Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Be careful what you blog about

I grew up in Africa on a porridge made from something called mealie meal. I loved it and can still remember the taste all these many years later.

This same mealie meal, ground white corn, can be thickened further into nsima (Malawi), nshima (Zambia), ugali (Kenya), or sadza (Zimbabwe). All of these are basically the same thing with slight regional variations. It is a staple of the diet mainly in southern and eastern Africa, but found elsewhere too. According to this BBC report, wars have been fought over it.

woman cooking nsima over wood fire

Photo from Flickr user Equi. Creative Commons licence.

So perhaps it's not surprising that there has been something of an uproar in Malawi about a young European woman who was visiting the country, and who made some pretty derogatory remarks about local food, nsima in particular but also goat, in her blog. She has upset so many people it has even been reported in the Nyasa Times. The original post on her blog has been removed and replaced by an apology, but a copy of the text is still available on Stories from Malawi. The comments on both the Nyasa Times and Stories from Malawi give an indication of the feelings roused.

The behaviour described is bad enough, but then to post it on a Travel Pod blog for all the world to see shows a complete lack of .... something. The whole purpose of travelling, I would have thought, is to learn about other countries and cultures, to broaden your horizons, to open your mind to new ideas, and most certainly not to ridicule anything about your hosts' way of life.

It is distressing to think that this could be taken by Malawians as representative of all European behaviour.


  1. Traveling and blogging about it is like walking at a very thin borderline.

    You can almost not avoid to offend one or another every once in a while.

    I've been called a racist (by a not very smart person, not even from that country), because I complained about the way (here I generalized) Koreans treat animals.
    I apologized for the generalization, but that guy still kept nagging me.
    Recently over here I got called something stupid as well, because the person thought I care more about animals then about the people that suffer here in Kuwait.

    Me writing about the trash and environment problems and animal issues over here is a thin borderline as well.
    If someone takes it as critique it might get me into jail.
    I know, this has not really something to do with traditions....
    but sometimes I write about those as well and I am a person that questions things.

    They can eat dogs in Asia as long as they want, but why has it to be done in a horrific way?

    Or slaughtering a camel in a driveway where everyone can see it, because that blesses the house?

    Only because I write about those things and disagree with them, shouldn't cause an uproar.

    It all depends on the words you use.

    If I don't like a certain food, I don't like it. Which doesn't mean it is bad for other people.
    Like lamb brains. Yuck ;)

    But if you write about it in a degrading way, I agree with you - one should show respect.

    Anyhow, I don't know if what I wrote makes any sense :)
    It's still only one coffee into the day.

    Let us all keep in mind that respect is the Best way to treat everything and everyone around us.

  2. This sounds similar to grits. Ground corn or hominy, a staple hot cereal in the Southern US.

  3. My gran always said that "there would always be someone who didn't like what you did".

  4. Yes, hiding the food in the bra is offensive, nothing's so awful you can't manage a mouthful, but she was trying not to give offence by leaving it untouched on her plate.
    But to get death threats, and 'we know where you live' comments is also 'not cricket'.
    People are just people, polite,rude, open to others, closed minded, or somewhere inbetween. Travel can either broaden your horizons or entrench preconceptions.

  5. @Nicole, yes I agree that you're treading on dangerous ground if you express an opinion when in another country, but the way it's done can help or hinder, and it very much hindered in this case.

    @Hathor, I heard it was similar but I've never had grits.

    @Solomon, your gran was right!

    @J, you're right it was offensive and right too that some of the responses went over the top.

    Part of the problem I think stems from people from wealthy countries travelling in one of the poorest. That's one imbalance already, and it's compounded by Malawi having been governed by Britain in the not too distant past. It's one thing criticising the French for eating fois gras, but they can give as good as they get, and do (or shrug!). An English person criticising Scottish cuisine would go down very badly indeed. I think it depends who is doing the criticising to some extent.
    I read an article, quite old now, about "charity tourism". I've worked with students for quite a while, and I do believe there is some truth in it. A few young people - not all by any means - take this working gap year purely to improve their CVs and to travel, without consideration for the recipients of their "charity". Sometimes the way they talk about it, it's as though they look on other people's lives as an entertainment for their benefit, a freak show even. A bit harsh perhaps.
    Sorry, that's almost a new post in itslef.

  6. In agreement re the gap year kids, one needs a skill to contribute, and at that age..? Mind you, it's harder to take the time out later on. Did a bit on aid & development at Uni, and to stop a couple of the evangelical missionary types in their tracks we did a live as 'they' sometimes have to fortnight - no lecky and no tap water, bar for drinking, carrying home jerrycan of water from campus,use the oven once a day, wash in a bowl etc. It was tough. The money saved was sent to Oxfam and Intermediate Technology.

  7. I'm going to avoid reading the comments of the person who caused such an uproar and, instead, focus on the dish. FYI, it's also ugali in Tanzania too and is it fufu in Nigeria?

    At the same time: To Nicole -- it'd help if you didn't generalize so much. E.g., re your comment that "they can eat dogs in Asia...": Please bear in mind that Asia is the world's largest and most populous so that's a lot of people you're tarring with the same brush when you say "in Asia" there. Also, I know it's "just" your views but they CAN cause an uproar if you're seen as being insensitive to whole cultures and societies rather than just a single individual.

  8. J, that sounds a fascinating exercise. It must have been incredibly hard to carry out, even just for a week.

    YTSL, yes I believe fufu is also the same thing. Sweeping generalisations can cause so much trouble. I recently witnessed an argument when person no 1 was accused of being racist by no 2 for referring to no 3 as a terrorist. No 2 no doubt thought he was being non-racist, but who said terrorism was confined to one race? I bet I can guess what he was thinking but has he never heard of Basque terrorists, Irish? Not to mention many others. The trouble is, it's only a short step from all A are B to all B are A.

  9. That is a mean thing to do! A traveler should always be open to the culture of the places he or she is going to. There are two choices actually, either to enjoy the culture or not! What I love about being an ethnographer is I get to learn from the people their way of life and food is one of the ways I learn from their culture. We also have ground corn here and I used to eat like porridge and it is good especially with milk and sugar. :)


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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