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Posts tagged ‘Africa’

Orientalism

Just before Christmas, the Mount NelsonCape Town’s grandest hotel – caused a minor kerfuffle on social media after posting a photograph of its latest confection: a corrugated iron shack made out of gingerbread. When several people pointed out that this was, at best, a stunningly insensitive gesture, the hotel’s representative replied that its purpose was partly ‘educational’: that it was to ‘raise awareness’ among hotel guests, most of whom are foreign, of the Mount Nelson’s ‘township projects’. As the uproar grew, the hotel deleted the photograph, then denied deleting the photograph (arguing that it was trying to ‘control’ the outcry), and finally apologised – blaming the gingerbread house on a ‘staff initiative’.

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This is not the first – and will certainly not be the last – example of crass, thoughtless behaviour in the food world. A couple of years ago I attended part of a conference-cum-festival in the Cape Town City Hall where an installation attempted to impress on punters how many South Africans are illiterate, use latrines, are HIV positive, and are unemployed through the medium of cake decorations. (The same event included a talk on Nelson Mandela’s life understood through food, during which members of the audience were served versions of the meals that he ate at key moments…supplied by posh supermarket Woolworths.)

Earlier this year, a group of Hackney hipsters were forced to defend their decision to open an advice centre-themed café on the former site of the Asian Women’s Advisory Service. The Advisory – as it is called – seemed to many to crystallise all the worst aspects of the gentrification of one of London’s poorest boroughs.

The Advisory and that Cape Town food conference are the products of an industry dominated by the privileged. The Mount Nelson’s defence of its gingerbread house could only, I imagine, be made by someone who had never had to think too deeply about the circumstances which force people to live in informal settlements.

So far, so obvious. But I think it’s worth paying attention to the Mount Nelson debacle, in particular, because it draws our attention to the problematic ways in which the food industry – or the collective writers, broadcasters, restaurateurs and others involved in the food world – deals with race.

Recently, and most noticeably since Time’s disgraceful male-only list of the world’s top chefs, there has been a lot of excellent discussion about why women’s contribution to the food industry goes unnoticed. But we have to ask another question just as urgently: why is it that the majority of people usually listed as ‘top chefs’ (whatever we may mean by that) are white? Why is it that someone like David Chang is a notable exception in a long parade of white men?

It certainly isn’t the case that kitchens don’t employ black people. The report Fast Food, Poverty Wages: The Public Cost of Low Wage Jobs in the Fast Food Industry (2013), demonstrates not only that Americans employed in fast food jobs are more likely to live in poverty, but also that ‘[m]ore than two out of five front-line fast-food workers are African American (23 per cent) or Latino (20 per cent)’. More generally, the majority of people employed in low-paid, but essential, jobs over the extent of the food chain – from agricultural and abattoir work, to shelf packing and restaurant serving – and in the US and elsewhere, are people of colour.

The invisibility of this workforce in most food writing is indicative, I think, of the, often problematic, ways in which food writers deal with race. Food writing is one of the few genres where it’s still possible to describe Middle Eastern or south Asian food in terms which would keep the average eighteenth- or nineteenth-century orientalist happy.  This post on how to write about African food – inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay ‘How to Write about Africa’ – nails this:

It is best practice to include the word ‘Africa; plus a positive descriptor in your headline. If you must be more specific, whole regions like West Africa, Southern Africa, East Africa, West Africa or Central Africa will do. Always keep the headline of your article broad, even when writing about the food of a specific country.

Remind the reader that Africa is not a country, but still do not offer specifics.

Introduce the owner of the restaurant. If male, he moved to the country 10 years ago and learned to cook by working in the restaurant of a hotel. Another option is that he had no idea how to cook upon arrival and taught himself everything he knew after a bout of severe homesickness. His name is Chuck.

If female, she is a motherly figure who walks round greeting customers as if they were family. Think Mother Africa. She has a twinkle in her eye. She is plump. Everyone calls her Mama O.

Ask Chuck or Mama O why they chose to open a restaurant. Ask about the name of the restaurant and what it means.

Discuss the menu and gloss over the regular dishes… Focus on the most exotic-sounding foods.

Point out that Mama O brought out a knife and fork for you, but you endeavored to go ahead and eat with your hands. Mention that you cleared your plate. Don’t offer criticism.

My point is that the kind of bad food writing this post parodies, is indicative of a set of deeply concerning attitudes towards race: that Africans (or Asians, or South Americans…) conform to a set of exotic stereotypes that render them less fully human than the white, western writers who encounter them.  One of the effects of this writing – which has a tendency to describe all non-western food as ‘ethnic’, as if whiteness absolves one of ethnicity – is to draw attention away from the material circumstances in which Ethiopians, Iranians, and Mexicans, for example, actually go about producing food, either for themselves, or as immigrants in other societies.

Put another way, this food orientalism serves to depoliticise writing on food, and to distract from the inequalities and exploitation which occurs along the length of the food chain.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It’s Politics, Stupid

One of the most interesting blogs I’ve come across recently is written by the disgraced Labour spin-doctor Damian McBride (who was fired for planning to spread scurrilous rumours about the Tories). His blog offers insight not only into Labour’s last years of power, but also into the functioning of everyday business in Downing Street.

His most recent post, though, is about what he’s giving up for Lent. As someone who’s not at all religious, I’m always taken aback by friends’ declarations of what they won’t be doing or, more usually, eating until Easter. Every now and then I play along, more out of curiosity than anything else. It was rather useful a few years ago for nipping in the bud an incipient addiction to fruit pastilles, but this year I doubt I’ll be joining in.

McBride has pledged to give up the ‘staples of [his] diet’: meat, wheat, and potatoes. Other than the obvious health benefits of drinking less beer and eating less red meat, he’s doing this in solidarity with millions of people living in hunger. He’s not eating meat to draw attention to land grabs; wheat to protest the small number of multinationals which control the trade in grains; and potatoes to show the link between famine and food shortages and big food companies’ refusal to pay their taxes in low- and middle-income nations.

His Lenten self-denial is partly in support of the new anti-hunger If Campaign, launched with some fanfare last month:

As well as more money for nutrition programmes and small-scale farming, the coalition, which includes Oxfam, Save the Children, One, Christian Aid and Tearfund, is calling on the UK government to close loopholes that allow companies to dodge paying tax in poor countries; stop international land deals that are detrimental to people and the environment, and lobby the World Bank to review the impact of its funding for such deals; launch a convention on tax transparency at the G8 to ‘reinvigorate the global challenge to tax havens’; and force governments and investors to be more open about their investments in poor countries. It also wants the UK government to bring forward legislation to enshrine the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.

The Campaign is aiming to take its ambitious programme to this year’s G8 Summit, to be held at the luxury golf resort Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it deliberately compares itself to another campaign taken to a G8 meeting at a golf hotel in the northern British Isles: the celebrity-studded Make Poverty History Campaign, which demanded an increase in aid and the writing off of the debt of some of the world’s poorest countries, at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2005.

I am no fan of Bob Geldof, however well-placed his heart may be. I and many other South Africans were irritated by the Campaign’s simplistic characterisation of Africa – that it is a culturally, socially, and politically homogenous place of suffering and disaster, waiting for the benevolent ministrations of a white-suited Geldof and his similarly saintly fellow celebrities. Why were there no African performers at Live 8? Why did poor dear Peter Gabriel feel the need to organise an alternative event at the Eden Project in Cornwall, featuring only African artists?

That said, MPH did achieve some of its goals:

The G8 summit committed to spending an extra $48bn (£30bn) on aid by 2010, and cancelled the debt to 18 of the most indebted countries. Member states recommitted their pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, although none has yet achieved the magical figure. The UK government has promised to do so this year.

But poverty has not become history. Early analysis of the If Campaign suggests that with its focus on changing policy, rather than on increasing aid, its chances of success are far higher than MPH. Leni Wild and Sarah Mulley note:

The range of issues it covers – from transparency to tax to agriculture – also look and feel different to the more ‘traditional’ development issues which were the focus of Make Poverty History. The UK public wants to hear more about the role of big business and international corporations – including their tax responsibilities. This is a major plank of the new IF campaign which sets out some clear calls for action and does a good job of communicating these in accessible ways.

I also welcome a campaign which tries to eradicate ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that) by focussing on political solutions: ending tax evasion, preventing land grabs, and drawing attention to the fragility of the international food chain, are all excellent strategies for reducing food insecurity. Making links between poor governance and the functioning of multinationals and malnutrition is a far more effective way of ending famine than generalised campaigns to ‘raise awareness’ about the fact that children go to bed hungry at night. But some have expressed concerns about the campaign.

As Bright Green revealed, the If Campaign was organised by the British Overseas Aid Group (Oxfam, Christian Aid, ActionAid, Save the Children and CAFOD) in close collaboration with the UK’s Department for International Development:

The real scandal of the IF campaign is that it appears to have been shaped more by the desires of the target department than by those of its members, and not at all by the views of its supposed beneficiaries in developing countries. It is constructed around a ‘golden moment’ pro-government PR event intended to ingratiate aid agencies (a large portion of whose funding comes from DfID) with the present rulers, never mind that the agenda of those rulers is implacably opposed to reducing inequality or moderating the global capitalism that causes it.

War on Want has been clear about its reasons for not joining the If Campaign, arguing that that it’s hypocritical for charities to work alongside a government whose ‘austerity programme is driving unprecedented numbers to food banks in Britain’. It notes:

War on Want understands hunger, like all forms of poverty, to be the result of political decisions that are taken by national and international elites, and contested through political action. In this context, the IF campaign is promoting a wholly false image of the G8 as committed to resolving the scandal of global hunger, rather than (in reality) being responsible for perpetuating it. The IF campaign’s policy document states: ‘Acting to end hunger is the responsibility of people everywhere. The G8 group of rich countries, to its credit, shares this ambition and accepts its share of responsibility, having created two hunger initiatives in recent years.; This is a gross misrepresentation, seeing that the governments of the G8 have openly committed themselves to expanding the corporate-dominated food system that condemns hundreds of millions to hunger. Even on its own terms, the IF campaign notes that the G8’s existing initiatives on hunger ‘fall far short of what is required’.

Instead, War on Want advocates a stronger focus on food sovereignty – ensuring that nations are able to feed themselves, and partly through supporting small farmers. (War on Want works alongside La Via Campesina, for instance.) Its point that G8 countries and big business have little interest in food sovereignty is borne out by recent comments made by Emery Koenig, executive vice president and chief risk officer of the massive agriculture business Cargill. He argues that it is food sovereignty that is the ‘true threat to food security’. It’s worth noting that in a time of food crisis, Cargill made profits of $134 billion last year.

In other words, we need far more radical solutions if we’re intent on ending food insecurity. I agree with War on Want’s reservations, and I’d like to add one, further, concern: like MPH, the If Campaign excludes the voices of those in the developing world – those whom it purports to help. Here is no partnership between a consortium of charities and food insecure nations, but, rather, an old-fashioned characterisation of the developing world – Africa in particular – in need of wealthy nations’ charity. This is no attempt to hold African – and other – governments to account for allowing corruption or mismanagement to contribute to malnutrition, nor does it engage with the farmers, producers, and businesses in developing countries involved in the food industry.

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In a recent, well-meaning, but disastrous, campaign, Oxfam acknowledged that characterising Africa as a perpetual basket case helps neither African nations, nor those charities working on the continent. It called for Africa’s image to change in the western media. Amusingly, it suggested that Africa should be ‘made famous’ for its ‘landscapes’ rather than ‘hunger’ – indeed, rather than its cities, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, footballers, writers, researchers

Nigerian blogger Tolu Ogunlesi writes:

who – apart from Oxfam, obviously – really cares, in 2013, what the British public thinks about a continent from which they fled in varying stages of undress? What’s that proverb about crying more than the bereaved? In the 21st century are people still allowed to be zombies gobbling up everything they’re fed by a collaboration of powerful media and NGOs?

I wish … Oxfam the very best. Must be awful to have to take on that job of saving people from self-inflicted ignorance. In an age in which Google, Twitter and the news media lie at most fingertips, delivering, alongside stories of African suffering, narratives of determined recovery from tragedy and technology-driven change and emboldened youth and rising political awareness and growing intolerance for tyranny – is there still room for getting away with blaming [and] with fixating on photos of begging bowls and the oxfamished children attached to them?

His point is that if charities want to make a difference in African countries, they should work alongside African organisations and governments, using African expertise and knowledge:

I think that somehow, the Oxfams of this world get so carried away by the salvation they bring to the helpless peoples of Africa, that they lose sight of the concept of African agency. Once you realise this you understand why Oxfam appears trapped in that irritatingly paternalistic mode of thinking. Saving Africa’s starving children (by providing food) and saving Africa’s saddening image (by providing images of epic landscapes) have this in common is this: they both rely largely on an obliteration of a sense of African agency.

It’s time for the If Campaign to allow Africans – and, indeed, people from other parts of the developing world – to speak, and to help shape foreign interventions in their own regions.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 30.01.2013

How fair is Fair Trade coffee?

The link between Africa’s portrayal abroad and raising money for food aid.

The milk cliff.

The Indian cow is almost extinct.

Have we reached peak farmland? And a rebuttal.

The FDA has approved genetically-modified salmon.

School lunches are taken seriously in Japan.

The scandal of low pay in restaurants.

Big Food’s big salt experiment.

A tribute to the great Katie Stewart.

Should welfare beneficiaries be banned from drinking Coke?

Ignore sell-by dates.

A short history of gin.

Food dyes, and what is good and bad to eat.

The museum of SPAM.

How to slice bagels.

Where to find the best jerk chicken in Toronto.

The absence of obesity in contemporary fiction.

Dog-powered appliances.

The resurgence of interest in rye whiskey.

Outrageous lies about celery.

Japan’s B-class gourmets (thanks, Mum!).

A recipe for skordalia.

There’s no shame in using shortcuts when cooking.

Umami for vegetarians.

How a Chinese chef saved a restaurant in New Jersey.

An indictment of food TV.

The implications of climate change on the truffle industry.

Food Links, 02.01.2013

Public service announcement: Yesterday, thousands of Capetonians lost their homes in a devastating fire which swept Khayelitsha and Du Noon. Equal Education is collecting non-perishable food, clothing, blankets, and, particularly, baby food and clothing for the victims. Donations can be dropped off at The Bookery (20 Roeland Street).

What food activists should focus on in 2013.

Trish Deseine’s wish list for the new year.

Growing food in the desert.

The strange ingredients of 2012.

Why can’t India feed its people?

Food infographics from 2012.

The declining sales of organic produce.

The legacy of a mission orchard in Tucson, Arizona.

Can soup make Detroit a better city?

On Chicago‘s urban farm district.

The Pig Genome Project and bacon.

Tim Hayward on the vogue for the local.

Why ‘natural‘ snack foods aren’t all that ‘natural’.

How precise do recipes need to be?

Super cheap caviar.

Why does Britain love instant coffee so much?

Fifteen of Africa‘s favourite dishes.

An interview with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen.

Why preserves are back in fashion.

Coffee as a remedy against the plague.

A sensory wheel for rooibos tea.

Cadbury’s non-melting chocolate.

A silk scarf that looks incredibly like bacon.

Hemingway’s favourite cocktails.

Anatomical pastries.

The New York Times reviews Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork.

Poets‘ favourite recipes.

The pop-up restaurants of Buenos Aires.

Why Coke cost a nickel for seventy years.

Did the Dogme manifesto *really* change Danish cooking?

Martha Stewart, beloved of hipsters.

How food is made to look good on television.

How best to juice a lime.

The rise of eating competitions.

Unusual cooking techniques.

These links are courtesy of my mum:

Treacle‘ from animals?

The International Banana Club Museum.

Medieval stoves.

Why do Japanese politicians wave fish?

A love story in fifteen cookies.

The world’s biggest wholesale fish market – in Tokyo – is to be redesigned.

Food Links, 28.11.2012

Did farmers in the past know more than we do about agriculture?

Barclays gets criticised for its role in food speculation.

How Big Sugar influenced US food policy.

Maize: a sign of Brazil‘s growing clout.

How can Africa’s food supply be made more reliable?

The food desert in Hawaii.

Why energy drinks are not obliged to list caffeine levels.

This year’s honey harvest in Britain has been reduced by the wet summer.

Bee keeping in Vietnam is under threat.

Singapore now has a commercial vertical farm.

Should we take fish oil supplements?

Some tick bites may cause an allergy to meat.

Tim Hayward on deconstructed food.

A tonic tasting.

Why American eggs could not be sold in British supermarkets.

The Onion on the gluten-free fad.

The ultimate guilt-free diet.

Can you fry mayonnaise?

Milk and western civilisation.

How food has taken the place of high culture. (Thanks, Jane!)

Fortnum and Mason launches…Privilege Spread.

Why do the French like chocolate bears?

Daniele Delpeuch, chef to Francois Mitterrand.

Britain’s craft beer revolution.

The best independent cafes in Montreal.

Leninade.

An espresso-milk sandwich.

A 112ft long chocolate train.

Raymond Blanc‘s favourite restaurants.

How to make piccalilli.

Sakir Gökçebag’s geometric compositions of fruit.

Bicycle-powered coffee.

The most useful kitchen gadgets.

Food GIFs.

A visit to Amsterdam.

Sicilian sweets.

A copy of the Canadian government’s guide to canning, from the Second World War.

How to make fake blood.

Make your own peanut butter.

A chef goes off at a food blogger.

Why the hipster enthusiasm for coleslaw?

The physics of coffee rings.

Guerilla grafting.

How to eat, according to women’s magazines.

Sue Quinn on Nigella Lawson.

These are courtesy of my Mum:

Is nutrition getting enough attention from development organisations?

The story of Britain through its cooking.

The Taste of Love.

Laser-etched sushi.

A botanist, a butcher, and a body.

Amazing manga plates.

African Rice

I’ve recently finished lecturing an undergraduate course on African history up until 1914. It’s one of my favourite areas to teach, partly because students – even South African ones – tend to have very little knowledge about the continent’s past.

In fact, it’s often quite difficult to persuade them that there is a pre-colonial African history to study and teach. Now, most people would be horrified by the racism which underpinned Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 1963 assertion that

Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness.

But there’s still a relatively widespread belief that not only were African societies not subject to change over time – that their ways of life remained static over the course of several centuries – but that only anthropologists have the requisite skills to study Africans and their past.

This is all nonsense, of course. Since the early 1960s, an extraordinarily rich and varied body of work on African history has been produced by scholars working all over the world. More recently, and particularly as global history has emerged as a popular field, historians have begun to examine the links between the continent and other parts of the world.

Far from being isolated until the arrival of Portuguese traders in the fifteenth century, Africans have long had contact with foreigners. For instance, the trade in gold and salt across the Sahara from around the second and third centuries onwards, connected African kingdoms in the Sahel with the Islamic world.

Too often accounts of, particularly European, contact with Africa describe this trade as benefitting only one side of the exchange: that a plundering of Africa’s natural resources in exchange for beads, alcohol, or muskets deliberately bamboozled Africans into giving up incredibly precious ivory or gold for objects of considerably lesser value.

This was not entirely the case. One of the best ways to understand the complex history of exchange between Africans and traders and other visitors from Europe and Asia is – naturally, dear readers – through food.

Since the second and third centuries AD, the east coast of Africa was part of an international trading network which extended around the Indian Ocean. As Africans came into contact with Arab traders, goods, languages, ideas, and people arrived and left this long coastline over the course of nearly a millennium. During this period, African crops – including millet, sorghum, okra, and watermelon – were taken to the Middle East, India, and beyond. In return, coconut palms, sugarcane, and bananas were introduced to the continent.

Coffee from Ethiopia probably reached Yemen – via the port of Mocha – during the sixth century. Here, Yemenis roasted, rather than fermented, coffee beans, and the drink spread slowly around the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. When Europeans discovered that it could be made more palatable with the addition of milk and sugar, it became popular in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Coffee plantations established in Dutch and French colonies in southeast Asia and the Caribbean during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries helped to fuel the growth of these European economies.

Sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries, Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, was introduced to east Africa from India. Muslim traders were probably responsible for the earliest cultivation of rice in Kenya, and migrants from Malaysia and Indonesia brought rice to Madagascar.

All this occurred long before 1492, the year of Christopher Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic to the Americas, and the beginning of the Columbian exchange. Although there was a significant circulation of crops around the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean worlds, the Columbian Exchange holds a particular significance in histories of food and medicine: it describes the introduction of livestock, European and Asian crops – predominantly wheat – and diseases like syphilis and smallpox to the Americas, and the gradual cultivation of New World staples – maize, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans – in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Judith A. Carney writes:

Within decades of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, the New World domesticate, maize, was being planted in West Africa. Other Amerindian staples soon followed, such as manioc, sweet potatoes, capsicum peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, cashew nuts, pineapple, pumpkins, squash, and tobacco. The early establishment of maize as a food staple in West and Central Africa illuminates the radical transformation of African agricultural systems wrought by the Columbian exchange.

By the time that the transatlantic slave trade reached its height during the eighteenth century, maize cultivation was widespread throughout west Africa, and was a staple for slaves shipped across to the Americas.

Slaves took with them not only their own languages, cultural practises, and social structures – but also their knowledge of agricultural production. African rice, Oryza glaberrima, had been grown in west Africa since long before the arrival of Asian rice on the east coast of the continent. Carney explains:

Muslim scholars reaching the western Sudan from North Africa in the eleventh century found an already well developed system of rice cultivation in the inland delta of the Niger Delta and a robust regional trade in surpluses. The domestication of glaberrima rice in West Africa was thus established centuries before Asian sativa arrived in East Africa.

It was slaves taken from these regions who used their expertise in rice production in the Americas, and particularly successfully in South Carolina. The cultivation of rice had begun there in the 1690s, and by the eighteenth century, was the source of significant revenue for the colony. There is compelling evidence to suggest that African slaves used the same irrigation and planting systems that they had in west Africa, in South Carolina. Far from being only the labour which worked the plantations in the Americas, they were also responsible for establishing a successful system of rice cultivation.

Labourers on a rice plantation, South Carolina, 1895 (http://www.niu.edu/~rfeurer/labor/chronological.html)

African slaves also pioneered the cultivation of a range of other crops, including black-eyed peas, okra, yams, and watermelons. Perhaps the best example of the circulation of crops around the Atlantic world was the peanut: introduced to west Africa from South America by the 1560s, it was taken to North America by African slaves during the eighteenth century.

What all of this demonstrates is not only that Africa and Africans have participated in global trading networks for centuries, but that they shaped food production in the Americas.

One of the many narratives peddled by foreign coverage of Africa is that the continent’s salvation – whatever we may mean by that – lies in outside intervention: in Nicholas Kristof’s ‘bridge characters’ (foreign aid workers, volunteers), or in elaborate packages created by the IMF or other international organisations.

This narrative is predicated on the wholly incorrect belief that Africans have, historically, been acted upon – have had change thrust upon them – rather than being actors themselves. As an understanding of the transfer of agricultural knowledge and produce across the Atlantic from the seventeenth century onwards demonstrates, this could not have been further from the truth.

Sources

Judith A. Carney, ‘African Rice in the Columbian Exchange,’ Journal of African History, vol. 42, no. 3 (2001), pp. 377-396.

Judith A. Carney, ‘From Hands to Tutors: African Expertise in the South Carolina Rice Economy,’ Agricultural History, vol. 67, no. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 1-30.

Judith A. Carney, ‘The Role of African Rice and Slaves in the History of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,’ Human Ecology, vol. 26, no. 4 (Dec. 1998), pp. 525-545.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

National Kitchens

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my parents gave me a copy of the new revised English edition of that Bible of Afrikaans cooking, Cook and Enjoy. It’s testimony to the ubiquity of the book that I find myself referring to it by its Afrikaans title Kook en Geniet, rather than its English name.

Kook en Geniet is the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers, a Stellenbosch-based home economist, it has never been out of print. There are very few Afrikaans households which do not possess at least one copy of the book – and, like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated.

De Villiers herself was responsible for testing and re-testing recipes, and for producing new editions of Kook en Geniet. Her long-standing association with the book helped Kook en Geniet to gain its reputation for being a fail-proof authority on Afrikaans cooking. Since her death in 2010, her daughter, Eunice van der Berg, who also happens to be a home economist, has taken over responsibility for it.

There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve. De Villiers wrote in the preface to the 1992 edition:

As the microwave oven and food processor have become nearly indispensable in many kitchens today, their use is indicated in a number of recipes. However, experienced cooks will be able to use these timesavers for almost any recipe – it is left to their discretion.

My edition contains recipes for moussaka and lasagne. But it’s not for these that I use Kook en Geniet: it’s for staples of Afrikaans cuisine, like buttermilk rusks, Hertzoggies, quince chutney, vinegar pudding, and prickly pear jam. It’s a supremely practical recipe book. Helping out at the pancake stall which seems to accompany every major event – from agricultural shows to local government elections – in small town life? There’s a recipe to make enough batter for a hundred pancakes. Need to make bobotie for fifty at the church fete? Serving sosaties to eighty people at a barbeque? Kook en Geniet will come to the rescue with sensible, authoritative advice.

For anthropologists and historians interested in food, the value of Kook en Geniet lies in the fact that it changed as tastes evolved. It does not present readers with a static, inflexible view of ‘Afrikaner cuisine’. It acknowledges – tacitly – that cooking alters over time.

It’s not, though, the only source on what I’ve called Afrikaans or Afrikaner cuisine – more frequently referred to as boerekos, which translates literally as ‘farmers’ food’, but signifies considerably more than that. Boerekos is the homely, comfort cooking associated particularly with rural Afrikaans living. A wildly popular new series on the Afrikaans cable channel Kyknet, titled simply Boerekos, interviews a collection of Afrikaans women cooking their favourite, old-fashioned boerekos, from mosbolletjies to pie.

Programmes like this one, as well as other books on boerekos, seek to frame it as an unchanging cuisine: as a form of cooking which has remained reassuringly the same during a century of tumultuous change. For Afrikaner nationalists before and during apartheid, food was a useful way of forging a new, unified and distinct Afrikaner identity. As they codified and regularised Afrikaans, so they sought to create a unique Afrikaner cuisine.

C. Louis Leipoldt, culture broker, poet, journalist, doctor, Buddhist, and eugenicist, filled several journals with recipes he collected from friends, acquaintances, and people whom he came across while working during the 1920s and 1930s. (These are now held by the National Library in Cape Town.) He wrote about these recipes and rural cooking for Die Huisgenoot, a popular magazine with a distinct enthusiasm for nationalism, between 1942 and 1947. In 1933, at the height of the Afrikaner nationalist revival, he published Kos vie die Kenner (Food for the Expert), a collection of a more than a thousand recipes. Polfyntjies vir die Proe, Three Hundred Years of Cape Wine, and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery appeared posthumously.

One of the ironies of boerekos is that so much of it is derived from the cooking of the slaves who were transported to the Cape from southeast Asia during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The sambals, atchars, and chutneys of Afrikaner cooking are a particularly obvious debt to the food traditions imported to South Africa from present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although Leipoldt, an unusually thoughtful nationalist, acknowledge that many of the recipes he found were cooked and invented by ‘Malay’ women – a term which he used to describe the largely Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking descendants of slaves who lived in the Cape –their presence gradually disappeared in other, later boerekos recipe books.

There is no neat boundary between Afrikaner cuisine and what most South Africans dub ‘Cape Malay’ cooking: there are recipes for bredie (mutton stew), bobotie, and sosaties (kebabs) in both boerekos and Malay recipe books. But in order to use food to construct distinct, discrete national or group identities, the differences between these two cuisines had to be emphasised over their similarities.

Nationalisms have long co-opted food and cooking to construct national identities. Leipoldt’s recipe books are the first in an extensive literature which seeks – both overtly and inadvertently – to construct an Afrikaner cuisine. It’s telling that the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation), once strongly allied to the National Party but now a society which works towards the promotion of Afrikaans as a language, bestowed Ina de Villiers with its Afrikoon prize in 2010 for furthering the cause of Afrikaans.

But minority groups use food and recipes in similar ways – to construct, maintain, and assert identities, often in the face of discrimination and social and political marginalisation. Cass Abrahams as well as other Cape-based women have created a rich literature on ‘Cape Malay’ cooking, often basing their writing on recipes collected from, and donated by, local women. These are as much social histories as they are cookery books.

Similarly, one of my favourite South African recipe books, Indian Delights, was compiled by a community organisation, the Women’s Culture Group in Durban. First published in 1961, the book has been revised several times. My mother’s copy – which I covet – is the 1982 ‘Enlarged Super Edition.’ As the editor, Zuleikha Mayat, writes in the introduction, the recipes were

mostly passed on to me by persons ranging from ordinary housewives to the super cooks who abound in our community. This is why Indian Delights remains – as it has always been – a representation of the collective culinary knowledge of our Community.

The book is as much an assertion of a distinct form of South African Indian cooking as it is a record of how a group of women cooked for their families in Natal during the second half of the twentieth century. But it is also an attempt to preserve a culinary tradition at risk of being forgotten as family life changed:

Twenty years ago when Indian Delights was first published, I had stated that the cookery book as such was something foreign to Indian women; that each dish was taught down the generations till daughters became as proficient as their mothers; but that the need of a reliable cookery book was beginning to be felt since daughters were spending more time with studies and acquiring careers.

As a result of this ‘a good reliable cookery book has become essential’.

It’s partly because of this extensive collection of recipe books – from Indian Delights to Kook en Geniet – that it’s particularly obvious that there is no, single homogenous South African cuisine. One of the best collections of South African recipes, African Salad demonstrates this particularly well: it’s a series of photographs and short interviews with of a more-or-less random selection of South Africans on their favourite meals. The recipes are as varied as the interviewees.

I’ve been struck while watching the South African version of the MasterChef franchise by the absence of references to the African cuisines of South Africa. During one episode in which the contestants were required to barbeque, one (black) Twitter user commented jokingly that the black contestants would struggle because they would prefer over- rather than underdone meat.

So far the dominant cuisine (the meta-cuisine?) of the show has been broadly western. It is this which is most closely associated with ‘fine dining’ (hateful phrase). Indeed, I was annoyed when a black contestant was criticised for cooking a steak too well: a liking for pink, lightly cooked meat is both a relatively recent phenomenon and culturally specific. Why should someone be penalised if she has cooked meat according to the dictates of another cuisine?

A couple of contestants have cooked African dishes and I’ve watched those with the most curiosity: as a white South African raised in the Western Cape, I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Afrikaans and Malay cooking, but African cuisine still eludes me. I know of certain dishes and have seen sheep heads and walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) being sold, but this is as far as my knowledge goes.

I know that there probably isn’t a single ‘African cuisine’ or African culinary tradition in South Africa – that it must differ between regions and has changed over time. There are, to my knowledge, no substantial recipe books dedicated to this country’s African cuisines – although do please feel free to enlighten me if there are.

With the current wave of enthusiasm for local producers, it’s striking that the various markets which have sprung up around South Africa have tended to model themselves on a foreign – mainly European – model. They are Borough Markets in miniature. These new ingredients – these cheeses, sausages, and free-range duck and chicken – are sold to be used in cassoulet, poule au pot, and arrosto di maiale al latte. We use local products for overseas cuisines.

I’m not some mad nationalist loon who advocates that we only eat local cuisines, but as South African society changes during the early twenty-first century – as urbanisation increases and as our middle class expands – we are, as in the case of any rapidly evolving society, in danger of losing a lot of culinary knowledge. This is a pity: not only do food and cooking provide useful ways of understanding how societies function, but it also strikes me as deeply strange that the white, middle-class customers of the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town know more about the cooking of northern Italy than they do of the Eastern Cape. Or Langa, which is right next door.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 04.04.2012

Calling time on the pint glass.

Organic pink slime?

A kitchen supper.

Easter baking advice from Dan Lepard and Rose Prince.

The best chocolate animals for Easter.

Robert Scott’s diet in Antarctica.

Honey, from hive to bottle.

Bizarre breakfasts.

How to use your (kitchen) knives properly.

A meditation on kitchen utensils.

Cakes throughout American history.

The curious case of the gigantic sham clam.

A brief overview of royal feasts.

The madness of gourmet crisps.

The surprisingly slow death of prohibition in the US.

A history of julienne soup.

Badaude on how to take a coffee break.

Vandana Shiva on ‘food fascism‘.

How to sell oreos in China. And Trish Deseine’s Oreo peanut butter pie.

Beer in Africa.

A public information film about the coffee bar boom in London during the 1950s and 1960s.

Chocolate-covered sprouts.

Kraft’s underground cheese storeroom.

The Austerity Kitchen.

David Lynch’s ad for David Lynch Coffee.

What (or who) is an ethical vegan?

Five taboo foods.

Pasta by design.

Why you should bake using scales not cups.

Could squirrel meat become fashionable?

America spends less on food than any other country.

Braille burgers.

xkcd on Cadbury Eggs. (Thanks, Mum!)

The evolution of American breakfast cereals.

Tall Tales

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I became a historian was early exposure to the Indiana Jones films. (For all non-academics, they’re the best and most accurate depiction of academia in any cultural medium ever.)* My favourite remains Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – surely the greatest film ever made – and particularly for the bizarre and appalling feast to which Jones and his sidekicks are subjected at the Pankot Palace. I watched it again last night:


There are, of course, enormous problems with the film: it was banned in India for its depiction of Indians and Hinduism, and it can hardly be credited for providing an accurate portrayal of the subcontinent’s colonial politics during the 1930s. For me, the film’s campness and cartoonishness save it – like Tintin, it is barely on nodding acquaintance with reality.

But it does offer a useful way of understanding the relationship between food and colonialism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Pankot Palace feast is inedibly disgusting: from ‘Snake Surprise’ (a python slit open to reveal writhing, live snakes) and giant scarab beetles, to eyeball soup and monkey brains for pudding.

The scene cuts between our heroine’s increasingly panicked response to the meal and a tense, yet polite conversation between Jones, a British officer, and the juvenile Maharajah’s smoothly suave Prime Minister. Jones raises the question of the implications of the Kali-worshipping Thuggee (yes, really) cult for the local villagers – something which he argues is a greater threat to British rule in that region of India than was the 1857 Rebellion.

It’s all utterly ridiculous, obviously, but the film’s point is that the Palace’s enthusiasm for human sacrifice and the enslavement of children – we later see that the Maharajah’s wealth is mined by thousands of shackled child labourers – is linked in some way to its appalling eating habits.

For nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialists such a view would have made perfect sense. During this period, British imperialism was justified, increasingly, on the grounds that it brought the light of civilisation to the dark and frightening jungles and deserts of Africa and Asia. (The residents of these jungles and deserts – these communities, nations, and empires – begged to differ on this point, but their views were hardly deemed important at the time.) This ‘civilising mission’ empowered imperial agents, from officials to missionaries, to ‘civilise’ colonial subjects.

Importantly, this process extended beyond conversion to Christianity and – for boys, at least – education. The domestic space was a key site for the creation of civilised subjects. In Britain, the home was a marker of respectability: the furnishings, cleanliness, and efficient running of the home by servants were all signs of a family’s good morals. Food and dining helped to establish class status as well.

For missionaries attempting to civilise colonial subjects, living in the right way was as important as thinking in the right way. Converts were encouraged to wear Western dress, live in square – not round – houses, and adopt British eating habits. Not only were they to eat three meals a day, but these were to be modelled, as far as possible, on what the middle class would have eaten in Britain, using British ingredients and British recipes.

In her study of missionaries working in the Belgian Congo, Nancy Rose Hunt argues that the progress of the Congolese living on the mission station was measured in terms of their willingness to swop local dishes for steak and kidney pudding, rissoles, and fruit cake. She notes the ‘evolutionary theme[s]’ evoked by the missionaries to emphasise the progress of their protégés, from ‘darkness to lightness, savagery to civilisation, heathens to Christians, monkey stew to roast beef.’ Roast beef is on the same side as Christianity and civilisation, assuming, thus, a moral value.

This discourse around civilisation, domesticity, and eating exercised an enormous effect on the lives of colonised peoples. Such was its strength that settlers in India and Britain’s African colonies insisted upon eating versions of familiar dishes – despite the differences in climate and available ingredients. EM Forster wrote in A Passage to India (1924):

the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale, the peas might rattle less or more, the sardines and the vermouth be imported by a different firm, but the tradition remained: the food of exiles, cooked by servants who did not understand it.

The new, educated middle classes in Africa ate British-style food to signify their civilised, sophisticated status. In Nervous Conditions (1988), Tsitsi Dangarembga uses food to illustrate the differences between Tambudzai – the slightly educated young daughter of a large, poor family in rural Zimbabwe – and the middle-class, British-educated aunt and uncle with whom she lives to go to school. Her aunt offers her a spoon and a mound of sadza when she has difficulty eating a ‘western’ meal using a knife and fork. Tambudzai is amazed by the cake, biscuits, and jam she is offered at teatime – all luxuries at her parents’ homestead. Accustomed to drinking from an enamel mug, she misjudges the heat of her tea in the china teacup and burns her mouth. Food plays a vital role in her transition from ‘peasant’ to ‘a clean, well-groomed, genteel self.’

This was, then, a powerful discourse. However strange and illogical this narrative about food, civilisation, and identity may seem to us, similar narratives continue to be constructed by many Westerners to understand Africa, and their relationship with a continent whose complexity and diversity they can’t – or won’t – seem to understand.

In the current narratives about the continent, Africans are depicted either as innocent, perpetually suffering victims or as vicious, murdering monsters. The success – if that is to be measured by the number of times a video is watched on YouTube – of the extraordinarily misguided Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates the extent to which people consider these narratives to be true.

This annoys me, both as an African and as someone who believes strongly that in the age of Google, ignorance of a whole continent is totally unacceptable and inexcusable. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this stereotyping has an impact on American and, to some extent, European policy towards the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

It’s for this reason that she is so critical of the reporting done by Nicholas Kristof on Africa. Kristof, a popular New York Times journalist, has the power to shape American attitudes towards the continent. But he tells a story which persistently denies the agency of Africans:

This model does not question the causes of poverty, either general or specific, for the people it is meant to help. It does not pay attention to what people are doing for themselves or ask what they need. It is founded on a story that treats people as if they were just part of a natural landscape washed ashore by forces that aid agencies do not participate in or have any control over. It offers solutions, often expensive and technological, and therefore measurable, that inevitably cannot be sustained or make any genuine long term change in the lives of poor people around the world.

There is very little difference between Kristof’s view of Africa and that of nineteenth-century missionaries: the continent – populated by suffering and poweless, but essentially angelic, women and children – is the white man’s burden.

So what are the implications of such simple, and incorrect, narratives about Africa? Alex de Waal suggests that the attention that Kony 2012 drew to Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army may well detract from more nuanced and better targeted policy making around Africa. In an analysis of how three discourses have impacted on foreign intervention in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Séverine Autesserre writes:

The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption.

She adds:

Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

This has profound implications for dealing with famine and food shortages in parts of Africa as well. Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini point out that NGOs, think tanks, and policy makers need to think through the implications of the recent spike in the price of food for food security. Making the point that while high food prices increase the likelihood of poor people going hungry, they also benefit poor farmers, Swinnen and Squicciarini demonstrate that as recently as 2005, Oxfam and the Food and Agriculture Organisation were blaming low food prices for hunger. They write: ‘it can be hard to find a relation between underlying analytical work and the policy messages sent by communications departments.’

The problem with an approach which argues that only one factor – like food prices – causes hunger is that it can actually worsen the situation. For instance, consistently advocating an end to import tariffs and export subsidies in rich countries – ostensibly to benefit farmers in poor countries – could actually cause the price of food to increase.

The recent announcement that one billion people are hungry is equally problematic. Not only have these statistics been queried, but they ignore the fact that ‘[n]ew studies suggest that the number of hungry may have declined, possibly by many millions, despite the food price increase.’ This simple narrative about hunger and povety – which slots into pre-existing notions about the helpless African poor – actually undermines further investigation into the complex causes of hunger.

So why the disconnect between policy and research? Swinnen and Squicciarini suggest that in order to raise funds and to influence governments, NGOs tend to use – rather than challenge – the narratives offered by the media on poverty, Africa, and food security.

This is why stories and narratives are so dangerous. As Swinnen and Squicciarini conclude:

If the objective is to assist those who are hurt by price changes, this is no excuse for simplistic messages.

*Not really.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Séverine Autesserre, ‘Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences,’ African Affairs, vol. 111, no. 442 (January 2012), pp. 1-21.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions (London: The Women’s Press, [1988] 2001).

EM Forster, A Passage to India (London: Penguin, [1924] 1989).

Nancy Rose Hunt, ‘Colonial Fairy Tales and the Knife and Fork Doctrine in the Heart of Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Kathryn Mathers, ‘Mr Kristof, I presume? Saving Africa in the Footsteps of Nicholas Kristof,’ Transition, no. 107 (2012), pp. 15-31.

Johan Swinnen and Pasquamaria Squicciarini, ‘Mixed Messages on Prices and Food Security,’ Science, vol. 335 (27 January 2012), pp. 405-406.

Other sources:

Jean and John L. Comaroff, ‘Home-Made Hegemony: Modernity, Domesticity, and Colonialism in South Africa,’ in African Encounters with Domesticity, ed. Karen Tranberg Hansen (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.