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

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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
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.

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.

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.

A Memoir of Sex and Soup That Reclaims Nigerian Food—on Its Own Terms
A Memoir of Sex and Soup That Reclaims Nigerian Food—on Its Own Terms

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.

The Coconut Cookie That Takes Me Back to Childhood in Nigeria
The Coconut Cookie That Takes Me Back to Childhood in Nigeria

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.

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.

Tags: Culture