Pepper Soup: 12 stories; unique and heartwarming, written by African women, free of the ‘sad, suffering’ tropes…

Why you need to read this book

Pepper soup is the epitome of Nigerian comfort food.

There is nothing like the hot and spicy brown liquid, with lumps of protein. Offal pepper soup is my personal favourite. Flavours and textures abound, the most interesting being tripe (or ‘towel’ as we call it.)

A recipe for pepper soup is available at Sisi Jemimah’s blog

Pepper soup goes down well.

So when my sister sweetly asked me if I could write a review for a new anthology curated by Timendu Aghahowa, containing short stories written by African woman and titled ‘Pepper soup’ I couldn’t resist. [NB: disclaimer that my uber-talented big sister is amongst these writers.]

I was already smiling as I read Timendu Aghahowa’s introduction in which she declares that she had asked all writers in the book to make sure ‘their stories should have female protagonists and happy endings.’ Timendu was on a mission to ensure that this would be ‘Naija comfort reading.’ And I believe these women have achieved that.

The anthology begins with ‘How to make pepper soup’ by Timendu Aghahowa, who successfully uses an intriguing interplay between first and second person to build a story around a pepper soup recipe. And just like a good bowl of pepper soup, the story hits the right spots and didn’t last long (in the best way possible.) It sets the tone for the rest of the book. Favourite quote:

I’m not going to tell you to put one spoon of this or two spoons of that. Taste it and balance accordingly.

Next is ‘A day for change’ by Pamela Agboga which transports us to the streets of Lagos. It is always a delight to see written pidgin English. This story has a sense of urgency as you find yourself wishing the protagonist well, and identifying with her frustrations. Favourite quote (which I can vouch for, often having shared this exact sentiment):

Propelled by that sort of tough love only Nigerians could bestow…

Lilian Izuorah takes us on a journey of strength and resilience in ‘The unravelling’. I felt particularly moved as I recognise aspects of it from various accounts I have heard over the years, based on real-life experiences. Many of us may know someone who has experienced similar. Lilian does a good job of infusing her characters with effortless grace. Favourite quote:

Let us look at it as an adventure. One day we will tell stories of this.

‘Pepper soup’ by Joy Ehonwa tells the story of love across tribalistic borders. Favourite quote:

Like my friends and siblings, my boss was in love with my pepper soup, so I often made some for her.

I loved this quote because my inner teacher’s pet believes in being nice to those bosses who avail themselves to ones niceties.

‘A Time to fall’ by Kiah starts with what was my favourite quote in the story:

She doesn’t know the exact moment autumn found its way from outside, into her heart.

What a way to start a story! The beauty of this story lies in the imagery Kiah evokes with her descriptions of the seasons and how they mimic our innermost feelings about love and loss.

The childhood narrative in ‘Playing pretend’ by Adanna Adeleke took me back to my own childhood when my father used to drive my sisters and I to school. This story touched me deeply because it reminded me how different a child-like perspective is from a grown-up one. Favourite quote that has so much hope in it:

…we’re all pretending, we pretend and then we become.

Next up, Timendu Aghahowa successfully uses an email format in ‘Doing just fine’ which makes it so current. We all know what it’s like to send a message and never get a reply. More frustrating when you’ve just bared your soul to someone you deeply care about. Favourite quote:

…and then we would have gone out to celebrate with suya and ice cream.

The perfect combination.

How to make suya

Maryam Tee tells us what family life can be like amongst many siblings and with a backyard full of fruit trees in ‘For the love of Guavas.’ Favourite quote:

The green and yellow it cast on her skin made her look so colourful, like a flower, like innocence.

Sifa Asani Gowon describes the feelings of falling for the university’s resident bad body in ‘Full circle’, which begins with my favourite quote in this story:

Irony is the mirthless chuckle coming from your throat when the joke is on you.

And then Pamela Agboba transports us back to childhood with her anthropomorphic story ‘Hot pepper soup,’ about friendship and bonding over love for food. Favourite quote:

Because on this street, everybody was in everybody’s business; humans and animals alike.

‘Trying faith’ by Kiah tells the story of a married couple facing their own trials after over a decade of marriage. Favourite quote which resonated deeply with me, and which I’ve never seen articulated so well regarding how hard keeping faith can be:

But the thing about having faith was that it was hard; hard to do, and even harder to hold on to when one finally grasped it.

Timendu Aghahowa finishes of this anthology with ‘A prayer for Ebi.’ This story gives a message of hope fostered between first-time parents who love each other and hold each other up. Favourite quote which anyone who has visited Lagos can attest to:

Lagos traffic respects no man.

There is a recurrent theme of food at one point or another through each of the stories, which ties them all in together. This is appropriate given that food plays a big part in Nigerian culture. It brings us together. It makes us happy.

We take pleasure in pepper soup, and this book does its name justice.

Why not try making yourself some pepper soup (with spices adjusted accordingly) and curl up on the couch with your bowl and these stories.

It is now available on OkadaBooks: