Do Nations Have Stomachs? Food, Drink and Imagined Community in Africa

Paul Nugent


This paper takes a rhetorical question posed by Ernest Gellner and reframes it to ask whether a sense of national identity can be forged through everyday acts of consumption – in particular, that of food and drink. The article finds value in Benedict Anderson’s conception of the nation as an imagined community, but argues that it makes little sense to privilege the printed word over other forms of consumption. The article goes on to suggest that there have been significant convergences at the level of consumption, but that not all of this has led to reflection about what it means to be a member of the nation. Some lessons are drawn from literatures about music and dress, following which the attention turns to alcoholic drinks and everyday foodstuffs. The history of the consumption of beer and wine in South Africa is used as a case study for convergence in a least likely scenario. The discussion on food observes that while cuisine is not a matter of debate in many African countries, in some countries, like Ethiopia and Senegal, it is taken very seriously indeed. In South Africa, there are ongoing efforts to posit food preferences as something distinctively South African. Although the braai is often discussed in a lighthearted manner, the promotion of a sense of awareness about what all South Africans share in terms of eating habits also has a more serious side to it.

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