Written by Patience Adamu
Growing up I remember being ashamed to bring my favourite food, jollof rice, to school to eat in the cafeteria. After all, I was the only African girl. I can recall that every time my mom insisted on packing this non-European lunch for me, I would not eat it; keeping my lunch bag hidden in my backpack and eating when I got home from school, before my mom got home from work. I was afraid that if I warmed the food and people smelled it, they would ostracize me and prevent me from eating with them.
During the lunch hour at school I would read in the library or find a place to hide in a stairwell. Whenever teachers or friends would ask if I ate, I would say that I wasn’t hungry, or that I had already eaten. Luckily, lunch was only 40 minutes long, and I used to be a real proponent of those breakfast programs.
Since my school days, things have really changed. Right now, the West African diaspora is encapsulated in a war—but really a celebration—of jollof rice. Jollof rice is a very popular dish in West Africa, and so happens to be my favourite food. Several countries in West Africa claim to be home to the superior recipe. No comment here on the status of Nigerian jollof. There have been countless lighthearted competitions, panel discussions and hilarious videos dedicated to the selection of which country makes the best jollof rice. And this makes me smile because finally, FINALLY… there is no more shame in me eating my favourite food in the cafeteria.
In some ways that shame is useful because it helps me to be aware of my words and my body language when interfacing with others and their food. That shame has made me hyper-aware of when people in the work or school cafeteria say that someone else’s food stinks, or when someone at the annual potluck calls unfamiliar dishes ‘ethnic’. Please remember that everyone’s food stinks to someone, and everyone is ethnic.
I only wish that every time my mom packed my lunch for me, I would have eaten it in the cafeteria.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on February 12, 2018.