Like many writers of her era, Gabrielle M. Vassal tended not to be very complimentary of Africans in Life in French Congo (1925) and compared them negatively and constantly to the Asians she’d known during her sojourns in Vietnam and China.
She recorded her experiences during a trip to Libreville early during her stay in A.E.F. , before she and her husband settled in a bungalow in Brazzaville, saying about a luncheon meal served at the hospital there:
At 12 o’clock I climbed the hill towards the hospital, which is the highest building of the town. We had been invited to lunch there. In spite of the hospitality of our hosts, my spirits sank. The inconvenient disposition of the rooms, the whitewashed walls and cement floors, neither in perfect condition, for native masons are not skilful workmen, the semi-darkness (Europeans on the Equator are so often frightened of the sun that they shut it out entirely) had a most depressing effect. Black boys are not alert, nimble, and dexterous in waiting at table like Asiatics. They make a drag of the meal instead of vivifying it. (19)
She then related the conversation she had with some of the European women there, who described the problems they had with getting provisions:
The day the mail-boat arrives we are safe.
You buy from their stores?
Yes, beef, ice, butter, etc. The great thing is to be on good terms with the different maîtres d’hotel, for if they imagine they are short …
And the boats never provision in these ports, then?
They take on bananas, perhaps. But I pity you at Brazzaville, so far from the coast. You will get no fresh supplies so far away ; Libreville is a worse climate, perhaps, but most men prefer it to Brazzaville in order to have a good meal from time to time.
I hoped my hostess was less well acquainted with the resources of Brazzaville than she appeared to be.
What’s interesting, don’t you think, is that there didn’t seem to be any inclination to live off what used to be called “the local economy.” Europeans preferred “tinned” (canned) food over local roots and tubers and smoked or salted fish, as Vassal mentioned in her book. You might ask whether or not this preference for familiar food from afar affected the overall health of the colonizers.
And that was exactly what people who worked for the U.S. Embassy did in Morocco and Burkina Faso in the 1990s – even though the expiration dates bespoke a time far in the past, that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that the food sat for weeks in sea-freight containers on the dock in Dakar and then traveled by slow train to Ouagadougou, unloaded onto rickety shelves in a shack located inside the motor pool compound at the Embassy.
In many ways, some things never ever change in Africa when it comes to foreigners and their food. Or, for that matter, when it comes to people moving from one region to another, regardless of where or when.
Exile, whether voluntary or involuntary, cements food habits for quite some time.
To be continued …