The West African dish, Jollof rice, has been the subject of a “heated” debate among different countries, known as the “Jollof Wars,” over which country’s version is considered the most delicious. This ongoing and contentious debate highlights the cultural significance and diversity of the dish. Nigeria and Ghana have been at the forefront of this war, with various jollof competitions organized across the world, mostly between Nigerians and Ghanaians. However, recently, the two countries have formed an unlikely ally in decrying their loss when they were jolted by the ‘news’ which recently made the rounds on blogs that the UNESCO has recognized jollof rice as a part of Senegal’s intangible cultural heritage; or at least the country’s version of the dish. According to the media, this recognition has settled for all time, the debates concerning superiority.
While it is not yet clear why this information is suddenly making the rounds (since UNESCO’s recognition of Ceebu jën has been since 2021), this article takes the opportunity to briefly examine what a UNESCO designation means, and what it does not mean. It also emphasizes that UNESCO’s recognition pertains to the origin of Jollof rice rather than its taste.
The Jollof Wars: A Taste Test, Not a Battle for Origin
First, what is meant by intangible cultural heritage? Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) refers to the practices, expressions, knowledge, and skills that are passed down from generation to generation within a community and that are considered important for maintaining the cultural identity of that community. This can include things like traditional music and dance, oral traditions and expressions, social practices and rituals, and traditional craftsmanship. The concept of ICH was first introduced by UNESCO in 2003 through the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Convention aims to raise awareness about the importance of ICH and to encourage the communities that practice it to take steps to preserve and pass it on to future generations. UNESCO has established a list of ICH elements, which includes practices, expressions, knowledge, skills, as well as objects and spaces related to them, recognized as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Only a small group of foods, cuisines and culinary traditions have made it to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In October 2020, the Senegalese Ministry of Culture submitted a request for Ceebu jën (Wolof) or thiéboudiène (French), the Senegalese version of jollof rice, to be added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Souleymane Jules Diop, the Permanent Delegate Ambassador of Senegal to UNESCO, defended the listing. Some historical accounts claim that Ceebu jën is said to have been created by a 19th-century cook from the city of Saint-Louis named Penda Mbaye, who was once a cook at the governor’s residence during the French colonial period in the country. This dish, which translates to “rice and fish” and is made with fish and vegetables, is credited as the precursor to various versions of Jollof rice. Ceebu jën has therefore joined other African foods on the list, including Nsimaa, a staple of Malawi, and Couscous, a wheat-based dish popular in the Maghreb.
While this debate has sometimes been portrayed as a battle for the origin of Jollof rice, it is important to note that it is actually about which version of Jollof rice has the best taste. The very meaning of “Ceebu jën” and its description on the UNESCO’s website suggests that it is very different from what is prepared in Nigeria and Ghana, which are also different from each other. Several blogs, YouTube videos, and even the famous jollof festival can attest to this. In other words, each country and even tribes within west Africa have their own variation of Jollof rice, with unique flavors and ingredients that make them distinct.
What a UNESCO Recognition means
What is special about being recognized by or being included in the UNESCO list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity anyway? It brings many benefits to the cultural item and its associated community. These include the following:
- Preservation and promotion: Adding an item to the list can help raise awareness of its cultural significance and can encourage efforts to preserve it. This can include efforts to document, research, and promote the item, as well as efforts to pass on knowledge and skills related to it to future generations.
- Recognition and validation: Being added to the list can provide validation and recognition for the cultural importance of the item, which can be especially important for communities or groups that may have historically been marginalized or underrepresented.
- Increased tourism: Adding an item to the list can also lead to increased tourism, as people may travel to see and experience the item for themselves. This can bring economic benefits to the area and the people associated with it. For Senegal with respect to jollof rice, this means an increase in foreigners’ patronage of local restaurants, hotels, and other businesses catering to tourists.
- Cultural exchange: The list creates opportunities for cultural exchange and dialogue between communities, which can lead to increased understanding and mutual respect between different cultures.
- Support for revitalization: Being added to the list can also make an item eligible for UNESCO’s assistance programs, which may provide funding and other resources to help revitalize and promote the item.
What the recognition of Senegalese jollof rice DOES NOT mean
In UNESCO’s own words:
The inscription of an element does not mean it is the ‘best’ or ‘superior’ to another or that it has universal value but only that it has value for the community or individuals who are its practitioners.
In the context of the jollof wars, this means that UNESCO’s recognition of the Senegalese version of Jollof rice as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity does not mean that it is the best or superior version of Jollof rice, or that it has universal value. Rather, it means that it has value for the Senegalese. Accordingly, UNESCO cannot be said to have settled the war, since it was never really about the origin; it was (and remains) a battle for taste, cultural significance, and culinary pride. The recognition suggests the cultural significance of the dish for the community that practices it.
Nonetheless, this recognition could sway the mind of tourists into thinking that the Senegalese version of jollof rice, being “original”, is also the best. Perhaps UNESCO’s recognition can be said to have now taught us that celebrating and valuing a norm should go beyond Twitter fights.
This article has highlighted the benefits of UNESCO recognition for the cultural item and its associated community. UNESCO’s recognition not only brings attention to the cultural significance of a dish but also helps to preserve and promote the cultural heritage associated with it. However, the fact that there are different variations of Jollof rice is a testament to the diversity and cultural richness of West Africa.
If your mouth is already watering from reading about jollof rice, perhaps you should go on to try the different variations of Jollof rice and while at it, take the opportunity to form your own opinions about which one is the best. Let us celebrate the different variations of Jollof rice and the cultures that have contributed to its development. It is important to appreciate the cultural richness and diversity that the dish represents. In the meantime, Nigeria and Ghana can continue to line up their ingredients and redraw the battle line – the war for the tastiest jollof is far from over.
 UNESCO, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/ceebu-jn-a-culinary-art-of-senegal-01748, accessed on 26/01/2023
 Fatima Fall Niang “Who invented jollof rice? Senegal beats Ghana and Nigeria to the title” The Conversation, 23 January 2023: https://theconversation.com/who-invented-jollof-rice-senegal-beats-ghana-and-nigeria-to-the-title-197352
 Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu, ‘How Senegal won the Jollof war’, Quartz, 17 December 2021: https://qz.com/africa/2103604/senegals-thieboudiene-listed-as-unesco-cultural-heritage accessed 24 January 2023
 Jollof Festival , ‘Who Makes the Best Jollof Rice’, 2022: https://jolloffestival.com/ accessed 23 January 2023
Wow. Amazing. An interesting read
Let everybody rest abeg. Jollof rice is like Lagos at this point. No man’s land😅