Feeding Families: African Realities and British Ideas of Nutrition and Development in Early Colonial Africa

By Lee, Christopher J. | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Feeding Families: African Realities and British Ideas of Nutrition and Development in Early Colonial Africa


Lee, Christopher J., African Studies Review


Cynthia Brantley. Feeding Families: African Realities and British Ideas of Nutrition and Development in Early Colonial Africa. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002. 248 pp. Glossary. Illustrations. Maps. Figures. Tables. Bibliography. Index. $64.95. Cloth.

This is a timely book. Feeding Families is a historical case study of British efforts to improve nutrition and solve problems of hunger in its colonies during the late 1930s. Cynthia Brantley focuses her study on the Nyasaland Nutrition Survey of 1938-39, a first of its kind, and the consequent Nutrition Development Unit that was implemented during the early 1940s. Her close attention to this early pioneering effort results in a finely grained history that reveals the tensions embedded in such projects-between scientists and anthropologists, development officials and colonial administrations, and, most significantly, between African livelihoods and European notions of normative dietary behavior. In these ways, Brantley's study speaks to contemporary debates about the meanings of development, the issues of power and authority involved, and the human costs when development projects fall short of understanding the complex realities of African communities.

Brantley's history is tightly composed in five chapters. Her introduction sets the parameters of the Nutrition Survey by addressing the reasons that the science of nutrition came to be a colonial concern during the late 1930s and that the small colony of Nyasaland (contemporary Malawi) came to be chosen as the first site for investigation. As a result of a general concern of the League of Nations to address hunger during the post-World War I period and a 1937 decision by the conference of British East African governors, a team of five experts arrived in 1938 to conduct a study of three villages-Namleta, Jere, and Liwewe-in the Nkhotakota District along the midsection of Lake Nyasa. Auxiliary studies of urbanized Africans also were pursued in Zomba and Blantyre for comparative purposes. Tensions within the team, particularly between Benjamin Platt, a nutritionist and head of the project, and Margaret Read, an anthropologist, existed from the outset based on different disciplinary training, field experience, and project goals, and also because of their strong personalities. …

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