East Africa: How religion affects the politics of food

Picture4East Africa is a unique and diverse region, which today many equate to civil war and famine. However, there is a lot of diversity within this region. In order to illustrate these differences, I shall look at the effects that religion and ethnicity have had on food and therefore access when there is a reduction in availability.

To begin with this post will focus on religion and how these international factors have affected domestic relations, which has subsequently had knock on effects for the politics of food with regards to differences in access and the types of food consumed.

But first to offer some background: this region consists of 20 countries and islands with varying levels of population density. Of these diverse states Six — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda—form part of the East African Community, first established in 1967. Although this organization has suffered many Drawbacks during conflicts, especially during the 1970s, when the EAC “collapsed”, it has since reemerged, expanding its membership with South Sudan joining  in 2016 and can now frequently be seen to advocate for individual empowerment within member states. There is not much variation between members and non-members suggesting the variations come from domestic or international factors because diversity has not come from membership to regional organizations. This leads me into my first discussion based around religion and food

Externally, religion particularly the Islam has had a major impact on the politics of food in the region. It is evident that the expansion of Islam during the ninth century from the Arabian Peninsula had a greater impact on the population during 1880-1960, particularly in northern East Africa than the slave trade did in comparison to other regions. Much of the Islamic practices that were adopted from this expansion can be seen to accumulate under the umbrella of Sufism, as highlighted by Englebert and Dunne. As Fleisher notes, much of the coastline has been heavily impacted by Islamic culture, because of the high levels of trade that took place coastally between East Africa and the Middle East during  700-1400 AD, which introduced new spices and subsistence foods to the region. Specifically, we have seen the introduction of large amounts of rice, fruit and vegetables in stews as Fleisher shows. Dishes such as Injera, a pancake like fermented bread feature heavily, as shown by Ottolenghi. Accompanying dishes often feature turmeric and chilies, therefore reflecting another strong Arab influence. Clearly Islamic culture can still be seen to influence food with owing high Muslim populations in northern East Africa, with  94% the Djibouti population being Muslim.

Picture5The Islamic culture not only continues to influence food but also social practices surrounding food with the adoption of the feasting tradition. But, as Fleisher notes the cultures surrounding feasts represent physical manifestations of power, which are now reflected within East African communities that adopted such practices. From this there has been an impact on social structures which ultimately affect access to food due to Islamic structures embedded in state, which are ingrained within a numerous state constitutions. For instance, Djibouti’s legal system is based partially on Islamic religious law. This has clear implications for power relations particularly with regards to women. Dishes mentioned previously especially Injera often rely on experience, experience which owing to the culture falls to women within a community. This is because the Islamic Sufis culture consists of ideas which center around the notion that it is private/domestic teachings within the household that expertise in cooking is gained through, an area reserved primarily for women due to the practices outlined in Islamic law, which reflects and perhaps extenuates gendered relations. The divide created between men and women owing to the religious and cultural beliefs are extenuated by the positions women are seen to hold within the family and community, reducing their power as they are limited to the private sphere (the home). I argue that this can best be shown by East Africa scoring 59.1/100 for women’s political empowerment on the Ibrahim Index. This could affect access to food because they are seen as less important under this culture, which clearly affects their security.

From taking the example of the affects that religion has had on the food what can be implied is that how gains priority within a household is determined by this Sufis culture. Despite the influence of this religion no longer strongly felt beyond the north of the region there is a great historical impact particularly which has affected conceptions about women, which consequently affect the politics of food particularly when focusing on access to such food.

In acknowledging these religious impacts, it is crucial to apply this to a phenomenon prevalent within the region: famine

In Somalia a famine was declared in 2011 and it is clear that domestic and international religion has had a severe impact on the events of the famine. Arguably we have a seen a higher incidence of women and children dying as a result of the famine and previously mentioned power structures. The effects of the famine are felt more severely by women because they are arguably marginalized within societies owing to the effects of the religious culture.

moreover owing to issues pertaining to Al-Shabaab  (a sub-section of Al Qaeda) specially the prevention of aid reaching those most in need and the unwillingness of international organizations and the state to get involved in terrorist held areas, it is clear that religion in the region also affects policies in response to food crisis. A connection can therefore be drawn between the social relations, terrorist presence, and differing effects of famine as noted by Miller especially when the crisis is ignored internationally.

Ultimately as well as affecting the type of food eaten, what I have shown in this section is that religion clearly affects the politics of food by impacting how has the greatest access to the food and the success of policies initiated to stop crises.

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