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Memories are made of these: Part 5

The Pepper Grinder


One of the most fascinating members of my extended family was my great aunt, nicknamed Mama Yaba, after the busy Lagos suburb where she lived. Mama’s rebellious tendencies became my source of inspiration. Mama could barely tolerate most of her family, but she warmed to me at our first meeting. Thereafter, my parents made me visit her often, to check on her welfare on behalf of the rest of the family. Mama lived alone, and the family worried about how she was faring. Mama also suffered from compulsory obsessive disorder, although no one knew that then, hence most of the family labelled her half-mad. Obsessive about cleanliness, she abhorred anything she considered dirty.


Pepper stew made of blended chillies, tomatoes and peppers was the bedrock of most Yoruba meals. By my second visit, Mama decided she could trust me enough to send me to the local market to buy and grind some peppers and chillies on her behalf. The caveat was that I could only buy and grind the chillies at two vendors whom Mama had already vetted for their cleanliness. Home electric blenders had not yet made their way to the general populace. Instead, people had their vegetables blended at special market stalls outfitted with generator-powered industrial grinders. Mama instructed I insist on the grinders being rinsed twice before handing her peppers over.


It was an open market with no stall numbers and locating Mama's vendors was harder than I had expected. Eventually, I found a stall I thought might fit Mama's description where I bought the peppers. With help from the pepper vendor, locating the grinding stall was easy. I knew I was on the right track when the acrid odour of ground chillies permeated the air. The stall had a long queue and soon I was snivelling and wiping my eyes, as the potent fumes from the chillies took their toll. I pulled the neck opening of my blouse up to cover my nose. Eventually, it was my turn. 'Please,' I began, 'my grandmother sent me. She said you must rinse the machine twice before grinding her peppers. She said you always do this for her, and you know who she is.' The machine operator looked me up and down, her eyebrows chasing her hairline.

She held out her hand. 'I beg, give me your pepper.'

I baulked at the sharp tone. 'But you haven't rinsed the machine twice.'

'Look behind you. You see the queue? Una no waste time. You wan grind pepper or not?’ The people behind me tittered.

I wasn't sure what to do. I couldn't make the woman clean her machine if she didn't want to, and those behind me were getting impatient with the delay. How was Mama going to know the machine wasn't rinsed twice? It wasn't as if the peppers would taste different. I handed them over.


On my way back to Mama Yaba's house, I wondered how things would play out. Mama greeted me with a smile. 'Did you find the vendors I sent you to?'

'Yes Mama, I did'.

'Well done. Did the machine operator rinse the machine twice?'

With no qualms, I replied, 'Yes Mama, she did.'

I felt guilty about lying but didn't think I had much choice. The Yoruba’s had a proverb, ‘What you don’t hear cannot upset you.’ I held my breath, wondering what would happen next. Although I was yet to witness one, Mama was known for fits of frenzy if she was unhappy. Mama’s eyes probed mine, testing my sincerity. I must have been a good liar

because a few seconds later, she took the peppers and started preparing her meal.

I relaxed, relieved at averting a meltdown. That was reserved for another day. To find out more get your copy of Coconut HERE.

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