Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes that food is a ‘linkage in the chain of being: the substance of the eco-systems which human beings strive to dominate. Our most intimate contact with the natural environment occurs when we eat it’ (Fernández-Armesto 2001: xiii).
Food and foodways are the bridge between human culture and the natural environment. As Fernández-Armesto (2001: 5) puts it: ‘Culture began when the raw got cooked.’ The combination of the local ecosystem with the ways plants and animals were selectively bred, and the methods by which they were cooked create regional differences that become part of how people in those regions understand their culture. This chapter looks at the intersection of foodways studies and ecocriticism through one of the major oral epics of West Africa, Sunjata. Paying attention to food in African narratives – considering what is eaten and how it is grown or procured, and by whom – influences one's understanding of what is happening in the story. African storytellers, writers and film-makers use food and foodways as markers of independence, as symbols of cultural colonisation, and as signs of continued deprivations. Through foodways, one can glimpse famines, invasions and historical access to trade networks, and food can even serve as a vehicle for communication. Since the stories are not constructed in a vacuum, they can also reveal something about what food means in specific historical moments, in specific places and for specific populations.
In some respects, the diet of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa is remarkably similar across the region, despite the enormous differences in its bioregions. Much of this similarity emerged from colonisation, when European colonists attempted to turn most of the continent into vast plantations. To peel back the layers of colonial influence on the foods of the African continent, however, is difficult. Seamus Deane calls colonialism ‘a process of radical dispossession’ (Deane 1990: 10). Precolonial bioregionalism in agriculture was a victim of that dispossession. As Deane points out, a primary impulse after independence has been the attempt to repossess the history, cultures and languages stripped during the colonial era, because even if such attempts are futile, they are necessary steps out of the legacies of colonialism (Deane 1990: 11).