By Sunny Awhefeada,
Kokori in the Agbon clan of the Urhobo ethnic nationality of Delta State holds a great attraction for me.
Kokori is my maternal homestead. Kokori is also a place of history among the Urhobo people and beyond. Kokori attained something close to global visibility through Ubiesha Etakpo who founded the Igbe religion in the 18th century. Kokori is home to the late Justice Ayo Irikefe, former Chief Justice of Nigeria.
Kokori birthed Chief Rex Akpofure, first African Principal of Kings College, Lagos. Kokori sired the legendary Mama Irese Awharitefe, the mother of Chief Macaulay Akpofure, one of Nigeria’s early Senior Advocates of Nigeria, whose son Efe also took the silk.
The first female Chief Judge of Delta State, Justice Marcelinus Okungbowa, is Irese’s granddaughter. Kokori is home to Chief Patrick Bolokor former Minister of State for External Affairs; the present Ovie of Agbon, Ogurimerime, Ukori I and Chief Mary Agbonifo of unmatchable industry and business acumen.
Kokori once boasted of the biggest and most famous market in Urhoboland. It was said that the fame of Ubiesha and his healing powers attracted many visitors and traders to Kokori.
There are also the famous Ogidigbo and Egba deities of Kokori. To most people Kokori’s fame lies in her culinary skill demonstrated in isha, the native bean the aroma of which could halt a raging war.
Isha was synonymous with Kokori. Whenever isha was mentioned the question “have you eaten isha Kokori ?” must be asked. The story was told of a suitor who went to ask for the hand of a girl in marriage. The excitement that spurred him on the long journey to Kokori paled into nothing when he beheld his prospective father in-law eating isha.
He negated the reason why he came. He ate the isha with both hands. Another suitor came when the isha was almost finished. The new arrival went straight to why he came. Then the one who came earlier protested amid belching that he actually came for the same purpose.
The girl’s father told him off, saying he must have valued isha more than his daughter. The new comer had the girl. Our friend began a cry “ we sevwe orie sha/ orie sha ” translated to “call me isha eater/ isha eater”.
A folktale tells of how tortoise tried to steal a steaming pot of isha from his mother in-law’s kitchen. In order not to be caught he turned the pot on his head like a cap. His head got scalded and, in pain, he cried out “Oniaye/ oniaye / uyovwi bobore/ ifoke risha” the equivalent of “Mother in-law/ mother in-law/ my head is scalded/ because of isha”.
This is the reason the tortoise has no hair on its head till today. Ditties also have been woven around the isha phenomenon. One of them, “wo de kpi Kokori/ wo de kpi Kokori/ Eya na misha chere/ eya na misha chere”, to mean “if you go to Kokori/If you go to Kokori/the women are cooking isha /the women are cooking isha ”
My wife and I were in Kokori market last Saturday as part of the itch to boost our indigenous knowledge. Unlike the markets in urban centres, Eki Ukokori had a uniquely earthy smell. It looked as if all of nature’s bounty was on sale. The market sprawled and we left our car at a distance so that we could walk and feel the pulse of the rural almost sleepy community.
Kokori market brimmed with wares, mostly farm produce. Then my eyes caught kwoka, the Urhobo delicacy made from corn with the same look and texture as moi moi . I tugged at my wife and we moved in its direction. The kwoka wasn’t much and I asked if we could get more, but all the women told us that this particular seller was the only woman who sold kwoka in the entire market now. I was alarmed. It wasn’t so while growing up.
Kwoka was everywhere on market days. It was cooked and sold in a big metal pot called itaso with fresh palm nuts and at the bottom to give it a flavor. Kwoka was wrapped with ebe ikpehre, a special leaf also used for wrapping coconut rice.
In order to eat it we peeled the ebe ikpehre in layers in a delicate manner so that no slice of the kwoka will fall off. It was believed that the little slices hiding in the crevices of ebe ikpehre tasted better.
The kwoka we bought last Saturday was different from that of old. These were wrapped in plantain leaves and sold in a cooler. The palm nuts were absent.
Having bought kwoka my thought went to isha . We asked the women where we could buy cooked isha .
They uttered what became a refrain “ihwo ichere isha gwhu nu re” to mean “those who cook isha have died.” I was alarmed. Our inquiries yielded answers which revolved round the task of cooking isha , the time, patience, skill, condiments and more.
The women pointed at stalls where uncooked isha are sold, but they said very few people now cook it for domestic consumption. I smiled wistfully and remembered the generation of my grandmother. Our taste for foreign food has undone isha .
This is the age of noodles. There is an assault on our culinary apparatus. Isha
and kwoka are going, ovwovwo, iriboto, ojeda, okpariku are all gone; usi might be on its way and ukodo too. Cuisine endangerment is here! Should we watch this happen?