Monday, 9 April 2012

The Food of Oppression

Judging the seed fair at Nyahode Union Learning Centre
One of the most immediately striking things about being back in the UK is the huge variety of food in the shops, and how much of it is highly processed and packaged luxury food rather than straightforward ingredients (my small local Sainsbury's is selling a 'porcini mushroom risotto kit'.)

People have sometimes asked about Zimbabwean food when organising fundraising evenings and wanting to know what to cook, which sounds like a good idea but is actually quite problematic. Few British people would be willing to eat a typical Zimbabwean meal, which consists of a large portion of 'sadza' (a stiff maize-meal porridge), with a little vegetable 'relish' or sauce.

The food culture of most Zimbabweans isn't especially concerned with the range of ingredients or variety of dishes. Probably as in most societies where the majority of people struggle to get sufficient food for survival, it seems to be chiefly quantity that counts. Certainly the Hlekweni trainees consume huge quantities of sadza - 100% carbohydrate and (to my taste) almost completely flavourless.

In fact one of the more puzzling aspects of life in Zimbabwe is that the range of foodstuffs available to buy is so limited. Despite the ideal climate for growing vegetables and the presence of dozens of roadside stalls, the vegetables on offer are almost always restricted to the staples of spinach, onions, tomatoes and kale.

This is the diet that my colleague Rob Sacco calls “the food of oppression” - a consequence of European colonialism that destroyed the indigenous food culture and forced people to survive on what he describes as “a minimalist parody of a normal diet, losing a diet based in traditional biodiversity and relative plenty.” Rob is a South-African born refugee from the apartheid regime, who came to Zimbabwe in 1982 and joined a farmers' co-operative in Chimanimani in the Eastern Highlands. He is now Director of Nyahode Union Learning Centre, where he lives on the side of a mountain in a traditional house without electricity or telephone connection. Rob is also a passionate supporter of the Zimbabwean land reform, and is active in helping to organise and support local small farmers in formerly White-owned land in the Nyahode Valley (more about the land reform in a later post).

Rob is working to rebuild the indigenous food culture of the area by running an annual seed fair and competition for local smallholder farmers, which took place during my visit there in July last year. The farmers (all of them women) brought seeds and fruits from the food crops that they grow in their fields, and set them out in beautifully presented displays. Entries were judged on presentation, quality and variety of seeds and there were significant prizes for winners (US$100 worth of farming equipment) - so it was taken very seriously, with each stall judged anonymously to ensure fairness. After the judging there was a 'seed swap' for farmers to exchange seeds and add to their varieties.

Rob explained that when they first started the seed fairs almost everyone had only one variety of maize, tomatoes, spinach, onions, squash and kale to display. As farmers began to swap their seeds, though, they started to increase the diversity of production. Motivated by the competition, many of them also started visiting relatives up and down the valley and in other districts, to collect new seed varieties to grow in their fields. On the day I was there the winning farmer had over 150 varieties of food crops on display, including every conceivable shape and colour of maize – pink, purple, speckled etc. The fascinating thing about this approach is that it is an indigenous solution – farmers pay an entry fee for the competition, which goes towards the cost of prizes (topped up by a small contribution from the training centre). Its success is not based on getting access to donor funds from abroad, but on the relationships between small farmers built up over many years.

This approach also parallels closely the work of many UK Transition groups and projects such as Incredible Edible, which are also experimenting with ways to rebuild local food cultures through farmers' markets, seed swaps, community allotments, garden shares etc. These are all approaches to tackling our our own version of the 'food of oppression' – a food system that has made us increasingly dependent on lengthy supply chains and industrial processing, and that has seduced us into losing (or never bothering to acquire) the skills to produce and prepare our own healthy and sustainable local food.


  1. "It is believed that when whites arrived in the area that later became Southern Rhodesia [modern Zimbabwe], there were a quarter of a million black people. By about 1924 there were half a million. When I left the country in 1949 there were one and a half million. In 1982 the estimate was nine or ten million. In 1993 they think there are twelve to thirteen million... It is currently thought by most experts that the continual increase of population since the whites arrived is because the Portuguese introduced maize which is easily grown, abundant, easily stored and nourishing."

    So says Doris Lessing in her autobiography Under My Skin, which I am reading at the moment. There are a lot more mouths to feed than there were in the days of 'indigenous food culture', and that is as true of Britain as it is of Zimbabwe, though we don't feel the consequences in Britain as long as we have the wealth to import food to meet our needs, and world markets are not disrupted as they were during the two world wars.

    But a diet consisting mainly of starch can't be healthy, and depending on one or two varieties of one plant for most of your food needs makes you very vulnerable to famine if the crop fails owing to disease or bad weather or the lack of modern inputs, machinery or fuel if these are needed to grow and harvest it.

    So, how do we get the best of both worlds, the lower inputs and biodiversity of traditional methods and the high productivity of the modern ones? And how can the land reforms in Zimbabwe, generally portrayed in western media as an economic disaster, contribute to this? And what do Quakers, and their brothers and sisters in other peace churches, have to contribute that is distinctive?

    I'm looking forward to hearing more, and to contributing to the debate.

  2. Hi Alan,
    Over-reliance on maize is particularly diastrous in Matabeleland, which has lower rainfall than most of the country and is constantly experiencing failed harvests due to drought. The traditional crops in the region are drought resistant 'small-grains' such as barley and millet, but in every village and household, even in the most arid areas, people are growing monocrops of stunted maize plants season after season.
    The explanation I was given for this is partly that maize-growing has been encouraged by government programmes, but principally that people don't like eating millet, and if the maize crop fails there will be food relief from overseas donors (in maize). It's a bit like British people being given the choice of living on reliable home-grown turnips or trying to grow risky potatoes, knowing that if they fail someone will give them potatoes anyway (I know what I'd choose).
    Many overseas donors are just now starting to wake up to this and scale back on food relief, which is coming as a shock to rural communities which have depended on it for years.
    I will be writing more about Rob Sacco's vision for Zimbabwe's agrarian reform, and how it can contribute to a sustainable food system, in the near future.

  3. As I see it, in the UK at least, the 'Food of Oppression' is cheap food. Paradoxical? But what happens is this: Food poverty, whether perceived nationally, as instigated after the war, or amongst poorer people, leads to the demand for cheap food, which leads to unsustainable exploitation of the land and farmers, well known in Transition circles, which leads to the commercialisation of food, which leads to fat cat bonuses at the likes of Tesco whilst driving down wages, which leads to food poverty. The way to get out of this cycle of oppression is to get off the hook of cheap food and work out how to eat cheaply.

    Eating Sadza is eating cheaply, so what would be the UK equivalent? Sadza might be nearly 100% carbohydrate, but it does contain a fair bit of protein and fat, as well as other trace nutrients, perhaps nearly sufficient for someone who does a lot of hard manual labour. Surprisingly, potatoes, a UK staple, also contain reasonable amounts of protein and other important nutrients, that become nutritionally balanced if you do enough hard manual work to burn up the carbohydrates. OK, so hard manual work is not that common these days in the UK, but then this may well be part of the problem, as described in the 'Back To The Land' blog.

    If the only solution to food poverty is to devise new ways of producing cheap food, we are lost before we start. We need to think outside the box that is the conventional Western understanding of food and nutrition, and maybe Zimbabweans can teach us a thing or two about eating cheaply.

  4. I worked in Zimbabwe in the mid-1980s, on a farm cooperative near Harare. The farm grew a wide variety of vegetables, as a market garden business, and sold them to hotels and hospitals in the city. There was also a pig-fish unit to provide protein and further products for sale. It was very difficult to persuade the farm workers to eat what they grew. They ate, as Craig desribed, vast amounts of sadza, accompanied by a few cooked red kidney beans or green leaves. They wouldn't eat the squash (lots of varieties), tomatoes, green beans, courgettes, aubergines... On high days and holidays they might kill an old, scrawny chicken that had been pecking around, and boil it for hours until tender. One of their reasons for describing us (the white, foreign community development workers there) as 'rich' was that we ate eggs - ie: we didn't desperately need to let them grow into chickens.

    The food culture was indeed impoverished, but it's also important to understand the significance of familiarity and 'comfort food - what counts as 'real food'. For instance, when someone dropped in as we were eating lunch one day, and we invited him to share it, his face fell when he saw that it was soup, bread, cheese and fruit. 'Oh,' he said, 'not sadza. Thank you, but I will go home to eat.' If you eat a low protein diet, and do manual labour all day, every day, you need to pack in a lot of calories, and that means eating a vast amount of sadza (or polenta, or rice, or potatoes, or whatever the staple is in your part of the world); that means your digestive system is accustomed to a very large throughput of high-fibre food ... a bowl of soup, a couple of slices of bread and a piece of cheese just doesn't feel at all like a real meal. Those of us who have always led relatively sedentary lives have no idea what it's like to get through 4000, 5000 calories a day.

    This isn't in any way to minimise the paucity of the food culture as Craig desribes it, nor the colonial contribution to that, but culture is always more complex and nuanced that we think.

    The C19 allotments movement calculated the size of the piece of land to be allocated on the basis that it was large enough to keep an average family in potatoes for a year (if there was no blight). We are not so far removed from that food culture ourselves, although we are in danger of forgetting it as we walk round a supermarket. My maternal grandfather fed his family from his allotment. My paternal grandfather was a coal miner in Leeds, and the family ate bread and dripping on Thursdays because there was no other food left until the wages came in on Friday - that's how my father grew up, and he never lost the memory of it. I just remember - both at home and at school - being forced to eat everything on my plate because it was wicked to waste food; liking it or not was beside the point.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)