Thursday, February 24, 2011

We Share It

The dysfunction of Africa is pretty well known. Coverage of Africa is pretty skewed, so that a lot of people in the west are left feeling that it must be more bad than good.  Some probably even think that it’s a hellhole of poverty and violence, at least in the places that don’t have the lions and elephants.  But it isn’t, at least in a lot of parts.  Yes, there is widespread dysfunction and poverty, but people are not just sitting around, paralyzed by the lack of means, the lack of power, the lack of money, the lack of access to information, or the lack of water.  And you sort of think they would be, wouldn’t you?  At some point, wouldn’t you think that they’d just give up?  I mean, it’s been this way for a long time.  So, what holds it all together?

I was interviewing Mrs. Sarr a few days ago and she told me that when their household cooks lunch, they always set a portion aside in case an unexpected guest should arrive.  This is a common practice throughout Senegal. If no unexpected guests arrive, the food goes to the widow down the street who’s got three children to raise on her own.  As Mrs. Sarr said to me, “You can’t be at peace if you are eating and other people around you are going hungry.” 

There have been times when I’ve unexpectedly had to take off on something work-related, and have had to ask my neighbors to look out for my kids while I’m gone.  I always feel a bit guilty about this, as if I’m imposing.  It is honestly confusing for my neighbors as to why I’d feel this way.  They say to me, “Your children are our children,” and when I say, “Thank you,” they say, “Noo ko bok.” We share it.

The other day, I wanted to buy potatoes at Mrs. Diop’s corner store, but she didn’t have any.  It happened that one of the men who supplies Mrs. Diop’s store was taking a break on the front step and had a bag of potatoes to sell.  Mrs. Diop didn’t have the money to pay him at that moment and said she’d get it to him on Thursday.  The man hemmed and hawed about it (without ever really saying ‘no’), and continued to hem and haw while walking to the horse cart, grabbing the sack of potatoes, hoisting it over his shoulder and unloading it in Mrs. Diop’s store.  The complaining was obligatory, but so was the extension of credit.  Mrs. Diop and this man have been doing business for a long time and have built a trusting relationship.  This is how business is done here all the time.  In development-speak, we’d say that, in lieu of financial capital, people are leveraging ‘social capital’ to keep the wheels moving.  

My intention here is not to romanticize scarcity, but to draw attention to built-in social customs that allow people, within that context of scarcity, to live their lives with dignity.  I still think that people can be expected to put up with this shit for only so long until everything unravels, until “Things Fall Apart.”  But, so far, it hasn’t.  People here are friendly and generous and good-natured and funny.  Sometimes it’s a sardonic wit, which makes sense in light of how ridiculous things can get, e.g. power for 2 hours/day), but more often it’s warm and gentle humor.  That people have survived this long is a testament to very strong cultural practices and beliefs that keep people alive, and, in many cases, keep things moving forward, despite the lack of everything else.  It isn’t a testament to the individual human spirit at all; rather, it’s a reflection of the strength found in community.  It’s self-interest, yes, but a kind of self-interest that recognizes well-being as a community endeavor, not an individual one. In turn, well-being is fostered by cooperative institutions and practices, rather than competitive ones.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Heart Food Systems

For Valentine's Day, a subject close to my heart.  Food systems!  Yay!  

In America, most people get their food from the supermarket.  This is changing in some places, as people become more concerned where their food comes from, and discover the joys of CSAs, farmers’ markets, and home production.  But, for the most part, we buy our food at the supermarket, and few of us are responsible for producing the food that we eat.

Not so in Senegal.  Here, food production and distribution is a much more decentralized, democratic, and civic activity.  I’ve taken to calling it an in-your-face food system because food is everywhere.  It wanders the street, it’s on top of peoples’ heads, in the backs of their cars, in their backyards/frontyards/sideyards, vacant lots, extra spots of land at businesses, etc, etc, etc.  In general, average citizens shoulder much of the responsibility of keeping themselves fed.

I’m going to hold off on critiquing food systems with this post.  I’ve actually got another post in the works that does that.  But, what I want to state clearly is that, generally, I think that people in the US think of African food systems (when/if they think of Africa at all) as backwards, inefficient, impoverished, and unproductive.   This is not my experience here.  Very often, if people are not eating here, it is because they don’t have money to buy food, not because there is no food. Those lines sometimes get blurred, which has allowed the corporate agri-food companies to wield an inordinate amount of influence over how agricultural development is conducted, as well as to unduly influence terms of global trade.

Okay…so, now onto some pictures of the food system here in M’bour.

From my doorstep, here are some of the things I can buy.

The fish and langouste were caught that day, the eggs were probably laid within the last 24 hours.  The veggies were grown in close proximity to town, so didn't have to travel thousands of miles to get to my kitchen, thus wasting inordinate amounts of energy.  I can also get many different kinds of fruit, and, believe it or not, several varieties of goat cheese, made from the milk of goats here in town.  None of it is packaged and processed, and all of it is fresh.

Fresh fish and meat from chickens, pigs, goats, sheep and cattle, slaughtered daily, is widely available at the local markets:

But, people commonly kill their own meat at their houses, too.

While we're at it, I might as well show you the picture of the chicken that I killed.  Okay, yes, I've only killed one chicken in my life, but at least I know I can do it.

Food wanders the streets (this next one is actually from my trip last year to a different town in Senegal):

and is produced in small, in-between spaces:

Just a few days ago, one of the farmers in my study filled my backpack with eggplant and hot pepper produced on a relatively small space next to her house.  Yum.

This next one is in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal:

Of course, much food is also produced on large, rural tracts of land.  This next one is of rice fields in the southern part of Senegal:

As I said, I won't get into the implications too deeply here.  What is important to realize is that just because the food system is different, and does not resemble a 'modern' system, does not mean it is unproductive.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Rice

In honor of Black History Month, I want to share a synopsis of Judith Carney’s book, “Black Rice.”  The story is compelling to me because it challenges the dominant narrative of African slavery, which, almost exclusively, focuses on the brutally enforced subjugation of slaves and thus limits their participation in the building of America to victimhood and back-backing labor. Alternately, Carney positions African slaves as critical informants and conveyors of an entire rice culture, from production to consumption, which resulted in producing one of the most profitable export crops in America.  In telling the story, Carney demonstrates how African slaves used their rice-producing expertise as “bargaining chips” to negotiate the terms of their bondage, especially in the early years as plantations were being carved out of wilderness.

Conventional assumptions about African rice production attribute any sophistication to early Portuguese introductions of farming techniques.  One of Carney’s primary purposes in the first two chapters is to dispel that myth, and to reclaim African agricultural accomplishments that were undermined as a result of the slave trade.  Carney provides detailed descriptions that highlight the complexity, ingenuity, and productivity of these systems.  By describing how Africans leveraged the local ecology towards production, Carney illustrates an elegant agricultural system that was informed by generations of farmers, rather than something recently arrived with the Portuguese.  

Once Carney establishes Africans as innovators and practitioners of a complex rice culture, she has laid the foundation for supplanting conventional assumptions of victimhood and the complete subjugation of slaves by brutal plantation masters.  Instead, Carney posits that, at least early in the establishment of plantations, particularly in South Carolina, slaves were able to negotiate the terms of their own bondage because they, and they alone, possessed the knowledge and skills necessary for carving out productive rice growing systems from the wilderness.  It is a liberating and important dimension to the discussion of slavery, which, as Carney notes, is often presented in stark and forceful terms to convey the brutality of the slave-master relationship.  The story Carney tells is liberating because, “By recognizing the complex ways in which social relations are challenged and transformed in slave societies, we may develop an alternative perspective toward the ways in which slaves may have seized rare opportunities to negotiate and improve the conditions of their unfree labor” (p. 98).  Carney provides evidence that slaves taught white settlers how to grow rice in diverse lowland settings via the creation of irrigated systems that mirrored the mangrove systems of West Africa.  It was these irrigated systems that produced South Carolina’s highly sought after “gold” rice. 

Carney also analyzes the gendered nature of knowledge in rice production and processing, and sheds light on the particular and specialized rice growing expertise of women.  Carney extends her analysis to food preferences, and demonstrates how the rice milling and cooking processes preferred in the southern US were the same as those in West Africa, where it was the exclusive domain of women.  Carney thus highlights how rice production and consumption were synonymous with identity. As rice production systems became more entrenched, and as the imperative to produce more rice for the global system increased, the clear division of labor between men and women blurred, and the original gendered rice production system broke down, which translates, effectively, to an undermining and breakdown of identity.  Furthermore, during the mid to latter years of slavery, slaves lost their ability to negotiate the terms of bondage, and slavery became the more brutal institution that is familiar in the historical record.  

Carney’s analysis is ultimately a story of redemption grounded in Africans’ resistance and negotiation.  It is the reclamation of a history obscured by power relationships, privilege, and a discursive process that minimized or dismissed the cognitive abilities, and indeed the very humanity, of Africans.  Unfortunately, it is not ancient history because the relationships and perceptions of Africans that were initiated and formed during the slave trade still very much influence contemporary power dynamics and decision making.  The power dynamics that obscured the role of Africans in the development of a nascent American economy continue to affect contemporary agricultural development, which privileges westernized technology as “improved” and African agriculture systems as “static” and “unproductive.”