Close your eyes and think about the future a hundred, maybe a thousand years ahead. What’s the worst thing you can imagine? What event would you consider utterly catastrophic? Nnedi Okorafor puts forward an unutterable possibility.
This week on my best friend’s podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, LeVar Burton (who is my best friend in the same way in the same way that I am an internationally celebrated soprano opera singer – as a figment of my imagination) reads ‘Mother of Invention’, a short story written by Nnedi Okorafor.
In this tale, 29-year-old Anwuli is nine months pregnant and about to go into labor alone in a smart house designed by her ex-fiancé, Bayo. As Anwuli’s luck would have it, Bayo is already married with two children and “cannot be a father to her child too.” He informs her of this just before he abandons her.
Dr. Iwuchukwu is the man responsible for Anwuli’s maternal and general healthcare. He insists that she leaves the area before the annual pollen storms arrive, which are known to be fatal to allergy sufferers like Anwuli. (She refuses on the grounds that she does not want to lose her home.) The doctor has also assigned her some informational viewing: a video narrated by a hologram of a man who walks with a cane and wears an Igbo white-and-red chief’s cap like a village elder. Irritated, Anwuli listens to the man give his spiel.
“Grass!” he announced. “Whether we know it or not, grass is important to most of us. Grass is a monumental food source worldwide. Corn, millet, oats, sugar—all of them come from grass plants. Even rice was a grass plant. We use grass plants to make bread, liquor, plastic, and so much more! Livestock animals feed mostly on grasses, too. Sometimes we use grass plants like bamboo for construction. Grass helps curb erosion.”
“Carpeting New Delta, Periwinkle’s signature tough flowers are a thing of beauty and innovation. A genetic hybrid drawn from a variety of plants including sunflowers, zoysia grass, rice, and jasmine flowers, we can thank periwinkle grass for giving us the perfect replacement for rice just after its extinction…”Excerpt from ‘Mother of Invention’
Did I hear that right? Sometime in my beloved Africa’s future, rice will go extinct? What kind of a dark mind could conceive of such a thing? Nnedi, apparently.
I cannot speak for other parts of the continent, but rice is a pretty big deal in West Africa. It’s a staple food, prepared in myriad ways for weddings, funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, school lunch…just about any application or event you can think of. Almost every immigrant child knows the gut seizing pain of the phrase, “There is rice in the house!” tossed with irritation from the driver’s seat by an African mom as you watch the McDonald’s drive-thru fade further from view.
We have all felt the relief of throwing open the deep freezer door on a hot day, ripping open the lid of a weighty container of FanIce, and then struggling to navigate the wave of emotions – anguish, sorrow, disappointment, confusion – that follow upon the discovery that there is indeed no ice cream in said container, but rather the remains last night’s dinner of rice and stew.
The idea that it could one day disappear from our food culture is…troubling. Think Italy without pasta, or South Africa without pap, or Ireland without beer or whiskey. Now do you get the scale of this catastrophe? Good.
If you, like I, are one of those people who contemplates the incredible journey food makes before it becomes a meal on your plate, you may have thought about rice’s proud and painful past. Though rice is a relatively young crop (a little over 9,000 years old), it has changed the fortunes and health prospects of mankind for just as long. In China, black rice (also known as the Emperor’s rice or Forbidden rice) was reserved for the ruling class because of its unique health benefits. When rice made its way to West Africa, women were largely responsible for its cultivation and harvesting. And when the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade took off in earnest, colonizing slavers took rice plants from the continent and made a fortune on rice plantations like Butler Island in Georgia and all around the American south.
It was rice, not cotton, that made Charleston, SC the wealthiest city in America.
When I drain a bowl of omo tuo or indulge in good-natured ribbing over who has the best jollof with my Naija and Senegalese siblings, I remember the sacrifices – and horrors – that many African-American forebears endured to produce a crop that we take for granted daily; The whippings of pregnant women, the paralyzing fevers, the parasitic worms that plagued those who worked for hours in the paddies…and I am humbled. It is on a rare occasion that mindlessly consume a plate of rice. (Unless it’s rice puddin’. I’m not thinking about anything but ecstasy when I’m presented with the creamy, vanilla-y, sweet goodness that is rice puddin’.)
The idea that this grain that has and continues to nourish millions of people around the world, a grain that brings joy to so many of us, could one day just disappear is, well…devastating. But I guess that’s what makes an author like Nnedi such a master of the dystopian. As Nigerian American, she knows what the deepest joys – and therefore fears – of her people are.
I can see her now: A shadowy figure, muttering in the gloom of her office, illuminated only by the eerie glow of her laptop as she crafted Anwuli’s tale, considering what one small detail she might include to horrify us all. “Tell dem say di rice don finish,” she cackles with satisfaction. “Tell dem say e don finish forever!”
What food can you not imagine disappearing from the planet forever? Tell me in the comments or on Twitter.
NB: You can read Frances Anne Kemble’s account of what she witnessed on Butler Island’s rice plantation here.