I grew up in Isanlu, Kabba, Egbe because Baba Adesanmi was transferred as Principal of the big Catholic secondary schools in these three Okun towns: Saint Kizito’s College, Saint Augustine’s College, Egbe Girls College. When he was Principal of Saint Kizito’s college, a newly-ordained Reverend Father was a teacher under him – Father John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan…
Childhood in the bucolic paradise of Okun land meant that squirrels and rodents and birds were always on the menu. The hunting expeditions to look for varieties of bush rodents (house rodents were inedible), birds, and squirrels were always an after school affair. I am not sure that my childhood friend, Francis Okonkwoo, and I ever killed anything. We were technically two ajebutters in the village and did not have the hunting savoir-faire of our village peers. We were often just a nuisance in the hunting party but were assured our share of the haul after the roasting back home in the evening.
Back then, what we were actually doing was roasting partridges, bush rodents, and squirrels on hot coal in Mama Isanlu’s village hearth. Now, after nearly twenty years of exposure to haute cuisine and high-level gourmandizing, I can call what we were eating back then squirrel barbecue or squirrel roti minus the a la carte.
People erroneously believe that the human mind is the location of memory. I think memory is located in the tongue and in the throat. A human tongue never forgets its history of tastes and sensations. A human throat never forgets the texture and taste of regular culinary passersby during the first fifteen years of its life. If you grew up in Okun land, the taste of leftover amala from yesterday’s dinner, sliced into balls and warmed early in the morning in leftover okro soup and served as breakfast, will accompany you for the rest of your life to your grave. Nearly thirty years after I last tasted ikahin, the mere thought of it still sends my tongue and throat on salivating errands of memory and my soul stirs in Canada’s frozen north.
Whatever the tongue remembers, the throat never forgets.
Late August 1998, as I strolled across the vast campus of the University of British Columbia, making my way to the French Department for registration as a new PhD student, I spotted two squirrels rolling around leisurely on the lawn without a care in the world. I had arrived in Vancouver just a few days earlier and was yet to notice the odd fact that squirrels compete for space with people in Canadian cities the way cows arrogantly claim human space in some cities in Northern Nigeria.
Two squirrels on a lawn!
Isanlu rushed back. Okun land came crashing into my consciousness.
My tongue remembered what my throat never forgot: squirrel barbecue! Squirrel roti!
It took the excited pleasurable moaning of the owners of the land, the owners of the culture, to stampede me out of my mid-morning reverie. Some Canadian students had gathered, taking pictures of the squirrels I was already imagining spread-eagled on Mama Isanlu’s roasting hearth. And the Canadians cooed and cooed:
“Aww, aren’t they cute!”
“Oh my Gawd, they are so awesome!”
Squirrels are cute and awesome? What the heck was the world coming to? It was like the end of the world to me.
Actually, it was not the end of the world. It was just my introduction to the immensity and richness of human culture and diversity. A squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel. My culture places a squirrel on the menu; Canadian culture offers the same animal for visual aesthetic pleasure on the lawns of Canadian cities. They are everywhere to be loved and admired. They have priority of space. You get out of their way. That is the culture of the owners of the land.
Despite the imperialism of my throat and tongue which have both never forgotten anything they tasted in my first fifteen years on earth, I have had to make my African immigrant ass adjust to handling Canada’s calabash the way Canada insists her calabash be handled. I have learnt to coo at the first sight of Canada’s ubiquitous squirrels and moan along with Canadians that the squirrels are cute and awesome while dreaming of what they’d look like in a pot of soup.
Yet my tongue never forgets. Yet my throat remembers.
I could carry placards to fight for the cultural right of my tongue and throat to the squirrels I see every day around me in Ottawa. If I kill and eat them, I will go to jail or pay a hefty fine.
I have learnt the fact that my right to have my source-culture respected as a diasporic subject in Canada must not trample on the right of my host-culture to her own rules and affirmations. If I want to eat squirrels, I quietly go to Nigeria in the summer. I will not stay here and insist that Canada should adjust and accommodate the consumption of squirrels for me.
The day I decide that I am from the Moslem parts of Africa and the freedom to alcohol in this country is part of the “decadent Western culture” that I condemn all the time while living in it, I will return to my alcohol-free blissful life in Moslem Africa and not insist that Canadians stop drinking to accommodate me.
The day I decide that I am an Ogun worshipper and I need to sacrifice dogs annually to my deity, I will return to Yoruba land in Nigeria and not insist that Canadians adjust to the gory sight of watching me sever the neck of a dog with one clean swing of a cutlass.
If I do that, I will go to jail.
Ogun, the fiery god of iron, will be powerless to open the steel doors of my Canadian cell and set me free.