Food in Anthills of the Savannah

Molly Yancovitz '98, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

In Anthills of the Savannah, food symbolizes the division of labor, something we see in the interaction between Ikem and the elders from Abazon. The elders arrive in Bassa as a goodwill delegation that has come to declare their loyalty to His Excellency. They bring with them a petition about the drought in their region, which deeply disturbs His Excellency. The group presents itself peacefully, and after visiting the Presidential Palace, the elders and their guests entertain a visit from Ikem. The true reason for their visit becomes apparent in this later gathering of the elders and Ikem. The reader is informed by the white-bearded elder that the people of Abazon had not voted for His Excellency two years earlier, and in retaliation, the water bore-holes that were being constructed in the area were closed. They were told, "'[y]ou will suffer so much that in your next reincarnation you will need no one to tell you to say yes whether the matter is clear to you or not... So we came to Bassa to say our own yes and perhaps the work on our bore-holes will start again and we will not perish from the anger of the sun. We did not know before but we know now that yes does not cause trouble'" (Anthills 116). Understanding the true motivation of the elders accentuates the facetiousness with which the elder speaks as he promotes the existence of class divisions.

These farmers understand the pursuit of nourishment as the primary goal of men; thus the white-bearded elder utilizes this common necessity as a means of explaining class hierarchy. The elder talks at length in a seemingly self-effacing manner about the appropriateness of labor divisions. He urges his audience to respect Ikem's lack of attendance to their ceremonies and to be proud of how much he has achieved: "'If your brother needs to journey far across the Great River to find what sustains his stomach, do not ask him to sit at home with layabouts scratching their bottom and smelling the finger'" (Anthills 114). This man explains that the work of the world has been divided by the Almighty and should be accepted as such. The elder's description of the appropriate behavior that accompanies these separations emphasizes this surprising naturalization of class divisions:

It is proper that a beggar should visit a king. When a rich man is sick a beggar goes to visit him and say sorry. When the beggar is sick, he waits to recover and then goes to tell the rich man that he has been sick. It is the place of the poor man to make a visit to the rich man who holds the yam and the knife (Anthills 117).

Note specifically his emphasis on who controls food. The combination of the need for secure sources of food and the threat of violence keeps these men in a coerced and exploited position.

Near the conclusion of the novel, Beatrice and Elewa hold a naming ceremony for Elewa's baby girl. Elewa's mother and uncle arrive late, and have missed the naming of the child. Upon learning that the baby has been named, Elewa's uncle provides a gay and ultimately supportive response. His speech includes a series of interesting references to food that explain his attitudes and interpretation of the situation. His analogies justify his repeated deference to the will of the women. He listens to Elewa's mother because, "'[a] wise man agrees with his wife and eats lumps of smoked fish in his soup. A fool contradicts his wife and eats lumps of cocoyam'" (Anthills, 209). The uncle enforces the idea that the importance of all issues can be measured against the yardstick of food:

I only fight when somebody else eats what I should eat. So I will not fight. Rather I will say thank you. I will say whoever ate the foofoo let him mop up the soup as well. A child has been named. What else is one looking for at the bottom of the soup-bowl if not fish?'" (Anthills 210).

Thus, he proceeds to lead the prayer on the child's behalf, having recognized this lack of adherence to tradition as an inconsequential event in the context of the true concerns of life.

Food delineates privilege, economic class, and social position. In Bones, the instruments of food, pots and pans, can define the role of the person who possesses them. Pots and pans are the possessions of women. For a woman, these utensils serve to identify her duties, and to whom she is subservient. "Marita, how can you give me your pots and cooking things just like that? A woman giving away her pots and spoons is giving away her womanhood, my aunt used to say. Those are the marks of womanhood, Marita" (Bones 25). Janifa can not escape the position dictated to her by Marita's pots. "Marita, Chisaga did bad things to me. He said the pots and plates you left me spoke more than a child like me could understand" (Bones 90). Janifa cries out in pain, impotent to fight back against Chisaga, the man who claims the right to rape her based on these pots, or her mother, who is complicit with Chisaga so that she may imbibe the fine foods he can provide. Food and culinary utensils define social hierarchies, and serve as a driving force behind people's actions.

Chenjerai Hove uses food to symbolize resistance against colonial control. Janifa distances the workers' community from the white man who owns the farm. She speaks to the hypocrisy of the rules he makes, angered by his attempts to justify the inequality that stands between them. This hostility is expressed through an analogy to eating eggs.

Marita, those who eat the eggs of the hen say the eggs are not good for young mouths. Eggs are good, Marita. Good things are good things. Those who have them always want to make rules so that others cannot get to the good things. If eating eggs is a bad thing it must be so for all mouths, Marita. The hen that has tasted her own eggs never stops to leave some for those who also know the eggs are good. They warm the mouth with new saliva. "Good things are not for everybody," Manyepo says... Such a rule made by one who already enjoys good things is a bad rule, Marita. A bad rule for those who did not help to make it (Bones 98).

Janifa conveys the injustice of her community's oppression. She also enforces the legitimacy of her own culture, reproaching Chisaga for desiring the white man's ways. "'You and your wife can eat all the good things which the white man makes in his house but we have no hunger for such things. We eat what we can eat without any shame at all. So if you think that cooking for the white man makes my insides glow with envy, you are thinking wrong things'" (Bones 92). Janifa is content with her culture and her food; Chisaga's attempts to adopt the culture of the white boss is not respectable.

The importance of food allows it to be manipulated as a tool of control. Eating is a necessity, but being forced to eat represents a complete loss of control. Manyepo, the farm boss, uses this contrivance to display his power. There are numerous references throughout the novel concerning Manyepo's control over the eating habits of the community of workers. He dictates when and whether they eat. He also uses this authority to threaten the workers. After Marita leaves in search of her son, Manyepo unleashes his anger onto Marita's husband. "'You know nothing. Do you think I brought you here to know nothing? I know you think your terrorist son will one day appear and cause trouble for me. Manyepo chete. I will fix him and bring you his testicles to eat. I am well armed, my boy. You will never run my farm through your intimidation. Ask the bass boy, I am as hot as fire itself if you mess around with me"' (Bones 21). Manyepo displays his absolute power with this threat of force-feeding.

It is the need for food security that drives the people in Bones to seek work on Manyepo's farm. Bones is set during the time of Zimbabwean colonization by the British. By institutionalizing racism through residential rights, the colonial powers had usurped the land for the purpose of generating profits. Europeans occupied half of the land in Zimbabwe, particularly the more productive agro-ecological areas (Potts, Zimbabwe 1993). The policies instituted by the state served to satisfy the settlers' requirements for a migrant labor force and to undermine the Zimbabweans' agricultural competitiveness. Land evictions and the establishment of African reserves forced communities to disintegrate as they searched for an economically viable means of survival.

In Anthills of the Savannah, the rural farmers invoke images of food in their speech, for it is they who face the hardships of poverty and scarcity of food and water. The novel takes place at a time when the colonial establishment has been replaced by middle-class Nigerians. Thus it is highly appropriate that the food references evoked by these people pertain to the corrupt class hierarchy that has been established.

Food is a land issue and a power issue -- who owns the land and who controls its resources. Food security is a major issue for many poor and oppressed people in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this land is susceptible to draught. Most rural peoples do not have sufficient means to preserve food after it is harvested. Thus at times of drought, food shortages are rampant. Village communities do not have the means or the access to excess food supplies, hence they are entirely dependent on an administrative infrastructure to import foodstuffs to prevent massive fatalities. The availability of food is a constant preoccupation for those who do not have dependable food sources. Likewise, the relationship between those in need and those with the means to provide is fraught with tension.

Food sustains life. As Chisaga points out, one's stomach is one's ancestor -- it rumbles like a lion, refusing to be ignored. The importance of food in both Nigeria and Zimbabwe cannot be underestimated. Food is a motivating factor that propels action on the part of an individual, a community or an entire society. Food is part of the cyclical pattern of life; food is culture, and poverty is worse than war. Thus it is imperative to recognize the significance of the food imagery in both Bones and Anthills of the Savannah.

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