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Storm in a pot of stew

PHOTO: Mista Skee

Having been adopted into the Nigerian culture for a decade and a half now, I have heard many horror story of people going potty and possessive over their pots of food.

I have heard the one about brothers and sisters of the same flesh and blood hide pots of rice at the back of their wardrobes. I have heard flat mates keeping their pot of stew under lock and key. I have heard of flatmates fighting over a pot of egusi. So much pettiness over pots that I thought nothing would surprise me anymore. Until this week, I heard this story all the way from the US of A.

Imagine a young girl – let’s call her Tope – fresh out of high school, heading off to the States, head full off her American dream – she will enjoy university life, make new friends from diverse backgrounds, maybe even get a boyfriend, get a degree at the end of four years, ace a good job, get her stay and help her family back home. So far, so good. Except of course like many a Nigerian youngster heading overseas for their studies, with no family abroad, she barely scrapes a place to stay at an old family friend’s house. One of those family friends you’d be familiar with – the ones that just get by, turn to you for help or even for lodgings until they somehow break the cycle, make it big and find themselves in greener pastures.

Their fortunes having turned 180 degrees, the said family friends immediately lose all recollection of their needier days and even welcoming Tope into their household is done begrudgingly. Tope, still in the afterglow of having reached the promised land, is ecstatic. She has a roof over her head, her school’s just started, all is going according to plan.

Not years, months or weeks, merely days later, the energies begin shifting – something is just not right. Tope can’t put a finger on it but she can sense the frustration her guardian family are exuding. It begins with subtle jibes, passive aggressive comments. “You should help with the cooking,” Aunty says. “If you won’t cook or clean, at least look after the kids and make yourself useful,” Uncles adds. “You know how much the water and electricity you are using costs?” he asks a few days later. She tells them school is her priority.

A few weeks later she goes out with friends, doesn’t think to tell Aunty and Uncle because they are not home, it is daytime and she is going just round the block to study with her classmate. When she gets home that evening, she gets an earful on how she should not be wearing ripped jeans, she looks like a prostitute, and a lecture on how much of a nuisance she has become. “But,” she tries to argue, “I went to my friend to study.” They don’t let her talk.

A few months later she realises she barely has a single friend. Her days are spent weaving a track to and fro from school, make breakfast for Uncle and Aunty’s children, go to lectures, come back home, look after the kids, get on with her studies, cook dinner before Uncle and Aunty come back home. Regardless, in their eyes, she is still a nuisance. “The house is a mess,” they say. “You are not helping with the kids’ homework.” She is tired of trying to reason with unreasonable people. She calls home and cries. Her mum tells her to hang in there.

Before she can even realise how, two years have gone by. Except for the one little break she had visiting a friend in California, she is still stuck with Aunty and Uncle. One day, Uncle comes home with a camera he trains on the children to make sure they don’t misbehave when he’s not home.

A few weeks later, Tope walks into the kitchen and what does she see? The same camera Uncle bought to watch the kids is now trained on the pot of stew on the hob – lest Tope ventures anywhere near it. His pot of stew that cost no more than $7 to make. What else could Tope do but phone another Uncle to rant? When I heard of Tope’s story, I was dumbfounded – for this one takes the biscuit over all the potty stories I’ve heard.

What is a pot of stew after all but blended onions and tinned tomatoes cooked with meat? How much stew could a size 6 young girl devour? Why would a man come all the way to America to continue in his blind mentality of poverty and deny the daughter of the family who looked after him when he was downtrodden and desperate a bowl of stew?

Dear Naija people abroad who still hold on to their pots of stew for dear life, please remember the Christian faith you so vehemently preach and practise every Sunday, only to be forgotten for the rest of the week. Show some grace, compassion and goodwill to your fellow humans. Do not begrudge them a small meal, do not get petty over your pot of food.

In this article:
Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
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