I hail from Lagos State in Nigeria, West Africa, from the Igbo ethnic group famously known for their jolly nature and rich culture—clothing, customs, and of course food. Traditionally, the mother is the giver of life and nutriment to her family, and my mother served this role majestically. We ate local fresh vegetables and fruits, meat reared naturally, and spices from the earth, so our meals were delicious and highly nutritious. In our home, most food was cooked in the kitchen on gas burners, although I preferred anything cooked on an open fire, with the charcoal adding a unique taste.
Our kitchen was wide and spacious because there were several people creating several traditional delicacies at the same. On one side, my mother was carefully preparing my father’s meal with love, and on the other side, the cooks were preparing food for the children. My father would only eat my mother’s food, and as the man of the house, it was his right to have his meal cooked specially to his satisfaction. I couldn’t blame my father because my mother was an excellent cook, and I was privileged to learn a few culinary skills from her. One of my favorite dishes is ofe oha or “oha soup” with fufu or pounded yam; she was an expert in preparing this dish with a secret ingredient: a root similar to taro called cocoyam.
My mother was educated in New York as a sociologist, and when she returned home to Lagos, she would buy us American clothes and accessories, and she loved to wear big sunglasses with her Afro. She taught me how to comport myself in public as a lady, but I was a tomboy and did the exact opposite just for fun. She was soft-spoken, but I’ve inherited her laugh—loud, almost earth-shattering. I loved car rides with her because it was the only time we had long conversations. When she drove her silver 560 Class Mercedes Benz, she played classic rock from Diana Ross, Cool and the Gang, and Marvin Gaye, and I loved to sing along with her, but it’s her words of wisdom that I cherish most because I apply them to my life daily. She always told me that the sky was my limit and I could achieve anything I wanted if I worked hard towards my goal. She told me all that glitters is not gold, and people are not always what they seem. She said that when the going is good, people will be your friend, but when the going is bad, they will abandon you. She said of all her children, she never worried about me because she knew if I were placed on the moon, I would find a way to survive. I play these words in my mind when I feel defeated or weary, and her words give me strength.
When I started dating, my mother told me, “I have lived my life because I am educated, I am married, and I have my children. So you have to decide how to live your life.” Indirectly, she was saying that I had a lot to accomplish before I started worrying about a boyfriend. She understood that strict rules and scolding were not the way to send the right message and would only cause me to rebel. It’s funny how my husband has the same mannerisms as my mother—he is soft-spoken, funny, loving, kind, and diplomatic (but he is no Chef Boyardee). So consciously and subconsciously, I never forgot her words of wisdom.
When I think about my mother, I remember her gorgeous smile, her generous heart (she would send our clothes to less privileged children in the village), her chill personality (she always found a way to handle difficult people with a smile and good food), and her delicious ofe oha. She died when I was 20, the same week that I arrived in the United States to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. The loss molded me into a fierce, determined black woman, but when I lost my mother, I lost a piece of myself.
In America, I lived with relatives but often felt alone. The people I trusted after my mother’s death disappointed me, neglected me, betrayed me, or deceived me. My parents had supported these relatives financially, but once the money disappeared, I was treated as an inconvenient stepchild. When I was outspoken about their behavior, they resorted to the claim that I was “insulting my elders.” I channeled my energy into academia and a spiritual journey because these were constructive ways to navigate through my pain. I met people who genuinely cared about my success, and I came to love life in the capital. By the time I graduated, I was a different person, no longer lost.
Years of prayer have helped me to forgive my relatives, but they are not part of my life. Instead I focused on positive relationships fostered through new acquaintances and friendships. My pain gave me strength, and my failures gave me wisdom, so I am an overcomer, not a victim. And I found a soulmate, a good man with whom I have two beautiful children.
My daughter and I have a lot in common, especially our love for cooking. We put on the CD player that is already loaded with Nigerian music and dance when we cook. My mother taught me to clean as I cook, and I try to instill the same lesson in my daughter. We live in Texas and occasionally eat barbecue at parties, but we are rooted in our cultural cuisine, and we emphasize the importance of home cooking—both healthier and cost-effective. Our favorite moments are in the kitchen preparing Nigerian cuisine such as moi moi, a bean stew. We buy fresh ingredients as my mother did in Nigeria—lots of onions, tomatoes, peppers, ginger, garlic, and loads of spices.
Once in a while, I imagine what life would be like if my mother was here to witness my journey through motherhood. It hurts that my children are denied their grandmother, but I try to pass along my mother’s wisdom, and I see my mother in my daughter already, especially her generous heart that I remember so well.
Ngoma Evelyn Moghalu is a doctoral student in sociology at Texas A&M University. She can be found at Backstage.
Moi Moi (Nigerian Bean Pie)
Moi Moi is known as bean pie or bean cake because there are various ways of preparing it, either baked in the oven or steamed in a pot. I prefer the latter because it retains moisture.
1 lb. black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
2 large red bell peppers, chopped
2 red onions, chopped
2 red habanero chili peppers
1/2 c. canola oil
1 Maggi seasoning cube
1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube
1 t. paprika
1 t. salt
6 tomatoes, pureed
8 boiled eggs, chopped
2 cans of sardines, drained of oil
Place the bowl of water with soaked beans in the sink and rub them firmly in the water to remove the chaff.
As you rub, run water into the bowl, and the chaff will rise to the top to be drained off.
Place the clean beans in a blender and add red bell peppers, 1 red onion, habanero chili peppers, and a little water.
Transfer to a clean wide bowl.
Heat oil, and sauté remaining onion with seasoning cube, bouillon cube, paprika and salt until softened.
Add tomatoes and continue cooking, stirring to distribute evenly. Remove from heat.
Combine bean mixture with tomato mixture, thinning with hot water until it has the consistency of a light cake batter.
Taste the mixture for salt.
Cut 16 squares of aluminum foil and double them to make 8 wraps.
Add 3 large scoops of bean mixture into each wrap.
Add 1 egg and some of the sardines to each wrap.
Seal the top of each wrap tightly.
Carefully place the packages standing upright in a deep pot with a tight lid, then add enough water to reach halfway up the packages.
Cover and steam over low heat for 1 hour, checking after 30 minutes to make sure that the water has not dried out.
When a skewer or fork inserted into the middle of the moi moi comes out clean, it’s done.
Allow to cool for 30 minutes before serving.