Encounters Between Cultures – Oyibo in Africa I

It never occurred to me that something as basic and simple as food and eating it could provide so much insight into culture, sociology, history, psychology, and any other -ology social scientists have made up recently till I came to Nigeria.

Until The Great Homecoming my eating experience with The Parents was each of us with individual plates round the table once a day at dinner except on Sundays when we had two meals together (they were working students).  If visitors arrived during a meal they waited till we finished eating.  Invitations to eat were issued only out of courtesy (a quintessentially oyibo virtue) if at all and not accepted by equally courteous guests unless they had been invited at least a week before to share that particular meal in which case Step-Mother brought out the good china. Bad manners were accepting an invitation to a meal to which you had not been previously invited.

It was therefore a surprise when during one of my first meals in my fathers’ village in south east Nigeria after the Great Homecoming an aunt unleashed a scathing attack on me for being a terribly bad mannered child for not inviting her to come and eat. Ground open and let me fall in. The last thing on my mind was to offend. Please eat it all! But that was not the point. In Igbo-Nigeria food is shared, sharing is caring. Even if it is a spoonful of rice it is obligatory to share it with whoever is present. Children will share a spoonful of rice one grain at a time! Meat is shredded and shared strand by strand. That is good manners in Igbo-Nigeria.

I frequently forget even 30 odd years later to issue the obligatory invitation to share my food though its no longer a the faux pas it used to be. Just like I sometimes forget that seniors are expected to leave food on the plate for the juniors that will wash them. Step-Mother taught me to take only as much as I could eat and eat everything that I took. Left overs got scrapped into the trash, considered a hideous waste of food so there could be no left overs. In the village all leftover food on is eaten and therefore it is good manners not to mess the food around on the plate. I was once denounced for eating like a dog once because I picked at my food, making any left overs unappealing.

Children usually ate from one plate. Eating from one plate was an important part of socialization and family bonding.  Only the Father of the House had the privilege of getting his food served separately. However, someone noticed that I didn’t keep up with half dozen hands scrambling in one plate and had exempted me. I ate slowly, unused to competing with others. Here the fast and furious ate the most. The slow and weak starved i guess. Bullies ate the most meat. But it was also customary for the youngest to get the last morsel and the pleasure of licking the plate clean after which they had to wash it. Washing plates was a great privilege.

From Google Images
From Google Images
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