Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Some Nigerian Food Taboos

By Mabel Segun, in her book Rhapsody- A Celebration of Nigerian Cooking and Food Culture.

In Yoruba culture every lineage has its food taboos which members must observe strictly. The penalties prescribed for breaking a taboo are sometimes deliberately drastic in order to frighten people into complying with the prohibitions. These penalties include sterility, a breast that will never produce milk, a child who will forever crawl, and- death. But in reality, many of the prohibitions are commonsense rules meant for the good of both the individual and the community.

She categorized the taboos, and I’ve picked only a few (I don’t really know if I’m breaking any copyright laws oh! (scratches head). But I won’t tell if you won’t). It’s informative, though:

1. Yams must not be kicked. (Yoruba)
Penalty- The culprit will become lame.
Real Reason- According to Yoruba legend, Yam was once a man, hence it should be respected. Yam was the most popular staple food in the country before the introduction of manioc. Kicking a yam tuber might break it and this would speed up deterioration. In any case, this is not a clean habit.

2. Salt must not be trodden underfoot.
Penalty- The soles of the offender’s feet will ooze water. (Yoruba)
Real Reason- In ancient times, salt was so scarce that it was exchanged for slaves and therefore should not be wasted through being spilt.

3. Women must not cook late at night. (Igbo)
Penalty- Evil spirits will put a spell on the food.
Real Reason- To prevent women from neglecting the welfare of their family by keeping them hungry.

4. A man may not eat in the home of his wife’s parents and they may not eat in his home. (Hausa)
Penalty- It will prevent the wife from bearing children.
Real Reason- Probably to avoid friction between the two families.

5. Yam must not be peeled inside the house. (Yoruba)
Penalty- The inmates will quarrel
Real Reason- Houses in ancient times were dark inside because they had no windows or had very tiny ones and someone coming from outside might slip on the yam peels and injure himself/herself (which, of course, could lead to a quarrel).

6. A wife must not allow her husband to see her eating. She must first cook his meal and serve it to him in the open courtyard and later retire into the house to eat with her daughters and young sons. (Hausa)
Penalty- Community censure
Real Reason- It is said that she might open her mouth too wide and so anger or disgust her husband.

7. A child must not eat a chicken’s gizzard. (Edo, Igbo, Yoruba)
Penalty- He will not grow.
Real Reason- The gizzard is reserved for the head of the family or household since it is considered a delicacy.

8. A child must not squat to eat. (Yoruba).
Penalty- The child will never be satiated.
Real Reason- Squatting encourages farting, and this would cause pollution at mealtimes.

9. A woman must not eat too many kolanuts (Igbo, Yoruba)
Penalty- She will have an ‘abiku’ (Yoruba) or ‘ogbanje’(Igbo) child, that is, a child who dies young and keeps on reincarnating and dying again, thus causing its mother great misery.
Real Reason- Traditional Nigerian societies did not know the cause of infant mortality but believed that a woman who ate too many kolanuts would not feel hungry and so would not be well nourished or healthy enough to bear strong children.

10. One must not put a live duck in an overturned pot.(Yoruba)
Penalty- It will turn into a snake.
Real Reason- To prevent it from suffocating. Since snails are kept in this manner or under an overturned mortar for a few days but do not die as they can hibernate, some people might be tempted to keep more delicate creatures in the same manner.

Mabel Segun is also the author of children’s book, My Father’s Daughter (which I haven’t come across yet but am sure will be a v. nice read) and books for adults such as Conflict and Other Poems. “She has a varied professional career that includes teaching, broadcasting, editing, public relations and a two-year diplomatic appointment as Nigeria’s Deputy Permanent Delegate to UNESCO.”
As an aside:
Is it that the people back then were too stubborn to handle the “real reasons” behind these rules or what?? If you’re curious about what people were like before-before, Ellen Thorp’s Ladder of Bones will come in handy. It gives the pre-colonial history of Nigeria, dating back to 1853.