How 3 particular Yorùbá sayings illustrate the Nigerian attitude to food

The Centenary Project

Here linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún examines the philosophical and practical underpinnings to the Nigerian food culture. Though the country has over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups, each with its different cuisines, culture, and culinary cartography, three particular Yorùbá sayings have held through from the deserts of Sokoto through the savannah and the swamps the tributaries of the Niger delta.

Chopping fluted pumpkin leaves, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
#1: "Oun t’a ó jẹ l’àgbà oun ta ó se"
 “What we want to eat is, on the hierarchical scale, superior to what we want to do.”
Woman enjoying starch and banga soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

Rather than a denunciation of work — far from it — the saying is actually a complement to it, an acknowledgment of the importance of fuelling the stomach before any significant physical activity. Traditional Nigerian societies were agrarian and thus heavily dependent on physical energy: to till the farm, to weed a forest, to trap a wild animal for food, to lift bags of harvested crops home, to process food for the family’s consumption, to carry children over long distances, to dance, to wrestle, to make living huts out of leaves, stems, and shrubs. Waking up as early as dawn was standard, with the whole family heading out to put some work on the land before the scorching sun rises high enough to make hard labour impractical.

But a more important element of that morning effort is the food: heavy starch with protein to keep the body agile and sturdy, ready to take on the most important task. The saying has also held through in modern times. “Breakfast is the most important food of the day,” we often hear, via today’s doctors urging us to never let our bodies face the day without its nutritious fortification. How else to better understand this but as the most foundational set-up for a productive day? Ògì, pap, made out of plain white or yellow corn, taken with either mọ́ínmọ́ín, àkàrà, or even plain milk and sugar, is a staple breakfast menu around Nigeria today. And, in cities and other middle class areas, it can be bread and fried eggs. Or boiled yam and fried eggs. Or bread and butter. Fuel the body and the spirit.

Fish On A Grill, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
#2: "Ebi kìí wọ’nú k’ọ̀ràn mìíràn ó wọ̀ọ́"
“Hunger does not enter the stomach and allow anything else in.”
Grill mise-en-scene, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

The Yorùbá’s fascination with hunger is legendary. There are whole verses of Ifá, the Yorùbá literary and religious corpus, dedicated to its pang and dynamics. When hunger strikes, so many things can go wrong. Hunger can bring even a king down to his knees. The gut lives on its own rules. “The path to the stomach is the path to heaven,” is another saying, exaggerating the importance of one’s throat in the pursuit of happiness. Satisfy it and paradise is yours. When we are satiated enough to joke, we say “iyán l’oúnjẹ, ọkà l’oògùn”, meaning “pounded yam is food, while ọkà/àmàlà is merely medicine” even though both would look good on a big plate with a gathering of ẹ̀fọ́ rírò or ẹ̀gúsí or even edi kang ikong floating nearby in a steaming hot state. The reason why the pounded yam is given this kind of hierarchy on the order of food is probably lost to time. It is even more curious when we realize that both iyán (pounded yam) and ọkà (àmàlà made out of yam flour) are both products of yam — just through a different processing. It is for the yam that we have the annual Yam Festivals. No other crop gets this first class treatment.

Smoked crayfish at a market, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

The most popular lunch staple today include rice (jollof or fried or white or ọ̀fadà) with a choice of soup or stew to go with, and with fried plantain or beans, or both. Or you can have boiled yam with eggs — a meal that seems to work either as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Or you can go with the ‘swallows’: fufu in the East, àmàlà in the SouthWest, túwó in the North, and many more in-between. In Plateau State in the middle belt, gwete (also called pate acha) is a rich and healthy staple packed with a lot of nutritious vegetables and grains. It is made out of acha (fonio), a type of millet, and other delightful condiments. For protein, goat meat or chicken. Or cow hide: pọ̀nmọ́. Or cow leg: bọ̀kọ̀tọ́ọ̀. Or pork where necessary. Or fish: koté, aláràán (markarel), tilapia, or ẹjà àrọ̀ (catfish) or ẹja kíká, roasted and folded into the food like a resting viper. Or shrimps, lobsters, prawns. Or chicken and turkey: new delightful additions to the menu that used to just be a Christmas presence. Now, at the market, we can buy any, freshly slaughtered, and have them in the pot in a few hours. Hot pepper soup to spice the mouth and keep out the cold. Palm wine for dessert.

Ponmo stirred in sauce, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project


Modernization and the pressures of big city metropoles have increased the need for street food and road-side grubs. Go to Marina in Lagos, the most famously populated bank road in Nigeria, and see bank workers in suits and ties sitting in crowded bukas sweating it out over hot plates of amala or semo or pounded yam served by old women whose dexterous hands-for-spoon (“ọlọ́wọ́ ṣíbí,” as people whose meals are a notable delight are often called) have prepared the hot delicacies throughout the day and throughout the history of African women sweating it out by the hearth to feed families and generations. The food wins. Hunger loses. And when, in traffic on the way home, the pangs of hunger raises its ugly head again, one can stretch one’s hands out of the car and buy one of the many snacks being peddled on the road via the intractable Lagos hustle. Gala on one end, plantain chips on another. With orange juice-in-a-box, or a cold water in a bottle. The day is saved.

Habanero pepper, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
#3: Tí ebi bá kúrò nínú ìṣẹ́, ìṣẹ́ bùṣe
“When hunger is taken out of poverty, poverty ends.”
Pounded yam and egusi soup, The Centenary Project, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project

This needs no explanation. Lack of food is the primary ingredient of poverty. When there is abundance, there is life. Wash your hands. Prepare your palate. Let us eat.

Young girl enjoying pounded yam and okra soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
Credits: Story

Kọ́la Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, with work and influence in education, linguistics, and literature. He is both a Fulbright (2009) and Chevening (2019) scholar. He is the founder of YorubaName.com and has worked as a speech linguist at Google and as a lexicographer with Oxford University Press, UK. He’s the 2016 recipient of the Ostana “Special Prize” for Language Advocacy.


His work has been published in African Writer, Aké Review, Brittle Paper, International Literary Quarterly, Enkare Review, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Jalada, Popula, Saraba Magazine, The Guardian (Nigerian and UK), ThisisAfrica, and in Literary Wonderlands, an anthology of literary essays edited by Laura Miller.

His collection of poetry Edwardsville by Heart was published in November 2016 by Wisdom’s Bottom Press, UK. His work has been translated to Italian, Spanish, and Korean.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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