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Spicy food, sun, and rhythm – celebrating the global exporting of West African culture

The rhythm…

In 1950s Lagos, there were few places more exclusive than Ikoyi Club. It had been a small prison in a previous lifetime. But at the time, it was a member-only preserve of the city’s most powerful foreigners, the beneficiaries of a colonial regime. With a Portuguese name and a British administrator, Europe had more than left its imprint on the culture of Nigeria’s colonial capital. These members of the Ikoyi Club ate dishes imported from home and enjoyed an assortment of Black music “made in the West”.

Despite the richness of West African cultures (many of which had histories stretching back centuries), Westerners tended to either ignore them wholly or view them as exotic curiosities.

The latter attitude continued for some time to come. One notable instance was when the Beatles visited Afrika Shrine, the nightclub where Afrobeats legend Fela performed.

But, today, a walk through any global cultural capital – from Los Angeles to London and Mumbai – tells a different, more progressive story. It’s now commonplace to hear African pop music at the trendiest nightclubs in the world or blaring from a teenager’s headphones.

Buoyed by the adoption of social media and viral content, interest in music made in Ghana and Nigeria has birthed a new movement – Afrobeats To The World – leading to massive streaming success for its stars – Wizkid, Burna Boy, Sarkodie and Davido, among others. In 2020, Love Nwantiti, by Nigerian singer CKay, rode a viral challenge to amass over one billion streams on Spotify.

Just this August, Afrobeats singer Rema’s Calm Down became the most-played song on French radio. It’s a feat made even more amazing when one considers it was performed in pidgin English. Earlier in April, the meteoric rise of Ghana’s Black Sherif saw his hit single, Kwaku the Traveller, become the most shazamed song on the planet. Last year, Bollywood caught the Touch It fever as Kidi’s song racked up 200 million streams across all platforms coming from India alone. The track, which went viral on Tik Tok, has now gone platinum in India – this, despite not marketing the song there.

The spicy and sticky foods…

And other elements of African culture are also attracting more global interest than ever, with the internet being perhaps the biggest vehicle for this newfound curiosity. Global searches for “Jollof Rice”, one of Africa’s most well-known dishes, have tripled in the last ten years.

It is nearly impossible to navigate YouTube’s world of food content without being forced to pick a side in the battle for Jollof Supremacy. This enticing rivalry goes back to the original Senegalese version of the dish. Jollof Rice took its name from one of the biggest states during the ancient Wolof empire, the state of Jolof.

Jollof Rice is the most popular West African food, made of a medley of rice, tomatoes, and spices, and loved by many across Africa – and now Europe and the world. New data from Youtube shows that the United Kingdom and Ireland were among the top ten countries with the most searches for Jollof Rice this year.

And while Jollof Rice may be whetting palates globally, other dishes have joined the fray. Take, for example, Ghanaian Waakye, a dish of cooked rice and beans – characterised by its reddish colour from cooking it with sorghum leaves. Native to the Hausas of Northern Ghana, Waakye is one of West Africa’s most loved street foods.

Two other delectable Senegalese dishes, widely exported to France, are the “Yassa” and the “Mafé” – both made of steamed rice.

The region also boasts a rich food culture built around starchy staples like corn and cassava and generally grouped as “swallow foods” – the king of them all being “Fufu”. Pioneered by the Akan tribe, and exported across sub-Sahara African countries such as Benin, Cameroon, DR. Congo, Guinea, Ivory Coast (where it’s called “Foutou”), Liberia, Nigeria, and Togo, fufu – meaning “mash” or “mix” in the Akans’ Twi language – is made of pounded cassava moulded into a ball and eaten with soup. Variations include yam, plantain or cocoyam pounded with or without starchy cassava.

Meanwhile, a feature of Nigeria’s popular weekend parties, the gastronomic treat known as “small chops” will turn anyone into an addict!

With these dishes gaining in popularity the world over, we can expect food tourism to become a feature of travel to West Africa.

The sun, the sites, and the scenery…

Centuries after the first Europeans came, Africa is now attracting millions of visitors looking for a more intimate, original interaction with its culture. In fact, in 2019, 68.2 million global tourists visited Africa, contributing to about 24 million jobs.

With more countries offering visas-on-arrival, greater options in terms of airline routes, and improved airports, travel to Africa is more accessible. Tourists today embark on guided excursions to sites of the slave trade, such as Elmina Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, and The Slave Road in Benin. Others visit ancient sites – such as the Osun Grove in Nigeria – in search of meaning in the past.

For some, the present holds more allure.

Tours of wildlife preserves host thousands of tourists every year, while cities like Accra are fast attracting thrillseekers and global celebrities every December. With concerts like Afronation, the capital of Ghana is the vibrant spot for travellers looking to unwind and party on the West African coast.

Much of this newfound interest in Africa is also inspired by the diaspora; the global community of African immigrants living in foreign countries. Despite being so far from home, they remain connected to their native cultures, making them appealing and accessible to their Western peers.

In whatever direction your curiosities lead you, you will find that West African culture offers a unique, eclectic experience.

And, just in case you were wondering, the iKoyi Club now reflects Lagos’ full diversity and has Afrobeats on regular rotation.

By Irvine Partners||Ghana

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