By Clement Oduwole
Chefs generally don’t starve, whether they are cooking for one big oga or madam, organisations like schools or hotels, eateries or catering outfits that are now engaged at naming, wedding and burial ceremonies.
Their philosophy is rooted in a passage in the Holy Writ that says those who work at the altar should partake in the things of the altar. Cooks get satisfied before the providers of the resources for the foodstuffs. Which is why the Yoruba folks refer to their type as “Awon ti onyo ki olowo to yo”, literally meaning those who get bellyful before the masters of the house are filled up.
However, it appears the cooks in Borno boarding schools have taken the Biblical passage to a greedy extent: eating the lion’s share while the students they are cooking for are served crumbs. What informed this piece was the recent report of the discovery by the Governor of Borno state, Alhaji Kashim Shettima, that the quality (and perhaps quantity) of food served to boarding school students in the state had dropped.
In order to stem the tide, the governor inaugurated a special committee charged with the responsibility of ensuring improved feeding across the 78 secondary schools in the state. As a way of guaranteeing quality meals, Shettima dropped the hint that he would recruit faceless students as food spies. The spies are to play Amebo for the governor via SMS, telephone and social media platforms to give feedback on the quality of meals they are being fed with by the cooks.
The bubble had burst when Shettima crept in on a secondary school in Maiduguri last month and went straight to the kitchen only to discover that the quality of victuals being served the students fell far short of the standard he set since 2012 when he jacked up the monthly allocation of boarding schools feeding from N20m he inherited to N100m.
A committee had been in place to ensure standards but it was later disbanded after the school principals demonstrated commitment to distributing improved and good portions of meals to students.
Following his discovery, Shettima decided to reconstitute a 17-member feeding committee comprising some government and non-government officials and charged them with the responsibility of procuring foodstuffs, distributing them to schools, monitoring of cooking and quality of meals and supervising efficient distribution of reasonable portions to students.
Shettima then went the extra mile, saying: “Apart from approving funds, I will also help you to do your job. Do not feel that I am being suspicious. As you all know, I do visit schools but this time around, I will give some students (you will never know) my phone numbers to communicate directly with me to give me regular updates on the quality of meals they are being served henceforth.”
He charged the committee members to address the principals and call them to order. He further urged them to directly procure the foodstuffs and give them to the principals of the respective boarding secondary schools, challenging them to work hard and identify some crooks to be offered as sacrificial lambs.
“I want you to deal with two or three principals who shortchange students in their feeding. As I have always said, education is very important to the development of any society and we owe an obligation to humanity, to posterity to fix public schools in Borno. With the way we are building schools, some people would feel we are crazy because they forget that Boko Haram has taken our education backward and created thousands of school-age out of school children”, he added.
Shettima’s ire reminds me of my pleasant experience when I was growing up in Abeokuta to the extent that I once swore to be a cook later in life and challenged Jupiter to dare to stop me! When I was brought to Nigeria from Ghana to continue with my primary education, my elder sister who was approaching her final year at the Baptist Women Teachers’ College (WTC), Idi-Aba, Abeokuta, found an abode for me with the chief cook of the institution. The head chef was popularly known as Mama Offa. And because she was barren, she found in me the kid she never had. And what is more, I was an Offa boy!
Having watched me closely for a while, she anointed me as heir to the throne of food and handed me the key to the massive store, measuring about 35 by 25 metres, where she kept assorted foodstuffs. My staff of office or authority was the spare key that could pass for a six-inch nail. What qualified me for the sensitive job was that I was a newcomer in the household and I belonged to no one! Besides, I was a lousy speaker of Yoruba, causing communication barrier which was an added advantage. So, it would not be easy for anyone to bamboozle me into dishing out foodstuffs anyhow.
My “heirdom” attracted everyone in the household to me like ants on sugar. The girls became extremely friendly. Some began to woo me, calling me their boyfriend. Some even went as far as addressing me as their husband just because of food. Girls! But I failed them all because my mind had been poisoned by the narrative of the fall of Samson on the laps of Delilah which I read not long before my departure for Nigeria.
For about two years that I lived in the ancient city, I maintained my integrity over the foodstuffs ferried from the rich storehouse of the WTC. Replete in the store were foodstuffs such as beans, gari, elubo (yam flour), yams, lafun (not to be confused with Lavun, a town in Niger state). Lafun is made from cassava and the Egbas love it so much.
Others were palm oil, groundnut oil, beef, goat meat and dry fish, loaves of bread from the famous Lagos-based Otarus Bakery, tea things, etc. The foodstuffs were stored in huge metal basins. There was never any protest about the quality and quantity of victuals served to the students.
Even assorted cooked foods did not escape mama at the close of each day. Looking back now, I would not know whether the booties were Mama Offa’s legitimate shares or she (illegally) cornered them.
Now, back to Borno: I am fascinated by Shettima’s strategy designed to ensure that the quality of meals served the students meets the set standards. It is a demonstration of his humility and accessibility to his subjects as well as the uncanny methods he sometimes employs to get things done.
I expect to see robust students parading padded faces in the next few weeks just as I did during the two years of my “heirdom” at Abeokuta.
Bon appetite to them all!