The summer following my twelfth birthday my family arrived on the small Caribbean island of Antigua.
I remember as the large British Airways 747 jet made its way through the clouds; I looked out of the small plane window down at the crystal clear blue sea, green hills, and brightly colored houses dotted against the landscape. I wondered about the people that lived there, the tastes, smells, sounds, and the kind of life that I would lead there.
‘Look Mum!’ I whispered.
“Look at the Sea! It is so blue. Can you see? Can you see?
“Will we ever go back to Nigeria? It looks so different! Is this where we will live now?” I continued with child-like curiosity.
At precisely that moment I remember seeing in my mother’s eyes a deep far away-ness that I had never quite seen before (or perhaps had never really noticed). In her eyes I saw a strange coming together of sadness, fear, excitement, anxiety, courage, love, fire, uncertainty, spirit, and energy.
I am not certain there is one word (at least not in English) for such a coming together of emotion.
“Yes”, she replied reaching gently for my brother and I.
We followed her eyes as she looked over our heads out of the window, and into the distance.
“Yes, I can see.” She said.
“This will be our home. This will be our home for now.”
I remember those words because in them lay the bravery of a woman starting over; the story of a woman for whom life had dealt difficult cards, but for whom immense opportunity lay on the horizon.
On the first night in our new home, my mother fed my brother and I boiled white rice, stew (made of fried onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers) and plantains. I remember closing my eyes to savor the taste and seeing memories of my late father smiling and laughing – this was his favorite dish. The spicy stew and boiled meat also took me back to London where we’d lived for a while, and where my uncle would take over the kitchen and create this exact same meal for my cousins and I. “Men must also know how to cook” he would say to us laughing heartily, and debunking the belief that African men don’t cook.
This food, these flavors, these ideas were my growing up and also part of my becoming.
Growing up between the Continent and the Caribbean, ‘food’ and by extension the art of preparing it has come to symbolise a kind of home, a kind of comfort, a kind of memory.
I remember discovering Antigua’s national dish - a thick vegetable stew called pepperpot that is often accompanied by fungi (pronounced foon-gee) a gooey polenta-like cornmeal dish, and wondering why this version of the okra soup and pounded yam that I’d grown up eating in Nigeria, was missing so much palm oil and pepper – unaware (at the time) of the travels these foods had themselves made in the hearts and hands of my ancestors.
You see, the history books tell us that over a million enslaved Africans were uprooted from their homes and transported to the Caribbean. We seldom, however, hear the stories of the ingredients and recipes that helped to sustain memories of ‘home’ in the arduous journeys across the Black Atlantic. The stories of how okra soup became pepperpot, how pounded yam, garri, tuwo masara, sadza, and fufu became fungi, and how plantains became a staple ingredient in many African homes across the diaspora.
As African peoples, our foods (their smells, textures, and tastes) have their own stories. They are the stories found in the Jamaican grocery store in Toronto selling yams, peppers, groundnuts, the Senegalese shop in Brooklyn, and the Nigerian store on Kilburn high road in London selling palm oil, bitterleaf and egusi seeds.
In my transition to adulthood, food stories would feature heavily in all aspects of my organising and community-building work.
When I was seventeen and in college, on many a cold, lonely Montreal night it was the sounds and smells of plantains frying, spices simmering, and rice boiling that provided a kind of comfort, a kind of survival, a kind of closeness to the many homes that I’d left behind. It was this food that brought together students from across the continent and diaspora to share our stories, our similarities, our sameness.
Together, over piping hot meals and in our tiny apartments we’d share new ideas, collective visions, dreams, stories of Haiti, Congo, Brazil, Toronto, London, Gambia, Ghana, Trinidad, Jamaica. We’d cook black beans and rice, roti and curry, jerk chicken, fried fish and feed our souls in an environment that we knew was not welcome to us being there.
For all of us, strangers on foreign land, these meals and gatherings were quite literally recipes for our survival.
Food, and by extension the cultural and artistic praxis of cooking speaks in many ways to the diversity of experiences of Black folk, but at the same time, carries important cultural meaning about who we are and where we are from.
It also speaks to the multiple ways that our identities intersect, and the ways that we are raced and gendered by society. The processes of making and sharing food represent deep intellectual, spiritual, and emotional experiences.
Across time and space, Black women writers have through our poetry, our music and our magic talked about the communal role of food and its importance in bringing Black people together for our resistance and for our survival.
Kyla Wazana Tomkins for instance writes, “the black mouth speaks, laughs, and eats in the face of the violent desires of white supremacy: in fact, speech, laughter, and eating are conjoined as tropes of black cultural presence and resistance.”
In her novel, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, Ntozake Shange writes of Indigo’s magic as she makes dolls out of socks stuffed with “red beans, raw rice, saw dust or palm leaves…”
Poet Nikki Giovanni writes of “food for the soul”, food as means of recreating ourselves.
And in the tradition of these voices and many more, I am thrilled to be part of a community that is conceptualizing ‘Nourishing Freedoms’ - a community event that is part of the historic Black Feminisms Forum happening in Bahia, Brazil in September (ahead of the AWID Forum).
As an event, an experience, and a process, ‘Nourishing Freedoms’ offers conversations about how food in our communities has been a site of resistance, creativity, and nourishment. It offers exchange, storytelling and performance art featuring voices such as the Brazilian gastronome- Angélica Moreira, Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi, Jamaican dub poet d’bi young anitafrika, DJ Afifa Aza and others.
This celebration and co-creation is part of a larger cultural program called BLACK CANVAS | REVERBERATIONS OF FREEDOM –Bahia co-curated by NSOROMMA and the Black Feminisms Forum Working Group. Through poetry, culinary and visual art, music, film and movement BLACK CANVAS | REVERBERATIONS OF FREEDOM –Bahia will highlight the ways in which Black feminists from around the world are imagining and co-creating our collective futures.
We invite all to join us at the table, eat with us, sit with us, learn with us, grow with us…be with us as we co-create, and nourish our Black Feminist Futures.
To learn more about how to attend BLACK CANVAS | REVERBERATIONS OF FREEDOM –Bahia write to us at: email@example.com
About the author
Amina Doherty is a Nigerian feminist Artivist. She supports several community-led media platforms and brings to her activism a passion for music, art, travel, photography, fashion and poetry.
Twitter || @Sheroxlox
This article is brought to you courtesy of the Black Feminisms Forum (BFF)