as a proud member of the old school; not of the new generation raised on meat-pie and indomie. I wouldn’t know why this difference between jollof rice cooked with different types of “firewood”; one would have expected the expertise of the chef to make the difference. Maybe jollof rice aficionados will tell us why!

The concerns of environmentalists over climate change and global warming notwithstanding, I am thrilled that, if true, this is another clear example of how our own traditional methods of doing things, which we foolishly and without interrogation abandoned with glee and relish, to embrace “modern”, Western or “civilized” ways have, ultimately, proved superior, better informed, more economical and more beneficial to our health than the new but foreign ways we are wont to adopt. The joke is on us on many fronts. The people whose ways we adopted are jettisoning those ways themselves and embracing ours! Sadly but ironically, it is when foreigners embrace the traditional way of life we discard that we see the need to go back to our roots!

The Japanese reportedly were throwing away their micro-wave ovens because latest scientific discoveries say it causes cancer. Be sure the ovens will end up in Africa! Since I read about that, I have been wary to use my own micro-wave oven. So our ancestors’ ways of warming their food on fire and/or by the fire-place is far better and safer than the modern micro-wave oven system signalling modern civilization, which we embraced hook-line-and-sinker! Only God knows how many lives lost to the rampaging scourge of cancer have been as a result of the wanton use of micro-wave oven! I will not be surprised if, one day soon, new research reveals the dangers involved in using fridges and deep freezers to store/preserve/cool food items and drinks! Growing up, we fetched “cold water” from the big earthen pot strategically located at the corner of the “aya’li” by Grandma. Traditional methods of preserving foods and meats ranged from the way the Ikales preserve “pupuru” to how meats were preserved by the fire-place and “garri” was dried in the sun. Today, the whole traditional process of making “garri”, which took weeks, has been shortened to a few days.

The earthen wares of old used as cooking utensils and plates are now acknowledged to be better and safer than the modern cooking utensils and plates which pass through production processes using chemicals to form or shape them, with now known adverse effects on our health. Nylons used to wrap foods are now known not to be as good and health-friendly as the traditional “ewe” or leaves. Apart from the environmental hazard and nuisance that their empties constitute, bottled drinks pose a danger to our health. Processed food of any kind is harmful; organic food, which was how our ancestors lived life, is the best. We now know that storing water and other drinks in the fridge in plastic containers is dangerous to our health. Imported rice, which we crave after, has been conclusively proven not to be as good as our own local “ofada” rice. Now, the elite run away from imported rice, returning to “Ofada” – and better if it is wrapped with “ewe” and not in nylon or anything polyethylene. Pounded yam, too, is best served these days wrapped with “ewe”

Only last Wednesday, my elder sister and her husband, just returning from the US, visited and my wife gave them the pounded yam treat - but the yam nearly ruined her efforts. Yams these days are stuffed with fertilizers – they look so big but are not as good as our local, traditional yams. My sister recalled with nostalgia the “owanna” yams of old – thin but rugged and pure. What of “ewusu”? Just one tuber will feed an entire family. It swells as you put warm water or “Koko posho”, which was popular in my native Owo, Ondo State in those days. I still see “Koko” or cocoyam but cannot say whether “Posho”, which was used to soften “koko” as you mould it into pounded yam, is still available. With the ascendancy of yams, “Koko” was derided, abandoned and associated with the poor. Owo people were called “Aje’legbe” or eaters/consumers of “ilegbe”, which was the local name for cocoyam or “koko”. It was years later in the late 70s when, at Osogbo, I encountered Ghanaians fleeing from their country’s economic hardship, that I learned that “Koko” was not just a delicacy but, perhaps, more nutritious than yam.  We have lost many of our treasures to so-called modernization.

Recently, Mr Tope Ogunbodede agonised during a private discussion at Ife that a lot of our animal species have gone into extinction without any effort at preserving them in our Natural Museums. He made specific mention of a species of fowl/chicken that had no hair on its neck. And I remember our own local cattle called “erenla”; they used to graze at the swamp close to Methodist Church along the Oke-Ogun axis of Owo. Rugged animals but most likely must have gone into extinction.

Our children have made rice their staple food. In those days, we ate rice on festive periods and on special occasions. No more! Rice is alien to our culture; that is why we have no local name for it. “Iresi” is bastardization of “rice”; so also is “buredi” for bread. Not only are these foods alien - and a drain on our resources to help shore up the economy of other lands while impoverishing ours – they also do not do our health any good. The pastries and soft drinks industry is harmful to our health, fuels obesity and promotes cancer and all manner of coronary/heart diseases. Yet, they are the craze of the moment. We have imbibed the food and drinks culture of the Western world without the knowledge and health facilities that ameliorate their adverse effects.

Recently, I saw how the same Western world has modernised our local “pako” and they will soon start exporting it to us. It is brush and tooth-paste both rolled into one and it is even said to have more medicinal value than toothpastes. So many of our herbs, leaves, roots and the bark of trees that are of medicinal values have been abandoned, neglected and left to rot while we run after the inventions of the West; the vast and incredibly useful knowledge of our ancestors in many fields may have been lost. Until and unless the West returns to “discover” them and “teach” us their efficacy, we may never see them as amounting to anything; talk less of returning to them! So were we taught in Eurocentric history books that Mungo Park discovered River Niger – but some natives showed him the way and led him through its length and breadth!

Biblical Hannah weaned her son Samuel after three years (?); she must have fed him breast-milk and not baby food. Same knowledge of the efficacy of breast milk was available to our fore-fathers, perhaps, before Bible times but we were made to abandon it as primitive and take to baby foods. I saw empty cans of Amama, Cow and Gate and such other baby foods of yore in my father’s shop while growing up. They were evidence he was rich and gave us the best that money could buy. I saw the gramophone record player he bought for us. Growing up, we played some of the records – heavy like clay. I still remember one of the artistes singing “Apeteshi no good o, no good o, no good o”; meaning the local gin or “ogogoro” was not good but the ones brought by the Whites were, and were some of the items used to lure the Chiefs of old to raid, capture and sell their fellow Blacks as slaves. Another artiste sang against Independence: “Awa o fe o, awa o fe Ominira. E je ka mura si’se...” It means that they rejected the struggle for Independence! Rather, the people should redouble their efforts in the unbridled service of the White man!

Today, we know that neither Apeteshi nor Hennessey is good and nothing nourishes a child more than the mother’s breast milk. We have also found that three solid years are the minimum for a child to suck at Mama’s breasts. Those days, we would return from school, which we did not start until our left hand touched our right ear (a minimum of six years of age), to still suck our mother’s breasts! No more! The attendant psychological, mental and other health issues and dislocation this change causes in the make-up of modern-era children are everywhere around us. Back to our roots we must, like Lucky Dube crooned. We must plant again the pumpkins in the old homestead that we have wilfully, maliciously and ignorantly uprooted, like Mr Okot p’Bitek admonished. Following scriptures, we must begin to retrace and reconstruct the old landmarks which we have virtually obliterated. It has all been to our chagrin.

Back to our jollof rice and firewood tale! Mama taught me that not all firewood is fit for cooking if you don’t want the food to “mehe”; meaning it will cook randomly and not uniformly. No one savours such food. Avoid the dead wood. It does not glow but brings out smoke to pepper one’s eyes; making the job of blowing air into the fire so that it glows tedious, arduous and fruitless. Eventually, it lets your cooking “mehe”. Avoid insects-infested firewood. It may glow but the unwanted guests it brings will drive you away from the kitchen. Avoid the crooked firewood aka “igi woroko ti n da’na ru” Not only will it make it impossible for you to effectively arrange the firewood; if care is not taken, it can even upturn the pot and throw its contents in the fire! Avoid “deceptive” bamboo. It burns bright and fast but expires quickly. At the point that you need it most is when it disappoints.

Judges 9: 1 – 20 tells the story of Abimelech the son of Jerub-baal and the parable of his brother Jotham: Out of the 70 sons of their father, Jotham was the only one who escaped from the wickedness of Abimelech. Jotham then told Abimelech: Once upon a time the trees wanted a king over themselves. The olive tree; the fig tree; and the vine were consulted in that order but they all declined; thereafter, the bramble accepted the offer. The first three declined because they were gainfully employed and treasured the services they were rendering. The bramble accepted because it had little value and, thus, found the offer too tempting to resist and too delicious to reject.

Not long ago, a pastor felt so frustrated with goings-on that he approached the “Oga at the top” to complain. The “Oga Patapata” was all ears but, afterwards, told the complainant a proverb of the firewood: This firewood is not good; that firewood is also not good is how you will remove all the firewood from the fire! You, too, may have heard that proverb. That is the tragedy of our collective existence today in all sectors – public, private, religious, name it. How many good firewood are in the fire? And is it not the bramble that calls the shot everywhere? Have the few men and women of conscience not given up – overwhelmed by the sheer numerical strength and bravado of the Abimelechs and the vain crowd around them?  How, then, will the food we are cooking not “mehe”?

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