Insecure food: diet, eating and identity among the Ethiopian Suri people in the developmental age

In this paper ASCL senior researcher Jon Abbink discusses food, cultural identity and development among the agropastoral Suri people of Southwest Ethiopia. Their food system is discussed in its actual form and in its process of change, accelerated since a decade or so. The theoretical concern of this paper is with issues of identity formation and continuity through the materiality of food and food systems, in the context of varying assumptions underlying discourses of development. The Suri people remain at the margins of the modernizing Ethiopian state and experienced a decline in food security, health and wealth in the last decade, coinciding with growing inter-group tension and new state developmental plans which devalue the agro-pastoral mode of life. State support or investment is in massive sugar and other mono-crop plantations and in enterprises by foreigners and private capitalists, not matched by parallel investment in local economies of agro-pastoralism and crop cultivation. Some of the effects on the production system, diet and ‘food sovereignty’ of the Suri are described so as to highlight the challenges they face, including growing internal differentiation, pressure on modifying their food system and the increasing sale and use of alcoholic drinks. Observing the, often ambivalent, changes in the Suri food pattern and food consumption shows the challenges they face in (re)defining group identity, responding to internal tensions and to state-capitalist modernizing schemes that impact their way of life.

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This article has been published in African Study Monographs (Kyoto) 38(3): 119-146.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Jon Abbink

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Jan Abbink is an anthropologist-historian and carries out research on the history and cultures of the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa), particularly Ethiopia.