Fozia Ismail: Food as Resistance
Fozia Ismail, social anthropologist, supper-club host and ambassador for East African food and culture, recently contributed to OCC’s events series – Migrations: All Our Voices.
In conversation with Don Sloan, Fozia explored connections between food, race, identity and power and considered the lived experience of the African Diaspora in modern Britain. The discussion also focused on how deeply rooted, dehumanising perceptions of the African continent shape British and European (white) attitudes towards the food of African nations.
Guests at the event, which was held at Barings on 20th November 2019, enjoyed a Somali dinner, with a menu designed by Fozia. They dined on Maraq Digir (Somali bean stew); Sambusa with rainbow chard, feta and sultanas; Xaawash spiced plantain with ripe and green mango; all accompanied by Zataar bread and Bizbaz sauce; and a Cardamom Syllabub to finish.
In this article, originally presented at the Oxford Symposium and Food and Cookery in July 2018, Fozia introduces several of the themes that formed the basis of her conversation with Don Sloan
‘A Way of Seeing which we Learn’: Food as Resistance
How does a person of Colour navigate through landscapes dominated by White-centric thought and action? Let them eat sambusa.(1)
In this paper I will explore the theme of food and landscape from the perspective of race. I believe that the African food landscape is a dynamic and evolving scene, one constantly shaped by power relations. These power relations determine what is consumed, what is considered ‘cuisine’, who gets to decide, and importantly how knowledge about consumption is produced and shared – including the role that the digital landscape plays in making food knowledge more accessible for Sub-Saharan Africans across the diaspora. In a country that is increasingly hostile to people considered not ‘truly’ British, this paper, more than anything, is about resisting that hostility and finding solace in food: in Somali food.
I agree that ‘landscape is a way of seeing which we learn’, a way subject to the same hegemonic practices that exclude alternative narratives, particularly from people of Sub-Saharan African descent in the UK (2). This exclusion includes food itself: African food/cuisine is apparently invisible in the UK’s food scene (3). The invisibility of African food relates to wider issues around structural racism born out of British and European imperial history and the occupation of African lands. This occupation included a production of knowledge that framed White peoples as a superior race; the social construction of ‘racial identity’ justified actions like slavery and colonization. This construction in turn impacts how African peoples and their foods are seen or not seen or dismissed altogether in food history. As the historian James C. McCann says:
‘[t]he history of food as cooking and sensual experience overall is a new subfield that is growing rapidly. For Africa, however, the process has scarcely begun […]. In the area of ethnic cuisine, African occupies the smallest of spaces in even the most innovative bookshops or library collections.’(4).
I would add that it is not just that the work has not begun, it’s that the work has not begun within the framework of Western knowledge practice. African people across the diaspora eat a variety of African cuisines from their countries of origin; the techniques and knowledge of these cuisines are passed down informally through home environments. There are African people eating their cuisines across the UK in cafes or restaurants, but these spaces have not historically catered to the Western (i.e. White) market and therefore seem invisible in the UK food scene. The exception is Ethiopian cuisine. Interestingly Ethiopia was the only African country not to be colonized, and food was an important marker in the making of a strong Ethiopian national identity.(5) This identity went on to become the centre of a pan-African movement for Black people across the world. (6) I believe this is one of the reasons why Ethiopian restaurants flourished in cities across parts of Europe and North America and are an exception rather than the rule.
My own journey to writing this paper starts, in part, with a move to Bristol in 2014. I noticed two significant things with the move: 1) I was Somali; 2) I missed my mother’s food. It seems strange to say I noticed I was Somali, as if I did not know that to be the case before. Whilst I was aware of my racialized body, I had never lived in an almost all White neighbourhood (apart from a brief spell at Cambridge) until we moved. In Bristol I experienced regular interactions that reminded me of my Blackness; some explicit – ‘people like you should not breed’ – and others less so, like being ignored as the only Somali mum in playgroups, probably out of some kind of fear that English was not my first language. We hear the term micro-aggression bandied about, but what does it mean in practice? Let’s define it as the small, incidental interactions of everyday racism. And these interactions of everyday racism shape our food landscape. Consider that peculiar British obsession, tea.
Tea and Britishness
I am at a playgroup, the only Black person in this space. The first interaction goes smoothly enough: I am starting to feel a sense of pride in my fledging East African food business, and people are always intrigued and want to hear more.(7) There is a queue for the tea hatch being run by two women in their 70s. When I get to the hatch, one of the women, who had been serving the other mothers perfectly well, with a smile and a chat, stopped short when confronted with me. Unable to bring herself to look at me, she pretended not to hear me when I asked politely for a cup of tea. Her eyes were filled with such unfriendly indignance at the thought of giving me a cup of tea, and her arms locked straight down her body, their hard rigidity making it clear that they were on strike, that these White arms will not serve you. There is an awkward moment before the other lady gives a me a friendly smile and makes me a tea, providing a momentary release of tension for which we are all grateful. I take my cup and walk away with a smile, forcing my body into a performance, a kind of dance my face has played many times before.
Always when this sort of awkward social interaction happens to you as a person of Colour you know it for the racism that it is, but calling it that sounds crude and unreal, the word too big and too blunt to encompass this banal scene. You cannot accuse someone of being racist just because they are unfriendly to you. She did not say anything, but then we are more than words: her White flesh and rigid bone told me I was not welcome there. Such exchanges become an insidious and powerful form of social control. These seconds of interaction – really just a few seconds – leave such an impression. The powerlessness I feel is hard and made harder by the briefness of the moment. You are bound up in social conformities, the ropes squeezing hurt, anger, frustration, confusion, recognition inside, keeping your Blackness in check.
This is everyday racism in action, but even though it’s common, inevitably this indirect and casual racism blind-sides far more than that of the far-right skinhead with the ‘Britain First’ t-shirt. Him you can prepare for, but an innocuous looking elderly White lady at a playgroup in a church hall, that is not the image of a bigot. The irony that the cup of tea’s foreignness equals my own, and yet somehow has become more intrinsically British, is not lost on me.
How did this woman, and so many other White British people, come to feel this way? If landscape is a way of seeing which we learn, this woman has learned to see a British landscape that I do not fit into. How does this relate to food? It is everything and more, as this quotation from Stuart Hall encapsulates:
‘I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself. Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire […]. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity – I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea? Where does it come from? Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history. The notion that identity has to do with people that look the same, feel the same, call themselves the same, is nonsense. As a process, as a narrative, as a discourse, it is always told from the position of the Other.'(8)
Here Hall calls out the fallacy inherent in British identity; how can a cup of tea come to symbolize such Englishness without any acknowledgment of the complex history that brought that seemingly safe and comforting cup of tea to our tables? I am aware that my Black body in this English landscape is irrevocably linked to the trade of spices, sugar, and tea, and yet the vast majority of the British public seem ignorant as to how I and so many others have come to be here. Everyday food items we now take for granted held such value in the fifteenth century that it
set in motion the age of European exploration and colonization. How does this knowledge affect our understanding of African food in the UK?
The Structures that Frame Our Understanding of African Food
The colonial legacy of defining Black Africans as sub human has left its traces in insidious ways. If ‘culture began when the raw got cooked’, how can a supposedly uncultured people have a cuisine?(9) Representations of the African continent and its people are still on the whole negative. We talk about Africa as if it is a country, not a continent, caught in a seemingly endless cycle of famine and war. Its people are often compared with animals and considered primitive, exotic, savage, noble, and lazy. Boris Johnson’s disgraceful descriptions, calling African children ‘piccannies’ alongside ‘tribal warriors with watermelon smiles’, did not stop him from becoming the Foreign Secretary. This reductive and dehumanizing way of describing the African continent and its people is part of a long legacy that includes a systematic erasure of African civilizations and their influence prior to European colonialism. A production of knowledge about ‘Africa’ was cemented in the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment period, when European philosophers, scientists, and thinkers reduced African peoples to nothing more than objects to be studied, classified, sold, and conquered, all for the benefit of the Empire.(10)
Such systematic erasures and reductions largely explain why it has taken so long for African food to gain prominence outside the African diaspora. Other reasons include:
1) The structural inequality that has resulted from racism has meant people of African descent tend to be amongst the poorest in the UK, so there are less resources for setting up food businesses.(11)
2) Remittances are a factor in how financial resources within African households are used. One 2006 study found ‘that Black Africans had the highest propensity to remit, accounting for 34% of remitters […] while only representing 10.5% of the sample’.(12) Because remittances are a priority for many Black Africans in the UK, the pressure to support family and others in the country of origin is often behind the pressure to get a good education and a stable professional job. The remaining financial resources are unlikely to be used for something as risky as a food
3) Whilst food plays a vital role in maintaining the culture of African diasporic communities, it is not seen as a worthwhile vocation in itself (possibly for the two reasons listed above). From speaking to my family, there is a sense that it would not even be worthwhile paying for: the idea that you would go out and pay to eat something you could make at home seems astounding, even though Somali people will happily go out to a Lebanese restaurant or Italian etc. This attitude is slowly changing with a younger generation who are proud of their heritage and long for ‘authentic’ representations of African food within the British food scene.
4) There is an assumption that African flavours would not appeal to White British / European people; at the same time, a strong sense of what makes a dish more authentically Somali leads to reluctance to play around with presentation or creative interpretations.(13) My mother still thinks that my East African supper club does not make Somali food even though the Lamb Sambusa is her recipe: we have tweaked the presentation so in her mind it is no longer Somali. Despite such reluctance to adapt the food to the European market, the development of the street food scene in the UK means there are now opportunities to serve food in a contemporary way, whilst maintaining the informality that is recognizable in street food markets in Africa.
5) There is some internalized racism at play which results in the food itself being simultaneously cherished and tarnished through its very association with Somalia and Africa. By tarnished I mean fear: a fear outsiders looking down on the food because of the presentation or smell, etc. This contradiction results in a complex relationship to our foods. Yemisi Aribisala captures this with brilliant humour:
‘The relationship of the nouveau middle-to-upper income-earning Nigerian and their food is a mixture of love, snobbery, the passion that results from the snobbery, and social repression. It’s like loving fat women but being compelled to marry a thin one to keep up appearances; it makes the clandestine meets with the fat one all the more scorching’.(14)
Foods between Landscapes
‘We’re never more intimate with the environment than when we actually eat it.’ – Felipe Fernandez-Armesto(15)
Complexities arise in the spaces that are produced between landscapes. I am made of Somaliland and England by way of Kuwait and exist in between them; it feels like standing on tectonic plates that are constantly shifting. Brexit was a huge quake, formalizing what we all knew as Somali people to be true: our foreign bodies are not welcome in a country that I thought was my home. I can just about balance and hold onto something stable through the making of my mother’s Xawaash (pronounced hawaash) spice mix. Xawaash simply translates as ‘essentials’, and it is the essential spice mix that a Somali cook cannot live without. Ginow (my mother) makes her mix with lots of cumin and coriander seeds, a small amount of cinnamon bark, cardamom, black pepper, turmeric, and a tiny number of cloves. It’s not really measured: the bulk of the mix is made up of equal measures of cumin and coriander seeds with the rest of the spices making up a third of the mixture. The spices are lightly dry-fried in a pan and then ground up. I love the smell of it, I love the making of it, and I love how adaptable it is. It’s used in so many dishes that my mother would make for us as children; from the seemingly mundane Xawaash beans on toast with fried onions and green pepper to the sublime lamb sambusa, a samosa by another name. Ginow’s spicy lamb sambusa is truly special, fresh and aromatic with a hint of fire. Fresh coriander, green chillies, a small amount of ginger, an amount of yellow pepper so small as to appear pointless (but makes a difference), and a big white onion. It sounds like it should not be delicate with those punchy flavours, but there is a lightness of touch which is surprising and comforting. Every family has its own Xawaash mix, and across the Somali diaspora there is a bit of home represented in each spice mix: in making and eating that Xawaash, it feels as if we are eating Somaliland itself and remembering our nomadic past. I believe this to be true for most people of the diaspora.
I interviewed Alicia Ama who set up Chalé! Eats (a street food stall selling contemporary Ghanaian food) and Nima Owino of Nim’s Din blog and Cham Cham supper club (specializing in contemporary Sierra Leonean and Liberian food), both of whom run their stalls on the vibrant street food markets in Hackney. Food played a vital role in forming a connection with their African heritage. Alicia described it as the ‘the umbilical cord to Ghana’, and Nima was inspired to start her supper club as a way of raising money for the Ebola crisis that was affecting Sierra Leone. The food proved so popular she continued, and it is still going strong. Nima said she wanted to show more of Sierra Leone and Liberia than ‘portrayed in the news […] there is more than war and disease’.
For Alicia it was about creating ‘a space for me that I can work free of racism’. As women of African descent we have all come across lazy assumptions, casual racism, and ignorance about our separate places of origin. What struck me was how making this food became much more for us than just selling tasty grub for people to eat: it was also a way of resisting a wider racist narrative that so many people have about ‘Africa’ by educating them, starting with food. Alicia and Nima are part of an exciting vanguard of the African food renascence in the UK.
Reimagining the African Food World through the Digital Landscape
‘We younger negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame […]. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.’ – Langston Hughes(16)
I believe the digital landscape has played an enormous role in this African food renascence. It is democratizing the production of food knowledge in revolutionary ways, including making African food visible not just to African people but to a much wider audience. Take Eden Hagos, the inspirational Ethiopian food blogger who set up the Black Foodie blog. I spoke to Eden about what led her to showcase Black-owned restaurants in North America. After going through a negative experience at a restaurant in Toronto, where Eden and her Black female friends were made to feel unwelcome, she started to look more critically at how Black people navigated the food world. Eden realized that the incident she experienced was not just a one-off. This led her to create Black Foodie, an online platform showcasing the contemporary Black food scene. Her blog is revolutionary, not just to Canadians/Americans of African descent but to African and Caribbean diners across the diaspora. The blog appeals to what Alicia from Chalé! Eats calls the ‘Afro-Politian elite’. These are people of African descent across the globe, whether African American, Caribbean, or African.
Young Black social media-savvy trendsetters are using Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other platforms in innovative ways, influencing fashion, art, and culture across the globe. In the UK, there are online magazines like gal-dem, Black Ballad, and Media Diversified; internationally there is Okay Africa – a whole world of Black excellence flying under the radar of the mainstream UK press.(17)
Although Black people are not just ignored by the White-dominated press but, worse, often represented in ignorant and dehumanizing ways, digital media has allowed a rebalancing. We are producing our own platforms for sharing information in our own ways, which places our experiences at the centre, not at the margins. Better still, we are sharing and connecting with each other; the everyday racism we experience has a creative and funny outlet on that cultural phenomenon known as ‘Black Twitter’.(18)
In April 2016, the first conference exploring ‘Digital Blackness’ was held at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Exploring the evolving role that the digital landscape is playing in Black people’s lives, the conference reinforced that point by filming sessions that are available on YouTube, allowing revolutionary, even transformative, access to academia for Black people across the diaspora. Knowledge is power, and for so long that knowledge has been produced and controlled by people (who on the whole happen to be White) with resources: money to access education at a high level, contacts for work experience, and freedom to travel in a completely different way than any Black body, regardless of citizenship.
A Solution Is Found in Salt and Spice(19)
If landscape is a way of seeing that we learn, I see a Somaliland that is inextricably linked with England. I learned to make Xawaash in England, and yet it is also a reminder of a home, or at least of a landscape that is not English. When we as a family go for walks in the beautiful English countryside around Bristol, I always take a flask of shaah or chai. I grew up drinking shaah, the tea my mother made for guests. My boys now associate country walks with shaah as does my English husband; it is the only time I make it. I think there is something beautiful in this, a Somali trace of spiced tea in the rural English landscape. T.S. Eliot articulates the complexities of this migration well:
‘The migrations of modern times […] have transplanted themselves according to some social, religious, economic or political determination or some peculiar mixture of these. There has therefore been something in the re-movements analogous in nature to religious schism. The people have taken with them only a part of the total culture […. T]he culture which develops on the new soil must therefore be bafflingly alike and different from the parent culture.'(20)
Wherever people migrate, there will always be gaps in the availability of foodstuffs, some seemingly essential items that cannot be transported or do not grow well in the new environment. For my mother, who grew up as a goat herder on the Ethiopian/Somali border, fresh camel milk has a strong association with the Somali landscape; since leaving Somaliland, this camel milk has become, for her, imbued with mystical powers. Camels are so important to sustaining Somali nomads that there are forty-six different words for camel. My mother firmly believes fresh camel milk cures all sorts of ailments, and she laments its loss. The loss is far greater than just camel milk: it is a loss of home, a loss so keenly felt that my mother (along with a generation of her peers) took up a recipe for camel milk, consisting of the following unlikely but available ingredients: a dash of 7-Up, natural yoghurt, salt, and water. Imagine our excitement each Ramadan when she brought out the ‘camel milk’.
For children of the African diaspora this idea of home, of this ‘parent culture’, is entwined with food. If we are fortunate, our parents cooked food for us to pass this knowledge on. When I asked Yemisi Aribsala about the relationship between food, home, and identity, she said:
‘I can’t think of a topic more closely to heart than “home” […. P]eople in the diaspora hold their food close to their hearts because it is tied intricately with identity. Especially for people like me who can be walking down the street in Somerset West and someone will say “that’s the problem with ‘you’ Nigerians.” You are not wanted. You go home to your house, you cook your meal with all the aromatics that are your old friends, you eat, you are consoled. It feels almost like carrying your true home around with you.’
If culture began when the raw got cooked, the making and eating of food becomes much more than nourishment. In a foreign land or in a hostile and racist world it becomes a safety net for your identity, a space where you can simply exist and recharge this sense of you as a human outside of the White gaze. When you leave this safety net you again become defined by your otherness.
As I write this paper I am aware of the famine that is devastating East Africa. I am aware because we are always aware of what is happening back home and do what we can to help. We are connected: my mother’s sister, still a nomadic goat herder like many others, has seen her flock and way of life devastated. I have struggled to reconcile this reality with running an East African supper club. It’s felt indulgent and wrong to be commodifying Somali food here while the very people who have inspired the food are struggling.
We live in a time of political uncertainty. The recent vote for Britain to leave the EU was rooted in an idea of Empire: making Britain ‘great again’ is a form of nostalgia, a longing for a past that unmakes people like me. Against such uncertainty I am finding solace in food. The setting up of Arawelo Eats has been in some ways a response to a gap in the food scene, in others an outlet for my own nostalgia for Somaliland, a land I never lived in but which frames so much of my world through its wonderful people and cuisine. I hope it will frame my children’s world too: Somali spice tea fits the English landscape.
(1) A Sambusa is a fried or baked triangular pastry with a savoury filling.
(2) Gillian Rose, Feminism & Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 1993), p. 87.
(3) For the purpose of this paper, African/Africa refers to the Sub-Saharan African region.
(4)James C. McCann, Stirring the Pot: A History of African Cuisine (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010), p. 181.
(5) McCann, pp. 65-78.
(6) Fikru Gebrekidan, ‘From Adwa to OAU: Ethiopia and the Politics of Pan-Africanism, 1896-
1963’, International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 6.1/2 (2012), pp. 71-86.
(7) When I moved to Bristol I co-founded an East African supper club with Edwina Bruford called The Matatu Kitchen. The Matatu Kitchen closed in October 2017 to make way for Arawelo Eats:<www.araweloeats.com>.
(8) Stuart Hall, ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, in Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. by Antony D. King (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 41-68 (pp. 48-49).
(9) Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva, ‘A Conversation with Felipe-Fernandez-Armesto’, The Kitchen
Sisters, August 2014 <http://www.kitchensisters.org/2014/08/07/a-conversation-with-felipefernandez-armesto/> [accessed 20 May 2017].
(10) Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, ‘Situating Race’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. 959-64.
(11) Kehinde Andrews, ‘Racism Is Still Alive and Well, 50 Years after the UK’s Race Relations
Act’, The Guardian, 8 December 2015
<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/08/50-anniversary-race-relations-actuk-prejudice-racism> [accessed May 2017].
(12) Carlos Vargas-Silva, ‘Briefing: Migrant Remittances to and from the UK, March 2016’, p. 5
<http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/BriefingMigrant_Remittances.pdf > [accessed May 2017].
(13) This statement is backed by anecdotal evidence from speaking to my family and friends and on interviews with African food innovators such as Eden Hagos from Black Foodie (<blackfoodie.co>), Alicia Ama from Chalé! Eats (<chale-lets-eat.tumblr.com>), Nima Owino of Nim’s Din(<nimsdin.com>) and Cham Cham supper club.
(14) Yemisi Aribisala, Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds (London:
Cassava Republic, 2016), p.12.
(15) Nelson and Silva.
(16) Langston Hughes, ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, in Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures, ed. by Paul Gilroy (London: Serpents Tail, 1993), p. 172.
(17) gal-dem is a creative collective and online and print magazine created by women and non-binary people of colour; Black Ballad is an online lifestyle magazine centred on the Black British female experience; Media Diversified seeks to cultivate and promote skilled writers of Colour by providing advice and contacts and by promoting content online through its own platform; Okay Africa is an online magazine that showcases the latest fashion, art, music, and culture emerging from Africa and the African Diaspora.
(18) Black Twitter is a cultural signifier on twitter used by Black people, predominately in America but also increasingly in the UK and Africa. Humorous memes (ideas and concepts in visual formats spread in the digital landscape) are used in radical ways to poke fun at stereotypes and challenge racism. Black Twitter has also been an important platform for highlighting systematic violence against Black people through the #blacklivesmatter campaign and raising important debates about representation in the media such as the #oscarssowhite campaign.
(19) Ethiopian proverb qtd. in McCann, p.1.
(20) Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Cultures In-Between’, in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. by Stuart Hall
and Paul du Gay (London: Sage Publications, 1996), p. 54.