Good food, ridiculous diets, and a well fed Swahili: British approaches to food in colonial Zanzibari institutions
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Introduction "Food" seems simple enough. The word is short, a concrete noun, referring to something that everyone in the world can understand and recognize: food is what a person eats. But a simple definition often conceals a more complex reality. What a person eats varies widely across space and time and is governed by cultural norms and personal tastes. Just because food is a requirement for human life does not mean that what constitutes "food" is easily agreed upon. Food has important symbolic value (i.e., as a marker of identity, social status, or religion) in addition to its more tangible and obvious nutritional value (as calories and energy for the human machine). Studies of food in Africa have focused on food as nutrition or a commodity, with relatively little attention to the aesthetics of food or its broader cultural significance. Yet the literature on food includes a wide variety of approaches—ranging from structuralist anthropological interpretations, to tracing food's "social life," to recreating eating habits. The study of food can reveal much more than just what people eat.1 Food can be a revealing entry point to learn about individuals and society. The cultural and contextual aspects of food are brought into stark relief in institutions such as prisons and asylums, where menus are set, personal preferences are ignored, and food becomes the source of much disagreement. As one prison superintendent astutely noted, "any matter affecting diets in prisons is almost invariably found to be the cause, directly or indirectly, of all prison disturbances and outbreaks."
African Studies Center Working Paper No. 262
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