“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” — Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
I am going to Kagbere to study food. Sometimes, to mix things up, I add a few words to this, my stock phrase: I’m going to Kagbere to study the process of food production, I’m going to study food and agriculture. For the most part, though, my answer’s been the same for the last three months: I’m spending beaucoup bucks and flying beaucoup miles to study food. Cooking, farming, feeding, eating. No, really.
It never feels quite right, though; I always feel like I’m cheating my friends — better yet, my parents’ friends — out of something. I’m not telling the whole story. Because I’m not just going to Kagbere to study food. Or, rather, because I am. Because food means much more than the substances you put on a plate and into your mouth, because it symbolizes more than I could ever explain in a 30-second elevator pitch. Food is my key, my Rosetta Stone, my codex. And food — and all that it entails, men and women and bellies, production and consumption, making and unmaking — is the framework through which I am going to attempt to understand this Landogo Other, this conception of the universe that is and can only be vastly different from mine.
The process of food production, in other words, can be read as a system of signs and meanings, as a network of practice that echos networks of hierarchy, power, and lineage. These signs and meanings can be used to interpret, to code, an entire universe — and they must be, for the goals of development to gain any traction. Here’s the D-word, the big question lurking behind all my little ones, the thing I can’t explain in a neat phrase: I’m trying to redefine “development practice” to include those universes, that knowable but also unknowable Other, and the way I’m proposing to do so is through the lens of food production.
Choosing food as my frame seems natural, for it’s through the frame of farming and agricultural growth that I’ve studied Western development theory in the past — and learned, a bit too easily, that these theories and the programs built out of them often prove meaningless when put into practice. Such failures, I think, indicate more than the technical inadequacies of imported American grain or genetically modified seeds, and point to something more disturbing at the heart of development studies: they point to the disaster of “recycling… Western-centered systems of knowledge,” (Pottier 8). A further inspection of several development case studies — conducted in West Africa, no less — reveal a growing alarm regarding the failures of this paradigm: policy-makers and researchers “cannot continue to operate by remote control… At whatever discomfort and logistical inconvenience to themselves, they must become fully absorbed in the landscapes for which their innovations are intended,” and base their goals and expectations on “an adequate understanding of the society that is being subjected to change” (Richards 156, Nyerges 196). Understood in terms of this small-but-significant consensus, the goal of development becomes not simply figuring out how best to ensure universal access to basic human needs, but also — and more importantly — attempting to understand the landscapes, societies, and systems of knowledge that contain, constrain, and define those basic human needs.
The process of development, then, becomes a struggle of knowledge across unknowable differences, and everything the UN has ever published on hunger and agricultural development ceases to mean anything. The dichotomy of traditional vs. modern, agrarian subsistence vs. industrial production — which are really “structural modes inherited from colonialism,” as V.Y. Mudimbe argues — must no longer be the frame through which “progress” and “advancement” are promoted, for this frame too easily becomes an ideology promoted to “hide the temporal contingencies of imperialist expansion” (Mudimbe 4, Fabian 149). What separates the West from the rest, or my room in Seattle from a hut in Kagbere, is not that neatly linear process of movement towards modernity, but something much harder to pin down in a UN report. Maybe what’s really locked in struggles of confrontation are, as Johannes Fabian writes, “not the same societies at different stages of development, but different societies facing each other at the same Time” (Fabian 155). So how do we deal with and work within this ‘dialectical confrontation’?
This is where food as a codex comes into play, and I move past thinking about maximizing rice production towards thinking about what one single grain of rice can say about the universe it feeds and underpins. As nervous as I am, the literature on agricultural anthropology has promising things to say about making this interpretive leap. Apparently I’m not the only one who suspects food has a lot more to say that the nutrients it contains. Food systems and taste, depending on who you read, can “often represent an important expression of our identity, both as individuals and in reference to broader ethnic, class or religious groupings” and sharing food in the setting of meal “is not only enjoyable, but also has fundamental symbolism for the solidarity of families and the reproduction of relationships” (Atkins 272, 296).
Reading into the symbolism of food, then: that’s what my quest to redefine development — and my research project has a whole — has become. Breaking down the progression from farm, to kitchen, to plate, to belly; asking the who-what-when-where-how, and extrapolating from that what this “identity”, this “fundamental symbolism”, can really tell us about the Other on the other side of those seas of unknowable difference. Food means something, socially, politically, and historically, for everyone, and despite my utter incompetency in Krio and Landogo, I have tastebuds and I get hungry, and maybe that’s all I need to start reading this universe. To start inspecting how food, and eating, serve as markers of an ideal and its inevitable breakdown, to ask how nourishment works as a currency of love and of lineage. To learn what it means to be a woman who cooks and a man who eats; to learn what it means to eat rice, cassava, groundnut, when you do and if you do. To inspect what the very act of consuming food means at all: how it marks, or in some way even determines, social hierarchies and belief systems.
But before I go searching for that universe, my methodology proposes one first step: follow that single grain of rice. Ask who cooks, what, and when; ask what makes a good meal and a successful farm — and, from that: a productive marriage, an upstanding member of society. And not asking, all of the time, but doing, participating: taking cooking lessons, from anybody willing to teach me and put up with my likely failures, and writing down as much as I can about the alchemy of cooking, this “moral process” that transfers “raw matter from ‘nature to the state of ‘culture’ ” (Atkins 3). I want to visit farms, and eat and cook, but mostly I want to follow around women of varied backgrounds and abilities as they garden, farm, cook, serve, eat, and generally run this “moral”, “civilizing” process, and ask them why things work the way they do. Because, from food, I think I can begin to try to understand (not understand, but begin to try; I’m not that ambitious) this Other, and from that beginning I can see how development practice can change. And from that, I can start to reformulate my own conceptions of my place and purpose in the world. I can start to figure out what it means — really means, across borders and oceans and intellectual oceans of unknowable difference — to be a good person, to do good for something and someone else, someone Other.
Because, secretly, that’s what this is about. It’s about, of course, trying to justify or challenge what I study and what I think I know about global development and humanitarian work, but at the end of the day that means a lot more to me than academic work; it boils down to something I can never quite bring myself to say when friends and family ask. I’m going to Kagbere to study food, but really I think I’m going to Kagbere to learn how to be a good person, whatever that good means or doesn’t mean. I’m flying those beaucoup miles to learn, in ways my methodology or thesis statement can’t quite express, how to be human, in a world that is huge and hard and sometimes just plain awful. And to see how much is fixable in that, or how much beauty there is to share in that anyway.
A few months ago, when the beaucoup bucks had not yet been spent and this whole project was a little more abstract than it is now, I was scared shitless about that. I couldn’t figure out why I decided to ask myself, and the world, these questions; I was kicking myself for needing to learn how to be human, and how to be good, when really I could be spending my time learning how to identify all the bones in my foot, or how to read a supply-and-demand graph. I was a little upset with myself. And now — well, now, if it’s any consolation, I’m not kicking myself. I’m doing what I need to do, not just to be a student or an International Studies major, but to be a useful person in the world. And I’m okay with that, even if it makes me a cliché. But at least Claude Lévi-Strauss agrees with me: this research project is simply a “means for comprehending oneself,” and of coming to terms with the fact that I might just be that Other “who may accept being in charge of reproducing a mythical state which… will probably never exist” (Mudimbe 20). But I tell people I’m studying food production anyway, because then I don’t have to bust out the Lévi-Strauss.
I’m not expecting anything to be as simple as I’m making it sound, though. What I said on the first day remains true: I’m looking for truth, maybe even universal truth, but with every day that passes I become more comfortable with the fact that I might not find one. I’ll find answers, plural, to the questions I am asking, both about the world and my own place in it, and they will be new, vastly different and important, but there is no one answer to anything. No one path, nothing guaranteed; I’ve learned that much, at least. But what I am uncomfortable with — what I fear more than spiders giving birth over my bed, or somehow pissing off those giant ants that eat you alive — is that I’ll encounter these answers, these truths and these systems of knowledge, and I won’t be able to see them. I’m afraid of becoming so paralyzed by difference, by that huge and hugely unknowable gulf between my “I” and their “Other”, that instead of diving down into the human abyss I’ll run away. And there’s nothing I can do about that fear, nothing anyone can tell me to make me feel better — I just have to go.
And cook, and eat, and laugh, and share. I have to find a way to translate into Landogo the things I do here, as a human being who comes home and makes a meal with her friends, in the hopes that I’ll learn how to be a human being there. And from, that, I think, I can start to dip my toes into the human abyss.