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Digital archives immortalize West African culinary and political history

By Kay Ugwuede

The seeds that blossomed into Ozoz Sokoh’s FeastAfrique, a digital archive and library of West African culinary history, were several: past experiences documenting the history of African cuisine, curating libraries for individuals and culinary schools, the 2020 anti-racist uprisings in North America and, perhaps most importantly, The Jemima Code.

FeastAfrique is a compendium with many parts—a digital library that extends beyond culinary literature, audiovisual content, a Hall of Fame, mini research reports, as well as past experiential projects of Sokoh’s.

Sokoh traces the lack of West African culinary history, particularly with regards to its influence in African-American cuisine, to colonialism. She underscored the need to correct the impression that enslaved Africans were only captured for their labor.

“For me, it was really important to remove this narrative that enslaved West Africans were on the farm and in the kitchen. It was beyond physical labor. They weren’t just toiling and cooking and sweating. They brought knowledge systems, they brought techniques, skills, toolkits, and these books were a reminder of that,” she said in reference to The Jemima Code.

There are many recipes contained in this archive that point to this rich history. Brazilian acarajé, for example, was in fact born from Nigerian akara ijesha. Black American recipes like the Charleston red rice and stewed greens trace their roots back to West African jollof and efo riro respectively.

A 1910 cookbook, “Practical West African Cookery,” written by two British women in the colonial period describes a “joloff” recipe which calls for six tablespoons of rice and a whole chicken, disproportionate when compared to West African jollof recipes where there are more parts rice than meat.

While researching West African ingredients as part of a Berlin-based fellowship, Forecast, Sokoh realized there were print books that had been hard to come by she found online. Building off a 2016 post on her award-winning food blog “Kitchen Butterfly”, she began curating the books that turned up from her research which she hoped would become an online version of the post; a useful resource list of  historic information about West African cooking ingredients.

But she moved to Ontario, Canada early last year for post-graduate school, and in the midst of a global pandemic, a dam of racial injustice and reckoning broke in North America.

“At the time, I can say a lot of Black resources were being shared and one of the ones that came to light for me was The Jemima Code and a companion cookbook called Jubilee,” she said. The Jemima Code is Toni Tipton-Martin’s 2015 collection of more than 150 Black cookbooks going back to 1827 and written by African American authors.

“Essentially, The Jemima Code is an extended bibliography, but it delves a little bit into more information and groups the books based on history,” Sokoh said.

“Cookbooks are an important source of information and dating,” Sokoh said. Finding these 150 cookbooks was going to be a mammoth task not only spatially but also the time and resources it would demand. So, again, Sokoh turned to the internet. “The first weekend, I was shocked at how many e-books I found, and I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done,” she says.

Most people understand the need to document and preserve history, but Chinua Achebe’s immortal words underscore the essential nature of archiving that forms the essence of FeastAfrique. “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” Achebe said in a 1994 interview.

Archives link generations past to the future and imbue an understanding of the world that is enriched by contextual knowledge. The internet has made previously tactile modes of preserving history easier, but archiving in general remains an area of concern for the continent. Traditional forms of passing down knowledge are oftentimes left deteriorating or are nonexistent.

Fu’ad Lawal, growth lead at EdenLife, a lifestyle tech company, had been mulling over the lack of a cohesive digital archive of newspapers published in Nigeria over the years. Nothing of the sort exists, but you can find physical newspaper archives in many state and national libraries across the country.

“We inherited a British practice that requires every newspaper sending a copy of their paper to the libraries every day,” Lawal said. Last year, he launched the project Start Archiving to digitize newspapers from one Nigerian daily each day for a period spanning 1961 to 2010.

“It’s 18,637 days,” Lawal told Sahelien.com, an enormous task requiring substantial amounts of funding both to acquire human resources as well as source for the digital tools necessary to immortalize the archive.

While Sokoh has combined funds from the Forecast fellowship and her pocket to develop FeastAfrique, Lawal is hoping that a combination of grants, audience contributions and value added services—like partnering with media publications for whom this hind-sight and wealth of information can be a game-changer in the depth of stories they report on—will sustain the digital newspaper archive.

FeastAfrique is an ongoing digital archiving project already rich with information and resources. Sokoh hopes the initiative will help forge a sturdy sense of identity for others as it did for her as well as become a springboard upon which a variety of research projects would launch. “There are so many projects that this could be a useful foundation for,” she said.

Update, March 31, 20:35 GMT: The second paragraph has changed to reflect an explanation of FeastAfrique, replacing a paragraph that referred to The Jemima Code.