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GSSC Seminar Series June 21, 2022

"Our stomachs are still hungry”: The colonial state, African nutrition and small grains in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), c. 1950 to 1970s.

Dr. Bryan Kauma (Durham University)



By the early 1950s, farms and industries in Southern Rhodesia were reportedly experiencing increasing cases of malnutrition and poor physical health among African workers. Yet, not- withstanding these intensifying alarms calls, the government as well as most mining and com- mercial crop sectors of tobacco, maize and cotton, were reluctant to acknowledge the crisis – let alone take action. The colonial state and employers alike avoided the additional expense of providing what was then understood as a decent diet for labourers or wages that could ensure one. Thus, despite increasingly joining the waged labour force, Africans could not rely on employers – so instead, as I show, they turned to the support net of African families. Rely- ing on primary archival data, this paper uses the development of small grains – sorghum, mil- let and rapoko – to re-examine the story of African food and nutrition over three decades in Southern Rhodesia during the Federation and UDI years from the 1950s-1970s. In telling this story, I show the contested social, economic and political impact that diets had on black and white society in Southern Rhodesia. I argue that African consumption of ‘traditional’ small grains was central part to the social and economic survival of a workforce in crisis. The paper shows how African ways of eating triumphed over the state’s notions of so-called ‘African traditional’ food and their economic ambitions behind controlling their diet.

Short Bio:

Dr Bryan Kauma is a historian of southern Africa, whose research interests are on the development of indigenous African crops, with particular attention to African small grains – sorghum, millet and rapoko. He graduated with a PhD in History from Stellenbosch University (South Africa) and is now a Lecturer in Modern African History at Durham University. Using food histories, the explores and revisits the complex social and environmental story of small grains from the precolonial past to present. His work shows that food is political, and is embedded in the social, economic and cultural everyday lives of African society. His work is inspired by his personal love for food and experiences growing up in Zimbabwe, and visits to different places around the world. Mealtimes have stirred his curiosity and appreciation to explore themes of agrarian patterns, food security and survival in the Anthropocene.