Category Archives: Africa

Review: Stirring the Pot

 

Cover of 'Stirring the Pot'

Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine. James C. McCann. Ohio University Press. 2009

Mary B. Sundal
Washburn University, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

As part of the Africa in World History series, Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine by James C. McCann focuses on ingredients, meals, cooking, and cuisine as expressions of cultural identity. Contrary to popular (mis)conceptions about African foodways as a constant source of economic struggle, McCann explores food in African history “as a creative composition at the heart of all cultural expressions of ourselves as humans” (p. 2). To do so, McCann relies on primary historical resources, and work from geographers (e.g., Judith Carney), anthropologists (e.g., Audrey Richards), and novelists (e.g., Chinua Achebe) to provide readers with the rich sensory experience of African food. Furthermore, he weaves in contemporary recipes, and not just those found in cookbooks but “recipes” he collected from African cooks. Women described the basic ingredients necessary for a particular dish and the sensory experience of cooking and tasting. “She uses onomatopoeia (tuk tuk) to suggest the sounds made by the bubbling stew when it reaches its proper consistency. She uses her hands to indicate amounts and how to stir or to taste. In other words, to tell you how to make the dish, she has to show you using sounds and gestures. Written words convey little of the true sense of how to cook shiro wet sauce” (p. 85). It is in these descriptions that I found McCann’s illumination of the cultural aspect of food and cooking to be the most effective.

Stirring the Pot covers a hefty array of food related topics, which proves to be both the book’s strength and weakness. In part one, “basic ingredients,” McCann describes the availability of ingredients during precolonial and colonial times to show how these foodstuffs became staples in African cooking pots. Chapter two provides a great resource—one that could easily be incorporated an Anthropology of Food or Peoples and Cultures of Africa university course—on the cultural importance and environmental requirements of starchy staples including African grains such as finger millet, teff, and indigenous yams as well as New World grains, mostly importantly maize.

Turning away from African foodstuffs broadly, part two traces the development of Ethiopian highland cuisine to a specific event:  Queen Taytu’s feast in 1887. “The feast was thus one of the first acts that presented the new center of the Ethiopian state and its assertion of a site from which Menilek (and Taytu) sought to build a new political culture and claim a new national identity” (p. 71-72). McCann convincingly argues that Taytu’s feast was the point at which a national cuisine emerged in Ethiopia. While I truly enjoyed reading part two—especially the detailed descriptions of Taytu’s role as a female cook, household manager, and political leader—this section seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the text and could have been expanded into an entire text on its own.

The third part of the book, “Africa’s cooking: Some common ground of culture and cuisine” returns our attention to the history of West Africa, the central and southern maize belt, and maritime coasts. McCann argues that unlike in Ethiopia, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa does not have clear national cuisines but “broader patterns of cooking and signature foods the connect regions” (p. 107). Through a description of the cultural variation of starchy food preparation and consumption, McCann effectively shows how cultural diffusion—through intra-continental trade, the Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism—altered food habits and daily sustenance but did not eliminate core characteristics of West African diets. Much of the data for McCann’s argument comes from two female anthropologists, Margaret Field and Audrey Richards, who examined women’s contributions to daily sustenance by recording (and publishing) the oral traditions of food preparation. The second section in part three details the influence of culture contact on local women’s interpretations of diet throughout the maize belt. McCann here tackles how maize became the “food of choice” replacing sorghum, millet, and rice in African cooking pots. In addition, McCann categorizes the various relishes, or vegetable sauces, African women used to complement maize porridge. Again, McCann relies quite heavily on anthropological sources for these accounts, making part three particularly attractive for use in anthropology courses.

The final part of the book examines diaspora cuisine as two waves of culture contact:  the Atlantic slave trade and African emigration to the New World since the 1970s. McCann provides a host of recipes to compare African American, Creole, Brazilian, and Caribbean cooking to their West African counterparts. In this section McCann also returns to the thread of a national cuisine as Ethiopian fare appears to be the most popular African cuisine (re)produced in the New World.

Stirring the pot: A history of African cuisine is an informative book and is suitable for a diverse audience, including anthropologists interested in food preparation and consumption both across the African continent and in the diaspora. While the underlying theme of food as a living history of culture change is evident throughout the text, the four parts of the book have a very broad focus making the text more episodic than a thorough examination of one topic. However, the diversity of topics adeptly meets the African in World History series’ goals of making African history accessible to secondary students, university students, and general readers to “stimulate further inquiry and comparison” (p. xi).

 

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CFP: Food Insecurity in West Africa

Multidisciplinary approaches to food security, public health and governance: Emerging research for sustainable development in West Africa

The University of Ibadan, Nigeria

September 5 & 6, 2016

The West African Research Association (WARA) and the University of Ibadan Office of International Programs announce a two-day symposium at the University of Ibadan. The symposium will showcase innovative research in food security, public health and governance taking place in the region. It will be an opportunity for scholars, especially WARA grantees, to share research strategies, findings and projects with colleagues at University of Ibadan and other institutions in West Africa.

The WARA Travel Grant program promotes individual and collaborative research across national and linguistic boundaries. Since 2000, WARA has awarded more than 100 travel grants to West African scholars working in a wide range of disciplines.

We welcome proposals for paper, panel, and poster presentations on themes of food security, public health, and governance. We especially encourage former WARA/WARC Travel Grantees to participate. The deadline for receipt of abstracts is March 31, 2016. Late submissions will not be considered. All proposals must contain a 500 word proposal and a CV and should be submitted here by March 31, 2016.

Abstracts will be reviewed by a panel of scholars from WARA and UI. Successful applicants will be notified by May 15, 2016. Up to 24 papers will be selected.

 

 

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Book Review: The Ju/’hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence

BieseleJu

Biesele, Megan and Robert K. Hitchcock (2013) The Ju/’hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence. Development, Democracy, and Indigenous Voices in Southern Africa. Berghahn, 2011, 2013.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Biesele and Hitchcock offer a probing and insightful multi-decadal account of social and cultural change among an African people, including critical discussion of the roles of anthropologists and other outsiders in constructing external and internal trajectories of change. Mainly a political analysis, with very thorough discussions of changing cultural and national political institutions and their interactions, this volume should be required reading for any international development, education, food and environmental policy course. It also should be required reading in business school, organization and management courses, which increasingly incorporate ethical discussions. All chapters contain facts and institutional analysis by outsiders and insiders, and feature indigenous voices responding to internal and external challenges. The topics are the most important topics for the twenty-first century, namely, on what or whose terms will peoples be integrated into multi-national states, or be able to move fluidly across international borders? Who will make these determinations, and what kinds of education and political ideology will inform transitions from local to community and trans-local, and finally national or transnational identities?

Social scientists tend to throw around word-concepts implying that “development” and “democracy” are universal goals, without specifying who evaluates them or what paths get people closer to what the international community asserts are universal human rights. Here  indigenous voices illustrate how such ideas conflict with traditional cultural values, and how basic democratic concepts such as “representation” simply do not work routinely in traditional situations undergoing change. Instead, so-called democratic processes introduce new pathways and structures of social, economic, gender, and age inequality and violence, pitting young against old, male against female, and the few privileged individuals and strategically politically-geographically positioned and connected families against everyone else.  Millennium Development Goals suggest important narrative themes, rather than numerical targets.  Certainly poverty- and hunger-reduction, employment, child survival including reductions in malnutrition and improvements in education and health, access to water, health care, and hygiene, and environmental management and conservation are on the agenda, as are more productive connections between localities, developing country governments, and international agencies and agents of change. But such processes do not proceed without conflict at multiple levels, which the authors try to present from contending perspectives.

The most illuminating material here is on conflict-fraught activities of community-based and non-governmental organizations, whose large numbers and interactions are supremely important, ideologically and instrumentally, in shaping this people’s history, their historical communities, and the emergent independent nations who claim and seek to regulate them as citizens.  Given the long and multi-layered anthropological engagement with the San, the authors tell a story that is not entirely upbeat; for example, they witness young educated males learn and integrate less attractive aspects of modernity into their practices and ideas of the good life. These negative traits include gender violence and discrimination against both younger and older females. Educated males may also embrace increasing inequality and concentration of resources and power among their privileged few. As institutions of cultural change scale up, they consequently may benefit some few families over most. The historical ethnography furthermore raises the question of acceptable or unacceptable anthropological advocacy influences, as the narrative uncomfortably showcases some questionable actions and selective reporting on the part of anthropologists, such as John Marshall, whose films record a remarkable history of contacts and interactions with San over three generations, but then stops short of providing a reliable testimony about current politics and future implications.

Such caveats do not in any way distract from the seriously critical record of local cultural participation in the San’s forging their transitions into modern statehood identities, and of the shifting politics of NGO activities, relative to the real politics of states and international agencies. From my “anthropology of human rights” perspective, this is the only volume I know that discusses rights AND responsibilities in a multi-leveled, multi-dimensional, and coherent fashion, and successfully bridges “needs-based” and “rights-based” analysis of changing social structure and content, while incorporating local voices every step of the way.  Let it serve as a model for what is possible and desirable, and inspiration for so many Africanist colleagues, who otherwise choose to tangle, or remain hopelessly entangled in tropes.

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