Kayode Gboyega Kofoworola
Food is the real road to a man’s heart, so says a common African proverb. Food is thus for the African, an integral part of his culture and life and living. Consequently, we find that seasons and festivals are built around the symbolic concepts of food. Thus the ability to offer food to others in feasts during marriages, festivals and other celebrations are considered signs of greatness or otherwise and of wealth and otherwise. This paper examines the significance of the food culture in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. I seek to show that the very essence of communality within the African culture can be linked to the need to share the basic needs of life such as food. Finally, the paper shows that it is the importance attached to food within the framework of culture that is eventually transposed into the genre of the novel in Africa.
Key Words: Food, Feasts, Communality, African culture, African Novel
Food is what people and animals eat. Food usually comes from animals or plants. It is eaten by living things to provide energy and nutrition. Food contains the nutrition that people and animals need to be healthy. The consumption of food is enjoyable to humans. It contains protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. A feast is an occasion were large meals are typically prepared and served to celebrate a person, an event or a god. It could be to celebrate stages in a person’s social growth i.e wedding, graduation, naming, etc, or an annual spiritual event like the ancestral feasts. A feast may also be simply defined as a special meal with very good food or a large meal for many people. It is therefore instructive to surmise that while it is quite possible to have food without a feast, it is impossible to have a feast without food or drinks.
Discourses of Food, Feasts and the African Novel
Critical writings such as Highfield (2017) which focused on several narratives from different genres across the African continent and Shrin (2008) which examined the representation of food in three West African Francophone novels are among the best known seminal works on foodways in African literature. Others include Constantini (2013) who examined Hunger and Food Metaphors in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Fieldhouse (2017) which was concerned about the relationship between food and faith (and not necessarily in narratives),
An on-going book project at the University of Minnesota titled : “(In)edible Ideologies: Food, Power and (Post)Colonial Politics in African Literary and Cultural Expression” , also seeks to ‘‘juxtapose texts from the Anglophone, the Francophone and the Lusophone literary traditions of Africa; to undertake an inclusive study of African literatures; to demonstrate that the dominant tropes of food and (non)-eating in select texts problematize African realities, including the systemic complexities that constitute these realities’
’(However, while it is true that most of these writings have focused on the uniqueness of the use of a society’s food culture as the foreground for narrating the socio-economic and political worldview of the people, not much has been written about that culture in terms of the relationship between food and feasts, and how it has been narrated in the African Novel. This paper would thus seek to bridge the gap in this area, expand the discourse and contextualise how widespread the notion of the marriage of food to feast is, in the African Novel, by interrogating two Anglophone West African Novels from Nigeria; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Famished Road by Ben Okri. The significance of these two texts to the discussion of the representation of food and feasts in the African novel in general and the Anglophone West African novel in particular, lies not just in the periods they were written; Things fall Apart was published in 1956 is a pre-independence novel, while The Famished Road was published in 1991 during the late 20th century, thirty –one years after the 1960 Nigerian Independence from Britain, but also in understanding that together, these two texts show the handshake between food and feast from the pre-colonial to the post colonial period and in the process provide a representative picture of the changes that have taken place in the African society’s apprehension of the corollary relationships between food and feasts and its depiction in the African novel.
Since, without doubt the capacity to provide food for yourself and your family and to contribute to feeding the community through feast making in Africa underscores your self- worth and your communal value. This paper seeks to show the extent to which Food and feasts in the African novel seem to serve as a basic principle for organizing society in Africa and how through this medium values, mores and morals are transmitted, ethics are established and punishments are meted out for individuals who contravene them.
Foodways in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Okri’s The Famished Road
Clearly from our selected texts we can keenly, succinctly and clearly delineate and chart the changes that take place in the food culture and food chains which is expressed via the importance attached to the cultivation of food, the processing of food, the presentation of food, and the preservation of food and feast cultures as well as the depiction of the same in the African novel across times from the pre-colonial, colonial and the post- colonial times.
In Things Fall Apart (subsequently referred to as TFA), which is a story set in a pre-colonial period before the advent of the ‘Whiteman’, the relation/reaction of a person to and the understanding of a person about the physical and spiritual significance of food was very germane to the cultural relevance of such a individual within his society. Thus , in the very first conversation in Things Fall Apart between Unoka (Okonkwo’s father ) and Okoye, his friend and creditor, a clear fact emerges from their dialogue ; the importance of food and of feasts. As Achebe puts it:
When they had eaten they talked about many things: about the heavy rains which where drowning the yams, about the next ancestral feasts and about the impending war with the village of Mbaino (5).
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe emphasizes this idea, especially with regards to the menfolk but more importantly in relation to Okonkwo his main character, that the true symbol of masculinity amongst a very few others such as going to war, and being a man of your own words is being able, to farm rigorously and extensively, to provide for the food needs of your family in and off season. Okonkwo is unlike his father, Unoka, of whom Achebe says: “He was poor and his wife and children had barely enough to eat” (4). In Achebe’s pre-colonial world as epitomised by Things Fall Apart, you were only successful, truly successful if you “had a large barn full of yams …” (5) like Okoye and Okonkwo, and a failure if you had none, like Unoka. So while Unoka loved to feast, he had no capacity for preparing and providing one. It is also very important to note that in discussing the greatness of these two men – Okoye and Okonkwo, Achebe would always emphasize the fact that they had barns full of yams before proceeding to provide the information that they had many wives and /or that they were about to add more; Okoye had three wives and Okonkwo was about to take his third. The preamble to these marital additions is that they have barns full of yams.
Indeed, yam is mentioned over a hundred times in Things Fall Apart. While in Achebe’s world, the ‘big’ crops such as yam venerate a man’s status since: “Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop”, women are also cast as producers of small crops such as coco-yams, beans and cassava (TFA 16). The baseline being that everyone in these rural based novel is engaged in one form of food production exercise or the other. In addition to this, the types of food crops cultivated and the persons permitted to so carry out the exercise point to the cultural relevance of gender in determining agricultural practices. So for instance, yam was cultivated by men and coco-yams and beans were cultivated by women. In addition, men were expected to go hunting for meat while women were expected to rear, close to the house, soft meats like chickens for consumption. This delineation of crops and meat speak to the roles or gender fixation with which men and women were tagged in that society with regards to the food supply chain. Inadvertently, it meant that if you never grew yams nor go with other men for hunting you were regarded as a woman as was the case with Unoka. Food and food crops were of so much vital significance to the African man’s way of life that it was not only a source of nutrition, it also played a vital role in his conversation and ability to communicate hidden knowledge, values, morals and communal ethics. Many proverbs built around food crops dot the narrative in TFA to show the importance which food and feasts play in the life of the people, examples such as : “A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm”(47) abound in the text. This is possibly why Achebe describes proverbs as “… the palm oil with which words are eaten”. (5) In likening proverbs to palm oil, Achebe elevates the importance of this agricultural produce to become a metaphoric encapsulation of the world view of his people.
Food is cultivated not simply because men have to live, and to live have to eat, but because food is also required to propitiate the gods as well as ensure the connectivity of the living to the dead, in order to prevent, as it is believed in many cultures, the fear and possibility of an apparent cosmic collapse. An example of this is when Okonkwo violates the sacred week of peace by beating up his wife Ojiugo because she failed to prepare his afternoon meal. It was a simple meal issue but it was not as simple as that (21) because the act (the beating), though seemingly traditionally condoned if it had happened outside the week of peace, was not acceptable this time because it was considered not an act against an individual but an act that offended the gods who had instituted the week of peace. Punishments as part of the societal structure were denominated in the form of food and clothing to be offered to the gods. This is ironic because it is for these same material things that men propitiate the gods. For example, during the sacred week of peace, provoked by his wife, Okonkwo beats her and puts the entire community and its survival in jeopardy. The priest explains:
Listen to me, he said when Okonkwo had spoken. You are not a stranger in Umuofia. You know as well as I do that our fore-fathers ordained that before we plant any crops in the earth we should observe a week in which a man does not say a harsh word.
So while it is food that makes him beat his wife, it is also food that is required to atone for his “sins”. So food production, food presentation and feast making are seen within the African continent not just as physical exercises which are needful, but also as spiritual exertions which are necessary for the maintenance of society’s cosmic balance. Apart from this incidence when offence produces a food sacrifice, there are other times when sacrifice is pre-emptive, in the form of appeasements as evidenced in the passage below:
Okonkwo’s prosperity was visible in his household. He had a large compound enclosed by a thick wall of red earth. His own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate in the red walls. Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi. The barn was built against one end of the red walls, and long stacks of yam stood out prosperously in it. At the opposite end of the compound was a shed for the goats, each wife built a small attachment to her hut for the hens. Near the barn was a small house, the ‘medicine house’ or shrine where Okonkwo kept the wooden symbols of his personal god and of his ancestry spirits. He worshipped them with sacrifices of kola nut, food and palm-wine, and offered prayers to them on behalf of himself, his three wives and eight children (12-13).
The importance that Achebe attaches to the availability of and consumption of food within the Igbo communities like, Umuofia, Mbaino, Abame, and others in TFA, invariably reflects in his narration, as he shows the length that individuals such as Okonkwo are prepared to go to ensure their own food security. This example is poignantly shown when Okonkwo goes to Nwakibie to borrow yam seedlings to cultivate a big farm. In turn, we are made to consider the fact that the labour of the famer and how his crops turn out is entirely subject to the co-operation of nature. Okonkwo’s initial crop fails because he misjudged the weather, but his possession of extra seedlings ensures that his farming season does not entirely become a disaster. Thus, Achebe’s TFA is a powerful African agricultural manual in its own right. Aside from the idea of cultivating virgin lands which Achebe moots (13), he also shines light on the idea of share-cropping (where an individual works the land on behalf of another with the hope of using an agreed portion of whatever harvest accrues to pay for the rentage of the land). As a result of this method, everyone who is earnest and willing to work can build a barn (p.16). When the ‘harvest was sad, like a funeral, ‘some individuals commit suicide, this is how important food production was to pre-colonial Africa. During a visit to Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and caves, Unoka laments that after having sacrificed “a cock to Ani, the owner of all land” and killing “ a cock at the shrine of Ifejioku, the god of yams”, clearing and burning the dry bush, sowing the yams at the first rain, staking when the tendrils appeared, he still had a poor harvest (13) , to which Chika, the priestess responds:
You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm. You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and your hoe. When your neighbours go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man. (13)
The priestess’ response enables Achebe to communicate to the reader that Unoka’s tragedy with regard to his farm is not a spiritual one since he had carried out the appropriate sacrifices, but a physical one which bordered on traditionally considered bad agricultural practices that do not aid great yam harvests.
Concomitantly, equivalent in prestige and honour to the yam stalk in TFA is the palm tree which provides much more than palm-wine for pleasurable drinking, its dregs was also believed to be able to help a person’s fertility. “The thick dregs of palm-wine were supposed to be good for men who were going into their wives” and “Igwelo had a job in hand because he had married his first wife a month or two before”. The wisdom in this was that Africans as represented here by the Igbo people recognised and understood the medicinal value of whatever was consumed as food or food as drink. Every one drinks palm wine; the successful- Okoye, Okonkwo, Obierika and the unsuccessful – Unoka. In addition to providing pleasure for those who drink from its sap, the palm tree also provides palm kernels from which palm oil is extracted and with which different types of soups may be made. It also provides a base to which other materials are added to make soap. Palm oil is regarded as the ‘wife’ to the yam literally because it is at the core of every soup ingredient required to make it palatable. In addition, it could be used to eat yam directly. However, it has other uses, such as being used as a source of illumination. So Achebe writes:
A palm oil lamp gave out yellowish. Without it, it would have been impossible to eat; one could not have known where one’s mouth was in the darkness of that night. There was an oil lamp in all the four huts on Okonkwo’s compound, and each hut seen from the others looked like a soft eye of yellow half – light set in the solid massiveness of night. (TFA67).
Stories told to children in TFA are also built around the subject of food to teach children morals such as being content or not being greedy as in the story of “All of us” which Ekwefi told to Ezinma (TFA 68-70).
Food is important in TFA not just for being an avenue for human survival but also because it is a rallying ground that enables individuals bind with their immediate family and for families to bind with their immediate community through the preparation and provision of food within larger contexts outside of the immediate family. In TFA, Chinua Achebe dedicates Chapter Fifteen to narrating the importance of feasts in the lives of the people of Umuofia. In one fell swoop, he narrates the philosophy behind the feast, the preparation that goes into organising the new yam festival, the new yam festival itself – which includes both the cooking and the eating of the new yam as well as its provision of a perfect opportunity for individuals to pick a wife during the wrestling match that takes place during the festival:
The Feast of the New Yam was approaching and Umuofia was in a festive mood. … The Feast of the New Yam was held every year before the harvest began, to honour the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the clan. New yams could not be eaten until some had first been offered to these powers. Men and women, young and old, looked forward to the New Yam Festival because it began the season of plenty – the New Year. On the last night before the festival, yams of the old year were all disposed of by those who still had them. The New Year must begin with tasty, fresh yams and not the shrivelled and fibrous crop of the previous year. All cooking-pots, calabashes and wooden bowls were thoroughly washed, especially the wooden mortar in which the yam was pounded. Yam foo-foo and vegetable soup was the chief food in the celebrations. So much of it was cooked that, no matter how heavily the family ate or how many friends and relations they invited from neighbouring villages, there was always a huge quantity of food left over at the end of the day. The story was always told of a wealthy man who set before his guests a mound of foo-foo so high that those who sat on one side could not see what was happening on the other, and it was not until late in the evening that one of them saw for the first time his in-law who had arrived during the course of the meal and had fallen to on the opposite side. It was only then that they exchanged greetings and shook hands over what was left of the food.The New Yam Festival was thus an occasion for joy throughout Umuofia . and every man whose arm was strong , as the Ibo people say , was expected to invite large numbers of guests from far and wide. Okonkwo always asked his wives’ relations, and since he now had three wives, his guests would make a fairly big crowd. (26-32)
Ancestral feasts are a communal event which require communal effort and are often discussed by the elders of the community on behalf of their households. In the process of negotiating a feast, there will sometimes emerge some bad blood and the resolution of the grievances is often carried out through the instrumentality of food proverbs such as that given by the oldest man in TFA who said: “those whose palm kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble”, as he tried to resolve the altercation between Okonkwo and Osugo. So an image of the palm kernel as a purveyor of wealth is generated in relation to the wealth of Okonkwo in a purely metaphorical sense. In countering the old man, Achebe argues that: “it was really not true that Okonkwo’s palm-kernels had been cracked for him by a benevolent spirit. He had cracked them himself”. However, whether they were cracked for him or he cracked them himself is beside the point, what is important to note is what significance both commentators place on the idea of a symbolic significance of the palm kernel.
In Africa, much like in other parts of the world, there are no festivals without feasts, and since most festivals, (and the New Yam Festival is no exception) are linked to gods, the feasts become an opportunity for thanksgiving and propitiation of these gods toward the next harvest season. So Okonkwo “offered a sacrifice of new yam and palm-oil to his ancestors, he asked them to protect him, his children and their mothers in the New Year” (TFA 28). In traditional African settings, the invited guests did not just attend feasts empty – handed; they also bear gifts for their hosts: “As the day wore on, his in-laws arrived from three surrounding villages, and each party brought with them a huge pot of palm-wine. And there was eating and drinking till night, when Okonkwo’s in-laws began to leave for their homes” (28).
Yam is the king of crops not just as a result of its cultivation but also because of the various forms it could be prepared for consumption: pounded yam, boiled yam, roasted yam, fried yam, yam pottage (31). Everything eaten in pre-colonial Africa such as locusts is natural just like yams (39-40). There are also long-held beliefs regarding foods like eggs which parents are discouraged from giving children because it makes thieves out of them. In fact, Okonkwo threatens to beat Ekwefi, his wife, for giving eggs to their daughter, Ezinma, because he feels that she has morally bankrupted her (TFA 54).
Feasts are organised to celebrate festivals but they are also organised to celebrate marriages; like that between Akueke and Obierika’s son (50-51) and that of Obierika’s daughter (TFA 77-83); naming ceremonies, like when Okonkwo slaughters goats and calls a feast to celebrate the birth of his sons through Nwoye’s mother. Indeed , the bride-price is almost all the time denominated in terms of food items such as yams and coco-yams as exemplified in the complaint of Uzowulu against Odukwe, his in-law, whom he accuses of taking his wife and children away (TFA 64). Consequently, food crops are not just items of consumption but they are also a form of currency that provides a basis for commercial and social transactions. Considering the grave importance of food to the people of Umuofia, it is therefore not surprising that the white man who brought a new religion in Things Fall Apart also gets involved in trade by building “a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price , and much money flowed into Umuofia” (TFA 126).
Throughout Okonkwo’s time in exile at Mbanta, the idea that he can still farm the crops he loves (even though he is less excited about it because he is much older, and feels as though life has turned him a hard hand) is the reason he does not lose his mental balance. Okonkwo is thus thankful for the time he has spent with his mother’s kinsmen and decides to host a thanksgiving feast to celebrate his stay, his imminent departure back to Umuofia and the hospitality of his mother’s people. Achebe puts it this way:
Okonkwo never did things by halves. When his wife Ekwefi protested that two goats were sufficient for the feast he told her that it was not her affair. ‘I am calling a feast because I have the wherewithal. I cannot live on the bank of a river and wash my hands with spittle. My mother’s people have been good to me and I must show my gratitude.’And so three goats were slaughtered and a number of fowls. it was like a wedding feast. There was foo-foo and yam pottage, egusi soup and bitter-leaf soup and pots and pots of palmwine (TFA 115-118).
Unlike Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, another novel from West Africa is set in a period that straddles the colonial and post-colonial periods. It engages the subject of food and feasting in a manner that makes it a detour from the approach enunciated by Achebe. The Famished Road (henceforth TFR) espouses the idea that food and feasting is what unites both physical and spiritual entities. It is noteworthy that the word ‘famished’ in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road is a metaphor about the hunger in the land that he portrays.
Okri begins his story by showing children spirit beings “…feasting, playing and sorrowing” (3) claiming that they “feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity” (3). Thus, Okri’s story diagonally contrasts with the feasting that is really celebratory in Things Fall Apart involving real humans with that which involves spirit beings and humans engaging with one another at multiple levels. This clearly shows that at both earthly and heavenly levels, the idea of feasting resonates in most African novels. In The Famished Road, the first meal we are introduced to, is a loaf of bread. This is ironic because a loaf of bread is made from wheat and wheat is not indigenous to the African continent. In addition, it has been shown that bread in itself is not in any way nutritious. While individuals may consume food without any form of drinking, there are no feasts without drinks. It is significant to note, however, that the kind of drinking that takes place in TFR could be considered destructive to the individuals involved and engenders violence as seen in Azaro’s observation:
Dad, losing steadily, abused his opponent virulently; placed an absurd bet on himself and his opponent doubled it. Things suddenly got very tense in the bar and Dad drank heavily, sweating. He ordered two more gourds of wine. It got so tense that when the onlookers said anything were pounced upon. It took long anxious moments to quell the furious exchanges. Dad increased the bet and his head started bleeding again.” (TFR 35).
This is unlike in TFA, where drinking is an avenue for socialization and communal networking where important issues pertaining to the society are discussed and solutions found. Indeed, while in TFA, perhaps the only kind of drink shown to be available is palm- wine which is known to give its drinker pleasure but which also has medicinal qualities which are helpful to a person’s health. The opposite is the case in TFR where, along with palm-wine, other alcoholic drinks such as ogogoro (local liquor), stout and beer which could lead to long-lasting health consequences such as diabetes, liver and kidney problems (TFR 42) are served. Also, whereas in traditional settings as found in TFA, women only drink palm- wine at the behest of their husbands / men, in TFR, they have access to it and are served directly.
Unlike in TFA where only men of means who have made their mark in their society organize feasts and invite people, in TFR, ordinary people like Azaro’s parents who are actually poor and living on the margins still go out of their way to organize feasts. Unlike in TFA, the drinks and food run out:
…Dad invited everyone to pour themselves more drinks and he proposed a toast to his wife. But the drinks had run out, and Dad had no money left, and we all sat staring at empty bottles. In the brief silence mum returned , bringing relatives we hadn’t seen for a long time , and the gathering cheered her return; and Dad, inspired by the cheering , hurried out of the room out of the room (ignoring Mum’s Protestations that we should celebrate within our means ), went to the shop across the street , and came back with cartons of beer. (TFR 44)
In TFR as in TFA a feast is preceded by great preparations. First, Azaro’s father has to hunt a boar, which then has to be taken out of the sack with which it is brought by Azaro’s mother and other women from the compound who had come to help to skin it, then “five men helped them butcher the fierce -looking animal” before it is cooked by the women (TFR 40-41).
Food and feasting in Africa are considered as much spiritual as physical activity. This probably accounts for why every gathering for a feast is often preceded by prayers that generally involve invoking the gods and pouring libation. Azaro refers to this when he states that: “the old man made libation at both posts of the door and prayed for us and thanked the ancestors that I had been found and asked that I never be lost again.” Another spiritual dimension, after what seemed a “failed feast” is that Azaro finds himself in conversation with his spirit companions when he says:
My spirit companions, their voices seductive beyond endurance , sang to me, asking me to honour my pact, to not be deceived by the forgetful celebrations of men, and to return to the land where feasting knows no end (TFA 48).
And perhaps his spirit companions are right because as we later become aware, his father’s feast is carried out with borrowed resources and not long after, the creditors (including those who were at the feast) (TFR 51) would come calling for their money. It thus shows that in colonial Africa which the early parts of The Famished Road represents, feasts are given in spite of debts, while feasts in traditional Africa as represented by Things Fall Apart are given out of individual or communal abundance as already indicated above.
The central concern of TFR is the significance of food to the social and symbolic economy of the character within the late colonial and early post-colonial space. This is why all the major issues within the socio-political economy revolve around food; food is stolen, poisoned, rationed, and withheld, but also shared in moments of familial and communal feasting. Hunger in The Famished Road is generally related to the social construction of food but then takes on other forms of symbolic significance as its availability or non-availability to a character may indicate the character’s social status and positioning in relation to his community. Through much of TFR, Azaro’s father is always in search of work, because work is food. Even when the work is demeaning or paid very little, choosing not to work is never an option. Thus Azaro and his family are always in lack as most of their neighbours were. On the other hand, Madame Koto epitomises the availability of food; she becomes wealthy as her business prospers and through it she gains political patronage which further enriches her. While she is described as growing bigger and fatter, the other characters are described as lean, bony and angular.
Azaro is always hungry and many times can do nothing about it. It becomes a channel for him to escape from this world and also provides him access to a spiritual side of the world and helps him understand his connection to it:
I refused to eat. And I stayed in bed, growing in stature, full of vengeance. That was how I went into a curious state of being. I began to feed on my hunger. I fed well and had a mighty appetite. I dipped into myself and found other worlds waiting. I chose a world and lingered. There were no spirits here. It was a world of wraiths. A world of famine, famishment and drought. (p. 325)
If food in TFA is recognized as a source of power, not so in TFR where it is suggested that “the only power the poor have is their hunger”. (TFR 70) Azaro’s journeys grow more extensive, taking him into increasingly more bizarre spiritual realms. The spirit world reverses expectations of the real world: lack of hunger may indicate human power and success, while in the spiritual realm hunger is important both as motivation and as a means of entry into other worlds. ( http://novselect.ebscohost.com)
Because food is scarce in The Famished Road and the people are generally hungry, politicians use food, especially essentials like milk, as an instrument for campaign; as an electioneering strategy. Having promised the people everything else but life itself and not succeeding with it, food is the only thing promised that can move the people to their side. (123-124)
Soon the whole street, in a frightening tide of buckets and basins, of clanging pots and rancorous voices, rocked the van. The landlord looked sick with fright. Sweat broke out on his face and he struggled to take off his agbada, but it got caught in the outstretched clawing hands of all the struggling hungry people. . . . On the other side I saw Madame Koto engaged in negotiations with the man at the megaphone, pointing vigorously in the direction of her bar. All around her the crowd hustled. The women’s kerchiefs were torn off, shirts were ripped apart, milk spilt everywhere and powdered the faces of women and children. With their sweating, milk-powdered faces they looked like starving spirits. (p. 124)
Unfortunately, after all the efforts to obtain the milk by Azaro’s mother, as his father discovers, it turns out to be rotten milk (127). Much later, others in the neighbourhood who ingested it realise it is the cause of their food poisoning (129-132) and have to dispose of it (141). The result of this is political violence which leads to further destruction of lives and property. (152-155).
At the very beginning of Okri’s The Famished Road, he alludes to the importance of feasting in all realms – physical, spiritual and ethereal when he claims: “There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity” (3). Part of the propitiation done to persuade the abiku – Azaro – to stay on the earth plane included ‘’the sacrifices, the burnt offerings of oils and yams and palm nuts …’’. In Things Fall Apart people may be poor but are not generally hungry because there is a communal ethos that requires that the wealthy share with the poor. However, this is not the case in The Famished Road where this type of communal ethos never exists or seems to have broken down and everyone has to survive on his or her own. This is what accounts for why after his escape from the ritualists who have attempted to sacrifice him, Azaro is hungry and there is no one willing to offer him food except a provision stall man with a severe face, who has only four fingers with a thumb missing, who offered him a loaf of bread. The bread Azaro is given becomes for him a life- line (17-18).
And in providing this uncanny picture of hunger in colonial and post- colonial state (Nigeria), a counterpoise to the abundance that existed in pre-colonial Nigeria as presented in TFA and in the ethereal spirit world from where Azaro originally descended where: “There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity” is established. So whereas the foods that Achebe presents are normal and expected in TFA, in The Famished Road they are not in any way the norm. Rather, they are considered a privilege. Azaro describes how he was offered:
…generous quantities of pounded yam, choice selections of goat meat, and soup rich in vegetables. The food smelt wonderful and the steam from the bowl occupied the room with its tomato and oregano seasonings. My hunger made the world seem bluish’’ (25).
Even in a fractured colonial environment as captured in The Famished Road, where every man seems to be for him or herself, the need to share food as a sign of a common humanity is ever prevalent but never fully understood nor undertaken. Azaro claims to have watched as women “fried bean cakes, chicken, and fish, and as they prepared delicious – smelling stews” (33). Children watching the preparation of meals for a celebratory feast such as is organised to celebrate the reunion of Azaro’s family is an African norm and a method for acculturating young people into the food culture of their environment. Foods in TFA (roast plantains with slices of oil-bean and fish) are prepared mostly free of unnatural additives and therefore seemingly healthier than foods that we see presented in TFR (fried bean cakes, chicken, and fish).
In TFR, father and son also drink palm – wine together in a commercial setting, unlike in TFA which provides a culturally congenial setting in pre-colonial Africa which ultimately understood and approved structures of relationships that makes it unusual for a man to sit with his children or wife to engage in drinking except when occasion demanded for it. In showing Azaro, drinking with his father in TFR, Okri seems to question the breach of traditional boundaries which colonial and much later its influence on post-colonial life has engendered:
When Dad drank from his half calabash, I drank from my glass. It made Dad happy. He said: Learn to drink, my son. A man must be able to hold his drink because drunkenness is sometimes necessary in this difficult life.
In Africa, fathers are expected to drink with their children and in the process teach them the virtues of the palm – wine and its dangers as well. TFA – 15: “Everybody agreed that Igwelo should drink the dregs. He accepted the half-horn from his brother and drank it.” Two symbols are essential in understanding the narrative in The Famished Road; the first is that of the road which is imaged like a human’s throat and which is never satisfied.
He ate the trees, the bushes, the rocks, the sand, and he even tried to eat the earth. Then the strangest thing happened. He began to eat himself. He ate his legs, and his hands, and his shoulders, and his back, and his neck, and he ate his head. He ate himself till only his stomach remained…What had happened was that the King of the Road had become part of all the roads in this world. He is still hungry, and he will always be hungry…Some say people make sacrifices to the road to remember that the monster is still there and that he can rise at any time and start to eat up human beings again. Others say that it is a form of prayer that his type should never come back again to terrify our lives.
In the second, the road represents the meeting point between the West (from the entry of Europeans and slave traders) and Africa at one level; and the struggle between Christian and traditional beliefs; between the peoples’ ways of life and the imported ways of life at another level. The metaphor of the road is thus Okri’s approach for reconciling this world to the other. Two worlds that feed on each other and which exhibit a duality that is nonetheless parasitic; and in no other aspect of the socio-economic and political life of the characters is this more manifest than in their comprehension of their food and its deployment in feasts.
This probably accounts for why there are very few feasts in the TFR and why Bijman (2016) insists that: “The road, and travelling the road to find the end of it, is a metaphor for never-ending hunger, and trying to find the end of hunger. One thing is constant in Azaro’s world, in Okri’s Nigeria – hunger, the search for food, the preparation of food and the need for food, day by day”.
Food and feast are aspects of social life that every individual would enjoy either sparingly or regularly over a period in their lifetimes. This is particularly important, as we note that while Achebe’s discourse of this subject in TFA mirrors close to the milieu in which he set his story by creating real characters such as Okonkwo, Obierika, Ikemefuna, and others. On the other hand, in TFR, aside from the characters Azaro and Madame Koto who are named, Okri does not name characters as person but as types; a kind of every man. However, significantly important to our discourse here is that characters, whether in TFA or TFR despite the difference in approach to their characterization, are uniquely designed and positioned to engage with the importance of food and the necessity for feasts within their families and communities.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart (African Writers Series) London: Heinemann, 1967.
Bijman, M. Suffering and Sublime Beauty – The Famished Road, by Ben Okrihttps://sevencircumstances.com/2016/10/31/the-famished-road-by-ben-okri/ October 31, 2016
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Fieldhouse, Paul. Food, Feasts, and Faith [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of Food Culture in World Religions Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2017
Highfield, Jonathan Bishop. Food and Foodways in African Narratives: Community, Culture, and Heritage. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Ojwang, Dan. “Eat Pig and Become a Beast: Food, Drink and Diaspora in East African Indian writing” In Research in African Literature, 42 (3), 68-87, 2011.
Okri, Ben. The Famished Road. Ibadan: Safari Books Export Ltd., with Spectrum Books Ltd., 1991.