My grandfather experienced many days of hunger. It had nothing to do with being poor and everything to do with coming from a polygamous family; living in a persistently expanding household where you had to fight for everything. In those days, people believed that giving children large portions of meat to eat made them devious. It made them desire meat inordinately and turned them into thieves. It took away their self-restraint for food in general, in particular for ever more meat. There was no satisfying the craving. Like forbidden fruit, meat cultivated good and bad branches. Instead of meat on a child’s plate, there’d most often be a vat of finely milled smoked-crayfish in his millet-pap. The point was not vilification, but to avoid bewitchment through the visibility of meat.
My grandfather’s family was part of the ruling house in Igbajo in Osun State, Nigeria. His father, my great grandfather, was overwhelmed by his collection of wives, but all his life unrepentant of accumulating them. My great grandmother was dramatically light skinned in a way considered powerfully attractive even if unusual. She had Fulani ancestry and was an acolyte of Osun, the goddess of waters. She was courageous and beautiful enough to marry a man, have his children, leave him on her own terms and marry another man. She had some immutable rights as first wife to my great-grandfather, especially as a first wife who bore sons. Yet she left him, his wives, his women, his disheveled harem and her sons. She left my grandfather to suffer the traumas of the dog eat dog household. It may have been like leaving a place-holder in the house, just in case…
My great grandfather’s women were stronger than he. They willingly entered his house. The willingness is always seamlessly woven into storytelling as cultural necessity or allowance. In those days, marriage was both desirable and indispensable for a woman. A man who was polygamous was not by virtue of his existing wives ineligible for additional marriage, especially if he was charming and generous and well to do. The women in my great grandfather’s house by and by joined strengths with one another, formed coalitions and camps. Those that arrived naïve learnt the necessities of aggression and manipulation. They cursed my great grandfather and the children they bore him. The interesting thing was they were often fighting for the dominance of their own children’s rights to resources over their step children’s rights. These women were intensely enterprising, working my great grandfather’s farms, taking care of his children, greasing the wheels of his household. They were the sparks of energy and resourcefulness that represented his home and life. This was not to say that he trusted them to sustain his upkeep. My great grandfather slept with his wives and had children by them, but he cooked his own food and hid his cooking utensils away in his room. Till his death, he feared that his wives might collude and poison him. He kept his belongings in a separate place from his wives, but night after night he shared his bed with the enemy. You couldn’t feel sorry for him. There must have been some part of his misery if he was ever miserable that was at the same time excruciatingly pleasurable. As for the women’s lives they must have been embittered by many broken promises.
My grandfather stammered, had a quick temper and was academically brilliant. It was a volatile combination. Physically he stood out because he took his mother’s complexion. Everyone called him omo pupa. He was a slim man because he never ate more than he needed to. His father could have paid his university fees if he had taken their payment to be a priority. But his many wives and children and their upkeep made sending his son to university resemble large portions of meat on a child’s plate; an indulgence. With brilliant A-levels my grandfather went on to apprentice at the Nigerian Railway. At some point the opportunity for a regal elevation in status crossed his path. One of his sons could be king of Igbajo. His response was that he had no respect for monarchs and wanted nothing to do with them. The greater contradictions of hunger in a house where there was food ruled his motivations and desires. He fashioned his aspirations after his traumas. He became a train driver and in his old age, a full time farmer.
My grandfather’s hunger never matched his father’s. He grew up hating the prestige of collecting women by men of means. Since his own hunger had been for food, the definition of a beautiful woman was one wife who ate the food he paid for, the food he grew and raised on his farm or bought with his money; who ate it well and visibly. He was famously monogamous. With his own lips he proclaimed his preference for plump, well-fed, even fat women. He had a mischievous saying:
Ibadi l’aiye wa.
It meant all the joys of living were in the “arms” of a woman with flesh on her, a woman with an ample mobile waist and backside. I have changed the word to “arms” The word Ibadi means waist and all that a man sees and imagines when he looks at a woman’s “waist”. My grandfather was often offered other women by his mother and relatives, because it seemed both unnatural and unfashionable for a man’s sexual desires to be focused on one woman. His refusals were remarkable. One of them involved the appearance of a machete. I believed no one bothered him after that.
My grandmother loved to eat.
Her children, my mother and her siblings, ate what they liked and they ate as much of it as they wanted. My grandfather worked to keep the system of unrestricted, untimed eating in his own household going because it defied the rationing of food and meat from his childhood. He enjoyed the contrariness of watching his wife and children eat to the point of gluttony. My memories of my grandfather are of forever arriving with food; with creamy crowns of bananas from his farm, with goose eggs, crates of chicken eggs, with sugarcanes heavy with water to be eaten raw, with bunches of fat plantains that you fried in Kings Groundnut oil.
My grandmother was called Olayonu or ‘Layonu. I did not know her name until I read it in the programme of her funeral. Like women in her time, when she bore children, she proudly became Mama so and so. She lost her name to the starring role of motherhood. Even many years after her death, I did not learn her name. It became a riddle that only gave itself up two decades after her death. Her name had been translated for us as “a person with a natural joy”. Her name in fact means “Honour comes with many sorrows.” In the daily uttering of the name ‘Layonu, the real denotation that required the unequivocal commitment to each and every consonant sound O-l-a-n-i-y-o-n-u was lost.
My grandmother gave birth to eleven children. She buried five of them before they were toddlers. There was one baby among the five who died who would not eat enough to keep her alive. In the context of a house that had as its foundation the universal understanding that the love of and access to food was paramount, this newborn quickly became a worry and a project. In my grandmother’s time and context, you lived communally. The neighbours knew your business and offered unrelenting unsolicited advice. You might sit outside in the evenings catching up before bedtime, with children running around burning off their last cylinders of energy, and right there a scientific convention would take place. The consensus practice was to force feed any baby that did not eat its daily quota of millet/cornpap and breast milk. A skinny baby categorically could not disobey expectation. A lean baby was sick. Every baby in order to be beautiful and healthy had to be overfed, fat, regurgitating breast milk.
And what was this force-feeding? I have seen it done only once in a market place many years ago, and I hope to never see it again. The toddler in the market was on her back in her mother’s lap, her head held back; nostrils pressed closed so she could not help but swallow air, corn pap, whatever was put in the vicinity of her mouth. The white corn pap was inside a white 2 liter jerry can, watered down to the consistency of palm-wine, being poured like a flood down her throat. Force-feeding are very polite words for what was happening. It was water-boarding on pap. Gurgling, chocking, struggling with every limb flaying and every muscle constricting. The gag reflex being beaten with stick. It was violent and shocking to observe. My eyes teared-up — it felt like it was my throat receiving the pap. I had to look away. Many children have been fed this way and gained the required overfed look that reassured their parents they were thriving.
Everyone who had a child that wasn’t eating well gave the child her food in this way. Only the abnormal happened in my grandmother’s case. During the feeding of that baby, the baby died. My grandmother didn’t rationalise the death of the baby and say to herself that her death was an anomaly, an act of God, something that “statistically, in the environment in which she lived happened rarely”. She and her neighbours and sisters did not in the first instance sit down and discuss the audacity of pouring food down the throat of someone too delicate to hold her head up. In those days infant mortality was high, even in my grandparent’s home where this was one of five babies that died for “five different reasons”, four of those reasons herded under that one intangible scientific reason Sudden Infant Death Syndrom (SIDS). This death stood out because it happened in the mother’s line of duty, in the daytime, on guard, when she was carrying out her job to sustain life and was attempting to send into retreat the demons of hunger. Yes children and infants died but if you fed them well, then you might give them the strength to fight whatever else came — the diseases and other collisions with life.
I hear there is no tragedy like a mother who loses a child at the breast. Daily after that the breast milk comes but the child for whom the body carefully created the milk is gone. I believe she judged herself guilty. She buried the baby but the currents of pain remained in the house and in the stories that were passed down to us about certain traits in the family.
I had a South Asian friend who moved to the United States as a child, whose father changed their family name from Kapoor to Capoor. She later visited her village as an adult and was warned that everyone in her village was related. She presumed it to be some joke about cousins- marrying- cousins until she went to the mosque one day and saw the toes of the people praying. They were all arranged alike. The forth toe on every foot intruded, sat and pressed down on the smallest toe in an unmistakable, familiar and unusual way. Thus were her toes arranged and thus she recognised that almost everyone praying in that room that day was indeed related to her.
Every grandchild and great grandchild in my family, or shall we say to a percentage of 90 percent carry my grandmother’s toes. Her toes persist in the gene pool, as does the shape of her nose, the deep sepia used to draw lines in her palms. Three generations later, all the girls and women descending from her have prophetic dreams. They sleep and see ahead…but only through dusty mirrors. Some of her grand-daughters till today complain of owning the worst luck of the draw — inheriting coarse red loofah hair.
If only it were the cute genes belonging to my grandmother that persisted. In 1994, my grandmother died from perforations in her small intestines. Before that she had the worst disfiguring rheumatism and arthritis that I had seen in anyone’s knees and legs. She waddled rather than walked and her bones curved with each additional year. Her sense of smell was almost completely absent; she almost set herself on fire in the kitchen one day. She had many food intolerances and allergies which were not recognised at the time. The science and attitude of the day said you carried on and didn’t indulge your pain. Daily she ate food that poisoned rather than nourished her body. She ate to her fill and beyond her fill but there was a puzzle concerning the satisfaction of hunger. Her hunger romantically mirrored my grandfather’s, which was satisfied in watching other people eat. However, in a house full of food, picked up and put in the mouth without objections, my grandmother was quite possibly being malnourished.
When I was 27 years old, I went to the University of Cardiff to study a Masters degree. I had one law degree already. There was a pattern to my studies from my earliest memories of school and also to my general cognitive abilities. During the day, I found it very hard to stay awake. I could not be a good student. One day as a dare to my body, I drank a cafetiere of coffee so strong, my nose bled. So I realised and it needn’t have been an epiphany because all the signs had been there (all the knowledge that I have just related to you in the paragraphs up until this point were in my family’s oral stories being related every single day.) My brain was being sabotaged by something.
I suspected that it was the food that I was eating. This analysis could only happen in the UK, away from my family and the communality that represented our choices of food. A friend as an unrelated random action, gave me a book on detoxing and I decided to try it out. I discovered that if I didn’t eat bread, gluten, red meat, sugar, cakes, doughnuts, eggs, milk, cereal etc. I was awake. It seemed too good to be true, and it was completely unrealistic as a way of life. I am ashamed to say that I took all that self-knowledge, all the light bulbs, and filed them away in a box of quaint stories and ideas right next to all the stories of my great grand-parents, grand-parents and parents.
Somewhat ironically, given the family story, I ended up marrying a man whose name is “Nzan”, the Ofutop dialect word for Hunger. The history of his own hunger is another dissertation. We have a son born in 2005. His name is Aziba. Aziba is on the autism spectrum and was diagnosed as having PDD-NOS — Pervasive Developmental Delays Not Otherwise Specified. Despite all our prophetic inclinations and dusty mirrors, Aziba came in the way and manner that he did to help us with the last piece in the puzzle to solve my family’s relationship with hunger.
Aziba was conceived as a twin. His twin dissolved at four months. Close to his birth time, I was told that he was in breech position and if he didn’t turn, I was to prepare for a cesarean section. Aziba was born at 37 weeks weighing 3.25kg. He was beautiful and happy with plenty of hair. He was an impossibly light skinned child born to dark skinned parents, a pointer to omo pupa and his feisty Osun worshipping mother. Aziba didn’t speak at 8 months like his older sister. He crawled with one leg. He got up to walk at about 10 months then decided he wouldn’t try again for another 3 months. He said “Mama” at 14 months and didn’t apply words to context for the next three years. He stared endlessly in fascination at door hinges and light rays passing through random objects. He spun around in circles, hummed, flapped his hands in front of his eyes and hit his toys against his lower lip. His pediatrician and I had discussed at length and decided to stop his vaccines at 8 months and postpone the rest till we were sure what was happening. From his third or so bath, when he came home from hospital his whole head scaled over with layers of excess skin. Dandruff was prettier than this layering of skin. He was reacting to soap and shampoo and moisturisers and oils and medicines. Patches of skin on other parts of his body itched and bled. Once he stopped breastfeeding a couple of weeks to his first birthday, he fell very ill with pneumonia like symptoms. We switched his baby formula at one year old to a soy based one and he began to have 12 dirty diapers a day. He stopped making eye contact. He was on the move from 4:00am till 10:00pm at night. He was up in the middle of the night sometimes screaming and singing. When the rest of his class was sitting observantly, at sixteen months he was in the back of the room doing somersaults, standing on his head, flapping his hands and humming. A therapist assessed him and suggested that we do a hearing test as the first premise in a series of endless tests. When he was two years old, a light bulb came on in my exhausted head. I mean that I took out a light bulb from the box where I’d packed it. And I can only say it was grace. The grace of God who in the first place unthinkably gives delicate babies to inexperienced mothers making fatal mistakes but proudly naming themselves in honour of their victims.
No the gift of a child could not have come without a manual. A scientific manual. There had to be one lying around somewhere in the most unscientific of places otherwise “how” has humankind survived so far.
In secondary school my mother gave me highfalutin ham and cheese sandwiches that made my classmates very jealous. But I ate them and immediately felt as if I was suddenly switched to and was powered by a small generator; a massive step-down in cognition. When I ate my sandwiches at 12 noon, my brain slowed down to the point where I recognised intensely the effort I had to put in to listen to people speak. My focus went out of the window with my mind. I could feel every label in every piece of clothing that I was wearing. All I wanted to do was sleep.
And then I remembered the detox period in my twenties; that day with the cafetiere of coffee and the nose bleed: The removal of bread, red meat, cured meat, gluten and dairy from my diet, and the months of detox that gave me a prelude to a body and mind that worked in the way that I imagined it should, with all pistons firing. As vague as the possibilities were in my mind, I knew that I had to take every quirk that my body owned in its relationship to dealing with hunger and satisfying hunger and apply it to my son. I had to agree to be the manual, in the absence of such at the hospital. My reasoning was that if every time I walked into the clinic with my children, I was asked to relate some kind of history, and that history spanned many years, back to my parents and grandparents lives: If I was given forms to tick if someone, anyone in my family was hypertensive, diabetic, asthmatic, then the doctor should have also asked me:
If every time I ate ice-cream and pizzas I got painful ear infections and my ears blocked up and I was deaf for weeks?
If with every spoon of sugar I got an attack of candida?
If eating red-meat gave me heavy periods and was a root cause of the anemia that I was eating the meat to alleviate?
If malaria fever was inspired by a croissant? Because the anopheles parasites reproduced in my liver on the introduction of wheat into my system and released those parasites into my blood stream?
These were my fringe thoughts, beyond formulaic medical care questions, always put down in quotation marks and termed “controversial”. When you voiced them, medical professionals and other mothers rolled their eyes and looked at their feet.
My children’s pediatrician, Dr. Ify Orji, took an educated risk in proposing we postpone my son’s vaccines. What was the provenance of her “education”? It was by virtue of seeing thousands and thousands of babies in decades of pediatric care. If I lived in any other country she could have risked her practice over my son. Later when I thanked her for helping me in making this very important decision that halted his neurological damage, (and all we did was postpone MMR); she said matter-of -factly that the signs were already there in my first daughter.
The answers were in the manual I carried in my head, alongside the list of food related injuries that my mother and grandmother, my daughter and I had endured. Alongside the lists of protests of our bodies to the food that everyone else seemed to be able to digest well. The food we were eating was not satisfying hunger, it was creating deficits. Like my great grandfather’s many wives who should have improved his wealth yet ended up impoverishing him, our hunger passed on in the same genetic pool of mother’s toes and loofah hair, remaining malnourished, with holes in our cognitive abilities, in physical strength, in skin quality, in bladder efficiency and in immunity. The food we had eat was destroying our bodies.
With more tests, we discovered that Aziba had a leaky-gut, a condition that allowed food to pass through holes in his digestive system and enter his blood stream crossing the blood brain barrier. When I heard of this condition, I remembered the record of my grandmother’s death; the perforations in her intestines. Two years ago, my mother suffered the same perforations. It was caught in time to save her and she was given a list of foods to keep away from eating.
The “not so simple” commitment to the monitoring of Aziba’s meals, the introductions and removal of food from his diet, the minute by minute observation of reactions to eaten food; the cooking of meals from scratch every day…these were the crucial first steps to rescuing him from the lifelong sentence of PDD-NOS. The soy based formula had been the worst of mistakes. Like the forced pouring of corn pap down the baby’s choking esophagus, soya was poison to my son’s already delicate constitution, along with vaccines, antibiotics, toxins, excitotoxins, intolerances and allergies. It set us back developmentally at least a year and a half. It caused even more damage to his gut. Like my grandmother, I mourned my misinformed decision to put food down my child’s throat. I was not able to extricate myself from guilt by saying I used all the knowledge I had. The unfortunate science of that time (and it is only a few years ago), like the fatal unofficial science of force-feeding in my grandmother’s time, promoted soy as a nutritious non allergenic alternative to gluten.
In 2007, I walked into a shop in the Palms Mall in Lagos selling magazines and stationary and saw a title on the April edition of Discover Magazine. It read Autism: It’s Not Just in the Head by Jill Neimark. Finding Neimark’s seminal article was like coming to the end and seeing that the story ends well. That no information we are presented is random or dispensable or coincidental. Neimark proposed that our guts have more to do with autism and its cure than we give them credit for. I went on to read the work of a controversial molecular biologist and naturopath called Amy Yasko mentioned in this article. Amy Yasko is controversial. If I understood nothing else in Yasko’s complicated discussions on methylation and testing for polymorphisms, my brain came alive when she said over 90% of our immunity lies inside/lives inside our digestive systems. It was the landmark information that confirmed everything I had groped for in darkness and doubt. It was the reassurance I needed that I hadn’t misunderstood the relevance of my family history, the tracing of how hunger and gene vulnerability, culture and observation interacted in determining what was best for my children; what the next generation would be like, look like; how healthy they would be.
Aziba is indeed the last piece in the puzzle. You see, he has a five year old sister. By the time I had her, I was confident in my understanding of my own hunger. It had become… and I won’t ask permission to use the word…science. I had already falteringly applied it to my son and his older sister. My younger daughter was breastfed till 16 months. She ate no dairy or gluten till she was four years old. Her vaccines were divided up whenever she went to see the pediatrician. She was never given more than two vaccines on one day. Her MMR was postponed. Her DTP was broken up. She was homeschooled till her vaccines were all given at 4 years. She was given no processed foods and no baby formula. Her food was prepared fresh alongside her siblings every day. And she has never spent a day in hospital. With confidence, I can say that the failures with my son provided the motivation and science for all these decisions.
Last year for the first time, my son Aziba had comprehensive food intolerance tests carried out by Synexa in Cape Town. The tests confirmed our home-made observation on the foods that he was already eating. It cleared certain foods that we had unfairly suspected and excluded and gave us more options and confidence in providing nourishing food for him. On the top of the list of his sensitivities to food was that bewitching meat “beef”. When we applied the results of these food intolerance tests, my son stopped eating five or six times a day. He now eats twice a day, snacks once, and is full. He reads beautifully. He speaks in full sentences. He engages in imaginative play with his sister. He daily does things the doctors said he would never be able to do. He wants to go to Australia for the weekend to see Kangaroos. He told the therapist at his centre that I cooked him parrot stew. He knows the therapist has a pet parrot.
I ask myself why we didn’t do the tests earlier. Why the trial and error and damage was part of the landscape. Why I hadn’t done the tests for myself and gained the confidence to apply the needed dietary restrictions before becoming pregnant with my children. However, if the tests had been done earlier, I would not have a story to tell and have nothing to give. I would have taken a lot of things for granted. I would not understand that I was the scientific manual as well as the barely competent caregiver and mother.
My son is the reason behind my forthcoming book Longthroat Memoirs. Even if I loved stories before he arrived, I had no strong motivation to collect them and examine them in the context of food. He woke me up at 5am to cook breakfast and kept me on my feet all day cooking. I angry, exhausted, depressed and raging against everything. The necessity of cooking day in day out produced two and a half years of writing for a Nigerian newspaper on food and a faltering blog on food. And it also produced Longthroat Memoirs.
Before my grandfather was allowed to drive trains, his apprenticeship period involved long days as a fireman, shovelling coal into the tenders of steam locomotive engines. By the end of the period, he had lost the glow that earned him his nickname. In working in close proximity to roaring coal fires and in exposure to baking sun rays, he lost his light skin but not the nickname. He became as dark as I am. People also called him Baba loco (for locomotive) and when you heard the words, you knew they were pregnant with stories. One story goes that he was shovelling coal when an acquaintance who knew his family well walked past and called out to him encouragingly
“Kare Awe. O gbe lomo lowo.” — Well done young scholar, you will pass this vocation on to your children. There is the conjecture that the man meant no malice and was probably in awe of the steam locomotive engine.
My grandfather did not hesitate. He shovelled the hot coals with all the strength of his regrets, swung his arm high and scattered fire over the greeter.
“Pass it on to his children indeed”…spading coals into the belly of a train would never be my grandfather’s legacy to his children. Rather …creamy crowns of bananas from his farm, goose eggs, crates of chicken eggs, sugarcanes heavy with water to be eaten raw, bunches of fat plantains that you fried in Kings Groundnut oil.
It was a given that my mother and her siblings had the opportunity to go to universities in Nigeria and outside Nigeria.
This article was written for the Hidden Hunger Conference, March 3— March 6 2015 hosted by the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart as part of Two Seminars on Hunger and Affluence, curated by Jan- Philipp Possmann and Andreas Liebmann