The sixth annual conference of Forever Africa Conference and Events (FACE), was held on the 7th of June 2023. It was an Africa Research Day which aimed to bring together students and staff at the University of Bristol for a day focused on sharing research, and reflecting on approaches to teaching Africa within the University and elsewhere, as well sharing advice on careers in Africa-focused research. At the event we had an “African-inspired” lunch. This was a version of Jollof rice made by the university’s approved caterers. The feedback was that it was very good. I myself enjoyed it. However, I must say that in my experience organising and attending African conferences in the UK, one of the most tricky aspects has been getting the food right. This speaks to a larger and unfortunate attitude of Universities around international cuisine. This is especially grating in institutions that claim to be internationalising, promoting diversity or even to be decolonial. In this blog post, I reflect on these experiences and explain why it is important to be able to find or provide edible Jollof (and other international food) in UK HE.

First a caveat. I have titled this essay “Decolonising Catering.” However, avid readers of this blog may have noted that I have been reluctant to engage in or advocate for anything resembling “Decolonise X”, as I wrote about here. I am far from the only one to decry this use of decolonisation. Scott Challener observes that the X in “Decolonise X” can run

“the gamut from therapy, yoga, diversity, Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, and dieting to the museum, the university, the curriculum, the syllabus, the classroom, the humanities, the digital humanities, and individual disciplinary fields (critical theory, environmental studies, gender studies, literary studies, queer theory, sociology, trauma studies).”

This use is a way of deracinating the word “decolonise” of all its radical and political meaning/power. Here, however, though I use this “Decolonise X” slightly tongue in cheek, it is also a cautious bid to hopefully speak to a larger political and structural history of power food/deprivation, (non)being and (un)belonging.

How my quest to “Decolonise University Catering” started

When I had not long returned to the UK in the mid 2000s, I was at a conference where I got into conversation with a professor from South America. During our chat, he asked me how I was adapting to the UK. I told him my main problem was not the cold – though I had become used to temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius, and had even managed to adjust to temperatures of 54 degrees in the Middle East, so lows of 2 degrees were certainly a shock. No, it was the food that was my major problem. This problem was rooted in the fact that I could not find food I was used to in many of the major shopping outlets. He invited me to look at the problem differently. He had lived in the UK a long time and he told me, over our tepid tea, unexciting biscuits and soggy leaf-covered bread, that one just had to adapt to British cuisine, especially in universities. It is impossible to get anything else here, he said. It is a part of the experience! I found that quite an interesting take. On the one hand, I completely agree that one should eat the cuisine of where one is living. I hunt down local cuisine anywhere I travel to. But a complete absence of any other cuisine is also troubling especially in internationalised universities. Also troubling is the hurdles one must climb to bring in those other cuisines – especially into universities.

My own ‘cuisine-al’ background

I have mentioned before that I spent some of my childhood in the UK (See more here and here). I have also travelled a bit across the world and across Nigeria. So, I have tried a lot of different foods, A LOT! Though, once I find that I do not like something, I am never touching it again – okra, eugh! Nevertheless, my favourite food has almost always been any ‘swallow’ food with egusi soup. But egusi is so rare in the UK that I have had to substitute so many parts of the dish such that it is more or less unrecognisable as the egusi soup that we know and love. For example, kale instead of efo or ugwu. And I have often removed the egusi altogether. I have used kippers as smoked fish. I do sometimes manage to get locust beans shipped to me.

A plate of egusi soup served with starch

On occasion, I will admit a fondness for Nigerian fried rice (it is imperative to specify that this fried rice is very Nigerian – it is loud, and arrogant and spicy and it often has lots of different “animals” in it). Jollof rice, on the other hand, has almost become more Nigerian than the flag and is definitely more successful than the football team. It is nearly as well travelled as both Afrobeat and Afrobeats combined. At a Nigerian party, it is an integral part of the experience to have fried chicken and plantain with Nigerian Jollof rice and comment on the long running West African dispute over which nation produces the best version. In this blog post, I am staying well out of the inevitable frenzied fray by exercising my right to remain silent. Ask me on other social media platforms and I may respond – if the coast is clear. You may also comment below on who YOU think makes the best Jollof. We are all agreed that it is definitely not Jamie Oliver (What on earth is Jollof fried chicken??? Egbani elaja!).

A plate of aforementioned Jollof with fried chicken and dodo

The Black Hole of Nigerian Food in University Catering

Nigerian students and the Japaa sensation are currently providing UKHE with a huge growth market. This has been the case for a long time, but the numbers continue to increase. This increase is also fuelled with the fact that Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and is linked to the UK via strong colonial ties. It is therefore not surprising to see large numbers of Nigerian students on a UK university campus. Some will have just arrived the country and some will have been born here – having dual citizenship or just Nigerian parents (yet still steeped in an expectation of festivities marked by Jollof rice). Despite this, universities have remained resolute in their lack of recognition of not just Nigerian palates, but any other palates who do not consider a bit of vegetable on bread the height of a lunch repast, and alcohol and crisps the zenith of a dinner get together.

My experience of university catering cuts across generic events as well as African or international events. In most universities in the UK, and often for valid health and safety purposes, only caterers from an approved list are allowed to cater university events. There are often very few caterers who can cook Nigerian food on these lists. As such, the burden is often placed on event organisers (often students) to raise these absences and solve them. The hurdles to closing these gaps are also a logistic nightmare. Many who have tried to do so have been confronted by the intractability of university bureaucracy. Prospective caterers are often asked to comply with standards that are not a match for their own niche market. As such they give up entry into the exalted list as too much trouble for very little reward. When that avenue inevitably fails, organisers are invited to “teach” the approved caterers the requested cuisine. For many of us, this gendered request presumes a skill beyond us – and also expects unpaid labour in addition to the often already unpaid labour of organising the event in the first place. And where is the time? When that alternative fails, recipes are requested. The recipe we used at FACE 2023 worked out very well… thankfully. It was obvious that the caterers took great care to show respect for the cuisine. Sadly, this is not always the case. We have had incidences of Jollof that looked like porridge, barely cooked rice, massive chunks of tomato in Jollof, tasteless Jollof, and lemon flavoured Jollof… just to mention a few unholy versions. In many of these poorly cooked samples, not enough attention was paid to the cultural nuance of the dish and the importance of food to culture. Universities did not resource their claim to internationalisation.

Asaro

Decolonising Catering: Or respecting the place of food in diverse cultures

As I said, I try and stay away from the formulation “Decolonise X.” However, a conversation about decolonisation in relation to food and universities does point us to some of the cultural impacts of the colonial project on food. According to Aimé Césaire,  that project resulted in:

‘societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.’

Some of those cultures that were trampled underfoot were the traditions that indigenous and colonised peoples had around food. We often see continuations of those logics that trampled cultures underfoot in the social hierarchies around food. Food that have spices, that should be eaten by hand, that have strong smells, that are very oily etc… are often considered food not to be eaten at formal events or in polite company. Even Jollof’s usurpation of other traditional food like amala, onugbu, tuwo and asaro, falls into that logic of hierarchies. And so the rejection of cultural food often feels like a rejection of the fullness of the people who have that food as part of their culture. To fit in to the rarefied air of university, you must leave bits of yourself outside its walls. In their essay, “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Tuck and Yang argue that, “Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life.” Part of that repatriation of life, includes our ways of thinking, doing and being around the food that we need to survive and which makes us who we are.

As such, for many of the cultures that find themselves represented at an international university, their cultural food means more than keeping the stomach from hitting the empty mark in between activities. Food is a communal experience to be savoured. Yoruba people will invite a visitor to eat within them, if the visitor arrives in the middle of the visitee’s meal. E ba wa re. You meet us well. Food is cosmic connection across the boundaries of generational abandonment and severing of ties. Even though Nigerians and Jamaicans dispute the pronunciation of plantain, we will both revel in a dish accompanied by some sort of fried plantain. An African American dinner, a Brazilian spread and a Ghanaian meal time are both bathed in roughly the same level of spice and season in their food. In her essay “Peter’s Pans”, Hortense Spillers imagines

how a cultural history of the African Diaspora and Continental Africa might proceed from the point of view of food and the foodways. The question of food as cultural expression, as a source of the deepest pleasure, and as an observation post on the range of the appetitive … struck [her] as a fruitful way to arrange a history of these geographical coordinates and perhaps from there, to specify zones of taste.

Food is belonging. Food is inexpensive time travel. Food is like a cheap plane ticket through which we can travel back home and also touch those unseen to whom we are connected across spacetime. Surrounded by the smells and sights of a familiar dish and the sounds of community, we are reminded that we are not alone in this world. We have never been alone. We will never be alone. We are enough. We are reminded that we have family, community and a history, carried forward on a plate of egusi, that has been served for generations. E ba wa re. Across space and time, we hope to meet each other well. And so we remember, a taste of home transcends the sense in the tongue. It is time travel, it is nostalgia, it is identity, it recollects for us a sense of self. This is why we continue to seek to eat Egusi and good Jollof in a strange land. E ba wa re. Welcome. Join us. Come and eat. You are not alone.

References

Césaire, Aimé. (2001). Discourse on Colonialism. NYU Press.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Peter’s Pans: Eating in the Diaspora.” Black, white, and in color: essays on American literature and culture (2003): 1-64.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. (2012). ‘Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor’.
Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1– 40.

ilorin-oja-oba

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