‘The power of banga’: Exploring food as a cultural connector between migrants and the homeland
Banga soup in its traditional pot known as ewere. Picture by the author.
Food represents an essential need of human beings and is an important aspect of the cultural heritage of different societies across the globe. Different cultures have different cuisines that are customary and original to them. The recipes and other concepts tied to these foods often move along with people when they transit from their native land to other places. That means the cuisines or the dishes can be reproduced in other places as long as they get the right ingredients. Thus, just like humans, food, an abstract as well as physical phenomenon, transcends borders, and is germane to the discourse of the diaspora-homeland relationship. Food, its recipes and ingredients, constitute a critical part of culture and identity and are at the same time a cultural practice. These important ingredients are often made available to migrant communities by people who come from the homeland. Many immigrants seize the opportunity to request and get these traditional spices and ingredients from their family members who are still in their motherland.
When people move, many other things in different forms move with them. These tangible and intangible remnants of the culture the migrant leaves behind strengthen the diaspora’s transnational bonds with their indigenous land. However, they also exacerbate the double consciousness that immigrants often feel juggling commitments to the host country and the country of origin. In a cosmopolitan city such as London, the migrants’ homeland strand of this duality is re-enacted through some cultural practices such as cooking traditional meals. The variegated cuisines are instructive of the cultural diversities for which the city of London is known.
Banga soup is a dish peculiar to the Urhobo and Itsekiri people of South-South Nigeria who have a rich culinary tradition. These peoples and their diaspora have shown immense determination to continue making banga soup despite the amount of effort making this dish takes and the resources that go into its preparation. Urhobo and Itsekiri migrants recognise that the bleakness that accompanies absence from home requires a re-enactment of some, if not all, cultural practices from where they hail.
Banga soup, locally called amiedi, is usually eaten with an accompanying food item. The preferred accompaniment is starch, a derivative of processed cassava flour tainted with drops of palm oil to give it a yellowish look. The soup, cooked in a big pot, is scooped into a small traditional pot called ewere in which it is further heated for thickening. However, modernity and adaptation have necessitated banga being alternatively served in and eaten from a normal flat plate. Because of the rigour and time that go into the preparation of banga soup, it is highly coveted and appreciated by the Urhobo and Itsekiri migrants in London, especially during social events. It is even more appreciated when people know about the scarcity of the ingredients and spices used. The soup is exotic and serves as a symbolic connection between these migrants and their motherland. At most social events or special occasions among the Urhobo and Itsekiri migrant community, banga is considered the most special item on the menu list and a ‘must-have’ or ‘must-taste’ dish. Over a meal of banga soup and starch, it is not uncommon to find these migrants reminisce about their home. Stories about the native land and their experiences begin to fly in from different corners of the space, stirring up nostalgic feelings that sometimes have triggered actions to reconnect with home.
In individual homes, some cook banga soup with the ingredients bought from the migrants who run African markets that stock the exotic ingredients and spices used for its preparation. Besides cooking it to quench their craving, the soup serves as a bridge between the diaspora and their place of origin. A stronger connection with home is felt by immigrants during the preparation and/or consumption of it. However, this excitement is a bit doused with second-generation immigrants. The children of migrants have often been more exposed to the host country’s culture than their parents and are thus more likely to lose touch with the culture of their parents' home country.
Being an indispensable reality of man, migration facilitates the movement of cultural practices in an unparalleled manner. For many, these cultural practices are antidotes to a feeling of unbelonging and/or nostalgia that many of them experience. The Itsekiri and Urhobo migrants in London have, despite living there and attuning to the cultural dominance, used banga soup and other traditional cuisines as a coping strategy. Cooking is a balancing act as the host country’s cultural practices run parallel with those of their original homeland. Therefore, the retained connection with their culture is strengthened with the preparation and consumption of their traditional meals, especially outside of their indigenous land. Thus, beneath the surface of celebration and survival, food, including recipes and ingredients, is an important concept in the diaspora-homeland discourse.