A Nigerian Mom and Her Son Explore Tradition and Nutrition

 Jollof rice, a Nigerian rice dish

Jollof rice, a Nigerian rice dish. Photo: Michael Obadina

Last year, Heritage Radio Network created the Saxelby Radio Scholars, an internship and scholarship program where students learn to produce radio stories about food. One of the scholars, Michael Obadina, documented his journey getting in shape for basketball season with the help of his mother, a nutritionist from Nigeria. A year later, he went back to his mom to record her story, and learn how she kept their family healthy while also staying tied to their Nigerian roots.

Michael collaborated with Caitlin Pierce from the Saxelby Radio Scholars Program to produce this story.

Olufunke Obadina and her son, Michael Obadina


Michael Obadina (MO): Last year, I was a senior in high school. And for the second year in a row, I played basketball.

(MO): I was a Saxelby Radio Scholar with the Heritage Radio Network, and learned how to be a radio producer. I decided to interview my mom, Olofunke Obadina, about how she helped me keep fit so I could play ball.

(MO): My mom also happens to be a nutritionist.

(MO): But I also realized my mom wasn’t feeding me just any healthy food, like baked chicken and kale. The food she cooks for my family comes from Nigeria, her home country. So I got curious about how my mom made healthy choices for my family based on her roots, and decided to interview her again to find out more about my family’s unique version of healthy eating. Over 20 years ago, my dad came to the U.S. My mom was still in college, but joined him a few years later.

(OO): When I was in Nigeria I was studying industrial chemistry. In fact, I was in my final year when I got the visa lottery to come to United States.

(MO): And lucky for me, my mom decided to come to the U.S. to meet up with my dad. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. And she learned quickly that food here … is pretty different.

(OO): When I was on the airplane coming they gave broccoli. But at that time I didn’t know what broccoli was. But the way it looked to me, it looked like algae. Back in Nigeria you find algae growing in dirty places. It’s green and the line against the wall.

(MO): My mom didn’t eat the broccoli on the plane, but then she got pregnant with me.

(OO): Your daddy said, “You know what? You have to eat broccoli.” I said, “What’s broccoli? That algae thing? I’m not eating that.” He said, “You better eat it. It’s nutritious this and that.” I said, “Ok.”

Olufunke Obadina at the market; photo: Michael Obadina

(MO): Everything changed for her in the U.S. She was now a wife instead of a student, a soon to be mom instead of a daughter. She also had to change her career. There weren’t a lot of jobs in industrial chemistry at the time in New York City. With her degree, she could work in healthcare, but she didn’t want to be a nurse.

(OO): I think I would like nutrition because this United States food I need to know more about it. So being a nutritionist you don’t have to touch a patient. You just all you do, walk around, speak to the patient, “How you doing? What did you eat today?”

(MO): Even though she made so many changes, my mom is still proud to be Nigerian … and she wanted me and my brothers to feel connected to our native culture. So she cooked mostly Nigerian food, but done her way.

In Nigeria, a seasoning called Maggi is really popular. In the U.S. people know it as bouillon cubes. But then, mom found out it has MSG.

(OO): I stopped using bouillon cubes because I now buy different kinds of natural seasonings. I buy curry, parsley, cajun seasoning.

(MO): So when you came here, what kinds of food did you learn to make? What healthier or non-Nigerian foods did you learn how to make?

(OO): Spaghetti. Spaghetti’s more like rice. Yes, we have spaghetti in Nigeria. My mom would specially buy it. Maybe on Christmas time she will cook rice and cook spaghetti and we eat spaghetti with rice.

(MO): With rice?

(OO): [laughs] With rice.

(MO): Like at the same time? How?

(OO): We cook rice separate. Then we cook spaghetti. Then you add the spaghetti to the rice on your plate.

(MO): Okay, so, my mom mainly sticks with cooking Nigerian food. But she has to use American ingredients, some of which aren’t up to her standards.

(OO): All our animal products are the animals that we consume are grass fed. It’s something natural in Nigeria.

(MO): I feel like I know a lot about Nigeria and it’s foods but I’ve never been there and that makes it hard to imagine the fruits my mom describes which I can’t even find on the internet.

(OO): There’s one we call _____. It’s like the size of a golf ball. It’s brownish in color on the outside. You make it soft by pressing it and the juice comes out like milk, and you suck it, suck it and then you open it up and bite the inside. And when you eat the skin the skin turns into a gum.

Olufunke Obadina at the market; photo: Michael Obadina

(MO): This summer, mom went to Nigeria and brought back some of these fruits. But they only got so far as JFK airport where they were confiscated by customs. So, I guess I’ll have to visit some day.

(MO): Living in America with Nigerian parent I feel like I haven’t missed out on American or Nigerian food.

(OO): I find myself in the middle, taking the good from the Nigerian diet and taking the good from the American diet and merging it into one.

(MO): After our conversation, my mom made me my favorite food, Jollof Rice. It’s my freshman year of college, and I don’t eat it often. My mom tells me that her rice is made with less oil than how it’s traditionally made in Nigeria. But for me, my mom’s Jollof is always going to taste the most authentic.

For Feet in 2 Worlds, I’m Michael Obadina.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

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AboutCaitlin Pierce
Caitlin is an independent radio producer based in New York City. She produces a podcast about people who break boundaries called Borders Radio.