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Ponmo: Poison in your pot of soup

With the recent arrests of some individuals suspected to be selling poisonous ponmo in Lagos metropolis, the fear of this delicacy, a regular item in the soup pots of many, has become the beginning of wisdom, writes Yemisi Olusina.

For most people from the South-western part of the country, the absence of a sizable chopped cow skin, simply known as ponmo, in a pot of soup or stew makes it not just undesirable but also less appetising.

Extracted from cows, it is almost a certain delicacy at every party, be it birthday, political gathering, house warming, christening, wedding, funeral or ceremonies of any sort.

In the South East, it is known as kanda and up North, it is popularly called fatah. Over the years, the ponmo has become a necessary companion to the party pot, as it has deepened taste buds for good food.

Although its processing, according to the dealers, is tiring but it is worth all the trouble because it attracts teeming buyers. “There is no butcher, who does not value cow skin,” says Idris Alimi, a butcher at the Agege, Lagos, Abattoir. Confirming the much stress attached to processing this hide and skin to eatable stage, Alimi said the number of customers always demanding for this consumable item is usually a consolation and an encouragement for another day of work to get more ready.

“Customers always queue for ponmo, even before we are through with the processing, making it irresistible for us to consider the stress involved in its preparation every day or what is the essence of venturing into a business that is simple or less stressful but lack patronage?” he asked.

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Shedding more light on why patronage has remained high for this item, Alimi said it was due to the various ways it is consumed.

“Besides the fact that many people can’t do without it at home for their various stews and soups, the increased number of men, who take hot drinks daily has forced most sellers to add the sale of peppered ponmo to their products. My sister, this has in no small measure increased the demand for the item,” he said.

Perhaps, this was what prompted some individuals into a move to make it bigger in the business.

Some days back, on May 4 precisely, at 5.00am,  some individuals, totalling six, were arrested by a team of police officers led by the Divisional Police Officer, DPO, at Igando in a warehouse at No. 9, College Road, Igando, Lagos, where a truck load of the cow skins were heaped.

According to the Deputy Superintendent of Police, DSP, and the state’s Police Public Relations Officer, Bala Elkana, the six suspects arrested are Adelowo Yinka, 50, of No. 1, Ifelodun Street, Agric Road, Egan; the truck driver, Olawumi Onabanjo, 40, No. 3, Olunshabiko Street, Itere Ogun State; Omowumi Wasiu, 43, of New site, Muwo Badagry; Adeshokan Taiwo, 43, of no fixed address;  Iyabo Oluwa, 38, of Ifelodun Street, Igegun Ikotun and Taye Kazeem,40, 11, Disu Street, off Ijagemon Road, Ijegun, Lagos.

The suspects, the DSP said, were allegedly caught with a chemical confirmed by the officials of Lagos State Ministry of Health, as poisonous and unfit for human consumption. He said his men were able to arrest the suspects,

following a tip off by some residents, who became suspicious of the activities going on in the warehouse and the offensive smell, emitting from what they were burning there. On getting to the scene, the DSP noted that, “the huge pile of poisonous ponmo and the chemicals used in the preservation of the cow skins were recovered. One Tata truck, with registration number AKD-375-XB, which was used in conveying the goods, was impounded.”

And just as it has been at instances of other food items discovered to have been laced with preservative chemicals by traders, the suspects, unmindful of the side effects of the chemicals on consumers, reportedly aimed at using the chemical to enlarge the ponmo and make it more durable for maximum profit.

With the assertion of the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture that the chemical on the cow skin was dangerous to human health, the police immediately issued out warnings to the general public to steer clear of this item, at least, for the time being.

Strangely, investigations by The Nigerian Xpress have revealed that most people are taking this instruction with a pinch of salt. For instance, in Agbara, Ikeja and Agege areas of the state, patronage has remained high. Mama Bola, who runs a restaurant, confirms this.

Her words: “There is no day I do not buy ponmo for my daily sales. This is because most of my customers specially demand for it every time. In fact, there are some who will not even eat any other thing than ponmo, so, my stuffs for sale are never complete without it. And they have continued to buy. Nothing has changed. I also eat from what I sell to them and nothing bad has happened to me, meaning the poisonous ones have not spread to our area. I buy my ponmo from Ajegunle. It is not poisonous. What the people I buy from do is to buy cow skin from abattoirs, roast it themselves before selling to us. They do not soak it before selling. ”

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Some residents in these areas also corroborated her on this. Mrs.  Josephine Ibim was one of them. “My Ogbonno soup is never ready for consumption without ponmo, so also is my okra soup. In fact, I put it in virtually everything I cook. I eat it daily and I have continued to eat it. I even bought some today,” she told The Nigerian Xpress.

Mrs. Iyabo Ogunjobi, a mobile vendor, also shared her affinity with this item. “I cook hot amala and semovita for my customers and ponmo remains what they ask after more. I have not reduced the amount I buy daily and my customers have not stopped asking,” she said.

But in Igando area of the state, some traders of the commodity are unhappy about the development. They told this medium that sales have dropped since the news that poisonous ponmo are in the market broke.  “Since the news has been going round, I must tell you that most of my customers have not been coming. Even when I saw some passing by in the market and I called them, most of them simply smiled and said they had stopped buying for the mean time. There have been days that I bought up to N20,000 worth of ponmo and would sell all within five hours in the market. There were days I brought even more to the market and I sold all within five hours. But since this issue of poisonous ponmo has been all over the place, the ones I have bought ahead of the Ramadan season is likely going to waste. I actually do not know what to do about this and it is from this business that I feed myself and my four children. I am a single mother because my husband has two other wives. I had thought I would make extra money during this Ramadan and I have gone to borrow money to buy plenty ahead of time but see me now, am I not going to be indebted now, how do I pay?” lamented Mrs. Rabiat Idowu.

Another dealer, who sells dry ponmo to retailers to process into eatable forms, Baba Ibeji, as he simply wants to be called, says he is not daunted by the development. “Those wicked people just want to spoil market for us but God will not permit them to do achieve their aim. As for me, I have gone to keep the ones I recently bought. They are dry, so, they cannot spoil. I will only continue to sun-dry them until the issue dies. I know we will soon get over this. It is just that those of us, who have nothing else to do for a living will have it tough in the meantime. All the same, it is a matter of time. I know God will judge these people,” he said.

When The Nigerian Xpress spoke with other individuals in Ikeja area, many said they had stopped eating the item in their homes. Mr. Chucks Anorukem, a worker in Ogba-Aguda area of the state, said he had told his wife to stop buying the item for the time being. “I personally love to eat ponmo, so, I always tell my wife to buy it specially. But with the recent development, I cannot put the life of my family on the line just because of ponmo. We will resume when the coast is clear.”

A mother and lecturer at the Federal College of Education, Oyo, Oyo State, Mrs. Julie Agoro, said she was not ready to endanger put her life and that of her family members, so, she has stopped buying ponmo. “I am a big fan of cow skin but I will not because of that attempt endangering my life or that of any of my family members by buying ponmo whether the discovery of the police is true or not. We have put its consumption on hold for now and everyone in the house is aware of this,” she said.

Even when Mr. Kolawole Omoniyi is afraid of eating this item, he is unhappy that the discovery will affect his welfare and that of many. “There are lots of people like me, who are diabetic and obese and we have been warned against the consumption of red meat. The only alternative we have is ponmo. I cannot do without ponmo. Whichever way it is prepared, I am simply in for it. Now, I have nothing to eat. I don’t think I can abstain from it for long,” he said.

While the relevant authorities are still on the case, some traders have drawn a line between the type of this cow skin that is dangerous. One of them, Iya Olu, who sells cow skin in Ijora area of the state, observed that for now, it is safe to eat cow head and not the skin. “Cow heads are safe to eat now. They are usually freshly prepared and are never preserved with any chemical. It is only cow skin that is open to preservation. They sun-dry it and later soak it for a while with whatever thing that is chosen,” Iya Olu explained.

Speaking more on the booming business of hides and skin, Mr. Sakariyah Adio, a member of the Association of Meat Dealers at the Denro – Ishashi  Abbatoir,  said ponmo does not only serve food interest in Nigeria; it is also a huge foreign exchange earner for some countries in Africa like Kenya, Botswana and Mali. “Some may look down on the business but it is money-spinning. Ponmo used to be a meal for the poor, but everybody’s daily delicacy.  There is so much money in it when it is exported,” he said.

A nutritionist, Mrs. Betty Olile, however ,insists that cow skin has no nutritional value, so people should avoid it not just because of the recent discoveries but also because of the unhygienic conditions under which it is being prepared.

“Ponmo has no serious nutritional value. Its processing is very dirty and really not healthy for consumption. I implore the society to, at least, beware of what the Police have found out and stay off it for a while. Obedience, they say is better than sacrifice,” concluded Betty.