As published in the Guardian Life magazine (Lagos), Sunday, Sept 7, 2008
I just arrived in Uppsala, a University town forty-five minutes (by train) from Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. I am here to write, strange as that may sound. Yes, write. What does he want to write that he cannot write in Nigeria, you may want to ask. Well, nothing, I have to confess. Nigeria is a tough place to live in, true, but it’s a place that can be lived in and survived in – and written in. PHCN or no PHCN, a half-closed 3rd mainland bridge or not, stories can still be told in our country. In fact it is in the profusion of hardships that stories seem to ferment. Helon Habila after all wrote his award-winning Waiting for an Angel (a.k.a Prison Stories) while a broke, struggling journalist in Lagos. And Ogaga Ifowodo wrote many of his finest poems here. And Toni Kan, and Maik Nwosu, and Lola Shoneyin (Ibadan), and Uche Umez (Owerri) and Eghosa Imasuen (Benin) and many others.
So, I am here not because I cannot in Lagos, but simply because there is an opportunity for a person to come and write in Uppsala, and I have the good fortune of being that person for this year.
The above is a (necessary) digression.
The real story for today has to do with migration and the power of the human stomach.
The way to a man’s heart, they say, is through his stomach. (Do wives still think that is true? Let that be an inquest for another day.) I just discovered however that the stomach leads to more than one place. Apart from the heart, there’s also the soul.
The way to the soul of a place is through the stomach.
The best way to discover a strange city at its deepest level is to follow (key word) your stomach. It’s better than following your map, I tell you. Better than following a tour guide. Never underestimate the power of a stomach seeking answers. Think of Lagos, and how much it is a city defined by the vegetables and stockfish and egusi and locust beans and shrimps piled high in its many crazy markets; the colors, smells and perhaps the inexplicable awe inspired by the sight of abundant food in a world characterised by scarcity of many other things.
My first major assignment in Uppsala upon arrival was lunch. What were my choices? Well, there was Swedish cuisine, there was a Thai restaurant offering a lunch buffet, and next door to that was McDonalds. Talk about the world being (a) flat (plate). Eventually my team of three – two Nigerians and one ‘Finwede’ (a Finn who’s lived in Sweden for long, my definition), our wonderful hostess, settled for the Thai restaurant.
Post-lunch, we (the Nigerians) were shown a grocery store, where we picked up – or more accurately, considered picking up – fruits, eggs, rice, milk, beans, cooking oil, tomatoes, cereal, etc. Our hotel rooms have attached kitchenettes, so cooking is a possibility that looms large on the horizon.
But what fascinated me the most was my countryman’s slight frustration at the grocery store fare, and his insistence on getting ‘Nigerian’ raw materials. Nigerian rice, Nigerian beans, palm oil. None of the canned foods and strange-looking rice grains that hide beneath the word ‘intercontinental’.
His conclusion was this: we needed to find that kind of store fast, something that offered more than the sterile offerings of a supermarket. The next day, our hostess took us to such a place. Owned by immigrants (Lebanese apparently), it’s a ‘supermarket’ with the spirit of an open market, pulsing with raw smells of spices and meats.
The meat (pun not intended) of the matter therefore is this: On these ‘personal’ journeys in search of the kind of food we want to eat, I think we are permitting ourselves to experience Uppsala at a deeper level (turn off the mushymeters please) than if we sat down at a local’s dining table and mindlessly swallowed whatever was pushed our way.
Following the stomach implies taking an active part in solving the problem of food. It means going shopping, it means asking questions, it means experiencing the energy of the marketplaces, it means attempting to cook. It means ‘getting involved’. It is only in this way of course that this premise of finding the ‘way’ into a city through food can hold true.
The map of every city in the world is sketched out on its plates. You only need to open your eyes to see. Blessed are they who hunger, for they shall be filled.
I spent a year in Asaba not attempting to cook anything more complicated than noodles. I’m tempted to do the same in Uppsala. But I don’t have any plans to give in. No plans to leave this town a three-month old tourist.
9 years ago