I am Ifeanyi Awachie, an English major at Yale University. I was born in Nigeria in 1992 and immigrated to the States with my parents in 1994. In the summer of 2013, I went back to Nigeria for the first time to do a documentary photography project called “Summer in Igboland” on daily life in the eastern, Igbo-speaking region of Nigeria. Read below for a taste of my trip.
Catfish Pepper Soup
Enugu, Enugu State
On my third day in Nigeria, my 22 year-old cousin and her kinky-weaved friend whisked me around the city of Enugu, insisting, “We need to flex her!” Flex is pidgin* for “hang out” or “have fun” or “take Ifeanyi to Enugu’s mall, movie theatre, amusement park, bars, and clubs all in one afternoon.” I was surprised to find these things in Nigeria, but I was too ashamed to admit that to myself at the time. Still, I had so much fun. Our whirlwind afternoon turned into a whirlwind weekend. That Saturday night, we did it big: makeovers at Sleek Salon, then out to dinner with some guy friends at Bush Bar, a “point-and-kill,” the kind of restaurant where you pick a live animal to be made into your meal. We chose a long, fat catfish to be made into pepper soup. Weeks later, I learned to wedge a chunk of fish or yam between my tongue and the spicy broth to dull the sting of pepper soup. That night, I just tried my best not to tear up in front of the boys. After dinner, we were off for a night of clubbing at Orange Room. That whole summer, I strove to prove two things: 1) that I ate like a Nigerian and 2) that I danced like a Nigerian. I failed at Bush Bar, but clubbing? That came naturally. “Where did you learn to dance?” one of the boys asked me, bending close to be heard above the azonto the club was blasting. He was implying that I couldn’t have learned to dance like a Nigerian girl in America, but I hadn’t lived in Nigeria long enough to learn there, either. I shrugged, smiling and rolling my hips, unable to explain to him this conundrum of a girl, confused culturally—born here, raised there—but otherwise, winning.
*Nigerian Pidgin English
I’m vegetarian. Not because I dislike meat, but because the practices of the American meat industry make me uncomfortable. That said, I didn’t even mention being vegetarian to my family in Nigeria. I get enough crap about my diet from Americans—I wasn’t about to bring up not eating meat in a country whose cuisine is nearly carnivorous. I ate jollof rice with chicken in Lagos and pepper soup with catfish in Enugu. And then I had suya. And it made me think very seriously about whether I really wanted to go home, where the meat options could not possibly compare to the chunks of delight I was popping in my mouth.
Suya is meat that is dried, rubbed with ground peanuts, pepper, and lots of spices, fried, roasted, and tossed with onions. I had suya three times in Nigeria. The first was in Enugu, at a market run by Hausas (northern Nigerians, who we can thank for inventing suya), where, despite the falling dusk, a keke driver recognized me as a foreigner and yelled, “Oyibo! Oyibo! White person! White person!” in an attempt to get me to enter his taxi. My cousin bought me ram suya, a rare find, which we ate at a local outdoor bar called Zanzibar. I took slow pulls of malt to help me pace my suya-eating, but even with a drink, I ravaged a whole bag, leaving behind little more than a pile of toothpicks. The second time I had suya was in Onitsha, the city where my mom grew up, at a roadside stall my uncle had hyped. I ate the chicken and beef suya he bought, but I was already becoming a suya snob: this suya wasn’t as flavorful as the kind I’d had in Enugu, and I missed my beloved ram. My third suya was in Port Harcourt, at the most elaborate suya stand of all. There were about a million different types of suya there—chicken, beef, ram, even cartilage. My uncle bought a mix and left me in the backseat of his car with it, encouraging me to eat as much as I wanted. I really was planning to be polite and leave most of the suya for him, but, uh, things didn’t quite turn out that way.
Awka, Anambra State
The only food I had in Nigeria that I didn’t like. I had eaten breadfruit before. It was the vegetable Mom cooked after a relative came back from Nigeria that filled our kitchen with a singular, sour smell. Even now, after years of exposure to the concoctions of college dining halls, Asian fusion restaurants, etc., I still don’t know any food to which I can compare the taste of breadfruit. It just tastes bad. When my aunt in Awka began cooking it one evening, she asked if I knew what it was. It had been years since I’d even thought of breadfruit. The smell matched a faint memory but, at this point in my trip, I was so in love with Nigeria and being in Nigeria and all things Nigerian that I let myself forget that I knew breadfruit and disliked it. I let my aunt answer her own question. “It’s ukwa,” she said, teaching me how to say the name in Igbo. I smiled and nodded, slowly realizing that I did know breadfruit. But I must be mistaken about the taste, I thought. It must have been my unrefined childhood palate that made me hate it, an ignorant preference for American food over African. Then, as I ate a large plate of ukwa at dinner, my memories came rushing back. This texture, mushy yet rough, that elusive taste, starchy and bitter, and then, out of nowhere, the bones of dried fish, pricking my throat on their way down. Yep. I hated this stuff. Like a good Igbo girl, I struggled through the entire plate, then told my aunt it was delicious.
Ofe Nsala and Pounded Yam
Nsukka, Enugu State
I scoop pounded yam from my plate and dip it into the soup—rich, creamy, peppery soup, heavy with chicken and beef. Beside my hand in the bowl, that of a cousin I met for the first time that morning, his dark fingers and my light ones dipping in and out of the ofe nsala (“white soup”) like two doves feeding on birdseed. My uncle in Lagos had asked if I’d ever had ofe nsala, but he hadn’t explained just how delicious it was, how every mouthful had a smooth, velvety beginning, then burst into a medley of spices rough but thrilling on the tongue. Hands down my favorite meal in Nigeria. And I almost didn’t have it.
Rewind to that morning. I’m touring the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), my parents’ alma mater, with my new cousin, who had driven four hours to bring me from Awka to Enugu’s college town. I photographed Nnamdi Azikiwe Library, the largest library in West Africa, and the Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry Departments (my father’s and mother’s departments, respectively, which happen to be adjacent to each other). My cousin even knew the nursery I went to for the eighteen months I spent in Nigeria before my parents and I moved to the U.S. We drove up to the high fence surrounding the nursery grounds, and I peered through the bars, attempting to photograph the playground and buildings beyond them. My results didn’t turn out very well, but I told my cousin it was fine—I would do without pictures of this childhood landmark. He said, “Well… we could always climb the fence.” And that was how I broke into my old nursery.
It was already the afternoon when we got back from UNN, so my uncle in Nsukka insisted I spend the night there rather than risk being on the road after dark (Nigeria’s roads are infamous for being badly maintained). I, with my American sense of time, was anxious to stick to my original itinerary, but my cousin revealed that he’d been hoping we’d get back late—if I crashed at my uncle’s place, then we could keep hanging out. Reluctantly, I agreed to stay. My reward? The most delicious soup I’ve ever had in my life, eaten the Nigerian way: with your hands, and with family.
Port Harcourt, Rivers State
Isi ewu means “the head of a goat.” My uncle in Port Harcourt owns a venue called Leonnot Gardens, where he ordered isi ewu for me. He prodded me to eat the goat’s eye. “So that you will see very well!” he said. I bit into the eyeball and felt it burst, exploding with fluid that ran down my bottom lip. That was kind of gross, but the flesh of the eyeball tasted like—what else?—meat, so I thought it was pretty tasty. I ate the tongue, too. I bit off the tip (“So that you will speak very well!”) and found it slightly rough, but otherwise beefy and pleasant.
I ate goat head. I’m a badass, okay?
Photo credit: Mohini Ufeli