Thursday, January 31, 2013

He who brings kola brings life

The Akan adinkra symbol on the left is called "bese saka," or "bag of kola nuts." Like a lucrative sack of such nuts, (in Ghana) it is a very positive symbol associated with affluence and abundance, as well as togetherness and unity.

Kola nuts have played an especially important role in Ghana and Nigeria. As one of Achebe's characters affirms in  Things Fall Apart, "He who brings kola brings life." While in the West we generally only think of "kola" as being part of the original formula for "Coca-Cola," the nuts have often been shared as part of a hospitality ritual in Western Africa. They are also favored by Muslims (such as my driver during one extended trip around Ghana during Ramadan) for their ability to quench thirst, stave off hunger, and increase alertness. For a history of the kola industry in Ghana, see Abaka's 2005 Kola is God's Gift.

Two of my students last semester were attracted to kola nuts. One of them because he found them woven throughout Chris Abani's novel Graceland (e.g., "This is the kola nut. The seed is a star. This star is life. This star is us," another because he was just curious. 

Fortunately, my generous fellow African food blogger and food photographer extraordinaire (also mentioned in my last posting because she also brought us alligator peppers) Ozoz arrived in New York a few days before our final class, which was an  "African cafe" buffet in my home featuring food we'd studied from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Ozoz included two types of kola nuts (red and white) in her "care package" to us. Thus our final class together we were able to begin with a symbolic "breaking of the kola nut." I found a link describing how to actually "break" it, but I had to ask her for more information about the ceremony. Since she mentioned that she plans at some point to blog about it, I'll simply note that she said "Nowhere in Nigeria is Kolanut more revered than by the Igbo tribe. They are best known for all the traditions around the kola." My students universally agreed about the bitterness of the kola nuts (they found both equally bitter), but our unsophisticated palates couldn't detect the secondary sweetness.

Incidentally, I would also like to thank Ozoz here for all her other gifts in that package:
  • In addition to the alligator pepper and kola nuts, she included  another, more recent copy of the classic Kudeti Book of Yoruba Cookery (one of the earliest African cookbooks I ever discovered)
  • several packets of banga soup spices (we used some to season our palmnut soup)
  • some containers of her preferred brand of curry powder (Lion, from the UK)
  • some suya spice (aka tankora or yagi powder/rub); essential to Nigerian suya (kebabs) or Ghanaian chichinga
  • some "belentientien," a kind of dried leaf used to season palmnut soup
  • several packets of "instant" pepper soup spices (containing: "Monodora Myristica, Tetraplura, Tetrapter, Parinars, Excelsa, Chrysobalanus, Orbicularis"), packaged in Okere-Warri, Delta State (and who says Africans aren't entrepreneurial?)
  • a large bar of Immit's Carnival milk chocolate
I hope I haven't made all the Nigerians away from home too homesick.
Truly, West Africans are generous and hospitable in many, many ways. Maybe the proverb should be "She who brings gifts from afar, brings life." Thank you, Ozoz.


Sore said...

I think all the Nigerians will be homesick after reading, I know I was :)

I find it interesting the students found the kola nut bitter. I've always found it sweet (tangy?). Though maybe I found sweet as compared to the bitter kola.


Ozoz said...

You're so welcome Fran - you don't know how generous you've been to me, with your time and great advice! I am glad I could make some dreams come true.