Amala: A Portal to My Ancestors
Rafeeat Aliyu reconnects with her family history through the traditional food of her ancestors
To make amala—a staple food of the Yoruba people, yam flour is gradually added to boiling water and stirred constantly. The preparation requires skill to ensure it doesn’t become lumpy. Amala is served with a variety of soups and relished by the pantheon. For instance, Sango, the Yoruba deity of thunder and lightning, is said to enjoy amala with gbegiri best. Yet as a Yoruba girl growing up in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, I never bothered learning how to make amala. It was a conscious rebellion against the messages Nigerian society sends about cooking and womanhood, and pushed back even harder when I was told that making amala was expected as a Yoruba woman.
But all that changed with the advent of Covid-19.
I resorted to the established method: stirring the cooked mixture for extra smoothness, while my mother regaled me with tales of my great-grandmother.
As the pandemic spread across the world and concerns reached Nigeria, a nationwide lockdown was announced. With public places shut down, I found myself at home with my mother with free time on my hands. Between going on walks and binge-watching 90 Day Fiancée, a new challenge beckoned: making those smooth-as-a-pebble amala served in popular kitchens.
YouTube offered hacks that diverged from traditional preparation methods. Some videos suggested making a paste with the yam powder and cold water, then bringing it to boil a stove till it thickens. Unfortunately, none of these methods worked for me. So after tossing a batch of badly cooked amala in the trash, I resorted to the established method: stirring the cooked mixture for extra smoothness, while my mother regaled me with tales of my great-grandmother.
“You know my grandmother was Iya Oloka,” she said, referencing my great-grandmother, a caterer who cooked and sold oka (yam) in large quantities.
As a history buff, that slight piece of information piqued my interest. Already, inspired by covid-19, I had been researching how ancient African societies handled pandemics centuries earlier, and saw a fresh reason to know my maternal female ancestors. I wanted to uncover the lives they lived.
So my mum and I started with my grandmother's grandmother. We made phone calls to elderly family members who were quarantining in our hometown, launching a long-distance investigation. Initial findings were not encouraging as no one could remember her name, although we knew she was a devotee of Oya, the deity of winds and storms.
While the search for my great-great-great grandmother’s origins continues, I find myself communing with her and other ancestors as I perfect my amala, the portal to a part of my ancestry. And as with amala, collating oral history to document the resilience of the women that came before me remains an ongoing project during the pandemic. I have now discovered DVD recordings of family celebrations, and when time allows, I will settle on the couch to listen to the pertinent words of my grandmother spoken many years ago.