The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

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