2. No country for hotheads

Gloria Kiconco

Sweating is important. Apart from cooling the body down, it releases toxins. This is my doctrine. Every hungover day should start at the local Ethiopian restaurant eating fir-fir and sweating out disjointed memories and leftover alcohol. Then everything feels fine or everything is right with the world or I am at peace. These are the feelings that come over me. And I am overwhelmed by the heat that coats my tongue. It is sweet melancholy.

Sweet melancholy has nothing to do with the fiery personality of Nigeria. This is Uganda’s dogma. Every Nigerian or Ghanaian or West African with more than one chili on their plate is a hothead. Is a danger to others. Is waiting to erupt. Not really waiting, rather always spewing their opinions. So Uganda believes. When chili enters the body, it livens up the spirit. But even more, it burns up the reigns that would control the tongue.

I know that chili means something different in Nigeria than it does in Uganda. Nigeria, where there are over 300 tribes. Where there are more chilies than I can count on two hands. Cameroonian, Uziza or Ashanti pepper, Cayenne, Alligator pepper and its grains of paradise, bird’s eye chili, habanero, scotch bonnets, and more[1]. All tribes of the genus Capsicum.

I know that the taste of bird’s eye chili, local kamurari, is like bronze in my mouth, like a jazz number heavy on the horns. This is different from the scotch bonnets that are sweet and require the patience it demands to eat through the heat. Patience that is different from humility, different from subservience.

Some Ugandan women kneel in the presence of men and elders. Ugandan women cook for men and children and elders alike. Boys do not speak out of turn and remain boys until they are suddenly men and it is years to old age or too few years to early responsibility. Chili is the stronghold of men, if it is to be eaten, which is not often. Women should not eat chili or else they will become dry. Dry. I hear this way too often from the mouths of colleagues in professional spaces. They take the liberty of commenting on my sexual performance. They say “dry” as if they know I’m playing sex. Then they remind me that I should not be playing sex, for I am still a young girl. Contrary thoughts. I do not feel the need to prove anything, but I am left feeling hot from the awkward discussion and the burn of chili tickling the back of my tongue.

This is the same tongue I could use to exercise my rights as a citizen. In true Ugandan tradition I do not exercise these rights. So Kenya believes. This is their dogma. That Uganda may be hospitable and humble but democracy will pass us by in our humility that translates into silence. We stay silent and don’t protest this claim because although violent, at least they have seen a change of leadership, while we have only witnessed our own silence stretching across decades.

This is a silence saved up from the 1970s. The same silence that fell after Idi Amin’s fist came down upon us with the first blood. It is difficult to unlearn. Chili will not help.

As if eating spice will be enough to raise our political investment. As if the movement of capsaisin[2] through our blood will finally stir our indignation and give us courage to stand up for true democracy in our country.

Maybe they have forgotten. Maybe they have forgotten how much blood has been shed on Ugandan soil. Though I wasn’t there, I know my mother’s knee-jerk fear reaction every time a uniform strides towards her.

Our closest national experience with chili is the recurrent use of tear gas and pepper spray to suffocate legal demonstrations. We have held our breath for decades waiting for the other army boot to drop and to be thrown back into turbulence. We have believed silence can save us.

Our food is silent too. This is what West Africa believes, because it misses the notes, the sharp entry of habanero that does a jig on your tongue. Not a symphony but a drumming, tunneling under the afrobeat hits thumping behind speakers across the continent. Afrobeats kidnapped and taken across the Atlantic to across the Caribbean, now returning home with tones of calypso, dub, soca, and dancehall redressed in pidgin language.

Nigerian music is hitting - a big hit - in Uganda, has been hitting, is still hitting. The DJ puts on P-square or Davido or Wizkid and everyone is on the floor. Swinging legs, buckling knees and flapping arms in loving, poorly-executed imitation of the Nigerian style.

Ugandan music seems to maintain one beat. Re-released in song after song and diluted from Caribbean and West Africa beats, completely unconscious of its connected history. This too is dogma. It is all the diversity of our music lost under hit songs that command the airwaves thanks to  connections and enough money to purchase airtime. This is silence caused by voices drowning under voices shouting. Maybe this is Uganda’s resentment towards a Nigeria that has not allowed itself to be drowned out. Maybe.

Our food is still silent. It does not make itself known, though it comes in more variety than chili does in West Africa. 

This is a brief and incomplete list of Ugandan foods:

Sauces: g-nuts, peas, beans, okra, malakwang, boo, malewa, beef, fish, chicken, goat, pork; Foods: Matooke, posho, kalo, rice, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, yams, pumpkins, cassava; Condiments: ghee, eshabwe, piri-piri…

I have not mentioned the vegetables or fruits. I have not mentioned the 65 or more tribes, varying in foodstuff as they do in dishes.

Pilau spice, curry, garlic, salt, and Royco by Unilever. A lack of variety and these usual suspects in a Ugandan kitchen lead foreigners and other Africans to believe we have no taste or flavor due to the lack of spices, the lack of life-bringing chili.

If you begin to peel off the layers of your tongue that have grown accustomed to eating chili you find that food already has a story to tell. Remove the sensationalism and get to the point.

My father is diabetic and my mother has high blood pressure, and because of this, our food was stripped of sugar and salt.

When your tongue cannot rely on spices for flavor, it falls back to searching. It probes around the plate to rediscover the heaviness of pumpkin and their coarse and savoury leaves. It learns the difference between sweet potatoes grown in good or bad soil and appreciates the gushing, earthen flavor of mushrooms that remain dense in the lightest soups.

Cook with a restrained hand.

My grandmother, who was a vegetarian most of her life, approached food with an asceticism that challenged you to remember life before spices. For supper she served Irish potatoes boiled whole with a sprinkle of salt, accompanied with boiled, soupless beans. In the dark room at the dining table, where complaining was strictly forbidden, I had nothing to do with my mouth but contemplate the true flavour of an Irish potato.

Nothing to do but contemplate what spice has to do with a national identity. What it means to come from a country gutted by slavery and how that might teach you to be outspoken early on, because you cannot stomach what that atrocity means. To contemplate the role chili played in keeping your spirit alive. To learn with your tongue what it means to boil a country down to its cuisine in an attempt to huddle hundreds of tribes on one plate, just like they were huddled inside one nation. Nothing else to do.




[1] Aribisala, Yemisi. “For the love of peppers”. (2015) https://medium.com/@YemisiOkra/for-the-love-of-peppers-52b675deaaeb#.oz6oz4927

[2]The active chemical in chili peppers


Gloria Kiconco is a poet and arts journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. Her works are available at otherandelse.wordpress.com

All photos by Moses Bwayo. Moses is a filmmaker, photographer, and sound engineer based in Kampala, Uganda.