By Pini Jason
THERE is this story about an era in the forties when an epidemic hit my village. People were dying in great numbers. Medical science was very rudimentary and people were simply bewildered.
The church was so concerned and decided to offer special prayers. A man who would today pass as the Zeburudaya of the village was called out to pray for the village. The man reminded God that He commanded the folks to pay otu uzo na uzo iri (one tenth, I assume, tithe).
They have paid one tenth, he reminded God. Then he queried: God, why do you still allow our people to die, after we have paid one tenth?
The President challenged us to demonstrate our patriotism by eating cassava bread and confectionaries. He threw the challenge on Saturday 28 April 2012 when he launched the cassava bread at the Aso Villa.
He said he has kept his promise of eating cassava bread ever since the presentation of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA-made bread to him. “Let me assure you that I still keep faith with that pledge of eating only cassava bread in the State House”.
Mind you, the President eats the cassava bread in the State House, and may be eating whole wheat bread when he is in Otueke!
In the manner of our mendicant uniformed people who would say: “Oga am loyal!” I want to say to the President that I have been a patriot all my life. If eating cassava bread and its confectionaries is the mark of patriotism, I can beat my chest and say that I have given otu uzu na uzo iri! The President has a lot of catching up to do! I grew up in the village knowing no other staple food than akpu, which is fufu made from cassava!
There was yam alright, but that, like rice, was a special delicacy that you did not trifle with on daily basis. So akpu was it. And if you think eating cassava bread was such a sacrifice as to qualify one as patriotic, like dying for your country, you try akpu-na-ogwu, which translates as fufu-with-stumps!
Okay, let me explain. Fufu is made from fermented cassava. Fermenting it around the house meant that neighbourhood was assailed by the pungency of the smell of the deteriorating (in fact rotten) cassava. Or you could ferment it by the river side. Many women who carried it home from the river were not the most delectable sight.
The water from the fermented cassava dripped over their heads and faces and made them smell like wet dead rats! You could choose to further process the fermented cassava by using a sieve in water to separate the chaff from the starchy remains. This reduced the pungency of the smell. The fufu from this was called ayoro-ayo.
Enough cassava for an award
Often, we neither had the luxury of reducing the sheer quantity of the fermented cassava by removing the chaff, nor the patience (which was another luxury) to embark of making ayoro-ayo. So you simply removed the skin of the fermented cassava, boiled and pounded it, chaff and all!
This is akpu-na-ogwu, so called because as you ate the fufu with all the stumps! If you had too many mouths to feed, akpu-na-ogwu was your best bet! And often there were many mouths to feed! Any one who could swallow akpu-na-ogwu everyday needs no lesson in patriotism. He or she is a gallant patriot, my friend!
Some of us have done enough cassava eating to earn us the GCON award. After all, we have not been a drain on our foreign exchange and we did not get any waiver for our patriotism. During the civil war, we, on our own, discovered the specie of cassava we could cook and roast like yam! It may not have tasted like yam or sweet potato, but it tasted like food! We even prepared soup with the leaves of this specie of cassava. And if you were constantly on the run from the vandals, as we were, you stuffed the cassava in the pockets of your fatigue and ate them raw!
The President also enjoined us to eat confectionaries from cassava. Oh! Okay. We ate akara (cakes) made of cassava and fried with palm oil! What else is that if not the most prominent confectionary from cassava? Graduating form akpu-na-ogwu did not catapult us out of the orbit of patriotism.
We kept faith with our patriotic bond with cassava by “smoking” garri. I guess the President knows what “smoking” garri means. I think before Quaker Oats, Weetabix and Cornflex, there was garri! In secondary school, garri was the most popular “cereal”. Nothing reminds me of the competitiveness of garri as cereal than a few years ago when my townsman, a professor of many years in the United States of America, came home with his children for Christmas.
It was the first time the children, all grown up university (college) undergraduates, were coming home to Africa. One of the daughters saw garri and “smoked” the “damn good cuureeel” with sugar, milk and bananas till her stomach ached!
I am sure the President, as a man who had no shoes like me, knows many ways to “smoke” garri. You could use palm kernels the ever faithful dry pack of poor kids. You could use coconut. You could use bananas. You could use groundnuts. But the most popular combination if you wanted to enjoy this cassava “cereal” is to add sugar. Then when we wanted to play rich students we added condensed milk! Tell me, what could be more patriotic than garri and milk, sweetened with sugar and refreshed with a cold soft drink when other kids were being cajoled and even forced to eat roasted chicken, rice, cake and drink champagne?
I remember one son of a minister in my class in primary school who was asked by the teacher to name one animal he knew and the chap sprang to his feet with effervescent confidence and said: “Roasted chicken!” Of course, no prize for guessing, the class erupted into laughter.
The teacher hushed us: “Why are you fools laughing? He has named the animal he sees!” In another instance, a child was asked to make a sentence with “mother” and he said, in Igbo of course, “my mother is a thief!” Again the teacher could not allow us to laugh as he sharply rebuked us: “Do you know if he is right?” That was the first time I heard that a sentence could be right while the sense is wrong! I was digressing.
Anyway, the President should rest assured that we the akpu-na-ogwu patriots are still keeping faith with our cassava products and confectionaries. For as long as Nigerians can afford their garri, they will continue to wait and hope that, one day, our champagne and petroleum subsidy fund, PSF, patriots will see the wisdom to join us to redeem our economy.
The President said, “The importance of cassava bread is that our cassava farmers and processors, most of whom toil endlessly and earn little for their efforts now have cause to dream again as government has begun the implementation of a cassava transformation plan”.
The above statement is exactly what is going to torpedo the “cassava transformation plan” I don’t think the cassava patriotism should be some humanitarian overture to “our cassava farmers and processors”. Once we see it that way, the transformation in that area will patter away. This presumed tokenism to our farmers, local manufacturers or producers is why previous cassava and cocoa “revolutions” could not be sustained. I want to believe that this cassava bread patriotism is part of the campaign to patronise Made-in-Nigeria goods. It is therefore a far too serious economic step to be reduced to some token favour done to our toiling farmers.
Looking inwards is already too late for us to treat it with any condescension. Once we make it look like the problem of the farmers or producers, before we know it, those who can afford it will be eating bread smuggled through Benin Republic, and that will be the end of the cassava transformation! And when that happens, we the patriots who kept faith with cassava all our lives will be shortchanged.
The Chinese example
Just a few years ago, we all saw every Chinese wearing the Chairman Mao tunic. The Chinese ignored the West and World Trade Organisation, worked and ate what they produced. They produced cheap goods through the copy economy. Because there were no alternative goods coming from outside the borders, what China produced was what the Chinese patronised, before they started exporting.
Today, China is the most competitive economy in the world and the West is romancing China, Tianamen Square notwithstanding. China has discarded the tunic and re-branded. Chinese now strut on global fashion runways. China sent millions of their citizens abroad to learn to speak perfect French, English and German as part of its global export drive. As I write there are no less than 10 Chinese channels on the platform of DStv.
Unfortunately for us, we did not see the need to start to build a Nigerian economy at the exit of the British. That is why our Railway lines are still the way the British left them. We aped the British, ate their food, wore their clothes and drank their watery gin and declared our own gin as “illicit”! With a population estimated at 160 Nigerians we have the market to produce and eat our rice, produce and use our own soap, assemble and drive our own Beetles and Peugeot cars.
Nigeria would have been a happier place if more Nigerians drove a Beetle instead of a few parking 10 exotic SUVs in their garage! With a population of 160 people, we did not need to do the utmost stupid thing like importing petrol and dashing our commonwealth to a few people for importing what we can produce!
Nigerian elite like to show off with anything foreign, even if they acquired it with stolen money. That is why I say that the Made-in Nigeria experiment we just started is rather half-hearted and late. But that is not to say that it cannot be done.
If we are going to go back to Made-in-Nigeria goods, there has to be a complete economic transformation backed by a total cultural revolution that gets rid of all the corrupt elements in our society. It should not be token cassava transformation aimed at making cassava farmers feel good. Let me ask the President as the man in my village asked God, if we pay our one tenth by eating cassava bread, what will you give us? Will we still be wallowing in poverty?