The role of food in identity formation

The role of food in identity formation: a case study of Nigerians in Belgium (1970-present).

Maureen Duru

Whenever food and Africa are mentioned in the same sentence, what comes to mind is a land ravaged by famine and hunger. Without denying the importance of food aid to the famine ravaged areas of Africa, it is time attention is also focused on the food culture of Africans. As food is central to ones identity this will provide a window to observe the traditions and norms of the diverse African Societies.
The main aim of this research is to examine the role of food as a means of identity formation and sustenance among Africans in Belgium. Africa as used in the context of this research represents Sub Saharan Africa. The main data which forms the basis of this study is obtained from Nigerians living in Belgium. Although there are other groups from Sub Saharan Africa living in Belgium, the Nigerian migrants provide an ideal research focus. Not only is their migration to Belgium a recent event, they also lack the means of integration which a common language with the host community provides. Thus integration for them is more difficult than for an African from Zaire, a former Belgian colony or for migrants from North Africa. However a study of African Food patterns, can never be a study of a group in isolation as there are always comparisons and references to be drawn from neighbouring groups. This is evident in Belgium, with an already existing migrant community, Nigerian migrants on arrival were confronted with an existing foodway for the Belgians, and for other migrant communities. Their interaction with these other foodways is of interest to this study, especially their reaction and attitude towards the different foodways.
The African food culture while not uniform is diverse but closely related .The aim of this study is not just to understand the relationship between food and identity construction but also what influences or fortifies this relationship.As identity is said to be flexible, it is changeable and can assume different forms. Among migrants, change and flexibility is a must in their lives. However in their food patterns, how has this change been effected. Is it possible to be open to change while still holding unto their food culture. What Affinity is there between what an African eats and who he is? Is this correlation between food and identity obvious and thus maintained or is it a subconscious act.?
Ethnic alliance is very strong amongst Africans and in their food culture this is reflected. The foundation of what may be termed an African food culture, has ethnic origins. Thus African food culture has different representations at different levels. Focus group interviews were used and analysed to help understand the role of food in enculturation and interpersonal relationship. In interracial homes, there is a greater evidence of the role of food as an identity marker. Each partner decides to what extent they wish to be part of or share the others identity group by choosing which part of the food culture they will accept. Thus through food one can be included or excluded from the other’s group.
Cultural, political, social and economic factors in their host environment also play a major role in defining the food culture of Africans in Belgium. Just as they have done in other aspects of their lives, their food culture while maintaining some aspects of their origin, also had to evolve to make up for any inadequacies in the new environment. This evolution is more evident in recipes, cooking utensils, methods of preparation, availability and use of food ingredients.
Of great importance is the role of gender in African food culture. In African families in Belgium, compromise and sometimes reversal of roles is evident. As it is for all mankind, food is very important to the African and encompasses all aspects of his life. Not just as a means of sustenance but as a vehicle for projecting his tradition through rites, norms and etiquette surrounding food. Their relationship with themselves, their environment, and perception of their roles in their society can all be defined by their food.