Rural Tanzanians eat the same thing every day. Even compared to people in other countries that have similar income levels, their lack of demand for variety in food is fascinating and affects the status of the local population's health profiles.
There is no doubt that that much of rural Africa is not a desirable destination for those looking for variety in their daily diet. When I was living in rural Tanzania for two years as an employee of an American NGO, I ate practically the same thing, mountains of rice with boiled beans, every day for lunch. And during lengthy field trips when I cannot cook for myself, the same was also had for dinner. For the many Westerners and Asians who work in rural Africa, the first task after leaving to enjoy many different kinds of foods that they cannot purchase or cook given the limited variety of ingredients that are locally available. Locals, however, seem to be very happy about having practically the same meal day after day. A case in point: when our organization took local employees out to the few higher-end eateries in nearby market towns, the local employees were very happy to order mountains of rice with boiled beans, despite having the opportunity to try out many more different dishes on the eateries’ menus.
One can be wholly dismissive of the anecdote, pointing out that local employees simply stick to what they know best rather than risk indigestion by going for something completely unknown. But from the cultural perspective, the extreme risk-aversion of the rural Tanzanians is perplexing. Jensen, Arnett, and McKenzie, for instance, point out that that there are strong linkages between culinary traditions and cultural identity. As people are exposed to different culinary traditions that are not native to their cultures, people tend to have a more diverse and globalized cultural background. Here are a group of rural Tanzanians, who interact with foreigners on a daily basis for work, and are conspicuously introduced to foreign cultural norms, the most visible of which is food. Yet, the Tanzanians make obvious attempts to reject foreign cultural elements, of which consumption of the consistent rural staple meal is most glaring. The rejection comes despite consistent proclamation among the Tanzanian staff of wanting to understand more about foreign cultures and societies, in the hope of traveling and living abroad in the near future.
If the rural Tanzanians’ refusal to partake in foreign foods is not due to their flat-out refusal to learn more about foreign lands, then it is possible to speculate the conscious decision to reject foreign foods as a different perception of dietary health. The “dietary health” here is not as simple as the risk of indigestion from eating food foods. After all, if the rural Tanzanians feel that they can learn foreign cultures enough to reside permanently in foreign countries, surely they would find it necessary and possible to adapt to foreign tastes in food. Instead, their refusal to consuming unfamiliar foods may emerge from some level of cultural consensus on the risks of such consumptions. Such public perception of risk is hinged upon the dissemination of a certain opinion among the general public, often without explicit ties to scientific research results. Obtaining the idea, from friends and family members, that foreign foods can damage one’s health and well-being, rural Tanzanians would thus justifiably take the contradictory position of rejecting foreign cuisines all the while actively embracing other aspects of foreign cultures.
The preference of having the same rice-and boiled-beans meal day in and day out over taking the risk of trying different foods for the fear of health risks also brings to light a differing attitude toward what constitutes a healthy dietary pattern. The public perception in rural Tanzania is one where consistency of meals and their contents are associated with sufficiency in dietary and nutritional needs. People do not seek out alternative foods not necessarily because such foods are inaccessible. Indeed, the local vegetable and fruits markets I visited contain many more, even by local wage levels, inexpensively priced ingredients that are, interestingly, never seen in meals cooked in local homes. Instead, locals see their regular meals are being nutritionally sufficient, a convenient fact that allows them to avoid the hassle of having to buy and cook different things every day. They simply see no reason to diversify their diet from a health-related point of view. Of course, such perceptions are often not scientifically driven and often go completely against clinical studies that find a positive correlation between dietary variety and nutrition in rural Africa.
The cultural perception of diet and health, then, create and reinforce the unique culinary tradition of rural Tanzania. People see rice-and-boiled-beans as nutritionally sufficient and easy to make, so they logically choose the least time-consuming action of cooking the same meal every day to ensure nutritional needs. Simultaneously, the public perception of foreign foods as a threat to the health of the rural Tanzanian leads to a widespread rejection of anything that is not the regular rural Tanzanian meal. The rejection occurs even if the foreign foods are provided for free and the individuals in question are otherwise highly interested in embracing other aspects of foreign cultures. The result is a populace that is satisfied with what outsiders would consider monotonous meals while making no effort to change that dietary monotony by the deliberate importation of foreign culinary influences. While rural Tanzanians make no argument that their food is anywhere near the best the world has to offer, they do make clear statements that what they eat on a daily basis is the best food for them. Their insistence on the existence of a simple cuisine that is designed particularly for their health and nutrition, in a way, creates a cultural identity that blends their ethnic and culinary backgrounds.
The rural Tanzanian attitude toward food and health has the unintended effect of driving a gaping cultural dissonance between themselves and many of their foreign counterparts. In many parts of the world, poor and rich, pursuing “good food,” often defined by variety in ingredients and cooking styles, is considered a favorite pastime. Those who are rich enough travel the world seeking best of local cuisines, training their tongues to enjoy different flavors and nutritional properties behind them. In an age where many people are concerned about nutrition, a growing number of restaurants advertise themselves as providing both good food and good nutritional balance, keeping their customers happy while not damaging their health. Such culinary obsessions would be incomprehensible for the rural Tanzanian. They would see little reason for them to expend the energy, time, and money, even if they have them, to seek out different foods with different nutritional properties from around the world. After all, they have already found perfectly healthful food for themselves in their local meals.
What many people from around the world would find pleasurable by finding delicious and nutritious foods would not be enjoyable for the rural Tanzanian. And by refusing to partake in the foods of other cultures, rural Tanzanians find themselves unable to truly grasp the cultural roots of many foreigners residing in their localities. When I seek out the best food in any particular locale, I know full well that food culture is an essential part of the local people's identity. By finding and indulging in good food, I was deliciously learning about society at the most human level, something that is rarely possible where I resided in rural Tanzania, where village and village indulge in the same basic diet, despite their obvious linguistic and tribal differences. For the rural Tanzanians, the daily routine of rice-and-beans has made the concept of eating strictly a matter of sustenance, not enjoyment.
Such a minimalist attitude toward cooking and seeking out food could have a positive influence on health in quite a different way. By abandoning the need to think about what to eat on a daily basis, the mental stress associated with the exercise can be completely cut out. The minimalism, albeit not with food, already has precedence. Mark Zuckerberg allegedly only has grey sweatshirts and blue jeans in his closet. He wears exactly the same thing every day. His logic is no different from the preceding discussion on not picky about food: if he can cut down on the time spent selecting what to wear every day, he can spend more time on more "useful" activities, whether it be work, exercise, or simply spending time with family. Far from being ridiculed for lack of fashion sense, his logic is gaining growing numbers of admirers and emulators.
When the majority of the population adopts a minimalist attitude toward food, the effect on the food industry would be catastrophic. Societies, like so many sci-fi films predict, would create edible pills that satisfy all nutritional needs, and no one will waste time cooking real food from real ingredients. The manufacturers of those pills would be the only food manufacturers left. Aside from destroying a fundamental portion of human culture, it remains in doubt whether getting rid of the food industry would lead to its replacement by other industries that can absorb the extra labor force.
Image Credit: the author