Corra Community Stories took us to a virtual visit to Larkhall to speak with Tuoyo Ayiku. A chef at the Heart in the Community Cafe, who throughout the coronavirus pandemic cooked and delivered over 6,500 meals to vulnerable people in the community. This earnt Tuoyo, the Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award, making him the 1439th person awarded.
To have access to healthy and nutritious food is a basic human right. But food traditions and celebrations across the world, also show us that food is a vital tie that holds us together, regardless of culture or nation. That the eating and sharing of food, can help build a common identity among communities.
Tuoyo, originally from Nigeria, came to Scotland in 2006 and is living in Lanarkshire with his wife and 10 year old son. Fondly known as Mr T by locals, it is clear that food is his passion. Eating, cooking and feeding others. His love of food and cooking comes from his mother who sadly passed away last year. Tuoyo explains that his mother is the inspiration for his aptly named Heart in the Community Café, a social enterprise which helps those who are vulnerable in the local community with access to healthy and nutritious African cuisine; including a pay what you can meal box.
Tuoyo started out as a housing officer for the local council and was saddened with the poverty, social isolation and homelessness he saw on a daily basis. This reality was in complete comparison to what he says people in Africa view life in the UK to be; a life of riches and comfort.
This was the turning point for him,
“We belong here in Scotland. No matter our skin colour, or that we moved here, this is our home now. This is where our son is born. And this is our community and we need to help. People don’t always eat healthy here in Scotland. What they need is good and healthy food.”
Tuoyo was determined to make a difference; and help those in most need. With no funding available, he used his own money, to buy ingredients and cooked wholesome Nigerian food of curries and rice for the local homeless unit.
“People feel lonely, even if they now have a home through the homeless unit – they still feel sad, they have no one to talk too. My mother taught me how to cook – I’m a good cook and I wanted to bring people together, to sit and eat together.”
“There wasn’t a single person from an ethnic background there. All White Scottish people who had never tasted Nigerian food, but they enjoyed it and they wanted more of it. My first lunch session had 26 people attending and then my second had 44 people coming to eat!!! Wow, it was a beautiful experience.”
Word soon spread of Tuoyo and his wonderful African cuisine cooking. One of his most memorable experiences was being invited to cook at an Older People’s group in Larkhall.
“You know African food – music and dancing goes with it, it’s our tradition. It creates a relaxed atmosphere; it brings people together. Food is life! We danced, we ate, volunteers watched me, this smiling man dancing with elderly women at a tea party in Larkhall! My mum was still alive then and living with dementia and I knew this would make her happy. How I was making these women laugh, dance and enjoy food. It was such a great experience. The tea party became even more popular – we did it once a month.”
Regularly cooking for a community meal saw Tuoyo connecting communities and building friendships through food. However this was not sustainable and he was soon feeling the impact of using his savings.
Not one to give up, Tuoyo started to work with local cafes, where each week, more and more locals where enjoying the meals prepared and were asking for tips and recipes. Unfortunately, Tuoyo lost his mother at the end of 2019 and in the midst of struggling with his own heartache and grief, he was determined to do something positive for his local community,
“It was a dark time. I wanted to do something in memory of my mother. Something she would be proud of. So, I started cooking and holding cookery classes – all healthy eating and healthy cooking. We were due to start our new session in March 2020, but the week before – lockdown started.”
The Big Hearted Chef
As coronavirus tightened its grip, and the world was as a standstill, Mr T’s café remained closed. But quick thinking, a big heart and funding from the Scottish Government Food fund, saw Mr T transform his café into a delivery service to reach those who needed it most.
Tuoyo and his team consisting of his wife, son and volunteers started to make free hot meals to be delivered to vulnerable community members, with priority given to those who are shielding and self-isolating.
People were still able to receive delicious and hearty cuisine including Nigerian stews, fried rice and jerk chicken as well as traditional Scottish/British food. A 100 people a day were benefitting and Tuoyo explains this experience as “one of the best times of his life.”
In recognition of his “exceptional service cooking and delivering meals to vulnerable people in your community,” Tuoyo received a personal letter from Borris Johnson, UK’s Prime Minister. In his letter, the PM said:
The Prime Minister’s UK daily Points of Light award was first launched in April 2014 to recognise outstanding individuals making a difference where they live.
“It’s an honour to be recognised at that level, but obviously this is not why we are doing this work, this is necessary work, but still I am grateful for such an award, to the Scottish Government, to Corra Foundation and especially Elaine, from Corra who saw my vision for the café and made it happen.”
The conversation was joyful. We laughed and joked about the importance of food in communities. How it brings people together, how there’s something magical about a gathering of people – family, friends, strangers mingling and making conversations over food. In some cultures such as Tuoyo’s, food is centred around music and dance, something he fondly recounts in Larkhall, with the Older People’s Tea party. Food is the ultimate soul soother. It’s a bridge that allows us to cross cultures and learn from each other and our national dishes; a conversation starter between even the quietest of folk to the loudest. Mr T has shown us that food can and does bring communities together, not just for need but in celebration of one’s own and shared heritage.
A huge heartfelt thanks to Mr T. What a joy it was to listen to you and the amazing work you do in the community. Your energy and enthusiasm is an inspiration to us all and yes, food is indeed life.
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