Cha Kula Issue 3: Food and power
You can download Cha Kula Issue 3, now. Read on to get a feel of what’s in this edition…
The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a 2019 film based on the true story of William Kamkwamba, a thirteen-year-old boy from Wimbe, Malawi who saves his community from starvation by building a windmill and water pump from various mechanical parts salvaged from a junkyard.
Although the story follows the familiar arc of inspirational films, what is unforgettable is the harrowing depiction of how drought and political decisions converge to create desperate conditions. As Amartya Sen argued, famine is not only about the absolute lack of food – it is about the intersection of political, economic and social forces that deprive vulnerable groups the ability to access food.
The food on your plate today isn’t just a combination of inert ingredients subjected to heat – it is a reflection of various structural forces in contestation. Food is power, or more accurately, a power play, and many times what we consider to be our individual preferences are actually the convergence of political interests and decisions that may otherwise be obscure to us. Even though we may have some autonomy on what we choose to eat, the range of options we can choose from is very often determined by bigger forces beyond our direct control.
Imperialism is in the food we eat, said the late great Burkinabé revolutionary Thomas Sankara: “Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.” In fact, controlling the supply and trade of various food items provided the entire impetus for European colonial expansion; spices were particularly valuable because of their ability to be transported over long sea distances and still maintain their flavour and integrity. Coffee, tea, and sugar quickly followed. The result, as we all know, was subjugation of indigenous lands and people, the fallout from which we are still grappling with today.
This is why food has always been linked to the struggle for justice, freedom and dignity. Between 1976 and 1982, there were at least 146 urban protests across the global South linked to steep rises in food prices. More recently, the initial demands of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square eight years ago were related to the price of bread. A year prior, a drought in Russia – Egypt’s main supplier of wheat – had killed off 40% of the wheat harvest. The price of wheat kept rising, eventually outstripping the consumer wheat subsidy provided by the Egyptian government. With that, the masses took to the streets demanding bread, and the protests spiralled into a wider movement pressing for political and economic change.
When more powerful countries suddenly acquire the taste for ingredients that are integral to indigenous cultures, it can trigger a price spike that ends up putting the commodity out of the reach of the very people who grow it, as happened with quinoa in Bolivia and Peru, and almost happened with teff in Ethiopia had the government there not banned teff exports.
This issue of Cha Kula, produced in collaboration with Nairobi-based online publication The Elephant, thus explores the intersection between food and power dynamics in Kenya, both historically and in the contemporary moment. In Joe Kobuthi’s article on the colonial forces behind the evolution of food preferences in Kenya today, we discover that even the process of ugali becoming Kenya’s staple meal is not as benign as you might imagine. Oyunga Pala mourns the disappearance of indigenous seeds and the loss of traditional ways of tending the garden, and highlights the grassroots pockets of resistance that are preserving precious seeds.
Christine Mungai investigates the worrying trend of private corporate power shaping subsistence agriculture in western Kenya, where the well-funded One Acre Fund has thoroughly integrated itself both vertically and horizontally in the region’s agricultural economy. Mary Serumaga’s piece on the gaps in the Uganda’s regulatory framework concerning GMOs highlights the concern that the push for GMOs is less about Ugandans’ food security and more about the undisclosed interests of foreigners.
Zeynab Wandati travels to the counties to hear how devolution – and its attendant political contestations – is shaping the agricultural sector, while Paul Goldsmith challenges the notion that agricultural “progress” necessarily means large, consolidated farms of big fields, straight lines, greenhouses, and large grids of sprinklers.
Even in the face of imperialist and market forces, all is not lost. Africa is still home to a veritable treasure trove of indigenous plants that could diversify a food base unfortunately narrowed by the colonial impulse. Africa’s own researchers and growers could invigorate these food sources and reverse the tragic epistemic violence of recent decades. This is even more urgent as climate change threatens the viability of current methods of commercial agriculture. Our resistance, it seems, is to be found in the leaves, stems, roots, tubers, bulbs, seeds, pods and flowers of yesterday.