Getting food and drink in the Nigerian Civil War

This is the final post from a joint memoir written by Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen about their period in Nigeria, September 1967–September 1969, which was framed by the Nigerian Civil War. The chapter tells a personal story and also provides some more general insight into those tumultuous years. They were both working at the University of Ibadan, Selina in African Studies, and Robin in Political Science. Here they describe how they managed to get food and drink, acknowledging that whatever little travails they experienced, many others were struggling to survive.

By Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen

When one is in the midst of a civil war, getting potable water and a secure supply of food, particularly food that is familiar, does become something of a preoccupation. To save scarce foreign exchange, the federal government had banned all but essential imports. Enough then to buy guns, but not imported rice. The basics of life were available. For example, there were lots of yams, root vegetables usually pounded and boiled and served in a large ball. Though they are related to sweet potatoes, the ones we could get hold of were very fibrous and bland. Nigerians, particularly poorer Nigerians, would tuck into big portions of yam. A dimple in the ball would be filled with a peppery gravy mixed with gooey okra, other vegetables, chicken or meat. The extent of the dimple and the meatiness of the filling depended on income. Robin managed the dish better, but Selina struggled to swallow and digest yams – her years as a nimble ballet dancer had led her to live on a variety of lighter meals and snacks (not to mention coffee and cigarettes), though these hardly provided adequate nutrition for a pregnant, then breast-feeding, mother.

Cassava was another popular tuber – imported from South America originally, Nigeria had, by 2018, become the biggest producer of cassava in the world. There are two kinds, sweet and bitter, and although the resultant dishes could be nutritious and filling, cassava contains toxins, notably cyanide, that has to be washed, soaked and boiled out, before one can safely eat it. We received a bewildering array of instructions about preparing cassava, with dire warnings and bland assurances in equal measure. In some confusion, we abandoned any attempt to use it. We were, to be sure, very inexperienced and unconfident cooks – nowadays, with the help of Google, we might have persisted. In fact, we were surprised to learn recently that the familiar dessert, tapioca, is made from reprocessed cassava. Given our ignorance, our starches were largely confined to potatoes, when we could get them – not very often – and local rice. Here another hazard presented itself. More often than not the rice from the market was full of stones, to be more precise quartz, which looked just like rice grains. Friday Etukudo, who worked for us in the mornings, took on the tedious task of discarding the stones without resorting to our indignant rantings about it, saying simply, ‘they put stones in the rice to bring the weight up.’ We could barely believe his account and are still not sure if that is a valid explanation for our stone-supplemented rice.

Water

We have described in another chapter of our book how we had to boil and then filter our water to ensure it was safe to drink. We could rely, most of the time, on a supply of water from the tap, but perhaps twice in every ten weeks the supply gurgled then stopped. That meant standing outside with our friendly neighbours with buckets and a watering can waiting for the bowser. We carefully stored the boiled and filtered water in the refrigerator. The sudden loss of water from the taps without warning was a nuisance, so we followed the practice, suggested by our neighbours, of leaving the bathplug in and the cold-water tap turned on. You can anticipate the result. One New Year’s Eve when we were out at a party – we must have taken our baby, Miranda, with us – the Ibadan water authorities decided to give everyone a New Year treat by switching the taps on. We had forgotten to turn the bath tap off and the place was flooded. Robin’s research notes, a few books and a sturdy copy of the Oxford English Dictionary were ruined, though the dictionary remained with us for many years with its bent covers and crinkly pages.

The flooding was a one-time only event. Another was an extraordinary wartime incident supposedly affecting the source of Ibadan’s main water supply, the Eleyele Dam. We have to diverge considerably from the narrative to explain why this had a particular salience for us. Selina has some relatives from Perth in Scotland, one of whom, Penelope Molteno, had married a member of the Swedish royal family. When Selina was a ballet dancer at the Malmö Stadsteater in 1960, Penelope invited her to a posh dinner with her husband and some other notables, including one called Count Carl Gustaf Ericsson von Rosen, with whom she engaged in animated conversation. He was a swashbuckling and somewhat crazy character who identified with the Biafran cause and having fitted some Malmö Flygindustri MFI-9 Junior aircraft with rockets, he formed a squadron called the ‘Biafra Babies’. They targeted undefended airfields, including Ibadan Airport, which was very close to where we were living. They were successful elsewhere in destroying a number of federal aircraft on the ground, but all they hit in Ibadan were a few cows that had strayed onto the grassy verge of the runway. However, a persistent and insistent rumour had it that von Rosen’s squadron circled back via the Eleyele dam and dropped off capsules filled with a toxic cocktail. Our water, it appeared, had been poisoned by Selina’s fellow dinner guest!

We were inclined to ignore this tale, but when Friday Etukudo confirmed it, we did get the wobbles. He was always calm and discounted the raft of rumours that spread in the face of, and perhaps because of, the rather crude propaganda of the federal government. We had a few bottles of purified water in the fridge, but this would only last a short time. Fortunately, the rumour turned out to be total nonsense and our water supplies resumed their usual erratic glug-glug stop glug-glug routine. We were grateful for any supply.

Eating out

Street food was available and often quite delicious. Deep-fried plantains were enjoyable, and some stalls served fufu, cubes made from cassava and plantain flour. These were picked up with one’s fingers and dipped into very gooey soup, called ‘draw soup’. The name was certainly indicative – with a cube of fufu one drew up some highly viscous soup made from jute and okra. ‘Just like phlegm’, Selina shuddered. Robin had to travel to various parts of Ibadan and to Lagos and the north in pursuit of his research and found himself buying and sharing street meals with his respondents. After a couple of acute experiences of diarrhoea, he forswore the practice of eating street food. Somewhat more successful were meals at the ‘Executive De’, a workers’ restaurant in Lagos. Peter Waterman tells an amusing story of meeting Robin there:

I was working for the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions in Prague. And I was in Lagos to run a one-month course for its local affiliate, the NTUC [Nigerian Trade Union Congress] … Now the Executive De was the ‘movement’ restaurant. In other words, it had been set up by the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party with money from the Communist world. It catered to movement people and office workers. So, I was actually somewhat miffed at the appearance at the Executive De of a tallish, red-haired South African who was also clearly Jewish (it takes one to recognize one). Previously I had considered myself a Communist Dr Livingstone, boldly going where no white man had gone before. However, if I was not Dr Livingstone then he was not Henry Stanley either. Robin Cohen turned out, more usefully, to be a South African socialist doing PhD research on Nigerian trade unionism, whilst based at the University of Ibadan.[1]

The choice of eating out in Ibadan itself was very limited. We indulged in the occasional meal at the University Staff Club but did not like to get pigeon-holed as core members of the expatriate sub-group who dominated the restaurant. Much more fun were the rowdy dinners at the Westend café in the centre of Ibadan. The café was near the Mbari Club (a cultural meeting place for writers, artists, poets, musicians and dramatists) and owned by a culturally tuned-in member of the Lebanese community, Mr Hadad. Mr Hadad had never really finished the building. Ugly rusty stirrups, steel loops used to reinforce concrete, stuck out above the roof, where the restaurant area was located. The choice of meal was disarmingly simple: ‘Meal’ or ‘meal with special’. ‘Meal’ was a delectable kebab, served with cous-cous and salad. The ‘special’ was identical, with a substantial portion of beef brain (maghz) on the side, which Robin favoured, and Selina abjured. At one point, we decided we liked the Westend sufficiently to take the anti-diarrhoea medicine, Entero-vioform, before we set out for our meal. Though the medicine was then freely available, it has now been banned because of an array of nasty side-effects. It seems it can kill.

Routine supplies

Rather surprisingly, we were able to get fresh milk delivered. The milk was supplied in floppy plastic bags tossed onto our little veranda by a bicyclist. The milk was sent in refrigerated lorries from Vom (near Jos), 800 km away, which we visited, partly to allay our curiosity about where our milk came from. The area was cool with luscious grassland, quite unlike the landscape of the rest of Nigeria and, all these years on, a flourishing dairy industry has developed, seeded from the government dairy of our years. The milk tasted more or less normal, but had a curious grey colour, which was oddly disturbing. This led to a weak joke of which we never tired. Vom became ‘vomit’, as in ‘would you like some vomit with your tea?’ Once the Vom diary sent us a customer satisfaction survey, which included the question ‘would you like your milk yellow, white, or just as is?’ We replied ‘just as is’, as we didn’t want to be difficult.

Our supply of bread was also delivered, by a very persistent street hawker. Either she was called Gloria, or the brand name of the bread was ‘Gloria Bread’, we can’t now remember. However, Robin recalls with shame how roughly-spoken he was with her when she unexpectedly stuck her head through the burglar bars of the lavatory, which he happened to be inhabiting. ‘Buy bread’, she demanded and when Robin shouted at her she plaintively responded, ‘But it’s Gloria’. She clearly was desperately dependent on our custom, but there was only so much of her sweetened yellowish bread we could handle.

We also had access to chicken and meat. The chickens were bought live from time to time by Selina in Dugbe market, but (poor pun) she was too chicken to cut their heads off, so she left them, with air and water (we hasten to add) on the back seat of the car. It was Etukudo’s job to dispatch them. They tasted strong and stringy compared with the birds one now buys in supermarkets. Before they reached their end, they had often rather messed up the back seat – it was Robin’s responsibility to clean that up.

The meat we acquired was also red in tooth and claw. It came from a newly opened ‘meat shop’, near the campus. ‘Butcher’ would have been far too genteel a description for this establishment. It was more a slaughterhouse with a retail counter. Sometimes we saw the animal – normally a cow brought to Ibadan by a patient Fulani herder from the north – walking about before it was crudely guillotined and wrapped for our delectation. After this experience we can heartily recommend a skilled butcher and appropriately hung beef and lamb. But, at the time, we were happy enough to get this supply.

There were two other items in our routine diet. We were able to get tinned sardines from a corner store, actually more like a large shed in someone’s garden, an outlet that out of discretion we will call ‘Kemi’s corner’. It was quite difficult to get hold of sardines elsewhere and squashed sardines on Gloria’s bread was one of our standbys. Kemi seemed to have an unlimited supply, which she would replenish from time to time by a trip to her nearby house. As we explained in another chapter of this book, when Selina gave birth to Miranda she was fed on sardines and Guinness. She, like many of the other mums in the hospital, needed the nutrition this diet provided. The sardines looked similar to the ones served in the hospital, but we suspected nothing until a tell-tale neighbour upset us by saying that Kemi obtained her supplies by having an affair with one of the senior doctors in the hospital. Reluctantly, we decided that we could not sanction this rip-off of hospital food by continuing our purchases. The story of Kemi’s romantic life could, of course, have been a malicious lie.

Somebody also gave us a great tip. Pawpaw (the light-yellow sort, not the more orange papaya) was easily available in season and, in addition to the ones we could get at the market, we had three productive trees, planted by Selina, alongside the house. Picked raw then boiled, the green pawpaws tasted a bit like marrow, and we used them often as a substitute for a fibrous vegetable.

Exotic items

On several occasions, hawkers came around with gigantic land snails (Archachatina marginata), offering them as a delicacy. ‘Gigantic’ is not a misnomer – the snails could measure up to 25 cm across and weigh up to 700 grams. We tried them a couple of times, but somehow could not get the snails to taste of anything more than chewy bits of old leather. We really did not know what we were doing, and we gather these snails have now become an internationally-recognized and highly-valued foodstuff.

Getting familiar items for breakfast was difficult. Gloria’s bread could be toasted, we had soluble coffee grains and a little jam, but no marmalade. Cereals appeared sometimes in the university shop on campus, but they were a rare item and would disappear for long periods. Once, Robin was in town interviewing trade union leaders when a Lebanese trader beckoned him into his shop. He produced Post Toasties, cornflakes with blueberries. Post was a formidable rival to Kellogg in those days. The temptation was too great, even though Robin surmised that the corn flakes must have been smuggled into the country. We stretched out tiny portions, savouring the cereal for three or four weeks.

The tale of the pig’s head

On another occasion, Robin got the idea that we could make brawn, an echo, though in a decidedly non-kosher way, of a favourite Jewish dish called ptcha that Robin’s mother, who was of Polish heritage, had made for the family. Usually it was made of lambs’ or cows’ feet, but Robin had been offered a pig’s head one day at the meat shop and impulsively went for it. It was an impossible task to get the accompanying ingredients in full (including carrots, celery, garlic, bay leaves, onions, leeks, lemons, wine vinegar), but he spent days tracking down some of them. Whole black peppercorns were a triumphal find. Meanwhile, the pig was placed in the refrigerator with its whiskers and ears freaking Selina out. At one point she refused to open the fridge door. The idea of pig’s brawn is to cook it very slowly for about 17 hours, discarding the oodles of fat and gradually breaking off the chunks of meaty cheeks and ears. The bones would generate a gelatine. After discarding the bones, and adding sliced hard-boiled eggs, the meat and egg would set in the liquor making a mould that could be sliced into pieces for about a two-week supply of cold meat.

That was the theory. In practice, the gas cooker blew out at a low setting and in trying to keep the show on the road it was turned up too high. The head boiled dry and burnt and in rushing to retrieve the situation Robin dropped the head on the somewhat unsanitary concrete floor. Recriminations followed and it was clear that even if it had all gone smoothly, Selina was not going to eat it anyway. The miserable pig’s head disappeared at her orders. For Robin, this was a silent reprimand from his mother sent via the ether – ‘don’t mess with your Jewish heritage’!

A sombre conclusion

In closing this chapter, it is only appropriate to record that at the end of the civil war in January 1970 experienced Quaker and Lutheran aid workers from the US estimated that some 50,000 children in Biafra had died of starvation.[2] This was far fewer than had been suggested during the course of the war when Biafran sources or sympathisers with the breakaway republic used the estimate of two million starving children. Whatever the number, we ate while others could not, and this should be solemnly recorded here. That said, our anxiety about getting a regular supply of food was real enough. It was made worse by our inexperience as chefs and the limitations on Selina’s diet after her gall bladder was removed. We also cannot avoid the conclusion that, despite our aspirations to cosmopolitanism in all matters, there was a certain cultural resistance to unfamiliar foods that we failed to overcome. When we left Nigeria, Selina weighed just over 6½ stones, about 42 kilos. She desperately needed feeding-up.

Selina Molteno and Robin Cohen’s book, titled An Expatriate Family in the Nigerian Civil War, is available here.

Their book will be launched at the African Studies Seminar, University of Oxford, on 11 February, at 1700, UK/GMT. All are welcome (no registration required). The Microsoft Teams link is here.

Selina Molteno lives in Oxford in the UK where she founded a publishing service. With over 35 years’ experience in publishing, she has piloted many books and articles from manuscript to successful publication. Robin Cohen is an established scholar in development studies and sociology, known best for his writings on migration, diasporas and globalization. His books include Migration: Human movement from prehistory to the present (2019) and Refugia: Radical solutions to mass displacement (co-author, 2020). 

Featured Photograph: Dugbe market in Ibadan in the 1960s.

Notes

[1] Peter Waterman ‘If I wasn’t Dr Livingstone, he wasn’t Henry Stanley’, in Nicholas Van Hear et al. Retrospective for Robin Cohen, Oxford: Oxford Publishing Services, 2016, p. 19.

[2] ‘Starvation toll in Biafra revisited’, New York Times, 12 April 1970, p. 19

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