Lest We Forget the Power of Bread

The government should tackle the challenges in the bakery sector soon enough, advises Monday Philips Ekpe

In reaction to the current supersonic swelling in the prices of bread across the country, a 1984 cartoon by famous Nigerian cartoonist, Josy Ajiboye, has gone viral in the social media. “Your Excellency, you promised cheaper bread, now a 10 kobo loaf of bread is 70 kobo,” it reported. You already know who the excellency was that year and you might have concluded that de javu is occurring but this piece will not be devoted to the bashing of President Muhammadu Buhari who was the military head of state at the time. The president has announced repeatedly that he has done his best. No one should deny him the right to assess himself and voice it out; the same way the people too have their own right to determine whether the efforts of his government are yielding the desired results.

Come to think of it, how vital is bread? Many food historians agree that bread is, perhaps, man’s oldest processed food and trace its origin to Egypt and the Middle East. Today, it is a citizen of the world, appearing on breakfast tables especially in various forms, sizes and diverse recipes. Wheat, corn, rice, oat, barley and cassava tubers are used in different places to produce seducing flavours in order to satisfy varying visceral needs. It is on record that while both the rich and poor consume bread, it occupies a special position in the lives of the less-privileged. Two reasons are responsible for this. One, in normal circumstances, it is cheaper than most other foods. Secondly, oftentimes, it possesses a certain staying power, something to “take hold belle” for a longer period before the next meal.

These peculiar characteristics probably informed a declaration in the early 17th Century by foremost Spaniard author, Miguel de Cervantes in his epic novel, Don Quixote, that, “With bread, all sorrows are less.” That assertion was corroborated centuries later by the late global icon, Mahatma Ghandi. As he put it, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Could those men have overstated the importance of a simple, unassuming consumable item? Most certainly not. Hunger and the constant need to quench it through naturally designed and acceptable ways are among humanity’s most distinguishing and binding attributes. Numerous wars have been fought, struggles and intrigues have been staged at institutional, home and personal levels in attempts to gratify this basic necessity.

Mary Frances Fisher, celebrated 20th Century American food writer, painted an even loftier picture of bread. According to her, “It does not cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.” With that beautiful prose, she brought to light the therapeutic properties of bread, something, I guess, would be better appreciated in societies where food shortages are not common, where more energies are devoted to higher ideals since solid foundations have already been laid for the perpetual sustenance of the populace.

Nigerians have for long been compelled by circumstances and bad governance to live without what should ordinarily not be viewed as luxuries but fundamental necessities. For most of them, bread is about survival. Sadly. The alternatives to it are fast thinning out because of the worsening social and economic realities. Last week, national and state bakers’ bodies threatened to shut down their bakeries. The series of meetings they have held with the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment have not produced meaningful outcomes. On Wednesday last week, the President, Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria (PBAN), Emmanuel Onuorah, tried to articulate the frustrations and expectations of his colleagues and provide the rationale for the planned strike.

Historically, bread has proved to be more than just another stuff on the menu list. The events that culminated in the French Revolution present some of the most dramatic and brutal manifestations of its dominance. Bread was a major feature in the diet of average French workers. As a matter of fact, about half of their daily wages was spent on it alone. The grain crop failure of 1788 and 1789, however, conspired to shoot up that expenditure to close to 90 percent of their earnings. The people, in turn, blamed the ruling class, the aristocracy, for their increasingly despondent condition.

It was in the midst of the strained nerves that Queen Marie Antoinette made her sarcastic remark, “Let them eat cake (brioche),” in response to the masses’ cries for bread. French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, later credited the original pronouncement of that infamous statement to an unspecified princess in Confessions, a book he wrote in 1766 when Antoinette was only a child. Never mind the controversy. That moment of indiscretion triggered the overwhelming rage that led her and the husband, King Louis XIV, to their early graves on July 14, 1789 via guillotine. Almighty bread then became an instant priority of government. Linda Civitello explained the prevailing environment succinctly in her book, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People: “Bread was considered a public service necessary to keep the people from rioting… Bakers, therefore, were public servants, so the police controlled all aspects of bread production.”

France, of course, is not Nigeria but only doomed nations and leaders would ignore lessons from the past, no matter how distant. When people are pushed to the limits, anything is possible. The issues that snowballed into the French Revolution were deeper than bread but it was a ready catalyst when the cup of the aristocrats became full. Yes, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has seriously undermined wheat and energy supplies but then many unresolved matters surrounding the production of affordable bread had been in existence before the warfare started. Excuses built around that predicament will, therefore, not fly in the minds of Nigerians, many of whom have continued to endure various degrees of trauma.

You would be surprised at the volume of the micro economy and physical and social wellbeing directly related to the operations of the teeming ‘mai shai’ in virtually every street corner in Nigeria. Not to mention the domestic or family stage. Who would have believed just a year ago that a loaf of bread would cost 800 to 1000 naira today? Its quality is a different thing altogether. A friend told me the other day that there was no point appealing to this government for anything, that its response capacity has been grossly compromised. But who else should Nigerians turn to? The sage. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, said something in his work, Voice of Reason, about the rebellion of the stomach being the worst. No one will enjoy the full weight of that admonition.     

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

Suggested quote: “When people are pushed to the limits, anything is possible. The issues that snowballed into the French Revolution were deeper than bread but it was a ready catalyst when the cup of the aristocrats became full”

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