WHEN I was editor of Mail & Guardian Africa (until a few days ago), almost everyday I wrestled with a question about Africans and their foods.
On July 13, 2014 we published a story on food entitled “Africa’s 20 most popular foods: Biltong, fufu, injera, couscous, ugali anyone?”
Ever since then, up to today, two years later, the story has stayed among the top most popular on the site, many times shooting to the top.
Why would a story about the most popular African foods, the mouth-watering photos notwithstanding, seem to capture the imagination week in week out, for this long, I wondered.
The best hint of an explanation came in October 2014, after British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver presented a “Joloff rice” recipe on his BBC programme, and West Africans, to whom the food is a national staple, united in revolt.
For days it was an international story and kept social media alight. Many simply rejected Oliver’s recipe as wrong. But there were also the more patriotic eaters who accused him of cultural appropriation.
My sense is that food is becoming a new powerful form of identity for Africans, as we saw in 2014 at how strongly West Africans rejected Jamie Olivers “Joloff rice” recipe on his BBC programme.
Which raises the next question, why? Food has always been political and a sensitive matter to some degree, but future research might well find that, among other things, its present status has to do with the growth of the African diaspora, estimated to be at least 30 million strong, of the last three decades.
CONNECTION ‘TO THE SOIL’
Many “African” things that the diaspora have historically held on to, have changed or evolved with globalisation – the music, the dress (all the fabric is made in China these days), and even literature. Food, though, is almost change-proof, allowing it to retain a connection “to the soil”. There is really only one way to make ugali, sadza, or nsima. For Ethiopians, injera will always be, well, injera.
But even with that, something else needed to happen. The relationship between continental Africa and its diaspora tends to be a dependent one. The fellows in the diaspora have the good jobs and work in more advanced economies, and send money back home to help their relatives put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
The one thing most visiting relatives in Africa carry for their kin in the diaspora is food. In the process, in addition to keeping a link to the homeland, food becomes an equaliser. It allows family in Africa to also offer something highly prized to the diaspora.
Oliver doesn’t want to mess with that.
Add to all that the growing popularity of cooking programmes on TV, and we are looking at a very foody African future.