One of the most common questions I’ve gotten from friends regards the food that we get here. Do you get enough to eat in Africa? Do Somalis really have their own cuisine?
From my perspective on the ground in Somaliland, such inquiries sound naïve. The vast majority of Africans aren’t starving. Western charities and media love nothing more than a photo of a hungry-looking African child to attract donations and development dollars. (If you don’t believe me, read Michael Maren’s “The Road to Hell”, a scathing and disturbing analysis of NGO’s and the aid sector. Much of the book is based on the author’s experiences in Somalia.) Also, Somali cuisine does exist and it features elements from African, Arab, and Indian cooking. But to the average person in the West who is not familiar with the Horn of Africa, any mention of Somalia and food in the same sentence will probably lead to the topic of famine.
The famine that has crippled much of the Horn this year is an incredibly sad and serious situation that has no easy answer. Like almost every issue in Somalia, there are so many different factors contributing to the problem. Policymakers around the world have struggled for the last two decades on the issue of how to do something in Somalia without making things worse. Unfortunately, they have been largely unsuccessful and most attempts to build peace, stability, and development have been futile (see Blackhawk Down, the UN Operation in Somalia, the weak Transitional Federal Government, the rise of Somali piracy, al-Shabaab, etc.)
This blog post is about food, so although Somaliland has been fortunate enough to avoid the famine, I felt it necessary to put my two cents in about how tricky ‘fixing the famine’ in the Horn of Africa really is. Somalia is a classic example of a place where food aid has been used as a tool of war by warlords to prolong conflict and gain power. International actors meddling in Somalia’s affairs have historically created more problems than solutions.
I really had no idea what to expect in terms of food before I got here. I had read that Somali cuisine featured goat, beef, camel, laxoox (a spongy, fermented pancake similar to Ethiopia’s injera), sugary tea, and spaghetti – a remnant of the times when most of Somalia was an Italian colony. Interesting fact: the capital city is known as Mogadishu in English, Muqdisho in Somali, and Mogadiscio in Italian…
I was pleasantly surprised to find that a surprising amount of Western foods can be found in Somaliland. Peanut butter, Nescafe, ramen noodles, soy sauce, and Corn Flakes are all stocked on the school’s kitchen’s shelves. What I find interesting is where all of these products come from.
From my international and development economics courses that I took in college, I remember learning about how Europe and the United States give enormous subsidies to their own farmers to incentivize them to keep producing agricultural goods. Even though highly-industrialized, technologically-advanced countries such as America and France have a comparative advantage in producing goods like automobiles, ipods, and heavy machinery, these countries also produce lots of agricultural commodities. In the US, attempting to reduce the size of the agriculture industry would be politically unfeasible. Politicians from ‘farm states’ represent constituents who rely on government subsidies to make it economically possible for them to continue being farmers. With these subsidies, Nebraskan corn farmers are able to grow massive surpluses of their goods. What does America do with all this extra corn? Some of it is turned into high fructose corn syrup and cattle feed. A lot of it is processed, packaged into bulk foodstuffs, and shipped to Africa to be handed out as USAID food aid.
As if offloading donations of ultra low-cost food isn’t enough to cripple African farmers, most Western countries also have high protectionist tariffs and import quotas to give their domestic agricultural producers an unfair competitive advantage. Just read about the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which provides subsidies to European farmers and places restrictions on imports of any agricultural goods from outside of the EU. Cotton producers from Europe are eligible for a subsidy under CAP. But if you are a farmer in Burkina Faso growing cotton, tough luck. Not only are you trying to farm in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, but you also find that when it comes time to try and sell your goods on the international market, your cotton faces high import tariffs that you cannot afford to pay and that make it a bad economic decision for you to keep farming in the long-run.
This is all a very long-winded way of explaining why nothing I eat here in Somaliland comes from Africa. To be fair, most of our fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat are bought in the local market and may be relatively local. But overall, I am amazed at how far the different things I eat seem to have traveled.
The ‘long-life’ powdered milk we drink comes from Saudi Arabia. Honey comes from the UAE. Soy sauce is a product of the Philippines, our ramen comes from Indonesia, and our ketchup comes from Kuwait. Even our eggs travel across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen to get to our plates. That blows my mind, because there are chickens everywhere in Somaliland – someone needs to start collecting their eggs!
We place bulk orders through one of the local gas station/food supply stores, and they get their goods shipped over from Dubai. To know that my Indonesian ramen crossed pirate-infested waters to get to me makes it taste even better!
My awe at globalization aside, I now appreciate the difficulties of buying in bulk. We buy four months’ worth of Corn Flakes, toilet paper, and flour at a time. A scary percentage of the food I’ve consumed since being here has been either close to the expiry date or substantially past it. My worst case was when I realized that what I thought were flaxseeds in my wheat biscuit cereal turned out to be baby cockroaches. Yes…I ate baby cockroaches unknowingly for a week! Then I checked the expiration date hidden on the bottom of the crate of Weetabix and saw that they had expired in September 2010.
Despite the bulk orders of Western foods from around the world, we still manage to eat Somali food a good amount. Laxoox, the spongy pancake, is served at every meal. Xabxab (Somali for watermelon) is sliced for us a couple times a week. We also get goat stews and sambusas when we are lucky.
The purpose of this post is to show not only what I eat over here, but also the unintended consequences that can occur from political decisions made very far away. UN food aid used as ‘conflict currency’ by Somali warlords, EU policies making it nearly impossible for Malian farmers to sell their rice – all of these political actions have far-reaching effects across the globe.
Maybe all I want at the end of the day is to eat a peanut butter & jelly laxoox sandwich and drink a cold glass of milk while resting assured that everything I’m consuming has been produced on the African continent…
**Please enjoy the edible luxuries available to you in the Western world and go stuff yourself after reading this. Never take pesto or guacamole for granted again; someday you may move to Somaliland and have to live without it for a year.