African Meals and Customs

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Meals and Customs in Africa

Back to Africa

MEALS AND CUSTOMS

The majority of rural Africans customarily eat one main meal a day and this is usually the evening meal. Upon arising, coffee, tea or milk or curds may form a small light meal while some people may be content to nibble on seeds. Throughout the day snacks of fruits, seeds, or nuts may be accompanied with beverages. In some areas a midday meal of fufu/ugali and relishes may be traditionally larger than the evening meal, which in this case would then be a cereal dish alone of gruel or fufu.

Infants are usually breast-fed on demand up to the age of two. Attempts to introduce bottle feedings have often met with sad results: sterilization of bottles and formula were poorly understood, formulas were diluted to last longer, and with the abandonment of breast-feeding, intercourse was resumed earlier than usual with a resultant increase in children who could be ill afforded. Bota is a thin gruel for babies, fed by pouring into the mother's hand and gently easing into the infant's mouth. Some foods and medicinal herbs if deemed necessary are pre-chewed by the mother then given to the infant.

Very young children are taught early that meat is a delicacy, but like other pleasures, they are also taught that they cannot always have everything they want: meat may be tasted and enjoyed, but it is generally not given until children are at least three or four years old.

In most parts of Africa, meals follow strictly specified rituals. At a very young age, children learn that handwashing and clapping of the hands must always precede a meal. Children must be silent while adults eat; further, they must never beg for food. Violations of these rules are punishable by beatings. Men pre-cede women at meals but no one eats alone. Dining is always a group pleasure and a time of calm and serene enjoyment. In some areas it is considered that women are somehow self-sufficient, and no one seems concerned if they are left only the crumbs.

Often if new foods are introduced by aid groups from other countries, the food must be appealing to the men, for if refused by them no one else will touch it.

Hospitality is considered of great importance and also follows a predictable ritual of handwashing, clapping, and the offering of food. Even if one is not hungry, to refuse would he an insult.

Totemism is greatly respected and it is considered proper to inquire of a guest what their totem is so that it may be separated from the rest of the food. For example, if the totem of a certain guest is liver, then liver will be removed from the rest of the meats to be served and given to the others so that the guest will not be offended. Other strongly held traditions concern local clan, family, and tribal taboos: for example the eating of certain fish, eggs or parts of animals or fowl may be taboo, and for the Muslims pork is forbidden.

While food growing and harvesting is done by the men, women are responsible for collecting fire-wood and water and for food preparation. So seriously are these daily tasks taken that young children perform play ceremonies enacting their parts as men and women of the household. This parent-supervised ceremony is called mahumbwe. Very young girls make serious play of helping their mothers and grandmothers at their tasks.

Finally, it is important to remember that the customs and traditions recorded here are a part of traditional and rural African life, but by no means practiced consistently. A large and continually growing population of Africa is the new middle class: freshly educated, ambitious, sophisticated, and eagerly creating their own culinary and social arts liberally laced with ideas from their rich past, yet at the same time new. Three meals a day, school lunch programs, scientific fishing methods, and modern farming techniques have already made many of the traditions seem archaic.