“Jemila, this your jollof rice and chicken is too sweet oh! Chai! How did you make it?”
“You that can’t even fry egg, how do you want me to start explaining to you how to make jollof rice and chicken?”
Chizo, who was listening, started laughing.
“You people don’t know we are in Africa where you can’t be laughing at your senior anyhow, abi.”
Of course this only made them laugh louder. So I had to take up the challenge.
“OK, next time you want to make rice and chicken, just call me. I will watch, take notes and learn it by force.”
Their laughter became uncontrollable.
Chizo said, “Please, let it be on a day when I am here oh. I have to witness this spectacle.”
It was early 2004. I was abroad most of the time, doing my Aviation Management course. I had given up my flat in Apapa, and anytime I was in Lagos I stayed at Aunty Uzo’s place in Maryland. Jemila, her daughter, had a bad case of sickle cell anaemia. It had taken a slight turn for the worse and she stayed at home a lot. She had bad days on which she lay around and did not say much, but you saw the pain on her face. But she also had her good days. On the good days her voice was loud and her laughter was bright, she would go into the kitchen and cook and there was no end to her cheeky rejoiners and replies to everything she heard. But, good days or bad days, every Sunday she tried her best to get up and go to worship. She prayed a lot and had a pure simple childlike faith. She was 20 years old.
Well, the day finally came. One of her good days. Chizo was there, visiting Aunty Uzo and her younger cousin Jemila like she often did. And I was in the country. I took my notebook and joined Jemila and Chizo in the kitchen.
“So what do you want to learn now exactly?” Jemila laughed.
“That your jollof rice and chicken you made the last time.”
“Everyone makes their own differently oh,” she warned.
“Just that particular one you made, that’s the one I want. It was too delicious.”
“Okay oh. So how do you want to learn it.”
I brought out my notebook and pen.
“Just be doing, I will be watching and taking notes. Anything I don’t understand, I will ask you.”
Chizo had been trying her best to hold back her laughter. At this point she exploded and settled against the doorpost.
“Ngwa nu, let’s go,” she said.
———- ———- ———- ———- ———-
It is 14 years later, I am going through some of my old books and papers, like I am sometimes wont to do. I pick up a little notebook that I have not bothered with for longer than I can remember. Idly I flip open the first pages and suddenly … I freeze. The shock of reawakening memory hits me like a blow. Sadness and joy seize me simultaneously. Slowly, as if in a trance, I start to read:
JEMILA’S JOLLOF RICE AND CHICKEN
1. Put Chicken in small pot with assorted seasoning: e.g. curry, thyme, onions, dried pepper, maggi (1 cube), small salt, any other chicken seasoning. Put everything on fire without water for 2 minutes, turning and stirring. Then add a little water and cover pot on fire. Leave to cook until it gets soft. Along the way keep adding water. Be tasting the broth along the way, adding any seasoning whose taste is missing (e.g. salt, maggi).
– Soft Chicken takes about 10 minues to soften
– Hard Chicken takes about 30 minutes to soften
2. While waiting for Stage 1 to complete itself, grind (or blend) tomato and pepper. Wash the tomatoes and cut them first (if blending). Wash and cut onions also and put into blender. Wash and open fresh pepper (tatase). Wash and remove seeds from Tatase (don’t touch with hand, if possible: tatase seeds peppery). Then cut up and put in blender too. The Tatase is just to make it red, that’s why the seeds have been removed.
We’re cooking 3 cups of rice.
Use e.g. 8 or 9 fresh tomatoes, 1 onion bulb, 2 Tatases, 5 to 8 fresh peppers.
We could have used more Tatase, but because we’re also using tinned tomato, which is very red, 2 Tatases are enough.
NOW BLEND UP! BELND UP!
3. Wash rice. Put in a pot with water. Put on fire. We are parboiling it, maybe 5 to 10 minutes; so it doesn’t get soft, just white. (It may last 20 mins…).
After parboiling, wash again and drain water away (with sieve, if available).
4. Break Maggi into parboiled rice. Put thyme and curry and also any other seasoning you have into the drained parboiled rice.
5. Make sauce in another pot:
Slice a quarter onion. Put enough oil into new pot on fire.
Add sliced onions and little salt.
(Salt helps onion not to burn quickly – CHIZO’S THEOREM!)
Add tinned tomato. Add blended mix of STAGE 2. (Keep stirring all the while). Now cover pot and leave to cook on fire until it boils – might even dry up a bit – because of pepper and tomato. Also add Chicken Broth!
After some 10 or 15 mins, add a little more thyme and curry.
Add a little more water and then transfer the parboiled rice into the ready sauce. Add also a little more oil (groundnut oil oh!). Cook until it cooks fully. (Never turn)
6. While cooking is on, say about 15 mins before end, slice carrots and green pepper.
Add 2 more maggi cubes, soften with tiny water. Slice the carrots lengthwise and breathwise.
When rice is soft, introduce carrots and green pepper. Now turn, stir and mix. Taste for weak seasoning, e.g. salt, maggi, etc. If needed, add, mix.
Turn off fire.
7. WACK UR GRUB.
———- ———- ———- ———- ———- ———-
Quietly I close the notebook and sit still for a long time.
If Jemila were still alive, she would turn 35 today. I remember the picture Yvonne and I took of her. It was at the end of 2004, at Azuka’s wedding. She looked happy. If she was in pain, she did not show it. She was shy, smiled and looked down when she saw the camera. She looked older than she was. A beautiful moment. Our favourite picture of her.
The year after that, in 2005, the bad days came more often. Her face would be contorted in pain. An unending crisis. One round of dialysis after the other. Her eyes wiser, much wiser, than her age. On the 26th of February 2005 , she left. She was 21 years old.
The deepest memories are sometimes stored in the simplest of things.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.
In loving memory of Jemila Ibrahim: 25.04.83 – 26.02.05