Food and Politics in Africa

There are many interesting metaphors of food in the African political discourse to express the changing dynamics of power

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is famous for its economy of words. True to his contract with the reader, Achebe displays a mastery of language that beautifully blends the old and the new. It is especially his use of Igbo traditional lore that has earned Achebe a spot on the continent's list of greatest writers. Like the culture he writes of, Achebe manipulates proverbs and local sayings; indeed, 'proverbs become the palm oil with which words are eaten.'
Achebe's main character, Okonkwo, is a man running away from a ghost. He seeks to outrun the infamous laziness of his father. To distance himself from a parent he is not only ashamed of, but also holds in utter disrespect, Okonkwo doggedly gathers wealth; in time, his large harvests, growing family, and numerous titles earn him a seat in local politics. He has, seemingly, overcome the history of his father. As the allegorical young child, Okonkwo can now 'wash his hands and eat with his elders.'
Achebe's description of village politics is embodied in the metaphor of sharing a meal. Okonkwo the pauper has to first observe proper hygiene by garnering wealth. It is only then that he is considered 'clean enough' to partake in the dish that is Igbo political power. As it turns out, metaphors of food and politics abound and repeatedly come up as ways for African masses to understand their relationship to the state.
Achebe's allusion of the connection between food and politics is subtle; most others are not. If feasts and communal meals are key indigenous institutions for maintaining harmony and wealth inequality, who gets to partake in which meals is indicative of the relative power differentials.
Due to the ecological expense involved in rearing animals, meat is a delicacy that truly marks an important function, be it a funeral, wedding or harvest festival. But if all meat provides protein, not all meat dishes are created equal. Who gets to eat which part of the animal is a key indicator of power and relative esteem.
In Suns of Independence, Ahmadou Korouma discusses a village feast and the ensuing arithmetic involved in distributing portions of the slaughtered cow to different members of the community.
'When it came to divide up the red meat, the sharing was done with care, equity and refinement,' says Korouma. This practice was done 'in accordance with the customs that allotted such-and-such a portion or cut to such-and-such a village or family.' [1] B. M. Sahle-Sellassie, the Ethiopian novelist who wrote The Afersata, offers us another example. In Sahle-Sellassie's text, well-to-do families mark Maskal, an indigenous festival, by slaughtering a bull. Each family then offers a portion of the loin to the village blacksmith, while the woodcutter is offered part of the neck. [2]
Outside the literary sphere, figurative language about food also finds relevance as means of political commentary. In present day Kinshasa, residents contest Joseph Kabila's government in proclamations of starvation.
'We are hungry,' they say, exposing the state's inability to improve its citizens' standards of living. Katharine Pype's work on Kinshasa's popular political debates reiterates that 'metaphors of food distribution, circulation and consumption structure discourses about allocation and justification of power.' [3] The public indicts Kabila for not ensuring proper circulation of resources, hence resulting in the deprivation of some sections of his electorate.
Further east, Kenya's post-2007 coalition government, shared between two groups which both claimed electoral victory, has been dubbed serikali ya nusu mkate - the half-loaf government. Politicians discussing their participation in the Mwai Kibaki-Raila Odinga political alliance position themselves as initial aspirants to a full loaf - complete takeover of the legislative and executive arms of government. However, due to the trickery and political maneuvers of the other team, they had to compromise and settle for less--the half loaf.
President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere's famous indictment of Kenyan society as a cannibalistic man-eat-man society still rings true. The increased wealth inequality and the unshakeable hegemony of political dynasties are two clues that Nyerere's comment may yet find relevance. Politically, metaphorical 'cannibalism' has a long established tradition in post-independence Africa.
How else can one explain the backstabbing sibling-eat-sibling treachery that recurs in Africa's political history? Patrice Lumumba's fall at the hands of Joseph Kasavubu and Mobutu Sese Seko, two individuals whom Lumumba considered brothers-at-arms in the struggle for Congolese self-rule is a case in point?
So too is Jomo Kenyatta's abandonment of his comrades with whom he suffered long years of internal exile in some of the harshest conditions in Kenya. Achieng Oneko, arrested, tried, and detained alongside Kenyatta, decried this very betrayal when he resigned from government in 1966 due to ideological differences. Submitting his resignation, 'Achieng Oneko recalled the years he and Kenyatta had spent in detention together under the colonial regime. He said it would have seemed unbelievable at that time that he and Jomo Kenyatta would ever part company.' [5]
Without transferring the 'sins of the father onto the son,' I am eager to see how long the Jubilee alliance will last after winning the recent general elections. Who will feast upon the other's political future rendering them a mere footnote in Africa's political history written thus: 'Here lies X. He was cannibalized by his so-called comrade'?

[1] Korouma, Ahmadou. Suns of Independence. Pg. 99

[2] Sahle-Sellassie, B. M. The Afersata. Pg. 76

[3] Pyper, Katrien. "Visual Media & Political Communication: Reporting about Suffering in Kinshasa." Institute of Anthropological Research in Africa. Pg. 638

[4] Odinga, Oginga. Not Yet Uhuru. Pg. 300


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