If you evade getting posted to a strange land for NYSC, then you may never really travel to unexpected places. I served in Abuja, but my first job right after that took me to Jega in Kebbi State. Friends with whom I’d been out of touch for a while, or new friends I made, thought I was serving in Kebbi. It was kind of a reverse situation.
I worked in Kebbi for one full year, but no experience stands as tall in my memory as one created in the early days and weeks of December 2010.
Igbo Traders had begun to wind down operations for the year in preparation to travel for the yuletide. So it was common to encounter different associations hosting their End-of-Year parties. Town unions, village unions, state unions, all. Being a member of none, I missed most… until a friend invited me to one.
Long story short, when I was asked what I wanted to eat, I said Bitter Leaf Soup and Semo. Turns out, it was the best decision I ever made. The soup was inspiring. There were the well-washed leaves, but most remarkable was the liquid… thick as paste, attesting to a finely pounded cocoyam. Funny enough, it was the kind of soup that made you forget what ingredients were used, because no ingredient in particular stood out. It was impeccable team work. A fine blend. An enthralling choreography.
It made me curious: How? How is a Nigerian his best Nigerian self in Europe? When fishes glide in the river, they’re simply amazing to watch; how does a fish amaze you most in your dinner plate, the direct contrast of its natural habitat? How am I encountering the best bitter leaf soup of my life in the distant, desert terrains of Jega, Kebbi State?
I didn’t ask anybody anything; I just observed and concluded. I still hold those conclusions as true:
– Ingredients for bitter leaf soup were sourced in the Southeast and couriered northwards through concerted and meticulous industry
– For meals that simply kept body and soul together, people went with what was readily available; what Jega had to offer
– These parceled recipes were for special occasions, and ‘elitist’ celebrations
– A veteran, a consultant of high repute, a custodian of kitchen traditions, an elderly woman… she was the one that presided in the kitchen when occasions like this came up. (No one would risl squandering their pricey ingredients by hiring amateurs to do the cooking).
– I had just eaten an elite meal. Indeed; it was the gathering of “Ndi Nnewi”.
It’s been six years. I still haven’t come across a matching bitter leaf soup. And I am searching. At every event I am searching.