This Hashtag Is Uniting African Twitter — And It’s All About Food

#JollofWars is the digital version of a timeless West African debate.

This Hashtag Is Uniting African Twitter — And It’s All About Food Design by Kalani Fujimori

#JollofWars is the digital version of a light-hearted debate that happens when, and wherever, national and diasporic West Africans meet. It’s all about which African country makes the best version of jollof, a spicy tomato-based rice dish. It’s hard to pinpoint just when Ghanaians, Nigerians, Senegalese people, and other West Africans, started to bicker over the dish in real life, but on Twitter and Instagram #JollofWars took root — after an anomalistic blip in 2011 — in the summer of 2014 when user @keldel tweeted: I am low key starting a Cold War here by eating my mum's and gf's 'jollofs' side by side. Then things really got intense when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver bungled the dish a few months later. Last year a Nigerian telecom company declared #WorldJollofRiceDay on August 22, ramping up the digital roasting between Nigerians and Ghanaians in particular. And in the last few months, a series of tweets from Keri Hilson — who is dating Congolese NBA player Serge Ibaka — and a dis track called “Ghana Jollof” have added more fuel to the fire.

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A few years ago, when the jollof debate was more of an offline thing, I hosted my cousin’s wedding reception. In order to fire up our Ghanaian family and her Nigerian husband’s guests I got on the mic and asked whose jollof was better. A passionate discussion ensued, with lots of ribbing about which nation uses better rice and spices, whose jollof looks like ‘painted rice,’ and whose tastes funny. This multigenerational debate set a friendly tone for the night — we’re from two different countries with our customs, but we’re still family — and that same friendly spirit animates the online conversation today.

The Jamie Oliver incident — now referred to as #JollofGate — served as a catalyst for #JollofWars. When Oliver posted a recipe for the dish on his website, the response was heavy and immediate. It was like watching a mosquito enter the room while an African family is mid-argument: As soon people noticed the counterfeit jollof (which included cherry tomatoes, parsley, and lemon wedges), they killed it. Quick.

It was like watching a mosquito enter the room while an African family is mid-argument: As soon people noticed the counterfeit jollof, they killed it. Quick.

There are others involved in #JollofWars beyond Ghanaians and Nigerians: jollof is popular in many African countries, including Cameroon, Togo, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, and Senegal. Regional variations incorporate palm oil, coconut milk, tomato paste, Maggi [seasoning] cubes, okra, and shrimp. The dish’s origins have been traced back to the Jolof empire in the Senegambian region, which ruled from 1350 to 1549. In a recent interview, renowned New York-based Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam “settled the debate” with this: Senegal owns the title of best jollof because, well, they created it.

Although jollof is truly a Senegalese/Gambian dish, you wouldn’t know this because Nigerians and Ghanaians tend to dominate the online conversation. Richard Oritse’s catering company is representing Nigeria at Jollof Wars in Toronto, an afrobeats party and crowd-judged culinary face-off directly inspired by the hashtag. He says the reason Nigerians and Ghanaians appear to rep the hardest is because there has always been friendly competition between the two nations. “You’re not going to find a Nigerian who will say Ghanaian jollof is better,” he says, laughing. “Nigerians are trying to prove superior to other Africans. I think it’s just because there are so many of us: it’s easy when you have numbers on your side.”

But, he points out, Ghanaians are starting to find their voice online and in pan-African culture, where Nigerians are more well-known. Nigeria’s population is nearly seven times that of Ghana’s and the country’s emigration (particularly to the West), started earlier and has been more frequent than Ghana’s due to political and economic upheaval. This suggests that #JollofWars is, in part, a bit of light-hearted mythbusting: “[Ghanaians] are trying to claim their name, because it’s difficult to always be associated with another type of African” — namely Nigerians.

Sister Deborah is a TV presenter and musician living in Accra, who recently released the cheeky track “Ghana Jollof,” praising Ghanaian jollof—and women—over all others. (It’s actually a response to Princess Vitarah’s “Nigerian Pussy,” a song about how Nigerian women’s vaginas are superior to the anatomy of Ghanaian women, and another example of the national cultural battles.) The cultural importance of food is, she says, is the reason Africans are so invested in jollof: “Food is an important element when it comes to family and marriage. Food brings us together. In the [family] compound we all eat from the same bowl.”

Oritse says emotions run high when it comes to jollof because of the gendered culinary culture of West African families. “You praise your mother in her food, and your girlfriend has to aspire to be an even better cook than your mother,” he says. “And then your daughter has to aspire to be an even better cook than her mother.”

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Sister Deborah really does believe Ghanaian jollof trumps Nigeria’s. For her, it comes down to the rice: “The grains are long and big and hard, as if they’ve mismanaged their stew.” On social media this plays out in the form of memes: she once Instagrammed a plate of orangey rice with chicken, and a plate of white rice with ketchup on top, and pointedly asked her followers to weigh in on what plate belonged to which country.

Memes, of course, aren’t going to settle this debate: they’re not solutions, they’re the rudimentary ephemera that somehow, satisfyingly, document the most niche experiences of life. And here’s what #JollofWars memes reinforce to users:

1. Jollof is very, very good. Enough to make people rush to parties, which always start late.
2. It is good if a woman can make jollof because it means she can cook, which makes her good wife material.
3. If you’re from country X, then the best jollof is made by country X.

As a Ghana-born Canadian who grew up eating jollof for dinner in a town where almost all my friends ate macaroni and cheese and pizza, it’s gratifying to see jollof animated by memes and diss tracks. But the memes are another clue to the origins of #JollofWars. As my 65-year-old mom, who immigrated from Ghana at 29, told me, “This thing is only for you people.” She says the debate started with my generation: we’re the ones who communicate widely with Africans from other countries, and now we do this digitally too through Twitter, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. And even though the back-and-forth may be the way some of us hold on to our traditions, my mother’s generation is sometimes right there with us, kissing teeth and lobbing light insults about other people’s jollof.

Immigrants and children of immigrants often hinge their identity on traditional food and clothing because of how far they are from home, or in the case of nationals, how globalized their lifestyles have become. #JollofWars isn’t about declaring a winner: it’s about connecting to home-cooked food, sharing a moment with a fellow African brother or sister, or finding an excuse to throw a party. We might have different passports, but when it comes to jollof we share a culture.

May 27, 2016
This Hashtag Is Uniting African Twitter — And It’s All About Food