The forgotten dance of fingers and soup

In this piece, author Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà explores the Nigerian etiquette of eating with your hands.

Pounded Yam and Efo Riro (2019)The Centenary Project

From bowl to lips

One day in a buka on the Obafemi Awolowo University campus, there was a woman eating a bowl of gari and soup. I don't remember what soup it was now, it might have been egusi – the room was shadowy and the food didn't make a strong impression - but by the time I sat down, I could not look away from the lone diner. Nor have I ever forgotten the stretched minutes I spent watching her move food from her bowl to her lips.

Peppersoup In A Pot (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Not posturing, quiet suaveness

I can still picture the fingers on her right hand - her index and middle fingers going into the bowl, her thumb lackadaisically smoothing the morsel over. She picked up just enough food to feed an infant…It was as if rather than preparing the swallow-and-soup for her mouth, she was consoling the bits of food with soft strokes before ascent to her mouth. Her fourth finger was elegantly unemployed. Her little finger was not only idling as well, it was held up in the most elegant of crooks, like a finishing-touch to the epigram of the conducting hand. I had to look around the room again, do a double take and inspection.

Peppered snail on skewers, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Perhaps she had a companion who had gone off to the bathroom, or someone was hiding behind the grimy strung bead curtains - watching her for kicks. It was the most incongruous of scenes in Old Buka, hours after lunchtime when the rough functionality of the buka buildings were even more highlighted: Benches, bare tables, gritty floors, spills, and smoldering firewood odour… and this beautiful woman like she was superimposed on the place. There was her facial expression to match her eating - you know - detached, bored, uninterested. Eating not because I want to, but dammit, because I have to. She wore her iro and buba with potent poise, her gele was perched on one side of her head. It was all just so wonderfully measured that I wished I had a hidden video camera.

This was not posturing; it was... struggling for the It was suaveness-in-my backyard-thankyou -a strong rejoinder to the sprouts of disdain we surreptitiously ascribe to eating with fingers. She elevated the eating beyond skillfulness to an alluring dance. She walked out of the room when she was done eating, and I was just at the beginning of my own meal, thoroughly distracted. My fingers were now free to try what hers had just ceased doing...In greasy messy paws vain did I attempt to replicate the woman’s elegant mannerisms. I will of course not be caught dead using my fingers rather than a fork in public. Not because I have any iota of misplaced belief that eating with ones fingers is inferior to eating with forks and spoons, or that eating with one’s hands is vulgar, or ‘for natives’…

I am appalled at the notion that people are uncivilized or unattractive, or unlovable because they don’t know the difference between a fish fork and a salad fork. I’m not sure I know the difference. And I embrace the freedom to suck out nfi from their shells in public…this is very appropriate Nigerian etiquette. I won’t eat with my hands in public because I would never live it down. The off-putting shuddering sight would be that of oil running down my sleeve, three whole fingers or more going in and out or my mouth and smacking of lips and licking of fingers in desperate cleaning attempts. This skill of eating elegantly with fingers is a high powered one that I have never successfully mastered. One that I have watched relatives from outside Lagos’ who have no regard for the city’s obligatory urbaneness, enact with ease and great appeal.

Chicken Peppersoup (2019) by The Centenary ProjectThe Centenary Project

Two fingers working

I forgot to add that when you looked at the two fingers doing the work of taking food to the woman’s mouth, there was absolutely no stain of palm-oil on the back of them. It was like all that she was doing was just pampering the gari with the soup, not dipping, not committing to the eating of the soup. Her fingers were immaculate, so much so that she could have carried on and given you a handshake all at the same time. If she licked her fingers to keep them pristine, the action was lost in the flow of bowl to mouth. No rather, she was so good, she never needed to deign to lick anything. Her tongue stayed out of sight throughout the whole enterprise.

Pounded Yam and Okra Soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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I compare her to an acquaintance, who stood up at a Christian fellowship for "singles" on Lagos Island…stood up to competently project her opinion across the large room…She was eagerly looking to be married but incredibly finicky. She said she was very sorry, but she could not be with anyone who did not know the difference between a salad and a fish fork! I compare the woman in the buka even to the lovely elderly friend who told me that her first visit to her in-laws was preceded by stout warning from her fiancé not to cook the nfi in their black corrugated shells so that the dinner she was preparing would not be marred by the loud sucking of cooked snails from their shells held to the lips for firm fervent kisses.

Ofe Owerri Soup (2019)The Centenary Project

Mastering the maneuver

I think what made the biggest impression on me was the fact that the woman had taken the functionality of eating with fingers (and in Nigerian bukas it is 100% functionality. Hardly anyone goes to a buka to prim and pose…hardly anyone thinks of how eating with fingers is a skill way and above the use of metal implements…) and successfully adapted it to the context of being out in public and making a stunning impression. She had dressed it up, made it the drama we all self-consciously enact when we dress up, go out and eat in a fine-dining restaurant. Only the effort we make in restaurants, the dance, and elevation, priming and posing is in celebration of some imported table and its etiquettes. It isn’t really our table, not our true protocols, not our true culture.

Starch and Banga Soup, 2019, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Eating with a fork is child’s play compared to mastering that maneuver of fingers to lips. Not only that food is being carried to the mouth, but warmth and ‘evidence’ is generated by the skin, through the skin. The reassuring aroma of food and skin, and the distinct results of the equation, the way perfume smells different on every single person…Does the food agree with your system, perhaps eating with fingers reveals this efficiently, where a fork is cold and indifferent. Fingers absorb aromatics and carry them, on the way sending auditory messages into the nostrils. A fork does not feel heat nor discern texture, has no sensory collecting abilities and creates distance between the hand and the mouth, between the eyes and the hand… makes the journey longer with the introduction of something alien and metallic and extended. It is an inanimate object intruding on a sensual interaction. In most cases a fork will be stainless steel not organic-not wood, bone, bamboo, not living pores in living skin on living bones…There are scientific claims that fingers have powerful nerve receptors linked to the digestive system. That handling one’s food releases digestive juices and enzymes and enhances the meal.

Woman holding a plate of Efo Riro soup (2019)The Centenary Project


It didn’t matter that this woman was in a dark buka on a university campus, that there was no audience, no bright stage for showing off. And how can one truly be accused of showing off if there is no audience. I might as well have been invisible. This was this woman’s elegant protocol, alone or in company, in the dark and in the light. If gari and soup was being served at a consulate dinner where forks, knives, spoons were absent…if we were asked to showcase that Nigerian art of eating with fingers, this woman was the green white green flag flyer without contest. She would be the candidate of choice to carry it off with perfect grace. Not only had she learnt to eat skillfully and beautifully with her fingers –she had gone on to perfect the "sakara" of it.

Yẹ́misí Aríbisálà, Helena Krige, From the collection of: The Centenary Project
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Credits: Story

Yemisi Aribisala

A Nigerian born author, Yemisi Aribisala is best known for her thematic use of food to explore Nigerian stories. Her first book, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups Sex & Nigerian Tastebuds uses Nigerian food as a literary substrate to think about Nigeria’s culture and society. Longthroat Memoirs won a Gourmand’s World Cookbook award, was shortlisted for the 2018 Art of Eating Prize and won the 2016 John Avery Prize at the Andre Simon Book Awards. Her second book Wait! I’m Bringing a Bird Out of My Pocket, will be published by Chimurenga, Cape Town. She lives in London with her children. Her most recent articles on food and Nigeria can be read in @Popula: The alt-global magazine of news and culture.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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