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A Brief History of Fufu Pounding

By Moses März

In July 2016, the Kumasi Polytechnic presented the K-POLY FUFU MAMA, the latest machine promising to ease the labour-heavy preparation of Ghana’s national dish. The selected audience of fufu pounders, connoisseurs and chop bar owners present at the launch covered by TV3 is shown as enthusiastic recipients of this Ghanaian technological breakthrough. The inventors of the machine rehearse the ever-same argument: K-Poly is more hygienic, less burdensome, less noisy and more nature-friendly than the traditional pounding with mortar and pestle. And even more importantly: with K-Poly, fufu is ready in less than five minutes.

However convincing this might sound, chances are that, like its many predecessors promoted since 1975 – the Hobart mixer, the Kenwood mixer, and hammer mills – K-Poly Fufu Mama will not enter Ghanaian households at all. Prices such as US$225 for a comparable yam pounding machine can only be part of the explanation. The sophisticated palates of many fufu eaters insist that one can taste the difference. The sound of two metals rubbing against each other can never match the rhythm of topam-topam or the soft fu-fu, fu-fu sound the air makes when it escapes from the mash in the final stages of pounding. As a result, what is not prepared with mortar and pestle cannot be fufu, and the use of machines is nothing but laziness.

As long as the culinary standard remains this high, there will be competition for the machine. And Ghanaians will keep pounding, with hardening of palms, sweat dripping into the mash and all – the same way as “from time immemorial”, in the words of the Daily Graphic article announcing the new machine.

Without even going as far as the preparation of the soup that comes with it, the creation of a perfectly smooth fufu ball can take anything from the main hours of the afternoon to a couple of days, or, if fermented cassava is being used, a week. At the very least, it involves two people, the pounder standing upright, and the moderator, flipping and turning the mash of plantain, yam or cassava in the mortar in the brief moments after the pestle is lifted and before it is dropped again. In the process, all remaining lumps are meticulously taken out by hand until the ball is so soft that it can be swallowed without chewing.

Fufu is not reserved for special occasions. Before the recent rise in the price of cassava, it could be bought for GH₵1.00 at chop bars in Kumasi, an affordable price for those without the manpower to do their own pounding. More importantly, fufu is not food, it is a culinary choice. It is a passion, both in the intense excitement leading up to the meal, as well as in the enduring and suffering having gone into its preparation. It is a dish standing for the nation’s place in the world.

But maintaining such a high level of culinary sophistication on a national scale comes at a price. If it is not backed by the right kind of imperial machinery it will almost certainly earn you one of the lower ranks on the world’s GDP table. On a geopolitical scale, the World Bank is a powerful ally of those who invent pounding machines. A 2006 World Bank report, Gender, Time Use and Poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, found out that “time poverty” needs to be understood as a new dimension of poverty on the continent, meaning that reproductive/ unproductive/ unpaid/ care/ domestic labour takes up too much time. What they call a culturally determined “household time overhead” is the total of things that need to be done around the house. And in their view it is configured in particularly unproductive ways in Africa. Seen from New York, what is worse is that this type of work is also unevenly distributed among men and women. Their numbers show that African women work 30 per cent more than men – and that is even though most of their activities are not even reflected in the data, because women tend to not consider what they do as “work”. In conclusion: “labour-saving domestic technology relating to food processing is likely to have a greater immediate impact in raising the productivity and reducing the time burdens of many women.”

As Yemisi Aribisala points out elsewhere in this edition, Nigerian women in fact use the labour-intensive work in the kitchen to showcase their strength over men, and they have been doing this very successfully: “Over 70 percent of our immunity to disease is sitting inside our guts at the mercy of the food we eat. SHE has license to spit in his meals or lace them with arsenic. She has him, innards and all.” Against the “gender equalising army orders” calling for the inclusion of women into the capitalist work force, she warns that the kitchen is “being falsely implicated in the diminishment of a woman’s power. This much-needed, loved and utilised room is now outrageously persona non grata.”

Accordingly, for Aribisala the preparation of fufu is a far from the drudgery and waste of time bemoaned by the World Bank. She writes:

“The mortar is the vagina, the pestle the penis… but the pounding of yam into a supple mound is at the woman’s pleasure. She decides pace, force, beginning, end, heat, coolness, yes or no. Being in that room where fires are lit is an apparel of power worn by a woman that money cannot pay for. The room yields its secrets to its owner and not to the paid drudge.”

In “The Truth about Fufu”, published in Kalahari Review, Kofi Akpabli also makes use of the sex analogy to explain why fufu is life for many enthusiasts: “When all is done, the pestle is no longer needed until the next session. Meanwhile, the end product lies in the bosom of the mortar just like a new baby issues from the woman’s womb.”

The time poverty strategy is not the first time the World Bank has intervened in the division of labour in African families to save women from using their time in unproductive ways, that is, in ways that do not necessarily produce products to be sold on the market. Three decades ago, when it identified that too much money was being invested into the African state – the national “household time overhead” – the World Bank put a lot of money into attracting women to work on the plantations for the cash crops economy.

According to Silvia Federici in A Feminist Critique of Marx, the refusal to being recruited to work on the plantation, once again, and the defence of subsistence-oriented agriculture by African women, was in turn identified by the World Bank as the main factor in the crisis of its agricultural development projects. A flood of academic papers on “women’s contribution to development” ensued, turning first into NGO-sponsored “income generating projects” and then into “microcredit lending schemes” – all aiming at integrating women into the system of paid labour.

In this light, fufu pounding is a political tool of resistance against a long tradition of Western philosophising about “taste”, stretching from Plato to Hegel to Hannah Arendt. Marked by a profound disregard for the actual taste of the tongue, it locates taste among the lower regions on the hierarchy of the senses and in opposition to the rational character of genuine, cultured, aesthetic experiences. The view that food is fuel derives from this tradition, and it is a prerequisite for how willingly industrial nations have given into the promise of fast food being just that, fast.

In his writings on labour in Capital, Marx never recognised reproductive work – such as cooking or childcare – as work per se, and instead associated it with the world of nature and instinct, like “a spider weaving a web or a bee building a honeycomb”. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith claimed that not the goodwill of the butcher or the baker provides our daily supper, but the self-interest of all economic agents involved in the process of food production. It should be mentioned that he was still living with his mother at the time. In Arendt’s influential conceptual trinity of labour, work and action, homo laborans works like a machine to meet the basic needs of life, remaining a slave and leaving the freedom to act with others and to affect change as an exclusive privilege of homo politicus. Be it the belief in the economic man or the political man, liberals, Marxists and capitalists all agree that technology will eventually pave the way to a better life, will liberate first men, and then women too, from the “burden of chores” like cooking towards more meaningful work.

Little do they know of the Ghanaian kitchen as a place where communities are created, knowledge transmitted and, perhaps most importantly, where those homines politicus who appear to make all the decisions are subordinates to the absolute power of the one who does the cooking.

According to Kofi Akpabli’s account, fufu pounding underwent several technical innovations over time. The spread of chop bars has, for example, given rise to the specialised profession of “fufu macho-men” operating with giant pestles and mortars. If the pounding is not done by a pounder and a moderator in the classic fashion also known as “Fufu-One-on-One”, it can also be done by a single person who possesses the outstanding psychomotor abilities and the mental balance to do the pounding by herself. This technique is also known as “Automated Fufu Machine”. The so-called “Pestles of Mass Destruction” technique requires a massive mortar and can involve about six people. No moderation is needed in this case.

In the latest survey on work and leisure in the high-income countries forming part of the Organisation of Economic Corporation and Development (OECD), time spent cooking or preparing food is so insignificant that it does not even feature in the statistics. People in Germany, for example, work for an average of 1,478 hours a year and have 7,282 hours of leisure, of which sleep makes up the biggest chunk, with an average of 8 hours and 22 minutes a day. Ninety-seven minutes per day are dedicated to eating.

If this “work-life-balance” is to be maintained, a diet made up of sugar cereals for breakfast, bread, spaghetti and frozen pizza makes sense. It can all be arranged in five to ten minutes. That is if one does not have the money to afford food that is prepared by someone else who does the hard work of operating a restaurant or take-out place.

Apart from the compromised quality of the food, the health hazards posed by sugar, fats, excessive wheat consumption and preservatives have all been linked to diseases ranking from schizophrenia to cancer, autism and ADHD. As a result, “bio” and organic supermarket chains are on the rise in urban centres of the West, selling rye and spelt (instead of wheat), and gluten-free, dairy-free and preservative-free products at premium prices.

As John McMurty wrote in The Cancer State of Capitalism, there is something to be learned from feminist economists working from the vantage point of the “unwaged force of women who are not yet disconnected from the life economy by their work. They serve life not commodity production. They are the hidden underpinning of the world economy and the wage equivalent of their life-serving work is estimated at $16 trillion.”

Women have for some time seen through the false promises of capitalist or Marxist progress. Despite washing machines and dish washers, mixers, blenders and microwaves, nappies still need to be changed, rooms need to be cleaned, the young, weak and old ones need to be taken care of – that is if one does not opt for the robot-option as currently being explored in Japan’s “carebot project”.

Even taken on its own terms, the technological liberation thesis does not hold. The divide between paid and unpaid work, between a mother and a chef, is still very much in existence and jobs are still unevenly distributed and remunerated by a patriarchal system. With every new invention, it also becomes clearer that the technologisation of reproductive work has not eliminated its exploitative elements. Just as we know by now that no time is saved by machines, it remains doubtable whether there has been an actual speeding up of the cooking process in the West. Has it perhaps rather been outsourced from the kitchen to the factory, where the work is still being done in the hidden areas of fully industrialised societies?

The first pasta machines date back to the early 17th century. In the mid-19th century, commercially produced pasta was widely available throughout Italy. Meanwhile, the cultivation of wheat, spanning a period of 10,000 years, undertook a drastic change in the last 50 years. To enhance its resilience on the world market, its genetic make-up has been changed so dramatically that the metabolism of human beings – still much the same as 2,5 million years ago – cannot keep up with the genetically engineered grain.

Moreover, the fermentation process of bread dough that has been part of baking bread for millennia, taking place the night before the baking and reducing the amount of protein to make the bread more easily digestible and tastier, has been cut short since the age of industrialisation. More large-scale bakers, pasta and pizza producers are now using ready-made mixtures and frozen dough, and leading to a sharp decline in taste and a rise in intolerances. It is perhaps needless to add that the pressures placed on the yam or cassava root to change its genetic make-up in order to conform with the norms of the world trade system were not nearly as devastating.

And yet, even in societies that depend almost entirely on the consumption of quick and convenient wheat products, a poetics (in the original sense of “making”) of buttering bread, of fixing a tomato pasta sauce, of cutting up the vegetables of a salad, or decorating the base of a frozen pizza, serves as a reminder that the creative and the productive can never be completely divorced from the process of cooking.

Among the alternative economic models on a global scale – beyond social security and basic income grant schemes that operate on the basis of the same capitalist system – some economists have recently started to advocate for the introduction of a new distribution system based on the actual energy that goes into the production of a product. Only then, they argue, could the myth be dispelled that money is an adequate representation of human energy. Their basic unit of value would be the calorie. Finally, then, a system would be in place that values work according to its difficulty, its hardnesss, its social usefulness, the time or energy invested into a product.

Among the only downsides of such an approach would be that fufu in its current form would probably become unaffordable.

This piece features in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2017). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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