A-MA-LA: a tri-syllabic word that salivates… may be the middle name of this rustic city, and its new carnival of the palate.
When you hear about amala, there are various questions that pop into your head. Sometimes one wonders, why are people so enamoured with a dish whose colour is most unlikely to attract the retina? Why is it that when people step into Ibadan for the first time the one thing they are, almost invariably, asking for is an amala buka?
As a child growing up in Ibadan, I know that at some point in my life I have had memories that were tied to the legendary amala. There were days when we would drive past any of the canteens in Ibadan and I cannot help but imagine pots of steaming amala with the signature gbegiri and ewedu soup, a combination called abula. For sure, culture is the way of life of a group of people and part of our culture is our food. Our food sometimes defines our identity.
We all have wondered for years now what makes amala special? Anybody can prepare amala at home on a gas cooker, so what’s the special thing about the buka amala? The answer to that question is probably simple. It is the euphoria, that strange feeling you get when you have just 45 minutes to spare for a lunch break and you have no car, and you must have Bodija Market amala for lunch. So what to do? You pick a bike and already 10 minutes of your time is gone, rush into the buka and the queue is terrible; the noise annoying and the heat maddening – there is obviously no air condition but you must eat that amala. When it is finally your turn you still have to spend five minutes arguing with the lady who is supposed to give you meat but when you start eating the amala, your fingers are burning and you are all drenched in sweat but you don’t stop, you keep eating. Finally done, you take that toothpick and put it in your mouth even when you have nothing there… I guess that is what makes amala special; yet, all we amala fans aren’t totally unaware of the sometimes suspect sanitary condition of some city joints. I sometimes strangely imagine if this really isn’t a mark of its ‘authenticity’?
This grassroots love seems to have been identified by the Oyo State government. And the government, in conjunction with the Commission for Museums and Monuments and the National Museum of Unity, Alesinloye Ibadan, presented this Ajodun Oka, the amala fiesta which they titled “The Making of Amala”. And though I did not make the opening ceremony, but have it on authority that the event, which took place at the Trans Amusement park, Ibadan, was commissioned by the governor of Oyo state who was represented by his wife Mrs Florence Ajimobi. Mrs Ajimobi urged Nigerians to embrace African cultural values. There was also in attendance the state Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Mr. Toye Arulogun.
There were different stalls awarded to different participants from various canteens in Ibadan North to aid them in the preparation of this delicacy. We had canteens like Omolayo, Iyadunni and Iya Oyo; just a slight chip of the ‘iya’- ‘omo’ canteen-naming predilection of Ibadan where most canteens are named after a mother and/or a child. There were also stalls for side attractions like the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training which displayed different books and even a grasscutter. The various canteens are expected to prepare amala and abula, while people are expected to go eat, and have fun free of charge!
Any surprise at the timing of this festival? A dwindling income from oil reserves forcing federating units and states to look inwards, some have suggested. Tapping into a potential local market of indigenous passion of palate, is another way some have explained it. What seems incontrovertible is that Nigeria is becoming highly culturally conscious everyday, and although we have a lot of festivals, we do not really have a lot of festivals depicting our indigenous delicacies and their preparations. The Ajodun Oka serves as an opening to showcase Nigerian food such as amala, and to encourage everyone, particularly the new generation to embrace indigenous food, especially when they are highly organic and healthy.
Iwalewa Olorunyomi writes from the Department of Classics, University of Ibadan.