Indigenous food. Community action. Africa
Elizabeth Chinwe Okeke
A global villager
Access Elizabeth Chinwe Okeke's member's profile here
Access pdf of Harriet Kuhnlein's WN commentary here
Access pdf of the introduction to the FAO book here
Access pdf of the Igbo chapter in the FAO book here
From left: Chinwe (centre of the picture) admiring Bill Erasmus's hairstyle; being honoured at a conference; and at home with her husband and Harriet
Harriet Kuhnlein writes: 'Ndi mba ozo na-azu nni na-anwu n'aguu'. In the Igbo language this means 'People who rely on foreign food eventually die of hunger'. The theme introduces the chapter 'The Igbo tradition food system documented in four states in Southern Nigeria', of which Elizabeth Chinwe Okeke is first author. The chapter is part of the book Indigenous People's Food Systems, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009. It is available at www.ftp://ftp. fao.org/docrep/fao/012/ i0370e/i0370e 13.pdf.
Chinwe, who has tragically died in a car accident, was an essential member of our research team representing the Igbo cultural group in Nigeria. She collaborated extensively within her own network in the Igbo case study. This was an important African contribution to the overall project of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE).
The project leaders visited the Igbo area where Chinwe worked at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, and several village markets. In the picture on the home page section of this story, Chinwe is demonstrating the produce in the yam market. The purpose of this tour was to experience and document the local Igbo food system. Chinwe was an exceptional leader with multidisciplinary expertise drawn from her local professional colleagues, as well as seven research students, all of whom made indispensible contributions to the extensive work resulting in the final publication.
Those visiting the research area included Chief Bill Erasmus (chair of the CINE governing board), Peter and Lisa Kuhnlein, and myself. Chinwe and her team were exceptional hosts, looking after every detail to make us welcome and comfortable. She invited us to her home shared with Professor Cajethan Okeke (see the picture above, right) and with their large and extended family we had a delightful evening of stories and good food. During the visit the Nigerian team got to know Bill Erasmus. With Chinwe and Bill are Nkeche Ene-Obong (left) a nutritionist, and Anthonia Uzuegbunam, a sociologist, both members of the research team.
Chinwe and Cajethan have six children and twelve grandchildren, as well as their several siblings and their families. We were all honoured to receive gifts of locally made traditional dress. Chinwe and her colleagues were always happily entertaining us over the ten days of our visit. We learned a lot about many things Igbo, with special note of how Africans choose to dress their hair. In turn, as you can see, they were entranced with the braids worn by Bill Erasmus.
Chinwe represented the Igbo within the twelve case studies of Indigenous Peoples included in the FAO book, applauded by FAO and also the International Union of Nutritional Sciences. She participated with us at the 2005 and 2009 IUNS conferences in Durban and Bangkok, as well as four CINE meetings of our research colleagues – three at the Rockefeller Villa Serbelloni study and conference centre in Bellagio, Italy, and once at McGill University in Montreal.
We will all surely remember Chinwe as a beautiful person, a great mentor willing to share her passion to improve nutrition, her wide knowledge of her people, and her ability to create infectious laughter.
Barbara Burlingame of FAO, who is with Harriet an international authority on traditional food systems and also on food composition, adds: 'Chinwe was highly respected internationally. Her work contributed new knowledge, improving the evidence base for nutrition and traditional food systems. This evidence and her inputs were used to inform nutrition policy at the highest levels in the United Nations specialised agencies, and in particular FAO'.
In her Association member's profile, Chinwe has written; 'I was born in a low-income country in a rural village. I therefore experienced some measure of poverty and all its ramifications. I also lived at a time of civil war and so I saw children and mothers die. This experience has not left me. I wished we could turn the hands of the clock back, but it was not possible'. Chinwe's work, her memory, and her support and valorisation of her own people and their established ways of life, all live on.