Searching for My "Forever Home"—and Finding It in (Nigerian) Stew

April 24, 2017

My memory is flawless and never lets me down. I can recall the most mundane of instances from my childhood, but for some reason, I can’t exactly remember the first time I had (Nigerian) stew. I know I was a child, maybe six or seven years old. I remember the heaping bowl of stew, and the swirls of heat above it swirling closer and closer to the ceiling. I remember how this happened: My father, a man born-and-reared in Lagos who immigrated to the States as an international student in the 1970s, rumbled around the kitchen, making a mess and ruckus, while my African-American mother from Huntsville, Alabama, only shook her head with a sheepish smile steeped in love.

A tomato sauce-based stew with chicken stock Photo by James Ransom

The elemental ingredient? Maggi (bouillon) cubes. Chunks of beef, often pan-fried, and chicken legs were held together with a spicy tomato sauce that was simmered until it bubbled, and then seasoned—always with Maggi cubes, or the flavor was off. A huge pot of rice accompanied the stew, and if I was lucky, black-eyed peas as well. When I panted like a dog from the heat, which swelled in my throat bite after bite, my father passed an ice-cold glass of water my way instead of milk. He insisted that the heat was good for me.

Three years ago, out of breath and fumbling with the lock to the third floor walk-up in Madrid, my cellphone buzzed over and over again. I’d just finished a full-day of teaching English at the high school where I worked, and the last thing I wanted to do was have a phone conversation. I let it ring until I was settled inside, coat strewn across my bed and nibbles of baguette and jamón serrano leftover from lunch lazily placed on the floor.

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My mother had called me three times—so I knew it had to be an emergency. She never called me on my international number, and usually just sent me iMessages. A cousin of mine, on my father's side of the family, had died. She was young, in her 30s. I hadn’t seen her since I was a child, but I was going to London, where she lived, for her funeral. Guilt washed over me for being the slightest bit excited about my first trip to London, a place I'd been obsessed with since listening to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash, and Zero 7 as a teen. I wanted to see Big Ben, eat fish and chips, and connect with family I hadn't seen for years.

I was [getting] used to being 'the only.'

Living in Madrid was supposed to be a dream, but it was confrontation after confrontation with all the identities that I had failed to accept in myself: the Black woman, the American woman, the first-generation Nigerian woman, the Southern woman. It seemed like there was no space for them all to co-exist peacefully. I was crowded but I was lonely. And I was confronted with scrutiny from other people, too, feeling stares with each step I took on the cobblestoned streets. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was starting to get used to being "the only" in various teaching experiences. One morning, I squelched back tears while being gawked and laughed at in front of a classroom full of three-year-olds because I had donned a bright orange headwrap atop my nappy coils.

A car was sent to meet me at Gatwick airport, late at night. My aunt's flat was quiet once I arrived, since everyone was sleeping. I sat at the kitchen table and ate a bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce, steamed broccoli, and carrots that my aunt had cooked earlier. She’d saved a plate for me. When I rose to place my bowl in the sink, I saw a photo of my paternal grandmother, Grace, tacked on the front of the refrigerator. It was the first time I’d ever seen what she looked like. She was beautiful.

The next morning, my aunt asked me to accompany her to the funeral home to drop off some traditional Nigerian garb for my cousin's body. I watched intently as she talked to the people who worked at the home; her politeness was laced in sorrow. In the evening, when family and friends gathered in the cozy living room, my aunt retreated to the kitchen, more content with feeding everyone than being social. I hugged an older female cousin who I hadn’t seen since I was five-years-old. Two male cousins hugged me, and l laughed aloud because I couldn't determine which one was older than the other, since they both towered over me like giants. They told me my cousin was a talented painter. She was gone too soon, we said. The smell of my aunt's cooking wafted from the kitchen to the living room as each minute passed.

Until then, so many things kept me away from my Nigerian ancestry—relentless teasing, which led to a need to assimilate with my American peers, and a formidable emotional distance from my Nigerian father. This distance extended to his family, too. Though three of my father’s brothers lived Stateside, I never saw them much. Our relationships, fomented over childhood holiday gatherings, disintegrated over time, never to be realized. They were not real people to me. Not knowing them, not seeing them, not bonding with them, not sharing our lives, meant a link to who I was had been severed. How could I be fully Nigerian if I didn’t know my Nigerian family members, my blood, on an intimate level?

Yet there I was, at 27 years old, in an apartment in Camden Town, in a city I had never been to before, surrounded by Nigerian family I barely knew. Nollywood films murmured in the background and afrobeats played on a small speaker in the kitchen. And suddenly, there it was, like a fluffy duvet that warms a winter night: a bowl of stew. Somehow beneath her grief, my Aunt tended to our nourishment and made a pot of stew, jollof rice, and pan-fried salmon. The stew had chunks of fried beef, just like my father prepared it all throughout my childhood, but my Aunt’s rendition was spicier, more fragrant, with bits of tripe swimming in the deep red sea of tomato.

I've spent the past four years wandering from city to city, willing it to be my forever home, but only growing more discontented with each relocation. I was misinformed, deluded, even. I’d never felt at home with myself, so my search for a tangible home was aimless.

But I've come to realize that home is a feeling, fleeting and impermanent, like those wisps of heat swirling closer and closer to the ceiling from a heaping bowl of stew.

To me, stew is more than just a dish. It is an emotional marker, a symbol of all I have struggled and warred with in terms of my identity as both a Nigerian and a Black American. I may not clearly remember the first time I had stew as a child, but I remember having it many many times after that, be it in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where I grew up, or London. I remember my father's insistence that spicy food was good for me, and I remember the various accents of English at my aunt's dinner table. A smoldering hot bowl of stew is the melding of my frustration, my anger, my self-hatred and my longing—all in one place. And each time I eat from that bowl, I hunger to know, love, and accept myself more.

Black, American, first-generation Nigerian, Southern. It seemed like there was no space for them all to co-exist [in me] peacefully.

I've learned to accept myself the way my aunt and cousins accepted me in a time of tragedy—different, but still family. They asked me about American things: hip-hop music and American artists, why our food portions were so grossly large. They asked me to explain American humor, which went over their heads. They poked and prodded me to say certain words, like "hot," and collapsed in a fit of giggles when I said so. We went back in forth in a playful banter over who was wrong and right in terms of proper English and pronunciation, myself often being on the wrong side of history.

And when the conversation shifted to more serious things, when the laughing stopped, our similar struggles in varying contexts came forth. My cousins tussled with identifying more as British than Nigerian, and shared the same great disconnection with their mother's (my father's) families. We all spoke English in different accents, and none of us spoke Igbo. We all had gaping holes in our Nigerian identities that had yet to been filled, but our food, our cultural traditions, our music, our ancestors, our pride, bound us. This is our forever home.

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Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Atlanta penning pieces on food, travel, books, personal growth and self-discovery.


Amber C. May 25, 2017
Beautiful piece of.writing. Thanks.
Margaret April 27, 2017
I loved this article. I felt like the author was letting me into her thinking and emotional processing about finding a forever home. The author shared the struggles of her journey to finding that bridge some of us find to connection... the well prepared meal, the cooks diplomatic passport to the heart.
niks876 April 24, 2017
What a beautiful and touching article. Although I am neither an immigrant nor Nigerian, I still powerfully identify with the way food and family embody a sense of belonging and connectedness - particularly on this type of an occasion.

Thanks for sharing your heart. I want to go try out the foods you mentioned now!

For Scott and those harsh comments - I think its amazing how the internet depersonalises. Perhaps it wasn't intended to be harsh - with the right inflections and a chuckle face-to-face, maybe it wouldnt have seemed bad. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe the remarks really were meant to hurt (certainly seemed pretty harsh and hurtful).

Either way - I agree with the others, let us be gentler with each other.
milkjam April 24, 2017
Enjoyed your article. Scott, you really to find a different way to vent your anger at those who don't conform to your standards in the use of the English language. Your comments are uncalled for.
Cyprille April 25, 2017
Scott could be politer but a reputable site lives or dies by its sub-editing and F52 have done this author a disservice with their shonky work.

Whiteantlers April 24, 2017
What exquisite, moving writing. Thank you so much for sharing this.
jforbess April 24, 2017
"But I've come to realize that home is a feeling, fleeting and impermanent, like those wisps of heat swirling closer and closer to the ceiling from a heaping bowl of stew."

I wanted to highlight this observation that really resonated with me, a white woman from the midwest, whose most recently arrived ancestors probably immigrated in the 1920s. What a powerful way to put that longing that so many of us have for different reasons and at different times. Sometimes I wonder why I don't feel at home when I've lived at the same address for seven years, but you are right, it's fleeting.
scott.finkelstein.5 April 24, 2017
Someone needs to take whoever edited this article out back and shoot him. Beyond the typos ("since they both towered over my like giants"), there is text made bold at random throughout the piece, despite there being no need for bold text at all.
Nikkitha B. April 24, 2017
"Him" would be me. While I appreciate your pointing out my error, I think the call to violence is a little extreme, don't you think? (Or let me guess, I should be less sensitive and just take a joke?) I bolded the text I did because I thought they were either beautifully written or highlighted an underlying point. Bolding text in this way something we do throughout the site.
Kenzi W. April 24, 2017
Hey Scott—I have to second this. That kind of language isn't welcome here. You're welcome to be constructive, but we'll take action on any comments we find to be abusive.
E April 24, 2017
The typo did not make the article confusing to read, and the bold was a nice effect. Resorting to violent words geared specifically towards someone is so completely tasteless and crass, and absolutely not "funny." I hope your comment (and thus this thread) gets deleted.