Opinion

THE ROLES OF CULTURE IN FOOD SECURITY

By: Mark Oloya Nekemiah

Protagoras in the 5th Century observed that Man is the measure of all things! Indeed, as according to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis more than 6 million people – just under 60 per cent of the country’s population – is severely food insecure. Why? Because of war, climatic changes and lack of cultural ideology for food security? Some of the attributed causes of food insecurity in South Sudan include low per capita levels of domestic food production, periodic droughts, widespread poverty, political unrest and renewed armed conflict between the government and rebel forces. However the IPC analysis falls short of mentioning the roles culture plays in safeguarding food security and/or insecurity.

The Roles of Cultures in Food Security

Culture is here considered from an Anthropological perspectives and it signifies that totality of customs, techniques, and values that distinguish as a social group, a tribe, a people, a nation – it is the mode of living proper to a society. Meanwhile, according to World Food Summit, 1996 food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. The four elements that build the framework of food and nutrition security are: availability, access, use and utilization, and stability. Therefore, as food security is one of the human activities embedded into all human cultures, cultures provide the framework for food production, distribution and consumption. This framework contains the following: ideological design e.g. subsistence or commercial food production; beliefs and values attached to food; technology for and type of food production e.g. use of hoes or tractors; the social relations for production e.g. communal or employment; consumption patterns e.g. time when food is to be consumed; and the means of exchange e.g. butter trade or through the market using money.  Furthermore, in times of food scarcity, various cultures define the coping mechanisms available within its geographical context. For instance, some cultures in South Sudan use wild fruits, and other people drink the blood of cattle or animals. In a worst case scenario, some cultures deliberately leave boys to die as boys are regarded of less value than girls. Thus, Man is a cultural being and culture as the soul of every society defining our worldviews through enculturation. However, this does not mean culture is reification but it is a social construct for adapting mankind to nature.

Food Insecurity in South Sudan

Since the onset of the 1983 (North-South) conflict, Juba was first hit by hunger in 1988. This also marked the arrival of the first relief aid from the neighbouring country. Since then, Southern Sudan and now South Sudan has been receiving food assistance from various UN agencies, INGOs, and NNGOs.  This food assistance or help though good as a temporary measure, created an absolute depending and a vicious cycle or dependency syndrome from which the country might not get away soon. Consequently, South Sudan, with rich cultures, vast land, oil, and human resources or labour still sees itself in a state of helplessness and is in dire of food aid from other countries. The main set back to South Sudan’s food security is cultural stagnation i.e. agriculture subsistence orientation, preference for white collar jobs in urban areas and over dependency on food aid.  Consequently, Agriculture (farming, livestock and fishery) has been downgraded for the rural people. The educated are less interested in investing in Agribusiness as a way of diversifying their income streams through Agriculture as an added stimulus for food security in the country. This perspective of the educated towards Agriculture is a reflection of the cultural orientation on education.

Economic Anthropology

The food security strategy being promoted by various agencies has placed no or little attempt in understanding the role cultures play in promoting food security. Economic Anthropology is a branch of Anthropology that deals with the study of production, distribution, and consumption of resources. Economic Anthropology studies economics in a comparative perspective. A society’s economy consists of Production, Distribution and Consumption. Classical economic theory assumes that individuals universally act rationally, by economizing to maximize profits, but comparative Economic Anthropological data shows that people frequently respond to other motivations than profit. A comparative Economic Anthropological study of various economic uncovered that some cultures produce more than they can consume. For instance, the Trobrianders in America produce far more yams than they can ever eat and often simply allow them to rot. Why? Because of their cultural ideology or beliefs about food and food security. Hence, culture defines how food is produced, distributed and consumed in every society. For instance, Karl Marx observed that any society has three (3) mode of production: Superstructure (culture and ideology – legal; political, religious and cultural institutions); Relations of production (social structure and divisions of labour), and Means of production (resources, technology and labour). Therefore, using Marx’s production model for analysing food security in South Sudan, food security depends on the superstructure (cultural ideology), relations of production and means of production.  Karl Marx’s observation on the mode of production already exists in all South Sudanese cultures though at their rudimentary stages – subsistence agricultural orientation, basic relations of production, and the means of production, consumption and distribution.

Capitalism as a Cultural Ideology

Capitalism is a religious, economic and political ideology originated from the Protestant’s belief as a calling (Martin Luther, 1483-1546) and a Predestination (John Calvin, 1509-64) in Western Europe and stresses about accumulation of money. The spread of capitalism to most, if not all parts of world, shows that every country that embraces capitalism amasses a lot of material and financial resources as a way of safeguarding their food security. It is common that Forbes, a company in America every year releases the list of the top billionaire in the world. As of October 8, 2010, the youngest billionaire was 26 years. In traditional African societies, for instance, in the pastoralist societies, amassing of cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys etc. as a sign of food security, wealth, power and social prestige has a very strong cultural ideology framework with clear rules and regulation about their usage, consumption and distribution or exchange. A friend of mine from Northern Kenya narrated to me a very interesting story about cattle rustling. She said when their cows were taken by the neighbouring community, she was crying but her grandmother came and told her: my daughter, don’t cry. They take the cows and keep for us. When we go, we take the cows and keep for them. This implies that there is generally accepted cultural way of exchange of cattle amongst the pastoral communities.  Hence, culture as a social construct defines the rules of the game! Equally, in Agrarian societies, cultivation of vast or limited land and subsequent production, consumption and distribution of food crops is guided by the cultures of the respective societies.  A study done on the relationship between Cultural Norms and Food Security in the Karamoja Sub-Region of Uganda and published in the Journal of Food and Nutrition Research, 2017, Vol. 5, No. 6, 427-435 concludes “culture is a strong determinant of food security through its influence on what society considers acceptable for consumption.” The study further suggested that ethnicity amongst the Karamaja directly influences cultural practices which dictate those foods that can be utilized by specific groups of the society and those that cannot. Furthermore, cultural norms also placed restrictions on the consumption of nutritious foods, with women, children and adolescent males particularly affected. Specifically, the restrictions target organ meat and some vegetables that are highly nutritious. In Kenya, a study done on the role of Socio-economic and Cultural factors influencing food security status of  children under five years in Siaya District, Western Kenya in 1997/1998 by Wilfred Keraka Subbo in fulfilment of the requirements for the award of a PhD degree of the University of Nairobi found out that most respondents cultivated very small pieces of land which did not yield enough food crops to last them from one harvesting season to another; culture places restrictions on the consumption of certain foods for children, and food sharing is culturally cherished and good for children as children eat from any households and this safeguards children’s food security in absence of their mothers. Finally, lack of stable income and decisions made by powerful individuals in the household e.g. mothers, fathers and grandparents also affect the nutritious status of children under five years old. Therefore, the two studies from Uganda and Kenya confirm the strong roles culture plays in food security and/or food insecurity in any society. So, South Sudan is not exception to the influences of cultures on food security and/or insecurity.

Achieving Food Security in South Sudan

As culture is the soul of every society, the struggle for food security in South Sudan is proposed to first hinge strongly on the understanding the cultural perspectives of the various communities of South Sudan on food and food security. As such, culture is the primary factor for production aimed at attaining food security. Other factors such as war and climate changes though important are secondary factors. They are short-lived or transitory. Secondly, the interventions for food security should be integrated including the following partners: Government as the lead authority in providing enabling environment such as security, peace, developing of some relevant Government institutions e.g. metrological department for monitoring weather patterns and informing the farmers accordingly; Agriculturalists to provide technical knowledge, skills and the relevant training on modern agriculture; Social Scientists with (Economic) Anthropological background to understand the culture perspectives of various communities for initiating the appropriate agricultural intervention plans and provide advisory services on any food security interventions. This is to avoid the pitfalls of what Development Anthropologists called under-differentiation and over-innovation i.e. treating all the people from the different cultures as the same and implementing the same project(s) for them or/and rapidly introducing the same new technologies for all the people in the different cultures. For instance, due to under-differentiation and over innovation, the famous tractor project in South Sudan did not succeed as expected. Also some communities have been given onion seeds but they did not plant. Some seeds have been planted but failed to germinate. Furthermore, other partners to be involved in food security plan are the religious group or leadership to guide the congregation on the Biblical wisdom on food security which is available in Genesis 41:25-36 on climatic change; Proverbs 27:23-25 on the care of sheep and cattle, and Ecclesiastes 11:1-4 on diversification of investment and planting for risk management. Additionally, partners to be involved in food security are health partners to provide health services for the people to aid in food production; Demographers and Statisticians to project the population growth and the volume of food to be consumed to encourage more food production.  Last but not least, the international community or donors to provide financial assistance for acquiring the requisite Agricultural inputs for Agricultural development for attaining food security.

In conclusion, as man is the measure, attaining food security in South Sudan depends on the cultures of the people in terms of food ideology, beliefs and values; technology, working relations for food productions, consumptions patterns and distribution and exchange pattern e.g. through the market.  Thus, Culture as the main determinant of food security needs to be studied and the findings used by the Government and NGOs for leveraging the existing efforts for attaining food security in the country.

The Writer is a Social Scientist, Human Resources Development Specialist, Trainer and the Lead Consultant at the International Human Resources Development Centre (IHRDC) – Training | Consultancy  | Advisory. He can be reached at ihrdcentre@gmail.com

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