Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Fufu and the body

Princewill Udom
Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria



Fufu. Photo by Princewill Udom

Fufu, West Africa’s finest local delicacy, continues to maintain its scintillating sheen, especially in Nigeria. The congealed, doughy, smooth, white lump of processed cassava meal remains as popular as ever. Made from cassava, a root crop widely cultivated in West Africa, it enjoys luxuriant growth because of favorable climatic conditions and fertile land. Cassava farming can be done on large, mechanized farms, but more than half of it is currently produced on small farms. Cassava root is harvested nine to twelve months after it is planted.

Cassava is a source of many other products such as garri, lafun, starch, and cassava flour. Processing cassava roots into fufu by simple steps ensures a drastic decline in the amount of cyanide present in the raw product. Fufu remains fresh for days and requires no special method of preservation. It is rich in carbohydrates and minerals.

The Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) caused large-scale outbreaks of nutritional diseases such as kwashiorkor and beriberi as fierce battles in areas including cassava fields crippled farming activities. Most of the one million deaths during the war were due to malnutrition and starvation as secessionist soldiers raided and ransacked houses, caring less about money than they did about food. Famished bodies, atrophied muscles, shriveled faces, scrawny children with bloated stomachs and oversized heads, and deaths were palpable evidence of the embargo on food import and severe restriction on farming activities in the war-torn southeast region renamed Biafra by the secessionists. The entire stricken population was stunned with a deep sense of loss in the face of so many deaths. Many parents preferred to die rather than watch their own malnourished children starve to death. Some resorted to eating lizards, snakes, and cockroaches. The war showed with utmost clarity how hunger and thirst impose imponderable stress on humans.

Since the war, fufu has remained a source of energy for working people, for brawny young men with well-formed muscles, full of energy, strength, and stamina, engaged in backbreaking, manual, agricultural work. Industrious men and women in rural Nigerian society are identified by and admired for their fruitful cassava farms. Such farms are a key attraction for young women wishing to marry into a family having lots of cassava farms in order to avoid hunger and poverty. Bachelors having a preference for young women with smooth, beautiful faces, alluring bodies, and a laudable work ethic believe that fufu plays a significant role in eliciting these attributes.

In Nigeria land ownership is a critical issue, and the rising population has caused conflicts over land to be rife. Clashes between farmers and pastoralists have left hundreds of people dead this year. Growing demography and urbanization are driving scarcity of land and the deadly confrontations between cattle herders and food crop farmers. The shrinking of available land is hurting cassava cultivation, threatening food supply, and nutrition. This in turn is provoking theft of crops and social disharmony. At the same time, the traditional practice of polygamy is waning. In the past men often married two or more wives to have enough hands to work on their cassava farms and amass large yields for their families and for sale.

At present, the consumption of fufu—hundreds of millions of tons per day in Nigeria—is on the rise. The demand has prompted a steady rise in the number of commercial farmers and processors who supply hotels, restaurants, and urban households. Fufu is an unmissable item on the menu of every restaurant, is served at special occasions such as weddings and funerals, and is popular with both rich and poor, young and elderly. Men believe that it enhances strength and sexual performance, women that it boosts fertility. Fufu and certain fresh vegetable soups are given to pregnant women to aid the delivery of healthy babies or to enhance milk production in lactating mothers. Its calcium content is valuable for the development of strong bones in children. Children growing up on a rich diet of fufu are believed to be stronger, nimbler, and more agile.

Literature and films produced by Nigerians parade the benefits of eating fufu. The scintillating glow on the faces of diners and connoisseurs is unmistakable, leaving an observer with the enduring impression of a truly enjoyable treat. The deep emotional import of fufu is also on display during a traditional marriage ceremony, when for the first time the prospective husband is granted the opportunity of enjoying his fiancée’s cooking skills, especially her proficiency in preparing the smooth, soft, and succulent fufu. Tradition dictates that the prospective wife takes full charge of the cooking on that day. The showcasing of her exquisite culinary skills is intended to cement the man’s love for the woman as well as earn his compliments. “Fufu is the food of love,” quipped a guest once, bolstering his assertion with the dictum: “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Fufu is not chewed but swallowed in small oval balls molded in the palm of the hand and dipped in a bowl of appropriate soup, subject to the preference of the diner. The pre-eating rite is basically a wash of the hands in clean water since cutleries are unneeded. Fufu can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Experts say that a 347.8 gram portion of fufu furnishes the body with 364.40 kcal of energy. Schools in pastoral settings, which are populated by children who eat portions of fufu before heading to school in the morning, rarely record cases of debilitating hunger and health emergencies. These children, predominantly from poor households, still apportion time for farm work after school, knowing that fufu at the end of the day keeps the body in a relaxed state after a hectic day.


End Notes

  1. Sanusi, R.A and Olurin A (2012), Portion and Serving Sizes of Commonly Consumed Foods in Ibadan, Southwestern Nigeria, African Journal of Biomedical Research, Vol.15, No.3, September 2012, p.154



PRINCEWILL UDOM is a Nigerian early career academic and researcher. He is a member of the Economic History Society and the managing editor of Rupine Publishing House. He is also lecturer in History at Management Development Institute, Nigeria. His research interests spans humanitarian and economic history. He lives in Nigeria.


Summer 2018  |  Sections  |  Food

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