Food, Culture and Survival in an African City
Cousins, Thomas, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
Food, Culture and Survival in an African City. By Karen Coen Flynn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. xviii, 254; 32 illustrations. $22.95 paper.
In Food, Culture and Survival in an African City, Karen Coen Flynn engages the challenge of describing experiences of food deprivation and the strategies that people employ in securing food in Mwanza, Tanzania. In this excellent contribution to the literature, she addresses theoretical and methodological questions about understanding the city in contemporary Africa and brings into focus the social and political questions that come to bear on attempts to mitigate hunger in urban African settings.
Mwanza is a small city in northern Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria that acts as a regional trading and transport hub with a rapidly expanding population (approximately 277,000 in 1992). Through an ethnographic look at Mwanza, Flynn aims to contribute to an understanding of food issues "in a time other than one of crisis" (p. 7), and by taking Mwanza as representative of many provincial cities in Africa, to understand urban survival in African cities. Flynn aims to explore "the nature of certain food related exchanges and in turn to challenge assumptions about their place or lack thereof in food acquisition theory and in turn in policymaking" (p. 7).
Flynn's ethnography of Mwanza examines the way in which Amartya Sen's work frames charity as a "non-entitlement transfer." Flynn makes the case for the importance of private charitable exchanges to food entitlement in Mwanza in order that food consumption can be more accurately measured and the effectiveness of food policy-making improved.
Using a large number of qualitative interviews, Flynn considers the changing patterns of consumption over time in Mwanza and food preferences among particular groups of the city. She discusses the different ways in which African and Asian households organize labor and kinship with regards to food, and considers the role of gender and marriage within these patterns of household organization. In particular, she highlights the way in which household labor comes to take on a gendered character through processes of intrahousehold income distribution, decision making, and food provisioning. Flynn also addresses the role of urban farming in food acquisition strategies, and reflects on the particular ways that street children and adults are able to secure their survival.
One of the strengths of Flynn's approach is a typology of survival strategies employed by various individuals and groups in the city. By defining "pooling, straddling, juggling and balancing on one foot," she describes the strategies that people deploy in response to a range of political, economic, and social factors. This somewhat prefigures later work on the dynamics and determinants of chronic poverty that also tries to shift overly reductive analyses of poverty that do not account well for material and non-material "publicly meaningful forms" (p. 27). Flynn does well to identify in this regard the importance of moral economies in shaping food entitlements.
Central to Flynn's argument is the notion of a "moral economy" that acts as a "potent force shaping people's food entitlement in Mwanza." Such a moral economy is based on "socially shared and socially enforced moral rules regarding food" that shape and are shaped by "forces such as the meanings assigned to staple foods, their production and supplies, people's access to these supplies, and food-related divisions of labour" (p. 21). By bringing an anthropological account to bear on Sen's notions of commodity, ownership, and legitimacy, Flynn aims to challenge Sen's apparent oversight in not including charity within the framework of entitlement transfers. In following Mauss's notion of the gift as a "total social fact," she argues that alms givers receive prestige and opportunities for religious salvation in exchange for the food, money, or clothing they give to the poor (p. …