The most important thing to know about African parents is that they will not bend their culture for anyone, reason, or continent.
When my family first came to America, I was in primary school. I’d left behind friends, a loving nanny, and any concept of familiarity for a majority-white, private Christian school in the suburbs of Denver. Our first experience with American fast food was effectively traumatizing. We were in a rush one morning and decided to get my lunch from a McDonald’s. I remember coughing violently on the over-salted fries and making a mess from all the ketchup, mayonnaise and grease that spilled from the burger. My stomach churned, unable to hold in the “food”. I vomited up everything, and afterwards my mother insisted that I only eat African meals.
She sent me off each day with, what I would consider today, a visual feast: perhaps some golden joloff rice carefully seasoned with bitter leaf, marinated goat meat, or spicy vegetable stew with steamed and pounded yam (real yams, not the oddly shaped potatoes sold in most grocery stores in America). I remember sitting proudly at lunch time savoring the tender meat pies garnished with carrots, cabbage, and seasoned with ginger, cardamom, and cayenne. I could feel a forehead kiss in each spoonful of rice. My mother’s food staved off any homesickness, but unfortunately it wasn’t until after I had taken her food for granted that I realized how integral it was to my identity.
By the time fourth grade rolled around, the other kids in my class had a clear understanding of what was “cool”, and any shortcoming held the threat of branding you for the rest of your life (or at least until the end of the term) as an outsider and, definitively, “un-cool”. I had started at a disadvantage in this system being both black and foreign, but I felt I was moving up in the ladder of acceptance with each part of myself that assimilated. First went my accent, then my unpermed hair and then finally, a rejection of my original food culture. I started begging for Lunchables and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My mother reluctantly gave in, gasping in shock at the nutrition facts each time. I would watch her grind savory egusi melon seeds for one of my favorite soups while I sat across at the kitchen table, picking at my bland pasta or microwave pizza I pretended to like.
In high school, the challenge was to keep up with the aggressive Whole Foods culture: proving just how animal friendly, earth friendly, organic and gluten-free you were. I stopped eating meat and eventually all animal byproducts, shaming my parents for their meat consumption even though they personally visited the farms that their meat came from and killed it themselves. I was losing touch with my family and, therefore my heritage, simply by not eating with them. Eating with one’s elders or sharing a meal was the primary mode of bonding back home, and I was well aware how much it hurt my parents when I didn’t join them to eat. I had allowed the dominant, neo-colonizing rhetoric surrounding food, especially in ultra-healthy Colorado to dictate what I ate. By senior year, I had mastered the art of masking my Nigerian accent, and the African community saw me as an outsider. I finally achieved some semblance of acceptance by mainstream American culture, but I never felt so far from myself.
My sophomore year of college, I took a trip back to Nigeria to visit the rest of my family. I had been back before then, but this time I felt like a stranger in my own house. To my great embarrassment, everyone spoke only English to me after I explained my “diet restrictions” before the first dinner. My auntie squinted at me over a plate of long rice, plantains, and roasted lamb, and asked me who I thought I was. She scolded me, saying that American culture had made me too bold. In many ways, she was right: I knew how big of an insult it was to refuse food, but I did it anyway because I had conditioned myself to believe that there was only one right way to eat.
The next morning my aunt and my mother called me into the kitchen and told me I would be making dinner that night. They pointed at the pile of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, and fish that I was supposed to miraculously transform into a delicious meal. Thankfully, my cousin—tasked with providing assistance—was patient and guided me as I slowly deboned and cleaned the fish, and chopped and blended the vegetables and spices. Hard at work, I sweated out any disloyalty over the small stove. I kept meticulous record of the temperature and maggi content while making sure not a single grain was burnt to the bottom of the rice pot. I was so proud of myself even as my uncle complained about the apparent lack of salt. By the end of the night I felt I had unearthed a lost part of myself.
Eating ancestrally (pertaining to your region of birth or where your ancestors came from) has been scientifically proven to be better for one’s health. While I was eating foods like cheeseburgers, copious amounts of bread and pasta, processed meats, and Poptarts, I didn’t realize that I was actually poisoning my body. I was eating the same kind and amount of food as my American peers, but I would often get candida infections (an over-invasion of normally good bacteria by overconsumption of sugar, making one feel fatigued and nauseous for days) because the food actually had way more sugars and oils than my body was genetically designed to take in. When I “went healthy” and stopped eating meat altogether without supplementing myself with the nutrients my mother’s food provided, I started having hypoglycemic episodes. My body would scream ARE YOU SERIOUS?! FEED ME SOMETHING GOOD! But I had been conditioned to value acceptance over health.
After my trip back home, I cut back significantly on the amount of American foods I ate, and it transformed my well being. I started losing weight, felt happier, and discovered that I was both lactose and gluten intolerant, which is common for those from Western/ Sub-Saharan Africa. I ate my food proudly and even cooked for my friends who started coming back for more almost every night. They devoured the extra spicy stews, tearing up with gratitude (or pain, but either way I was happy). I felt so much closer to family and traditional culture and understood a sort of reverence for not only my ancestral food, but ancestral foods in general.
Almost every culture has a specific food tradition that the people’s bodies have biologically adjusted to, so when we pressure others into adhering to one way of eating, we deny them the opportunity to discover their healthiest selves. Don’t believe the hype! There isn’t just one way to eat. Try exploring your own ancestral foods. I found a new sense of home that I could carry with me wherever I went.