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This chapter examines contemporary African fiction through the lens of food and foodways, highlighting the ways that recent writers have deployed agriculture, cooking, and eating to highlight the traumas of history, the emptiness of displacement, and the power of community. In We Need New Names (2013) NoViolet Bulawayo uses a piece of half-eaten discarded pizza to indicate the cultural and economic distance between those Zimbabweans with access to America and Europe and those without. Rosa’s District 6 (2004) by Rozena Maart shows the way food acts to bring people of different faiths and races together in a community facing erasure under apartheid. In Aminatta Forna’s Ancestor Stones (2006), the revival of a coffee plantation serves as a metaphor for the rebuilding of Sierra Leone after decades of military coups and a civil war. In all three novels, food is used to chart political and social history unique to each region. Foodways and food security can serve as important markers in ascertaining how liberation is proceeding because access to food is a basic human necessity and foodways serve as cultural and social markers that speak to a community’s comfort with its access to food.
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).
Environmental and animal studies are rapidly growing areas of interest across a number of disciplines. Natures of Africa is one of the first edited volumes which encompasses transdisciplinary approaches to a number of cultural forms, including fiction, non-fiction, oral expression and digital media. The volume features new research from East Africa and Zimbabwe, as well as the ecocritical and eco-activist ‘powerhouses’ of Nigeria and South Africa. The chapters engage one another conceptually and epistemologically without an enforced consensus of approach. In their conversation with dominant ideas about nature and animals, they reveal unexpected insights into forms of cultural expression of local communities in Africa. The analyses explore different apprehensions of the connections between humans, animals and the environment, and suggest alternative ways of addressing the challenges facing the continent. These include the problems of global warming, desertification, floods, animal extinctions and environmental destruction attendant upon fossil fuel extraction. There are few books that show how nature in Africa is represented, celebrated, mourned or commoditised. Natures of Africa weaves together studies of narratives – from folklore, travel writing, novels and popular songs – with the insights of poetry and contemporary reflections of Africa on the worldwide web. The chapters test disciplinary and conceptual boundaries, highlighting the ways in which the environmental concerns of African communities cannot be disentangled from social, cultural and political questions. This volume draws on and will appeal to scholars and teachers of oral tradition and indigenous cultures, literature, religion, sociology and anthropology, environmental and animal studies, as well as media and digital cultures in an African context.