Colonial Cuisine in Africa and What Followed

Cover of a French Textbook, ca. 1900. Progress and Civilization brought magnanamously to Francs’ colonies. Source:

What stands out clearly in the above photo is the effort [to greater or lesser degrees unconscious] by colonials to distance themselves from their colonized subjects while also projecting a vision of improvement – of bringing ‘civilization’ to the ‘Dark Continent’.
Part of this intrusive  package included the kind and magnitude of influence by French or other colonial powers on local cuisine.  In this regard it is useful to look at the use of locals for needed labor in building roads, buildings, and other public works during the colonial period:

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, subsistence-oriented, smallholder farming focussed primarily on supplying needed food crops for the family and a bit of excess for exchanges or selling in local markets or to local merchants. These exchanges were generally in-kind, though in some areas hoes or cowry shells or salt were used as currency.  Local economies were not dependent on money, European style.  Thus, working on colonial building projects, on a wage basis, was often not seen as a priority by local populations.  Hence, the introduction of  ‘hut taxes‘ in some colonies, which ‘encouraged’ locals to work for wages, to gain a little money,  in order to be able to pay these taxes.  In other cases, forced corvee labor was used – popular in central Africa.

Extended periods of such labor – away from home farms – required cheap and plentiful food to feed these laborers.  To meet this need, maize was promoted by some colonial governments – rather than an indigenous crop that was already well adapted to local agronomic conditions.

The problems of maize continue to this day, as it is a succulent crop requiring greater amounts of rain than indigenous crops of sorghum and millet – or, earlier introduced cassava that spread ‘naturally’ throughout the sub-continent for several hundreds of years.

Colonial French enjoying apértifs at Brazzaville. Source:

Thus, it could be argued that without really intending to, colonial occupation gradually contributed to changes in the basic diet of much of the subcontinent to favor maize – perhaps the biggest dietary ‘shift’ since the gradual introduction and spread of bananas from SE Asia, which took place as part of the Swahili/East Africa – Indian ocean trade for over a thousand years.

The interesting fact here, is that rather than improving and promoting the multiplication of indigenous basic crops – bananas, manioc, millet, sorghum, and yams and rice in Africa – to feed growing worker populations, what we have is the introduction of a crop that is largely unsuitable to arid and low rain regions of the sub-continent; a crop that in many areas ‘took over’ as a basic food.

And this continues, especially in feeding programs and US PL480* supplies of oils and grains, which must come from the States – and that are based primarily on maize meal.  When I had a project in S.E. Egypt / NE Sudan, working with the Bishari and Ababdi tribes for several years in the early 80’s, I was strapped with such a program, of supplying every 3 months bags of maize to families that were suffering terribly from the drought of the late 70’s/early 80’s that swept across the Sahel, as far as the Indian Ocean, where I was working.

*PL480 – Public Law 480 of the United States, which provides governments and humanitarian organizations with maize, corn oil, and other food items.

Some family members came as far as 10 days by camel, to collect a bag of maize meal and a container of corn oil every 3 months.  The problem, was that [1] maize is not a central component of local diets; [2] when it is eaten, yellow maize [which was the commodity shipped from the States] was considered to be nearly a poisoness substance.  In addition, the maize meal was ‘enriched’ by little brown specs that locals were convinced adulterated the food and rendered it unfit for human consumption.

Beja youth and camel, Red Sea Hills, Eastern Egypt

In these ways, without intending to, diets of former colonial subjects [and others, around the world] continue to be changed – sometimes in unintended ways.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, African rice, Burundi, Colonialism, Cuisine, Dark Continent, European colonizers, Food, France and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Colonial Cuisine in Africa and What Followed

  1. manenomatamu says:

    This article is worth sharing far and wide! It’s quite interesting to see how maize meals (ugali, posho, fufu…) have largely become a staple ‘traditional’ food across eastern and central Africa.


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