Ozoz Sokoh: On Lagos and engaging with food and travel culture in East Africa
A few weeks ago others and I scoured Ozoz Sokoh’s instagram feed as she delighted us with commentary and photographs on a special trip to East Africa. As my interest in the myriad of East African cultures and food began to pique to the “I must go now level”, something else struck me as remarkable. It is something that Ozoz herself mentions in the interview below as one of the reasons or positive outcomes of her East African trip:
“…..and also because I took a few online friendships offline. Those friendships give me courage to live my best life and hope. They reinforce the fact that you can be who you want to be and the world will accept it…..”
As I ponder on that quote, I couldn’t help but think that my own perception of travel in a global and highly socially connected world is being challenged. Perhaps gone are the days when folks travelled thousands of miles just to see or to document. Now a journey is best measured in friendships, bonds, ties, associations and networks, rather than miles.
Ozoz Sokoh graced us with her presence to give us an astonishing insight into her new Nigerian Kitchen philosophy and all things food a few days ago, in Part 1 of this interview series. Part 2 (final) delves into travel and I suspect will be just as fascinating and will pique your interest in Lagos, Nairobi and Dar el Salaam as it did mine!
When the name Ozoz Sokoh is mentioned three things come to mind. Food, Travel and Photography. Do you find yourself more drawn to one area relative to the other(s)?
Ha ha ha. Yes, I do find myself drawn to one area more than the others and it varies with the earth’s rotation ☺.
To be honest, it just depends on where I’m at – what’s on my mind at that time, whether I’m happy, sad, tired, reflective, anticipating, planning… Sometimes, I don’t have the energy or inspiration to write so I cook as therapy. Other times, I’m full of thoughts and plans and memories and so I write – captions on an Instagram post, a feature on my blog, an email to a friend, a recipe in my notebook. Regardless of how I’m feeling though, if it is raining and I’m in my car, I’ll get that camera out and do my best to capture life beyond the glass and rain.
It’s all about the mood, baby…
Where are the most memorable places you’ve been to so far and why?
These places for me are all about defining moments.
First on my list?
Lagos. Lagos has a lot of meaning for me. And yes, I live here now but I haven’t always. I’ve grown and changed in so many ways because of this city. After years of visiting as a child and though I’m still a welcome stranger, I’ve learned to navigate a city I once thought I couldn’t live in. It’s given me confidence and hope that London, New York, Tokyo can be braved. I love its characteristic yellow; it drags me back to times past with its old buildings, from the pink towers of the Ministry of Justice to the grey of the Centre of African Arts and where the 1977 Festival of Black Arts and Culture (boycotted by Fela who thought….) was held. It is also the custodian of my favourite bridge in the world – The Lekki Ikoyi bridge which has welcomed me into the world of photography with my very first photo exhibition, Postcards from Lagos, held in December 2015.
Edinburgh. Edinburgh is where my love for food began at age 9. And continued at 37 when I went back to visit and found I remembered many things about the city layout. From when I was 9. From Princes street to China town, I love the architecture and the elegance – part Paris, very Scottish.
Paris. I’ve been so many times but it has special significance for me. It was the first city I holidayed in – ALONE. This trip happened during a particularly traumatic ‘growing-up’ period in my life, when I lived and worked abroad and was struggling to figure out my purpose.
That trip, without husband or children in tow spelled ownership of myself and freedom. It continues to remind me that we need to find those moments of refreshing that fill the fountains we are otherwise we have nothing to give. Because we are more than wife, mother, sister, friend, colleague, worker…Because first of all, we…are. First of all, I…am. Regardless of everything else, I am. I must be full otherwise I have nothing to give, nothing to give as wife, mother, sister, friend, colleague, worker. There. I said it. Paris taught me to make and take time for me, because I’m important too.
Tell us more about your recent trip to East Africa notably Tanzania and Kenya.
This was my first time in East Africa and I loved it. Many surprises – how huge Nigerian music is. Everywhere I went, from Zanzibar to Dar and Nai, I heard and listened to more Nigerian music than I did in all of 2015 – on the radio, in taxis, restaurants, clubs everywhere.
In fact, at the airport in Zanzibar, while getting my passport stamped at 2am, the gentleman at the entry point asked if I was ‘looking for my Johnny’ (The 2013 hit song by Nigerian musician, Yemi Alade which chronicles the escapades of a cheating lover). Hmm. But yes, Nigerian music on fleek o’er all.
Moving on, the parts of East Africa I’ve visited are beautiful and passion fruit (my favourite fruit in the entire world) is abundant and common all year round.
What’s not to love? I was intrigued by the blend of Indian culture, African heritage and in some parts Arabic influence, particularly evident in the food and architecture.
I was shocked at the juxtapositions in Zanzibar as a ‘destination’ – rural, underdeveloped in parts and upscale at the same time with the most stunning beaches and resorts ever. I loved touring a spice market – Zanzibar is famous for its spices. I learnt so much about spices – that vanilla pods start out green, yellow when ripe before they are cooked and shade-dried when they turn brown. Who knew?
That nutmeg comes in a case with a wrapper of mace and it can have narcotic effects such that women use it to ‘relax’; and that the 4 sorts of peppercorns we know come from two plants at different stages of maturity.
Black peppercorns are the dried, more mature version of green peppercorns.
White peppercorns are the dried, more mature, skinned red peppercorns. I did not know all of this. And so much more. I got to see the Cinnamon tree and my favourite cardamom. So much to know and learn in this world. I loved it.
Dar es Salaam was interesting too. It made me wonder how people who live in places with stunning scenery think. What do they think, feel, believe about the world? I find that when I’m surrounded by nature’s beauty and grandness, it makes me reflect more than I normally would. Humbles me a touch. Stills my soul, tempers my worries, makes me feel as though all will be right. Eventually. Do you feel me?
Anyhow, I discovered lots of street food Bhajai – bean fritters, like the Nigerian Akara; Chips Mayai – a kind of tortilla made with French fries and fried eggs, Nyama Choma – grilled meats; roasted corn with pili pili salt and fresh lime juice – interesting to see these similarities and differences.
Sometimes, Africa is a country.
And then Nai, Nairobi, Nairobae, stole my heart with its beauty and the roving Masai market. I think what I loved the most was the blend of sophistication, chill, ethnic and nature. I’m not sure what I’m saying but I loved it. Loved. Loved Java House even though I’m more a coffee scent addict than drinker. Loved discovering Pilau, drowning in Passion fruit juice simply referred to as ‘Passion’…I mean, come on. isn’t that something?
As a West African, did you find any peculiarities in East African food?
Yes….Jollof is not king. To my shock, utter shock. It’s interesting how it never occurred to me that Jollof wasn’t that big of a deal outside of the West coast of Africa. How they have Pilau and Biryani which they worship.
I found a few things interesting. The reinforcement of a beloved rice dish in almost every African culture was one. The variation in fried dough snacks and trying Ugali for the first time.
And interestingly the variation in chilli tolerance from Zanzibar to Dar and Nai. Of the three, I found black peppercorns more common and tolerable in Kenyan food and with Kenyans than fresh chilies. I remember friends warning me about the ‘no-chilli’ in Kenyan dishes which led me on day 1 to order a spicy salad at Java House (A popular coffee chain). Oh boy, did my mouth burn with the heat of black pepper. Thank God for Passion. And Pineapple Mintade.
Overall, I enjoyed learning and discovering similarities and differences.
What can Nigeria and perhaps by extension West Africa learn from the East African food scene?
Hmm. Tricky. The definition of food scene varies. Cultural references and icons are what they are for those reasons. I liked the abundance of fresh juices and coffee houses – places to hang out that were not fast food but affordable. But then again they are well suited to the region. I loved Carnivore – an all you can eat meat feast restaurant in Nairobi. I think that would work in Nigeria with our great variety of meat but…
If I had to spend 48 hours in Lagos, what tourist activity or places would you recommend I put on my “must do list?”
In my typical overscheduling, OCD mode, I would give you a supper long list. In brief, it includes a meal at mine and a walk on ‘my bridge’.
First of all, I’d say arrive late afternoon on the 3rd Friday of the month and stay through till Sunday night. I’d want you to start your ‘getting to know Lagos’ on the Island and finish on the Mainland, enroute the airport.
On arrival, you’ll head to Victoria Island, a suburb of Lagos that boasts a view of the Atlantic. Driving down Ahmadu Bello Way, with its view of the ocean and a Eko Atlantic City reclaimed from land – you should head to Terrakulture for some Nigerian food, art and culture. Part restaurant, part gallery and book store, the food is reasonably priced and consistent in quality. I always order the fried yam and goat meat stew. To drink, a glass of fresh juice or sweet palm wine if available will do the trick.
While waiting for your food, catch a nap or browse the bookshelves in the store downstairs or see what’s on in the gallery upstairs. Once you’re done, head to Freedom Park for Afropolitan Vibes.
Freedom Park – a former prison – is now a memorial park dedicated to Nigerian heroes of the past and the location of Afropolitan vibes, one of Lagos’s most attended music events. It is a live concert series with special (mostly popular Nigerian and African) guests performing live with the Bantu crew. Consider it a great introduction to Nigerian culture. And there’s usually palmwine. Then it’s off to bed till Saturday morning – sleep. Rest.
When you get out of bed, spend the day checking out Broad Street, the Brazilian quarters and the commercial district on Lagos Island. Have Lunch at Chorppytoz, a sea food place on Catholic Mission street, and finish off at Re.Le Gallery on Military Street to see interesting Nigerian art, from photography to painting. You must take a photo outside the gallery, against the black paneled façade. Must.
After this is a good time to walk the bridge – the gorgeous Lekki-Ikoyi cable-stayed bridge. You’ll see lots of walkers, joggers, runners – permission granted to join them. Depending on your ability, you could uber to mine for dinner or walk.
I’ll be serving up dishes and drinks from the New Nigerian Kitchen. You’re likely to begin with my green fragrant scent leaf coconut dip with plantain chips, maybe Akara Toast? All of this depends on what’s in season. For the main? Nigerian Jollof Rice (for the win) and who knows, more scent leaf – this time in a curry with a fruity salsa? Dessert? I’m thinking Mango-passionfruit cream or sorbet with vanilla ice cream, lime zest, nuts and …. Anyhow, this would be the end of Day 2. With sleep.
On Sunday morning, after breakfast, you’ll head to the Mainland on Third Mainland Bridge, the longest bridge in Africa and the longest of three bridges in Lagos, Nigeria en route the National Arts Theatre. There are interesting works of art on the exterior of the building as well as inside.
I’d add more but honestly, you’d have had a pretty busy weekend so I’d say, head to the airport, browse the crafts section, hop on the plane and plan your return.
Anything else you’d like to convey to your fans?
There’s so much that unites us in the world across state lines and country borders in spite of the obvious differences. I love to find those touch points in conversations and friendships that sometimes leave me open, vulnerable but teach me so much. Overall, I want to live a life that’s full of meaning. What that means is I will seek out those experiences that mean something to me. Very often, they mean nothing to my best friend, neighbor, colleague…but to me, they are everything.
I am a firm believer in many things, of which I consider two prime: We can and should learn more from our failures (than our successes), but we must first acknowledge that we’ve failed and understand why…..before they can be transformed to lessons
Ask. Ask for what you want. Don’t be afraid. In fact, be afraid but ask anyway. Before you ask, you already have a (banked) No. When you ask, you have the potential to change that No to a Yes, that’s 50% more chance than you had before. Tremble if you must, but ask. Whatever it is.
Don’t ever, ever, ever fall into the trap of someone else’s idea of what your life should be. That doesn’t mean you don’t take advice – it means that you put yourself, fair and square at the centre of your desires. I’ve decided that I’ll never mortgage my desires because someone else isn’t comfortable with them. Never, ever, ever, amen☺.
Don’t seek affirmation, seek confirmation – don’t look to others to ‘affirm’ that you are good and intelligent and all the other things we somehow deeply know we are. Believe it first and let others confirm that which you have first personally affirmed.
Finally, be you and do you. You are the best judge of your happiness, don’t give that power away.