"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
May 14, 2013
Remembering Lean Days
by Imo Eshiet

I love literature for its many narrative devices and the satisfaction and instruction these afford. I read and reread metaphysical poetry, not so much for its recondite imagery — appealing as that is — but for its conceits, its extended metaphors. I especially like contrast for its capacity to vivify narratives with opposing, sometimes shocking elements.

This is why I love America too — because it contrasts so sharply with Africa. I am not thinking of its fabled wealth. I am not even thinking of the beauty of its democracy and institutions and how they inimitably contrast with the heinously ugly and failed systems in my continent. No, I’m rather thinking of how America wastes food!.

Many Africans look at Americans and shrug at the obesity they see everywhere in babies as well as in the aged. Similarly, “skinny” is one adjective Americans favor in qualifying Africans. On arriving here, the immigration officer who checked my papers must have thought I was hard of hearing because I was so absorbed by his massive stature that I could barely get myself together to answer his questions.

I had read and heard about Goliath from childhood, but never had one stood before my very eyes! The fellow not only had the towering majesty of a moving oak tree, but also to my mind, rocked and swayed like an ocean liner in a storm, so I stared and drooled. I guess with my skin stretched taut on my bones, I must have, in turn, impressed him as some mummified mosquito. That’s possibly why he took time interviewing me.

I love America. It matters nothing that she sorely grieves me when I see the sheer volume of food she dumps daily. For those who do not have my kind of background and the impact fights over food had on me as a child, it is difficult to remotely understand why throwing away leftovers is so irksome to me.

My shock at the quantity of food Americans throw away came quite early when I arrived here. Every time I saw food being dumped, I thought of what people back home, so miserable they scavenged from landfills and dive into refuse heaps to salvage whatever they could find to help their rumbling stomachs, could do with such waste. I also recall a story Father was so fond of telling.

His elder brother, Uncle Thompson, upon landing a teaching job in a city, invited our grandfather over. As his visitor watched, he dressed a piece of fish, taking care to remove the head and fins before using it to cook soup for him. The old man was so unimpressed at his son’s extravagance that instead of a blessing he left with anger and a warning that if the son continued with such wastefulness, he would never proper!

On arriving here, a friend whose family has done more to help me get along in life than all the people I have known before now invited me home. Though he and his family try to live humbly so they could consecrate and help the underprivileged, merely looking at the sumptuous table spread before me, I caught a vision of what the Psalmist meant when he praised his creator for preparing a bounteous table before him!

There was no anointing my head with oil that day, in the literal sense of the word to be sure, but there was plenty of running over! My eyes nearly popped from their sockets while my mouth watered over like Pavlov’s dog at the sound of a bell summoning it to its experimental meal. Called to say the prayers, I did so hurriedly.

Since it was a buffet, I served myself a bit too generously. I was glad my wife was not there to shoot me some poisonous looks as she often does when I betray what she calls my “lack of class.” (Her growing up circumstance was somewhat not as slender as mine, so I don’t hold it against her when she feels like bragging about class.)

Sitting down, I fell on the food with gusto. No sooner had I scooped the food into my mouth than I realized it tasted so different. The food despite its sweet aroma was shockingly bland!

It was something I could not readily understand. My mind went back to my high school days. I had learned in history class that the White man dared the battering seas and blasting winds to scour our coasts for spices before he discovered that my people had something more rewarding to offer him — trade in human beings.

I tried to mask my disappointment and pushed the food down my throat much as I could. But my host would not buy my pretense. A seasoned critic and reader of human conduct, he must have noticed how I rolled the food over in my mouth and tried to force it down.

He apologized for the blandness of the food and suggested that I didn’t have to finish off what was on my plate if I didn’t like it. I nodded and tried to assure him that everything was okay, mindful that in my childhood the one thing my parents could not stand was to waste food. I guess the Jamaican proverb “Instead of food to waste let belly burst” took its provenance from Africa.

But my host was right. In my culture our food is usually so peppered that it could blow the roof off any mouth not used to our ways. Pepper is just one of the hot spices we are exposed to quite early in life.

One of the hottest goes by the praise name, “The lovely one with a deadly temper.” This particular pepper has a silky, rosy and glossy appearance but once ingested, it stings like an irate scorpion. Another characteristic that belies its murderous power is its fragrance. It never fails to appeal even from a distance wherever it is ground to flavor foods.

I get the impression that in addition to its culinary value, this pepper also served a much more economic purpose. I suspect our mother favored this particular pepper in order to teach us early to discipline our rather voracious appetites — especially given the fact that food was not always that easy to come by. If she made eating such a struggle, she could dissuade us from gorging ourselves at the expense of our not-so-fast-eating siblings.

Our parents had eight kids, and when scores of extended family hangers-on were added to that, the result was constant fights over food and bad memories.

I remember growing up with the impression that adults never felt the pangs of hunger. That was because at food time, our parents often stood by making sure we did not pluck out each other’s eyes as we struggled to outdo the other in speed and quantity of food we gulped down. When we were done, they would put the plates to their tongues and lick them dry. So overly peppering the food served to slow us down though we soon mastered that and learned to stay on top of it!

Malnourished Biafran Children

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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