There can be no writing off the Amala Fiesta on the strength of some Ewedu thinking. Any effort that promotes consumption of local products, especially food, can only be good. Practically everything about Amala is local. Even beyond the precincts of the festival ground, the buzz from the event is bound to go far on the wings of the internet, with immediate and not-so-immediate gains.
I had only just come in from ‘Iya-Oyo’ with a ‘take-away’ pack. I was just about settling down to commence the process of digging into this island dancing in an ocean of ewedu and gbegiri when my attention was drawn to the television. Toye Arulogun, Oyo State’s Commissioner for Information, Culture and Tourism was on TV. What an auspicious time to roll out plans for Amala Festival in Ibadan or ‘Amala Fiesta’, as he put it. I had to stop to first pay attention to the news and watch him unveil the logo of the festival before continuing with the important task at hand.
“Amala Fiesta, also known as Ajodun oka is not just a food and cultural tourism event, but a celebration of the Yoruba food culture and Oyo State’s foremost delicacy which has become a national pride with international presence and worldwide acceptance”, Arulogun said. Did he say worldwide acceptance? Well, it is the name you call your child that the public will take a cue from.
Listening to him, however, something told me this move was bound to be misunderstood and possibly ridiculed. I was going to immediately write but thought to let the Amala digest before hitting the keyboard lest I be guilty of writing under the influence. Or did someone not say something about not writing or is it speaking while eating? Before I could finally make it to writing, I noticed that some had already taken to the social media about the Amala festival. Reactions were, as was expected, not so kind. Many did not waste time in laughing it off as a joke, derisively dismissing this as another hare-brained idea of a government rather short of quality in thought, given more to ewedu thinking.
Well, it is difficult to defend public policy makers on the charge that they have largely demonstrated an inability to engage in strategic thinking or generate the big ideas. But I doubt that they pitched the Amala Fiesta as that big idea to rescue Oyo from where it is stuck. It seems to me to be just one project by a department of government, in fulfillment of its mandate to promote tourism in the state, and that is as it should be.
What is disturbing to me though is not even the expected dismissal of the idea behind the Amala fiesta by the ‘elite’ on the strength of newspaper headlines but what I have come to see as a penchant for ewedu thinking when it comes to engaging in an understanding of the gbegiri economy by commentators. In other words, the thinking is often watery and simplistic once it comes to interrogating the economy of the poor by commentators. No thought for its peculiarities, needs and nuances. It is, indeed, that lack of understanding on the part of the ‘intellectual elite’ that influences a summary dismissal of the phenomenon known as ‘infrastructure of the stomach’ in politics rather than for it to engage in a sober and deeper interrogation of this hydra-headed issue. What has food to do with politics? What is the language of food? It is that lack of proper interrogation that made some to simply spurn the initiative to pay five thousand naira to a category of vulnerable Nigerians as of no economic value. One celebrated columnist wrote off five thousand naira as nothing but money for ‘recharge-card.’
Indeed, five thousand naira is absolutely nothing for some Nigerians. It won’t even buy a tea-spoon of their favourite drink. But we must recognise that it is not so for everyone. In the economy of the poor man, five thousand naira is something. A pot of ewedu made from a N100 pack is prayer answered for many of our people. A lot of those trading on the streets and in road-side markets barely have an inventory worth N2000. Poverty is real. One only needs to see the faces of our mothers by the road-side light up with smiles over transactions of N100 only. They carry on with dignity, in spite of how society has failed them.
So, it is lazy to engage in ewedu thinking in rushing to disregard ideas that might positively impact on other people simply because they do not live in their world. Some of us find it difficult to make the connection between otherwise unrelated interventions and the effects on the poor man’s economy. Some might not understand the relationship between a functioning street light and how it powers the night economy of the poor man in Lagos, but there is a link for those who are able to trade for a few more hours in a more secure environment.
With time, this festival should develop to find its feet. Whatever the future portends, the festival should do well in adding colour and injecting some life into the neglected, informal gbegiri economy. That is the bit that excites me the most. On the face of it, this can only be good. For the Amala Festival, time will tell if it delivers on expectation.
Back to the business of Amala, interestingly it is even now as much of the poor man’s business as that of others. By some calculation of mine, ‘Iya Oyo’ probably turns over nothing less than one million naira daily on a good day. Food has always been good business. Our people say hunger has to be displaced before other matters can be attended to. Food defines a people. Amala has taken a life of its own, defining the Yoruba people, even when it is only a section of the Yorubas who treasure or celebrate it the way it has been erroneously appropriated to define them. Iyan, not Amala, has always been the king in other parts of Yoruba-land.
But Ibadan is undoubtedly the Amala capital of the world. I doubt that the Oyo State government has gotten it wrong in seeking to create a buzz around it. Food festivals are popular worldwide and there is a huge economy around it. Some have asked how this would attract foreign tourists. It could, in the future, if well-packaged. But it does not even need to, for it to hold its head up. Local tourism is even more important for Nigeria, right now. If only we can fix local tourism, we would have enabled another sleeping giant and foreign tourism will only follow the domestic footprints.
There is a whole lot that can be done around food. Again, the potentials are there, as always. There is a lot we can do with jollof rice, even if we are to get the local production of that item fixed. Edikan-ikong has transcended its origin and become accepted by many nationally. Suya and Kilishi have crossed borders. These are tasty tools that enhance soft power and can be deployed for winning minds. Tokunbo Odebunmi’s Obalende Suya must have been one of Nigeria’s first major cultural footprints in London, using food to carve an identity for us in the London plate.
If the Germans can bring in six million people for Oktoberfest, a beer festival, what can possibly be wrong with Oyo’s Ajodun oka or Edikan-Ikong festival? Halloween is estimated to be more than a six billion dollar business for Americans. It is even beginning to creep up on us in Nigeria. Japan has built a world/brand around its sushi; so what is stopping us? There is so much we can tap into locally with immense potential to catalyse the local economy. I am particularly interested in the Amala fiesta because of its impact on the bottom of the pyramid and what it can do for the local economy, if properly managed.
Anything that brings attention to the labour (hustle) by the poor and puts more money in their pockets, no matter how little, ought to be supported. Funding from the coffers of the government ought to be minimal, if well thought out. All that the government needs to do is to work with the organisers to create a good environment and ensure access to every player interested in being a part of the festival. Difficult to tell what has become of the Cross River Christmas Festival/Carnival Calabar, these days. But years back, December was the best month for the local economy. Restaurants and hotel owners in Calabar benefited from the month-long influx into the state, with the Airlines and other businesses equally thriving.
There can be no writing off the Amala Fiesta on the strength of some Ewedu thinking. Any effort that promotes consumption of local products, especially food, can only be good. Practically everything about Amala is local. Even beyond the precincts of the festival ground, the buzz from the event is bound to go far on the wings of the internet, with immediate and not-so-immediate gains. With time, this festival should develop to find its feet. Whatever the future portends, the festival should do well in adding colour and injecting some life into the neglected, informal gbegiri economy. That is the bit that excites me the most. On the face of it, this can only be good. For the Amala Festival, time will tell if it delivers on expectation.
Image credit: foodandlens.com.