Lionesses need historians more than fish need bicycles

Lionesses need historians more than fish need bicycles

The African story abounds with great women whose achievements are often reduced to prurient anecdotes

Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. So, says the Igbo proverb, which became a rallying cry for a generation of post-colonial African historians. But what of the lionesses? Are their tales being told? But enough with animal adages. Neither lions nor lionesses write history, while people do. The key question is: do the current written histories of Africa adequately include the experiences of the continent’s women?

Depends where you look. And who you ask. Since the 1960s, the university-based study of African women’s history has become a dynamic, global field. Where once the economic, social and political contribution of African women was regarded as an historical terra nullius – with women either entirely absent or relegated to minor roles in textbooks and tomes – there is now an ever-increasing body of research that includes analysis on a wide variety of societies, over 50 countries and hundreds of thousands of years.

Academia is acknowledging that African women enter the historical narrative from a variety of geographies and climates and that they carry diverse status, education, culture, age and other attributes. Moreover, all of the above can change or stay the same or circle through a combination of both within the endless ebb and flow that is human life and lives over time.

Academic historians recognise that what they study is not the past per se but rather an interpretation of the past, which is subject to revision and reinterpretation whereby distinct interest groups apply different standards, priorities and values and reach different conclusions. There is general consensus that interest groups with more social, political and economic clout have the power to dominate the narrative.

There is now widespread acknowledgement that the gendered nature of modern power is such that male stories are disproportionately present and that women’s stories are often assigned less value. The growth of African women’s history as a discipline demonstrates that spaces can and have been created to examine and challenge such power dynamics.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that almost all such scholarship sits behind paywalls on university websites. Non-professional historians are largely excluded from this information and the debates that such study stimulates. Outside of ivory tower academe, what passes for historical “knowledge” in the general chitchat of daily life more often than not either ignores them entirely or depicts women in terms of their perceived impact on men.

Historical evidence of African women is as old as humanity. Sometimes older. Humans evolved in Africa and so it is Africa that provides the backdrop for the first minimising of prehistoric women in the paleoanthropological corpus. Until the early 1980s archaeologists overlaid modern Western gender norms and sexual divisions of labour onto pre-historic, sometimes pre-human hominid peoples. Man the Hunter was widely considered to be the key evolutionary driver of human brain development and subsequent tool-making innovation.

Frances Dahlberg’s 1983 monograph, Woman the Gatherer, set forth a strong case for an alternative evolutionary trajectory in which Woman the Tool Inventor played an equal part in the human story. Which is all well and good – but for the fact that, over three decades later, that message doesn’t appear to have gotten through to the masses. Museums are the point at which the public and professional historians ought to intersect, but Africa’s pre-historic women are all but invisible at such sites. Androcentric stereotypes abound. Almost invariably, graphic material explaining the hominisation process depicts individuals of the masculine sex making their way from australopithecine to homo – thereby rendering the earliest African women invisible.

As Myra and David Sadker argued in Failing at Fairness (1995), “each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” How much more so if she isn’t even in the diagram exploring the essence of our species?

Yet it is debatable as to whether exclusion is preferable to defamation. African women who achieved scientific, political or economic success have often been pulled into warped morality tales masquerading as history, which reduce a plethora of complex characters to wicked women who drew men into their beds and on into their death. The deeds of women in times past are subjected to such treatment worldwide but the practice seems particularly prevalent when it comes to telling tall tales about successful African women, who are almost invariably subjected to what amounts to a form of “ye olde” slut shaming. The accompanying character assassination is seldom supported by the sort of historical evidence-based scholarship found on the other side of the paywall.

Consider Cleopatra. Mary Hamer’s Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (2001) offers us vast quantities of contemporaneous written records demonstrating the diplomatic, naval, linguistic, cultural and philosophical skills of Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-10 BC), the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Her tenure alone speaks to such skills. She ruled for 21 years and at the height of her power controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the region. And yet she survives in the popular imagination through a distorted depiction of her romantic relationships. She built fleets, suppressed several insurrections, controlled a currency and guided a nation through plagues and famines but she is remembered as a bare-breasted seductress bathing in milk.

Linda Heywood and Louis Madureira’s 2015 article, Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo/Matamba: African Leadership, Diplomacy, and Ideology, 1620-1650 offers chapter and verse on their study subject’s skills as a military leader, strategist, diplomat and exponent of realpolitik par excellence. Research reveals the woman who defined and dominated what is now Angola in the 17th century to be a complex and contradictory character. At times, she profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while at other times she protected escaped slaves. For over 40 years, she successfully limited the Portuguese colony at Luanda to a few square kilometres. How is it that her achievements are less well known than gratuitous and unsubstantiated gossip about her immolating a harem of male lovers?

Publicising the achievements of African women from previous generations has the potential to impact on the development of self-respect for African girls and women going forward. There is inspiration in knowing about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Asante-born Nanny of the Windward Maroons (c.1686 – c.1755) who escaped from slavery in Jamaica, led a successful armed rebellion, freed more than 1,000 previously enslaved people and achieved a 1740 peace settlement with colonists, under the terms of which she negotiated a land grant of 500 acres at what became known as Nanny Town.

In the face of Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation tactics, which threaten girls’ access to education across West Africa, there is strength to be drawn from knowing that in 859CE an African woman, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco. UNESCO describes it as the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world. Female alumni include Fatima al Kabbaj, member of the Moroccan Supreme Council of Religious Knowledge.

At its most pernicious, observations of a past that never was are used to support patriarchal practices that exclude women from power in the present. During Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel he responded to a question about his wife’s political opinions with the comment that, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room” because he could “claim superior knowledge over her”.

Indeed, 2016 was a banner year for Nigerian patriarchal put-downs. In the same year, that country’s senate rejected a Gender and Equality Bill that included equal rights for women in marriages, divorce, property ownership and inheritance. Several senators stated that they opposed the law on the grounds that it was “un-African” and “anti-religious” to accord women equal rights with men.

Such statements invoke tradition, but the historical record shows otherwise. Kamene Okonjo’s studies of women’s political participation in Nigeria show that pre-colonial West African women were often much more economically, socially and politically independent and powerful than modern “traditionalists” would have us believe.

Their disempowerment came about by way of colonial Eurocentric, not indigenous African values. Chima J Korieh’s Gender and Peasant Resistance: Recasting the Myth of the Invisible Women in Colonial Eastern Nigeria, 1925-1945 (2003) offers evidence that while Nigerian women had historically participated in the government, the British colonial authorities saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and moral disorder” and would only engage with the political institutions headed by men.

Struggles over alternative views on the desirability of female political and economic power sparked significant anti-colonial revolts, including what modern historians tend to call the Women’s War of 1929 (Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo), which was described by colonial authorities as the Aba Women’s Riot.

A watered-down version of the Nigerian Gender Equity Bill was subsequently passed in 2017 but the claiming of tradition to support female subjugation illustrates how a patchwork of patriarchies can cross the hunter/lion duality. There are times when hunters and lions form alliances around their common predator paradigm and call on faux history in support of shared interests. As we recognise and rectify the exclusion and misrepresentation of female African lives from the study of history, let us take cognisance of life’s complexity.

Even if certain sorts of lions and lionesses now have/are historians, accounts of their times past are likely to be incomplete unless the experiences of the earthworms and the elephants and the E.coli are included. Not to mention the valuable perspectives provided by the trees and the reeds. And the wind and the rain. Ultimately, ours is an interdependent ecosystem. 

 

Dr Anna Trapido is an anthropologist and a chef. She trained as an anthropologist at King’s College, Cambridge, completing her PhD in the department of community health at Wits University, Johannesburg. She qualified as a chef at the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy in Pretoria, and uses both disciplines in her work. She has won gold at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards three times (for To the Banqueting House – African cuisine an Epic Journey, Hunger for Freedom – the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela, and Eat Ting – lose weight, gain health, find yourself).
Africa is the new Asia – now what?

Africa is the new Asia – now what?

African food entrepreneurs need government support to protect the value of their heritage products

When it comes to international food fashion, Africa is the new Asia. So, say über-influential, absurdly chic London food design studio Bompas & Parr. Their 2018 report, The Imminent Future of Food, predicts that internationally the “obsession with food from Asian countries will dwindle in favour of African cuisine because (Africa) is arguably the main remaining world food culture left to be adopted, adapted and commercialised.

“Bompas & Parr has already worked on African-focused projects for European commercial clients which reveal starkly different flavours, consumer expectations and notions of hospitality,” the report continues. “At our bar, Alcoholic Architecture, we also hosted sell-out special events incorporating Ghanaian bitters in cocktails, revealing a profound curiosity on the part of consumers for new tastes and flavours. This is just the start.”

Traditional Ethiopian dish consisting of a meat, vegetables, grains, rice and served with pancake-like injera.

The continent is also suddenly super-food central, with the worldwide wellness blogger brigade ditching last year’s chia seeds and turmeric in favour of African indigenous ingredients such as baobab and marula. Confusingly, the American actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who runs lifestyle brand and website Goop, has recently referred to both sorghum and fonio as “the new quinoa”. Since both are gluten-free, low GI, African ancient grains it is all much of a muchness as regards nutritional value – though both taste significantly better than South American quinoa.

The hipster health nuts and the foodie fashionistas aren’t wrong to recognise value in African cuisines. They offer a plethora of fine flavours, from the aromatic cumin and cinnamon infused lamb tagines of Morocco to the generous peanut and ginger joys of Ghanaian hkatenkwan chicken and on into the comforting floral flavours of a Congolese cassava kwanga bread. Interesting ingredients abound, including the rich, soured splendours of South African amasi curds and the berbere-spiced grace of an Ethiopian wot pot.

What is unsavoury is the implication that the continent’s deliciously diverse time-honoured epicurean expressions of identity exist to be “adopted, adapted and commercialised” as transient novelties in northern cosmopoles. Try adopting, adapting and commercialising a regional French food without so much as a by your leave! You’ll quickly find yourself slapped with a geographical denomination suit.

Tangible and intangible benefits can and should accrue to all sectors of African society by way of the continent’s “new Asia” status. But it is also possible that the trend will become yet another round of cultural appropriation, bio-prospecting and/or piracy. To prevent such a situation, African food entrepreneurs are attempting to take the lead in curating the commercialisation of their continent’s cuisine at home and abroad.

Turning food culture into economic value for Africans is especially important given that the Food and Agricultural Organisation reported that in 2017 there were 224 million under-nourished people in sub-Saharan Africa. On this score alone it would be morally repugnant if the fashion for African food further exploited and impoverished the continent’s culinary cultures.

Currently, the global fine-dining world is focusing on heritage flavours reimagined to delight modern palates. This trend is as true in the New Nordic cuisine of René Redzepi, chef-patron of two-Michelin star Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, as it is in the work of Pierre Thiam, executive chef of the contemporary African restaurant Nok by Alara in Lagos, Nigeria.

Nok, located within a bespoke building designed by Ghanaian-British architectural superstar David Adjaye, serves a signature starter of ofada rice balls sauced with egusi (wild gourd seed pesto) and ndole (bitter, leaf salsa). At Epicure – Johannesburg’s culinary kingdom of Afro-optimistic elegance – Burundian-born chef/patron Coco Reinarhz engages in an exquisite ancient-to-modern culinary dialogue that includes a plate of fried plantain aloko topped with a swirl of tuile biscuit and a quenelle of ruby bissap rouge (hibiscus) sorbet.

This style of cooking often requires relatively rare traditional ingredients and indigenous knowledge. Chefs often have to seek out and commission such crops from relatively isolated, traditional subsistence farming and foraging communities, many of whom exist on the fringe of the cash economy. In so doing, they create and maintain profitable markets for otherwise endangered heritage foods, and go some way to promoting biodiversity and supporting indigenous agricultural and culinary knowledge.

This is as true for Brazilian Chef Alex Atala, who uses Amazonian ingredients at DOM, his Sāo Paulo restaurant; Atala won the Chef’s Choice award at the 2014 S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014. It’s also true of Paternoster, where South African chef Kobus Van der Merwe creates perfect plates, such as maasbanker bokkom and pear salad with ice plant, dune spinach and sea lettuce tossed in pickled ginger, celery and almonds.

Executive Chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: supplied

Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin, CEO of Yswara fine African tea, describes her business model as “luxe ubuntu”. A recent winner of a Brand Africa award, she processes and blends African heritage ingredients sourced from fair-trade growers, using equipment commissioned and manufactured in Africa. She says, “luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model in which all the members of a supply chain are beneficiaries of the economic value generated.  We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value add in Africa.”

Martin, who opened her flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Johannesburg in September 2017, has concluded deals with Selfridges in the UK and Galeries Lafayette in France. Such international links not only provide tangible benefits of export earnings and profit repatriation, but also play a role in distancing Africa from hitherto commonplace negative stereotypes by encouraging desirable associations with elegant, world-class wonderful artisan offerings.

Some government interest and assistance could further promote such image improvements. In Peru, government promotion of regionally specific, high-end heritage cuisine, and the restaurants that serve it, brought significant economic benefits. Until recently, for instance, tourists commonly considered Lima to be a kidnap risk and begrudged the stopover on the way to Machu Picchu. It is now a “must-visit” food experience destination, with five restaurants in the top 50 of the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. Similarly, the Mexican government has promoted the country as a culinary destination and inscribed Aztec food culture in the UNESCO-administered list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

How is it that the government of Mozambique has not applied for piri piri to be classified as such? This classic southern African sauce/seasoning is increasingly popular worldwide with an appreciative audience – most of whom have no notion that their favourite flavour originates in the Afro-Lusitanian fusion food culture of Maputo. Meanwhile, the “peri peri” (sic) potato chips sold all over the US are an inferior interpretation that undermines the value of authentic piri piri and may limit the long-term potential for Mozambican food entrepreneurs to create a food tourism industry around their fiery birthright.

Burundian-born Coco Reinarhz, chef/patron of Epicure in Johannesburg. Photo: Clinton Nortje

Real Mozambican piri piri is made from an African Landrace chilli, according to a regionally specific recipe. It would, therefore, be an ideal candidate for an international Geographical Indicator (GI), which would protect the value that resides within such heritage. Currently, the European Union (EU) has registered more than 837 GI-recognised products, including Cheddar cheese, Parma ham and Rioja wine. Following World Trade Organisation (WTO)  dispute resolution proceedings, the EU was forced to amend its GI legislation to recognise third-country GIs.

It is now possible for producers from non-European countries to register GIs under EU Regulation 510/2006, provided the GI is protected in its country of origin. Colombian coffee was the first product from a developing country to be granted such GI by the EU. With Europe being a major export market for many developing world products, this law affords producers a valuable opportunity to protect their GIs throughout the EU member countries by submitting a single application.

GI applications under the EU system require detailed documentation on the product’s specificity and link with the territory. To date, the only African products registered with the EU GI are Rooibos, Honey bush, Karoo lamb and Essourian argan oil. Yet African governments neglect to protect foodstuffs in their own jurisdictions, while they hamper food entrepreneurs’ ability to put a premium value on their intangible cultural heritage at export.

The world is waking up to the beauty of African cuisines. Recognition is all well and good. A share in the tangible and intangible value of such food cultures for the people from whence they come would be better. A culinary coalition is required to make this a reality.

African restaurateurs and other food producers are increasingly creating partnerships, upstream with suppliers and downstream with end users. What they lack is sufficient governmental support and respect. A trend is transient. African epicurean entrepreneurs must campaign for a permanent seat at the table of great world food cultures. As we saw earlier, this would be just the start. 

Dr Anna Trapido is an anthropologist and a chef. She trained as an anthropologist at King’s College, Cambridge, completing her PhD in the department of community health at Wits University, Johannesburg. She qualified as a chef at the Prue Leith Chef’s Academy in Pretoria, and uses both disciplines in her work. She has won gold at the World Gourmand Cookbook Awards three times (for To the Banqueting House – African cuisine an Epic Journey, Hunger for Freedom – the story of food in the life of Nelson Mandela, and Eat Ting – lose weight, gain health, find yourself).