I’m Jonam. We are a small tribe along the banks of river Nile in North Western Uganda. And we love our fish the way women love their make-up. If fish was marriage material, we would marry it and live with it for eternity. Fish is like our middle name. It’s stuck with us. It’s on our birth certificates and baptism cards. It’s on our confirmation cards and marriage certificates. It’s marked on the barks of trees. Even on their death beds, I think my tribemates meditate about fish. Since I’ve never been in that position, I’ll only be able to share that experience once I go through it. Plus, I’ll need to make it out alive to share confirmed results. So hang in there.
You’ll find fish in our houses. All sorts of fish. Fresh fish still struggling to breathe through their gills. For us, “fish out of water” is not an idiom. It’s a real occurrence. My tribesmen know what fish look like when they are out of water. They are bored, resigned to their fate. They can’t fight. They lie on their side in an uncomfortable position hoping someone will drop them back in water. But the only water they get dropped back in turns out to be soup.
There’ll be dry fish. Those preserved with salt and those that the sun beat so much they became stiff. We like our salted fish especially angara. It has so much salt that if eaten without washing off some of the salt, you’d die of asphyxia. Es tut mir leid, I’ve lied. Asphyxia is what ran across my mind as I typed that sentence so I guess I’ll leave it there.
For all the fish we have, there’s an art to eating it in my culture. It’s simple but you’ve got to be careful to get it right if you are a beginner.
Important point to note: Use your fingers. If you use a fork to eat fish, your ancestors might become so unimpressed with you that they could send a stray cat though your wall to eat all your fish. I made that up.
So here’s how you eat fish with bones in my culture.
Take your plate of fish. Start by dipping a pinch of your millet bread in the soup and swallow it. That opens the pathway for the next step. Pick your fish with bones and place it in your mouth. You’ll feel the bones on your tongue and along the walls of your mouth.
Use the movement of your tongue to sort out the flesh from the bones. Don’t panic, those bones won’t pierce you. They think you’re caressing them.
As you sort the bones in your mouth, slowly push them out through either the left or right side of your lips. They’ll come out the way mushrooms blossom from the ground.
In my culture, no one teaches you this. I think the art of eating fish and sorting the bones from your mouth for the Jonam happens naturally.
There is one exception though for Unangnang. This is a special kind of fish, a delicacy in every home. You don’t have to worry about the bones of this fish. Eat them all. Throw in the whole fish in your mouth and munch it as though it has no bones. Trust me, your teeth won’t know there are bones in your mouth. I kid you not. Trust the process. All will be well.