My weekly blog on food and culture for the Nigerian newspaper 234Next had earned that reputation of being an early morning table where people came, sat around and bantered about Nigerian food as anodyne for the tensions and stresses of a typical Lagos morning. Readers eagerly anticipated my Thursday offerings so they could laugh and brutally condemn what they considered my quirky twists to time-honoured recipes; my naïve questioning of our cultural practices and beliefs, of why we had to cook certain foods in a specific way. People didn’t know me but they let their defences down as one tends to in the presence of a good meal. The blog was perhaps itself a kind of enchantment for people who weren’t used to talking about food or thinking much about it.
On 21 January 2011, I sent in my weekly copy. If truth be told the piece was a survey masquerading as my Thursday meditations on food. I was desperate for information on the Nigerian/Itsekiri love charm called Gbelekokomiyo; the kind put in a meal that guarantees complete infatuation from the object of one’s affections…if affection can be borrowed to temporarily replace an ambiguous mishmash of emotions and incentives. I was confident that the rapport I had built over two years with my readers would yield thought-provoking responses. I was hoping for unguarded confessions in the comments section, and in private emails where people typically felt freer expressing impassioned, sensitive opinions about unexpected collisions between food, life and relationships.
Gbelekokomiyo, Kop mo mi, ‘Kool Aid’ – that had somehow sneaked into the vernacular, past the compulsory urbaneness of men and women living in Lagos. It wasn’t something you could broach head on, never confrontationally. Therein was the stout frustrating paradox: that love charms were considered old-fashioned baubles that people in villages and backwaters dabbled in, but Lagosians secretly subscribed to them and wouldn’t say so, would never admit it. You couldn’t just ask people if they had ever cooked a meal with something extra in it to gain another’s love or obsessive attention, or agreeableness. The references and jokes made about the charms were the compromises and gaps in doors and windows that let you catch fugitive glimpses of something, but if for one minute the discussion became marginally serious, everyone sidestepped the matter like a dirty gutter and with determination slammed doors shut.