The Nutty’ness of African Meat Curing

The Nutty'ness of African Meat Curing
Eben van Tonder
4 June 2023
Lagos, Nigeria
Nigerian Beef Suja, photo from


I asked a colleague of mine at the Artee Group in Lagos, Jacob Faniyi what his tribal background is and the religious faith system of his tribe. I learned that he is Yoruba and even though he is Christian, the traditional belief system is centred around the city of Ilé-Ifè, 206km from Lagos. That night I started reading the work of Professor Jacob Olupona from Harvard Divinity School, “City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination.”

While this was happening, my flatmate in Lagos, Beyers Cronje and I started talking about the enigmatic link between ground nuts, the magical spice mix of West Africa, Suja and dried meat. Beyers started connecting the dots with the spread of ground nute around the world from ancient Mesopotamia and as he went he kept finding links to dried meat and meat, serves in one way or the other on a stick.

As important as the details of the Yoruba people the magnificence of Ilé-Ifè (and it is supremely magnificent), the method that Professor Olupona used to do his studies intrigued me. As a research methodology, it is not unique, but Jacob applies it so beautifully and he nuances it in a way that resonates with me. So, a immediately decided to change my own methodology and apply the techniques I learn from him as I read because I feel that within the story of meat, there is far more than the simple techniques of slaughtering and preparing the food, nutrition and the debate whether we should eat meat or not.

The phenomenon of eating meat and its various preparation methods, the fact that animals are killed is done for more reasons than only nutrition. There are intimate connections with our own worldview and the development of the sciences such as biology, anthropology, medicine, dentistry, genetics and countless more that some pretend did not come from the fact that we eat meat and slaughter animals, but it did and the fact that we deny it becomes an interesting phenomenon. Meat and religion are intimately associated. It has been since the earliest religious creations and it remains so to this day.

The Loss of Myth

I have been discussing my discovery of Ilé-Ifè and the associated faith system with my friend Dawie Hyman who brilliantly saw the presence of mythology. He points out that in the West we lost our mythology. Modern humans seek the development of production lines and greater output with less input. The cultures who never got onto that boat of pursuing man vs nature; who don’t see in technology our redemption “from nature”; who don’t see the high point of human development the fact that we are an instrument-making-animal and who seek our salvation in that; these cultures have myths and traditions and history that connects them with spaces, community, the divine, and themselves in ways that supersede what I just described. To them, salvation is holistic.

I am struck by the mythology of Ilé-Ifè that says that this is the location on earth from where humans witnessed the first sunrise. The fact that this is important to them and by definition, every subsequent sunrise is equally valuable. Not where the first production plant was built.

Dawie correctly observes that this worldview, so often associated with what we will see as less developed cultures is foundational to life on earth. It holds the key to a fulfilled life. Without it, what do we have? What does it look like to have a billion dollars in your account vs a few hundred? When all is considered. When the sunrise is more important and foundational in your life than the factory. It makes a difference to our state of mind.

Dawie tells the story of Carl Jung who met with a Native American Indian from a tribe in Arizona. The person told him that they perform a sacred duty every night. They get up at some time and pray that the sun would rise. They invite the sun to come up. As we think of it with our Western and so-called developed understanding, we think it is a ludicrous thought. This is, we say, not how the world works. Dawies point is that if we think about it, we get up with hangovers and drag ourselves out of bed to go to jobs we don’t like which give us little fulfilment. Between the two groups, who have the richer tradition and who will have a more fulfilled day!?


We hunted wild animals and from very early on connected this activity and animals who give their lives to the divine. The domestication of animals followed and it served a particular need for nutrition and the availability of these nutritional resources. We continued to develop concepts of sacrifice which involve a dialogue between three parties – the human, the deity and the animal. It is difficult to see excess in such a system. Killing and eating for the pleasure of it can hardly be imagined. Opening the refrigerator and making a ham sandwich is not the same as it was when we connected the killing of the animal with sacrifice and had the dialogue between ourselves, the animal and the deity. These discourses and associated myths of old was an important way that excess was managed and we are so far removed from it that we don’t even see the loss of mythology as a possible basis for the rise in obesity.

Dawie, by the way, and I don’t think he will mind that I mention this, prefer not to eat meat. The discussion is not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about the phenomenon that exists and the fact that within Africa, I see a wholistic understanding of life so that the white, middle-class, university-educated American or South African or European Christian or Catholic is not the same as the Nigerian Christian with a history of forefathers steeped in the Yoruba faith and practices. Africa is not losing its mythology! Likewise is the German or English-trained butcher not the same as the African butcher. It is broadening the discussion to see meat processing within its cultural context and practised from a particular worldview that will yield different products and it is this context that I have never understood, much less appreciated.

Back to the Ground Nut

So, when Beyers and myself discover links between the peanut and other ground nuts in Africa and the Middle East and Asia and meat processing, the Western chef or butcher may wonder why in the world. . . . “What is the big deal?” “How important is it really?” “What is the connection?” “Why?” My sense is that we will find it is extremely important in ways that we currently don’t see. Understanding the nutty’ness of African meat processing has become a focal point for me and seeing the wholistic relationship between its practice and our worldview is something I hope to explore in far greater detail!

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