I went to a friend’s house recently and he made me toast with corned beef for breakfast.
I hadn’t had corned beef in years. In fact, the last time I had corned beef was in 2006 when Olusegun Obasanjo was still the President of Nigeria. When I still had parents and they could afford a breakfast spread—platters of eggs, corned beef, sardines, toast, butter (real butter not margarine), sausages—the whole spread.
Governments changed and our breakfast changed with them. Sausages were the first to go because everyone knew sausages were overkill. Round and oblong meat is vulgar and honestly, quite common. Sardines followed quickly because who can stand the strong smell of fish? Not my family. Powdered milk replaced evaporated milk because liquid milk spoils quickly once opened and God forbid we waste food. Powdered milk disappeared soon after because it wasn’t genuine cow milk. It was a formula filled with dangerous carcinogenic chemicals. Corned beef bowed out last because it wasn’t real beef. And we were cutting down on canned foods with preservatives. Breakfast became tea and bread. Tea was Lipton teabags boiled in water long enough to make the UK consider recolonising Nigeria just to teach us how to make tea.
My father used to insist we have breakfast together as a family. He’d often go on a tirade about how he paid a lot of money for our dining room furniture and insist that we use it. The breakfast spread was to tease us out, to keep us at the table, to be a family. There was always familiar chatter bubbling in the background: me getting laid in by my mother about the state of my room; my sister yelling at everyone to rinse their mugs; my mother stacking dishes and telling me to hurry up while looking at her watch. She hated being late for work. My father would be mouthing off his usual diatribe about how the country had gone to the dogs. I wasn’t sure what President Obasanjo did that irked him so but if the country had gone to the dogs then, surely, rats have possession of the country now.
When Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was elected president, breakfast became cultural and pragmatic: yam and palm oil, boiled potatoes, rice and stew, and occasionally, beans. Apparently, it wasn’t our culture to eat processed food. My father said it was British culture, a by-product of colonialism. Plus, yam and palm oil was more filling than bread and tea.
Yam sat in your stomach like an unwelcome visitor and made you guzzle water like Nigerian politicians guzzle our commonwealth. Like I said, pragmatic.
The dogs kept us safe and made sure we had a breakfast spread. The rats nibbled on our parents’ quality of life until there was nothing left to nibble on and until it killed them. Literally. They were owed salaries. They ate things they swore they’d never eat. My father had a thing against cassava. He said men were supposed to eat yam. When the rats took over and led us down the sewer, he ate cassava and pretended it was yam because they were both white.
Perhaps if the country had still been with the dogs, he’d never have suffered a stroke. Perhaps he’d have gotten better healthcare. Maybe he’d have been able to eat yam before he died due to complications from the stroke. With the dogs, my mother could afford her hypertension medication. When the rats came, she sought traditional remedies.
I am not sure where the country is headed right now. There are all kinds of animals jostling to take over from the rats. An old dung beetle struggling under the weight of age and ill-health; a rat in rabbit clothing; a pig that has been hosed clean but still a pig; what appears to be a horse; and a couple of ants following a sugar trail. We still don’t know which animal will take ownership of the country next. We hope they’re not rats, or God forbid, vermin.
- Raheem Omeiza is Ebira and writes from Lagos, Nigeria. His works explore boyhood, grief, sexuality, and the liminal spaces where they intersect. He was a finalist for the 2022 Afritondo Short Story Prize and the 2022 Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize. His works are published and forthcoming in Afritondo, Litro Magazine, Lolwe, and elsewhere. He likes cats.
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