Academic journal article Trames

We Are Strong Because of Our Millet Bread: Staple Foods and the Growth of Ethnic Identities in Uganda

Academic journal article Trames

We Are Strong Because of Our Millet Bread: Staple Foods and the Growth of Ethnic Identities in Uganda

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The construct ethnic identity can best be understood through an examination of its etymological origins. The term ethnic has Latin and Greek origins--ethnicus and ethnikas both meaning nation. It can and has been used historically to refer to people as heathens. Ethos, in Greek, means custom, disposition or trait. Ethnikas and ethos taken together, therefore, can mean a band of people (nation) living together who share and acknowledge common customs. The second part of the construct, identity, has Latin origins and is derived from the word identitas; the word is formed from idem meaning same (Trimble and Dickson 2014). Thus, the term is used to express the notion of sameness, likeness, and oneness. More precisely, identity means "the sameness of a person or thing at all times in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else" (Simpson and Weiner 1989). Uganda is a multiethnic polity and staple foods are among the major identifying indices of ethnicity.

Identity is generally considered to involve the mental self-images that a person assigns to herself/himself based on everyday interactions with people, groups, and objects. Identities reflect multiple layers of meaning that are cultural, structural, social, and individual in origin (Bisogni, Connors, Devine and Sobal 2002). The behaviors surrounding food provision and consumption provide subtle, yet fundamental ways of defining social identities and structuring social relationships. An effort to make a distinction between 'we' vs. 'they'--'food fight'--is often expressed through 'our' vs. 'their' staple food.

Studies in diverse populations have provided some insight into different aspects of eating identity (Bisogni eet al. t al.2012). Having a self-described healthy eating identity has been shown to be positively associated with healthy dietary behaviors, attitudes, and intentions (Brook et al. 2013). Among those who identify themselves as vegetarians and vegans, intersections between their relationships with animals and the environment as well as intersections with identities related to being ordinary and not being a "health freak" have been noted (Fox and Ward 2008). Intersections with other identities such as masculine identity and living alone have been examined in relation to eating identity, in particular meat eating, and food choice (Brook et al. 2013).

Like all culturally defined material substances used in the creation and maintenance of social relationships, food serves both to solidify group membership and to set groups apart. Food functions in social allocation, in terms of ethnicity, race, nationality, class, and, less precisely, individuality and gender as stated by Caplan (1997). Ethnicity is born of acknowledged difference and works through contrast. Hence an ethnic cuisine is associated with a geographically and/or historically defined eating community (Roque et al. 2000). But ethnicity, like nationhood, is also imagined (Murcott 1996) and associated cuisines may be imagined, too. Once imagined, such cuisines provide added concreteness to the idea of national or ethnic identity. Talking and writing about ethnic or national food can then add to a cuisine's conceptual solidity and coherence (Sidney and Christine 2002).

Ethnicity is thus complex and dynamic and the examination of ethnicity as a process in food choices reflects its multifaceted and changing c h a r a c t e r. The role of ethnicity in food choice is not adequately dealt with by treating ethnic variations as set food habits and food ways that operate as formulas that determine diets of different ethnic identities. Deeper dynamics are involved in ethnic food choices than descriptions of the food ways of various ethnic groups (Carol et.al 1999). The behaviors surrounding food provision and consumption provide subtle, yet fundamental ways of defining social identities and structuring social relationships. …

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