One of the gains of colonization, and to a large extent, curses, was the inheritance of a language that enables us to share our ideas with a much wider audience. A language that bridges tribal and national barriers. Sadly, this is also an inheritance that gradually and relentlessly chips away at our ability to fully and effectively communicate in our own native tongues. As I hit these keys and craft a message in the English language, I acknowledge that I, too, am a victim. In his 1997 essay, The African Writer and the English Language, Chinua Achebe spoke to the complexity of the strange gift that colonization gave all Africans, namely, “a language with which to talk to one another.” Achebe and his cohorts as well as all those that have done serious writing between then and now have grappled with this complexity in various ways. Yet, as we yield to the comfort of writing in English, I can’t help but wonder, “What are we losing” and “What have we been losing” in the process of translating our thoughts from one language to another? In case you missed it, yes, I still do think in Igbo, for the most part!
A few evenings ago, I was in conversation with a dear friend and partner in the Igbo language preservation project, Uche. We reminisced about favorite native dishes that marked our childhood experiences, especially those that cannot be found here in the United States. I mentioned that my childhood favorite which I have not tasted for decades was “achịcha.” Not surprisingly, she had no idea what I meant and readily quipped, “Is achịcha not bread?” To her surprise, I replied that “achịcha” was not bread! Well, what is achịcha? What was the food item that Igbo people called achicha before bread was introduced to them? Let me start with the context that I hail from Mgbaneze, Isu in Ebonyi state. In my area, as with most Igbo communities, the period between May and August is a time of very limited food choices. The period called “ụnwụ” (the English translation for ụnwụ is famine) is the interval between the planting season and the harvest season. It is when families subsisted on vegetables and other meager remnants from the previous year. In my locale, Achịcha, made from sun-dried “ede” (cocoyam), is one of those lifesavers that sustained families through the time of ụnwụ (usually between the May and August). May is the time that most communities completed their planting. Consequently, there was limited choice of what to eat while you waited for the year’s crops to mature for harvest.
Achịcha is made from ede (cocoyam) preserved from the previous year. Between August and December, cocoyams are harvested, boiled, and their backs peeled off. They are cut in small chunks and sun-dried. Afterward, the dry ede, now achịcha, is stored in the kitchen (usually over the open-fire cooking spot) to prevent insects and worms from attacking it. During the time of ụnwụ, this dry food is ground up, boiled, and prepared with your choice of vegetable like afụfa, aṅara leaves, akịdị, or a combination of many other vegetables. Some may add maize to boost the quantity of the food. Achịcha is, by far, the food that I miss the most. Achịcha makes for a very tasty dish after the ede acquires its own unique taste from months of being sun-dried and smoked. For me, the best part is the sediments that settle and crunch up at the bottom of the pot as it is cooked. Scraping the bottom of my mother’s pot for the crunchy remains of her achịcha is as good as a trip to the moon! I can also imagine that other communities in Igboland may have other food items called achịcha that may not necessarily be a product of dried and preserved ede.
Achịcha is neither bread, biscuits, crackers nor the entire family of baked goods. Achịcha is sun-dried ede. The best way to translate that to English would be "cocoyam flakes" or any similar thought... And we can just keep what white people calls bread bread (breedi).
The suggestion to write this blog post came from a food-based nostalgic conversation as well as a reminder of the limitations of bridging two languages. Whenever it was that Europeans set out to translate between their languages and those of the colonized communities, I imagine that they often found the easy way out by using native terms to embrace non-native ones as best as they could, and vice versa. In elementary school, the word used to translate bread was achịcha. Achịcha was also used to translate the whole family of baked goods, so that, cake, biscuits (crackers), wafers and so forth were all called achịcha. This is a fitting illustration of the concept of “lost in translation.” What our ancestors called achịcha before they made contact with Europeans was not a baked food. And to my knowledge, no Igbo community heated their food in any type of oven as of the time that Europeans arrived. Things were either cooked in a pot or smoked in open fire. The achịcha that I know was neither made of dough nor was it baked. If not for convenience, it’s hard to explain why they called bread achịcha when our own achịcha was a world apart in consistency, taste, primary ingredient. In fact, thinking of achịcha as bread or biscuits makes achịcha not a thing but a category, a family name for all baked goods. This is a translation problem, a language problem which can also be understood in terms of the inherent limitations of all human languages. As linguist and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, “The limit of my language is the limit of my mind; everything I know are things that I have words for.” Every tribe has a word for all things they interacted with; but when they ventured outside their enclave, the world becomes a different place, a place filled with things they had no names for and still may have no names for! Using one word, like achịcha, to embrace an entire family of baked goods is an approach to translation that begs the question.
From what part of Igbo land do you hail? Can you find out if there is a thing that your community calls achịcha?
This blog in dedicated to Uchenna Osuji