Abacha is a popular delicacy in the South-East area of the country, but recently six people died in Lagos State after eating it. JUDE OSSAI and CHUKWUMA OKPARAOCHA report that despite this tragic event, lover of Abacha are far from dumping their favourite food.
Penultimate Thursday, six people were reported to have died in Isolo area of Lagos State, while about three dozen others were hospitalised. Initially it was said to be a case of diarrhea and cholera until it was discovered to be an outbreak traced to a popular delicacy called Abacha, a delicacy popular in the South eastern part of the country and in Isolo area of the state.
Commonly called African salad, Abacha is prepared from dried, shredded and fermented cassava, leaves of garden egg, stockfish, castor bean, palm oil and local spices.
Although i was not clear how the food became a delicacy, reports said it became common during the Nigeria civil war when food became very scarce and people had to make do with available food crop remnants such as cassava to sustain them in the twar period and the resultant famine.
After the end of the war, Abacha became popular as many people within and beyond the East began to eat it with relish. Some even began to spice it up to make it appealing to a wider number of people.
In Lagos, Abacha joints dot many areas of the city, especially areas populated by people from the South East. Sunday Tribune visited one of such abacha joints in Cele-Ilasa area of Okota last the week to find out if people were still eating the meal and to the surprise of the reporter,many customers were busy snacking on abacha.
From their responses, the report of the casualty recorded of people said to have eaten abacha had done little to dissuade lovers of the delicacy from further eating it.
According to one of them, Chidi, a day without abacha is not complete for him. “I am Igbo and you must have noticed our love for the meal. The deaths recorded from contaminated abacha is rather unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean the food should be seen as bad or unhealthy. Cholera could break out from anything; today it might be abacha,tomorrow, it could come from another food.
“I have been eating it for over 15 years and I have never fallen sick for a day. I can’t therefore, be discouraged by what has happened because I like the food. I know where I eat it and I am careful not to eat it just anywhere,” he said.
SAnother resident of the area, Mrs Rachael Odika, said it was wrong for anyone to vilify the food, saying rather than see abacha as evil, non-lovers of the delicacy should find out why it had resulted in deaths.
“Abacha is one of the best meals anyone could eat. I love it and I am an expert in preparing it. But instead of criminalising it, as its already being done in some quarters, I think people, including the government, should investigate what has happened. In my opinion, I think it has to do with poor hygiene on the part of those that prepared the bad abacha that cause the cholera problem. This is so because the food does not require any cooking. Everything used in its preparation is used raw, therefore great care must be taken in its preparation,” she said.
She added that like the popular salad, any use of spoilt vegetable or cassava, which is one of the main ingredients of the food, could make a bite of abacha deadly.
“Usually, the application of heat kills germs, but since abacha, like the foreign salad, does not require cooking, great care must be taken in ensuing that good hygiene is maintained when preparing it.
“I am of the opinion that the abacha that caused the cholera problem must have been poorly prepared. I am sure of this because I have been eating the food for years and it has never affected me for once,” she added.
When speaking on the development, a Lagos-based general health practitioner, Dr Abimbola Ademilekan, pointed out that in order to forestall future recurrence of cholera outbreak, there’s need for the government to restructure the sewage management system in the state in a way similar to what has been done to other wastes generated in the state.
“As long as the government is not serious about sewage management in the state, there is a high chance of people disposing their sewages in unhygienic conditions. And as long as this happens, one cannot rule out cases such as cholera, especially given the fact that many houses in various communities are usually clustered together,” she stated.
Dr Abimbola, in a telephone chat with Sunday Tribune, further added that “everyone knows how the household wastes generated are managed, especially with the abundance of waste trucks, but nobody really knows how sewage is managed in Lagos State.”
Belgium-trained medical practitioner, Dr O. Adeyefa, blames the death of abacha consumers on the inactivity of health workers who should be conducting random and impromptu visits to eateries and other places to monitor compliance with hygienic conditions. In the past, one feared such workers because of the powers they had. Landlords were arrested for overflowing sewages, just as cafetarias are not excempted from punishment if they flouted rules. But things have got so bad that many don’t even remember we once had health officials monitoring conditions under which what we put in our mouths are prepared including satchet water, confectioneries and the abacha that you are talking about.
Two things could have happened the vegetables could have been contaminated from the source or the cassava was not well dried. Salmonela is an infectious germ that affects the abdomen. I am sure the victims would have vomitted and excreted feaces before they died. Some of them may also have collapsed. As regards the cassava treatment, the cassava used to prepare the salad that killed those people was either not ripe enough, or the water was not well squeezed to the last drain. In that case, it was instant death because the water itself is toxic. Cyanide, the water in cassava, kills immediately. That is why you see garri makers allow two,three days or more to remove cyanide from cassava before processing into garri.
“In whatever way it might have happened, investigation should begin from where the seller got cassava and how the salad was processed. Health workers should be employed or brought back, if we want such deaths to stop. Many Nigerians don’t bother about the conditions under which they produce what others eat. If cholera should break out in Lagos, the end result can’t be imagined. We need health workers to monitor things or we will continue to record more avoidable deaths,” he said.
Dr Ajeigbe Bolaji of Prospect Hospital, Molete, Ibadan, also complained about the source of the controversial salad. “It could have been poisoned from the source. When I was in the East, I used to eat the salad and it had health hazard then. I don’t know why it should be so now. For the product to have been with us for that long, and we are just hearing about people dying after eating it after these years, then something must have been wrong somewhere. That would be from the source or its preservation. I can’t say its because of the spice that is being added these days, but the source and means of preservation are suspect.
“A lot of things happen in this country which we take for granted. Like what happened to tomatoes in the recent past where we were told that there was “tomato zika,” we can also have something like that happening to salad. I urge Nigerians to begin to seriously consider what they ingest as there is crisis in the country and many are looking for fast ways to make money by improvising. It could be that an ingenious vendor was trying out something new, but got its preparation wrong at the expense of six lives.
“But if samples are taken to a laboratory, we could discover what caused the deaths. It may be from mishandling the vegetables or someone trying to act fast and smart. For me, you can’t come up with new edible product and I will eat it. If I see green eba or yellow fufu, I will never eat it, no matter how appealing it may look. Nigerians should be careful about what they eat,” the medical practitioner said.
Still a delicacy in the East
Sunday Tribune findings revealed that despite the claim of death resulting him eating the food, abacha is remains a must-eat in Igboland and is most eaten in Oji-River, Udi and Ezeagu Local Government Areas of Enugu State.
Abacha is now so popular that it is now a special food prepared for guests during social gathering such as traditional weddings, birthdays and other festivities.
Sunday Tribune during the week, sought people’s views around the Enugu metropolis on why people love to eat Abacha.
A respondent, Okechukwu Ukwueze, said that despite the stories he had heard that some people died as a result of eating Abacha, he will not stop eating it, stressing that Abacha is delicious and contains vitamins required for body building.
“All classes of vitamins are contained in Abacha. How can I stop eating it? I like Abacha and I will not stop eating Abacha. I mostly eat it in the afternoon as my lunch. It is an African fast food,” he said.
For Ngozi Okeke, abacha is good for the body and nothing comes close to it in satisfying her hunger. “Abacha makes me feel healthy because of the energy I get from it. Abacha has all the vital ingredients needed in a food. I like it. Those who died because of Abacha were unfortunate.
“Maybe it was because it was not well prepared. Food poisoning can occur in any food if not well-cooked and preserved,” she said.
According to Nkiru Kalu, an Enugu-based Computer Operator, “I just like it. It is a natural food and it is easy to prepare. It is better than noodles. The ingredients are very cheap, few in number and easy to prepare. You can buy Abacha with just N100.00.
“Even if people die because of Abacha, I will not stop eating it. My friend introduced me to eating Abacha when I visited her at a community in Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State and since then I have come to like it,” Nkiru said.
- Additional reports by Tade Makinde