Thursday, 20 November 2014

Fieldwork reflections from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. Part II.

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’, changing food habits in Burkina Faso

As part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, each year I try to visit one or two of the ten research countries, and meet our partners there. This year, at the onset of the third round of research, focusing on how food habits and customs are being influenced by processed foods and foods perceived to be unsafe, I got to go to Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Here are some reflections on the second part of my trip.


In order to understand what is happening to food habits, the national research teams ask a multitude of question pertaining to the way people eat, such as ‘Why and when do you choose to eat out?’. Of course, there are many ways to answer this question. In Burkina Faso, one woman was very direct and didn’t hide her disregard for our silly question: ‘Why do we eat out? Because we want to! Sometimes you feel like having skewers. You could have sardines from a tin at home, but what you want is skewers.’

During a focus group with some youths in Kaya, 100km north-east of Ouagadougou, the discussion got pretty heated. 

In the course of the discussion, one of the men explained that when he can’t afford to pay good tasty food for his family of three, he will just eat out after work and then head home for dinner. The important thing for him was that at least he would be satisfied that day. Better him than no one.

Now, one of the good things about my role in the research is that I have access to the anecdotes and stories from all ten countries. Thanks to that, I knew that in some countries this story could never have been shared without hanging one’s head in shame. There are places where mothers in particular but fathers often as well will go hungry to ensure that their children have enough to eat. However, my ‘friendly observer’ role that day did not allow me to dig deeper and see whether I was the only one in the room to be startled by such an easy statement.

A few minutes later, another of the men explained that the main reason why people (read ‘men’) choose to eat out is because women can’t cook. When prompted further as to why he thought women couldn’t cook, he explained that a lot of women take the money given to them by their husband, but then use some of it to buy fabrics and dresses. In turn this means there isn’t enough money left to buy ingredients that will make a meal tasty. The other two men all agreed and referred to this phenomenon, this divestment of cooking funds, as ‘cutting’.

This time, I couldn’t help it. I very politely asked whether the story that had been shared previously about eating out prior to having dinner at home was also a form of ‘cutting’. As soon, as I asked that question, thereby challenging what had hitherto been an incredibly male-dominated discussion, it’s as if a screen had been shattered. One of the women sat opposite was unstoppable.

‘Do you think anyone can cook a meal with 500CFA? With 1000CFA?’

‘You men, do you even know what goes into a meal?’

So yes, let’s talk about that. What goes into a meal in Kaya?

The answer: Maggi cubes or one of the many other food flavour substitutes. A civil servant in her fifties went as far as to say ‘If you don’t put Maggi in your dish no one will even look at it.’

When I asked her and her colleagues why Maggi was so important, and whether their mothers would use Maggi when they were growing up, I was told by one of them that the first time she saw a Maggi cube was after her mum had come back from a trip to France 44 years ago.

And besides, back then with 100CFA you would get enough meat to feed a family.

And that’s exactly the hunch we had when we decided to investigate the emergence of processed foods and flavourings that we saw creep up in all the food photos we got sent in the past two years.

And indeed, there are some other, more concerning, ingredients that people add to their dishes for a wide range of reasons. Adding petrol to your sauce helps it cook faster, which means saving time, and saving firewood. Adding ‘Maggi blanc’ (artificial glutamate, best way to scour off metal) to a soup gives it that extra texture and taste.

These are just some of the examples (extreme I hope) of what people do to deal with food prices which no matter what they look like at the global or macrolevel, on the street still feel like they keep getting higher and higher.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is researcher currently working with Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, a collaborative study between IDS and Oxfam.

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