Wednesday, 14 November 2012

FCC: Food and the Social Sciences

For our eleventh Food and Culture Colloquium lecture-based session, I joined Associate Professor of Political Science Jim Pletcher in focusing on our November "Liberal Arts" theme, with an intersection of food and the social sciences. While we both centered each of our presentations on our research and experiences in sub-Saharan Africa, we unintentionally shared a common thread of talking about corn (a crop which has made its way into other presentations, as well).

To start things off, Jim began with a presentation on nshima, one of many cornmeal-based, starchy staples seen throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The polenta of Zambia, nshima--or more generically, maize--is typically grown by small-plot farmers on areas of land ranging anywhere from 1 to 4 or 5 acres. From planting to production, both men and women take part in the process and quite interestingly, studying the Zambian government's management of the maize market reveals not only societal behaviour but the distribution of political power (particularly between the subsidised and the taxed) throughout Zambia's history.

During Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda term in office (1964-1991), it was important for small farmers to be involved in the production of maize for markets. However, one might reasonably question the government's policies as it came to equity, as prices for maize from all farmers were kept the same across the board-- regardless of the source of the maize. This meant that farmers furthest away from local distribution centers were subsidised more and taxed less than farmers who were more centrally located to high density populations. This panterritorial pricing structure meant irrational organisation. From the outside looking in, it would seem this system built on patronage, whereby decisions were based on how resources could be used for the benefit of a patron's network, was effective and well-intended. The President sat atop the patronage networks which managed markets. He, and his elite clients, were more sensitive to the demands of urban consumers of maize than they were to rural producers of maize (arguably out of fear of public rioting). As a result farmers received lower than free market prices for the maize they produced, which was a form of taxation, while consumers paid less than the free market price for maize meal, which was a form of subsidy. [By contrast, farmers are subsidized in the U.S. while consumers are taxed.] In addition, the Zambian government's management of markets created opportunities for corruption.

Due to the distortions caused by the mismanagement of markets, Zambia's currency collapsed and the removal of emergency subsidies for consumers led to riots and the eventual takeover of the government by Frederick Chiluba (1991-2002), with 80% of the popular vote, and his mandate to reform the economy. While the country continues to struggle, the political system built under Chiluba's reign had taken down the regime built by Kaunda and left a mostly-free food market. Though, the challenges of improving productivity and ensuring access to adequate food for all in Zambia remain.

Switching gears slightly, I followed Jim's presentation with a presentation of my own on my experiences in South Africa. [A link to my presentation may be found below.] Recognising the fact that only 10% of land has been redistributed since the collapse of apartheid, it has become even more evident to me in retrospect that the regional, ethnic separation of South Africans has led to culinary communities that are rooted in locations of these communities during apartheid. Just as much as language further supports a supposed "apartheid legacy," then, I used my experience as case studies for my claim that the legacy of apartheid is furthermore present and continues to exist through food. From bunny chow in Durban to ox meat, amagwinya and umqombothi (speaking of which, check out this video; coincidentally, umqombothi is also made of maize) in Dongwe to beskuit, rooibos and wines in Stellenbosh, I continue to wonder to what extent culturally preserved cuisines (underscored by why they exist where they continue to exist today) serve as regional, ethnic and even national identifiers.

In conclusion of my presentation, I offered two thoughts to ponder. First, there has been a recent health movement to consider alongside South Africa's diverse national diet. But, to what extent is the expectation or even the suggestion to diversify and not rely solely on low-nutrient staples such as mealie meal (also known as pap, the South African equivalent of nshima) or cholesterol-heavy delicacies like the meats found at braais a realistic one? How do socioeconomic conditions, still made evident under the context of a post-apartheid South Africa struggling to free itself from apartheid policies, prevent the ability to switch or at least alternative dietary patterns? Taking a look at the image above, from this site, what message does the particular use of a white, South African male convey in relation to access and resources? Second, what does the future hold for ethnic identity and the migration of languages and foods in South Africa when (or perhaps if) land redistribution actually occurs? Can reconciliation be found when considering the apparent difficulties of making Sections 25 and 27 of the Constitution work harmoniously? In the meantime, I seek solace in the realisation that the food I ate and experienced in South Africa was communal, not exclusionary, and served as a a catalyst for celebration and gathering, and not as a reminder of apartheid, but rather the continued hope for a truly post-apartheid spirit which filles the cores of many South Africans.

Suggested reading for this session: 
"Integrating Food Security with Land Reform: A More Effective Policy for South Africa" (Thembele Kepe and Danielle Tessaro, 2012)

For a copy of my PowerPoint presentation, click here. For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from our November colloquium sessions, click here.

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