In December 2019, I came across reports that Zimbabwe’s First Lady, Auxillia Mnangagwa, had visited the elderly in my home area of Shurugwi, which is in Zimbabwe’s Midlands province. Following the report from the state sponsored newspaper, The Herald, her visit showed “compassion and motherliness” and was in line with “caring, giving and sharing” as demonstrated by her visit, her gifts, and her performance of gendered household chores like cleaning, spreading dung floors and doing laundry (Rupapa 2019). From the onset of Zimbabwe’s “new” dispensation led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the First Lady got involved in a number of initiatives centred around the family and the home and “So huge is the demand for the mother of the nation’s Gota/Nhanga/Ixhiba, Nharire Yemusha and Traditional cookout programmes that she barely spends time with her family to satisfy the requests of the citizenry, a sign that she has every citizen at heart” (Rupapa 2021). Although her absence from her own family and presence in the national family sets ambivalences, Auxillia Mnangagwa is positioned as sacrificial, forgetting the self to serve the nation. This qualifies her not only in typical patriarchal (m)otherhood, but also as the mother of the nation in the Zanu-PF patriotic sense.
In 2021, while the nation was in the Covid-19 lockdown, Auxillia Mnangagwa introduced a nation-wide food competition known as “Amai [Mother] Mnangagwa’s cook-out traditional dishes competition”. The competition was launched on Thursday 18 February 2021 at the Chinhoyi University of Technology through her organisation, the Angel of Hope Foundation. Competitions were run in Zimbabwe’s provinces with the finals taking place in Harare. The wives of traditional chiefs were key participants in the competitions and, together with some government officials, Tendai Rupapa The Herald reporter, and Auxilia Mnangagwa herself, were key discourse promoters in the narratives around the food promotion initiatives. The reports that I use for the coverage of these traditional dishes’ promotions are from Tendai Rupapa. However, the reports are helpful to make sense of the promotion of traditional dishes within the broader politico-aesthetics of food, especially food metaphors associated with the move into the “new” dispensation.
Food, food substances, talks and thoughts about food, as well as ways of and the sub-texts of promoting, serving and consuming food are part of Zanu-PF’s politics of the spectacular and its imaginative national embodiment. This work specifically looks at the ways in which food was mobilised and used as a vehicle of power, legitimising, common-sensing and consolidating Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa’s takeover as Zimbabwe’s president and also as a space for (re)imagining a nation craft that is centred on healthy and disciplined bodies.
Globally, food has become an increasingly contested site for (re)thinking about power, imagi/nations, re/distribution, access, and agency (Mawere 2020). It is essential “to make food and the politics of food visible … as a way to tackle directly issues of patriarchy, capitalism, the ecological crisis, power and agency in our own spaces, and to truly decolonise food” (Andrews and Lewis 2017:7). In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, food has been associated with the metaphoric and symbolic, going beyond its physical presence, distribution, consumption, and satiation (Edwin 2008; Mawere 2020; Olufunwa 2000). My focus is on the symbolic, cultural, and political significance of the traditional dishes that came with Mnangagwa’s “new dispensation” and promoted by his wife, Amai Mnangagwa.
In the “new dispensation”, food (traditional dishes) is being promoted in narratives and performatives of (m)otherhood, while invoking national identities and healthy bodies and, at the same time, consolidating Mnangagwa’s rule. The traditional dishes speak to the restoration of national identities and healthy bodies, appropriating the military coup’s name, “Operation Restore Legacy” that ended Robert Mugabe’s “poisonous” rule and his wife Grace Mugabe’s (Zimbabwe’s former first lady) “poisonous” dishes (Mawere 2019, 2020), and brought in Emmerson Mnangagwa as president.
This move towards traditional dishes replaced the poor, unhealthy, foreign dishes as well as bad food ways that, arguably, had been promoted by “Mama” Grace Mugabe during the Robert Mugabe dispensation; the move appropriated a national “clean up” of bodies polluted not just by bad food, but also by the bad politics that had “emasculated” Mugabe through his “poisonous” wife (Mawere 2019, 2020). I therefore argue that in Zimbabwe, food is for thought (not just satiation and enjoyment), it is connected to particular ideas and actions and the materiality of food should engage us into deeper thoughts around politics and power.
My analysis is informed by post-colonial feminist scholars and critical food studies that see food as discourse (Barthes 1975; Freud 1938; Madeira 1989; Olufunwa 2000). Making use of media texts by Tendai Rupapa, The Herald reporter covering Amai Mnangagwa’s traditional food promotions, I employ critical discourse analysis to demonstrate how food as metaphor and symbol has sprung up as an agent and vehicle of gendered imaginations, political imaginations, national imaginations, national surveillance and a consolidation of Mnangagwa’s power.
Historically, Zanu-PF has used food and knowledges about food in its politics of the spectacular, imagining itself as the ultimate mother-provider of safe food to the nation and also taking the role (owing to its patriotic history) of getting rid of the chuff and the poison with possible pollutant effects on the nation’s body.
In the 2000s, Joice Mujuru rose within Zanu-PF’s ranks to become one of the country’s vice presidents. However, when she seemed to be Robert Mugabe’s likely successor, she was accused of plotting to topple Mugabe (Mawere 2019). This earned her a nickname as the leader of the “Gamatox” faction with the intention of poisoning the Zanu-PF party and its legacy and also the nation. I argue that what was really “poisonous” to the party was the idea of a woman crossing gendered boundaries to the point of being president of the nation. In turn, Mujuru’s faction accused their opponents of being zvipfukuto (grain weevils) that were eating the grain/Zanu-PF from within, eating away substance and leaving only the skin. Consequently, the factional fights led to Mujuru and her associates’ expulsion from both the government and the party.
After the exclusion of Joice Mujuru, the factions Lacoste (Mnangagwa) and Generation40 (G40) (Grace Mugabe) emerged. Grace Mugabe (as member of the G40 Zanu-PF faction) assumed the role of mother-provider in her contest for power and authority while the Lacoste faction was headed by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was fronted by his “Varakashi” (social media mercenaries) team. The 2017 Zanu-PF factional fights therefore, continue the symbolism and cultural politics of food in Zimbabwean politics and Zanu-PF politics in particular. Thus, food was instrumental as the basis for surveillance, for getting to know the loyal and disloyal. As Grace Mugabe served food such as ice cream at rallies and other events, many expressed gratitude towards “Mama” Grace’s generosity and made public spectacles of gratitude, satisfaction and loyalty to Mama’s love, care and visibility. However, others felt that what she was feeding the nation was poisonous, and this was linked to her identity and sexuality, which was also framed as “poisonous”. Lewis (2016) asserts that unhealthy food and eating habits can be seen as a form of “hunger”, an embodied “emptiness” resulting from eating food that is disconnected from relationships of responsiveness, care and intimacy. Following this argument, poisoned or contaminated food substances, as alleged by the Lacoste faction regarding Grace Mugabe’s ice cream, are characteristic of the hunger and the emptiness of Zimbabwean nationalism and identities. These food substances are indicative of self-centred, adulterated consumption and extractive and impersonal tendencies rather than being indicative of mutuality and unity, and loyal and communitarian tendencies. Refusing Grace’s ice-cream was a performance of the rejection of a poisoned motherhood, poisoned identities, poisoned ideas and a poisoned nationalism.
Grace Mugabe’s rise to power is associated with a poisoned nationhood that emasculated both Mugabe and the nation, hence the loss of the archetypal Zimbabwean masculinities moulded around amadoda sibili (real men). Instead of “nurturing” both Mugabe and the nation, Grace is accused of offering poison. With a background as a single mother, a materialistic urbanised woman, Mugabe’s secret lover and later on Mugabe’s young wife, she is associated with poisonous sexualities that destroy men and nations (Mawere 2019) and accused of not nurturing Mugabe to let it go and allow the nation to grow in health.
Although Grace attempted to construct herself along lines of (m)otherhood through her orphanages and care homes, and distribution of food and clothing to “her children” as a mother who “cares” and sustains livelihood as expected in gendered constructions of nationhood (Mawere 2020), the negative images constructed on her character continued to haunt her. This was compounded by her lack of liberation war history, her association with the G40 Zanu-PF faction, which like her, was accused of lacking liberation war credentials or history, and also positioned as having “dangerous” sexualities just like herself.
Grace was accused of failing to satisfy her gendered roles of providing support and re/production and nurturing the nation; therefore, she had failed as the (m)other of the nation. She is seen in terms of a trope of contamination, disturbing the natural body politic not only of Zanu-PF but of the nation as well. In this view, since she had polluted Mugabe, both had to be eliminated from the political and national body to avoid further contamination. In Grace, the nation was seen as hungry, starved, malnourished, adulterated and disordered.
Positioning themselves as victims of food or ice cream poisoning (of a poisoned motherhood), Mnangagwa and the Zanu-PF Lacoste faction did not see Grace’s alleged poisoning as only physical on targeted bodies, but also as symbolic of national poisoning and destruction caused by a failed (m)otherhood and a woman who had broken boundaries in a way that starved the nation of sanity. This was seen as alien, unhealthy and precarious for the nation. The poisoning or imagined poisoning of Mnangagwa’s body is characteristic of the poisoning of the national body by Grace Mugabe. Due to her alliances with the G40, who were considered “outsiders” and undesirable elements, Grace Mugabe had become contaminated (Mawere 2019) and as a mother of the nation, her breast milk (and ice cream) was now poisoning and destroying the nation. What is more interesting is that ice cream poisoning situates Grace and women into the dominant discourses that characterise women as witches and witchcraft as a feminine characteristic (Gaidzanwa 1985; Mawere 2019).
As a response to the poisoning, immediate action (such as done to Mnangagwa to detox and save him) was supposed to be taken to detox and save the Zimbabwean nation, hence the coup d’état framed as Operation Restore Legacy that was carried out by the military junta and ended Mugabe’s rule, bringing in Mnangagwa’s “new” dispensation and an “alternative” (m)otherhood. However, Mnangagwa’s poisoning, whether real, exaggerated or some “drama”, to those who did not like Grace, the ice cream emerges as a metaphor for rejecting her love and care, and Grace as a mother of the nation. It is a metaphor of a poisoned (m)otherhood and a starved nation.
Apart from being a means of life sustenance, food is also a system of communication, a body of images, a decorum of usages, situations and behaviour (Barthes 1975). It is vital to investigate what Amai Mnangagwa is communicating through her traditional dishes. It is imperative to investigate and understand the message that Amai Mnangagwa, as the “mother of the nation” is conveying through the promotion of traditional dishes. Since “Amai Mnangagwa is the country’s health ambassador and works hard to promote healthy eating” and “traditional cooking gave the country an identity and good health” (Rupapa 2021), it is also essential to access the identities that she is asserting for herself, for different citizens and for the nation through the discourses promoted by the food narratives. Mrs Dorcas Chigodora, Chief Mashayamombe of Chegutu district’s wife, used ipwa (sweet cane) to allude to how food promoted unity and acknowledged how the same was communicated through the competitions. This idea of unity features in most of the reporting by Tendai Rupapa.
In her reporting, Rupapa expresses that the competitions carried moral dividends that different people were reaping. In many instances, various participants and discourse promoters acknowledged how the promotion of traditional food resonated with promoting and affirming national identities. In promoting traditional dishes, there is an intentional and well-crafted promotion of particular knowledges. In this case, food ways get into the web of the “new” dispensation, “patriotic” knowledge building, knowledge circulation and citizen surveillance and extend to gendered surveillance where men and women are naturalised and common-sensed into particular spaces.
The competitions mostly included women and were centred on motherhood (as expressed by the prefix Amai/mother). As such, most participants and discourse promoters were women and related food processes to (m)otherhood. This normalises and common-senses the domestication of particular bodies and spaces, and works to provide role models to set boundaries for women. Through the traditional dishes promotions, Amai Mnangagwa is (re)producing and performing her gendered role of (m)othering, feeding and caring, but also setting it as natural and common-sensical. This explains the discomfort that society has when women move beyond “traditional” spaces and occupy public spaces, hence the various cases of bodily and symbolic violence against women in public spaces.
The location of Auxillia Mnangagwa within traditional dishes is to position her own identity in tradition and her mother-role within the ambits of traditional and patriotic gendered roles. This positioning is buttressed by the presence of the wives of traditional leaders. This “traditional” identity, arguably, situates her as a typical Zimbabwean (m)other, reviving Zimbabwe’s (m)otherhood that had been buried together with Sally Mugabe, who was Robert Mugabe’s first wife and generally accepted as the (m)other of the nation. At the same time, it “cleanses” the nation of the marujata and “foreign” motherhood, associated with Grace Mugabe, which had “failed” to satisfy the nation. As articulated by Nokuthula Matsikenyere, the Manicaland Provincial Affairs and Devolution Minister, the programmes “make us so excited and we wish this body of knowledge was introduced way back, Zimbabwe would have been in a far better place”. There is a clear perception that for some time, the nation had been without a mother, hence its brokenness and unhealthy status. This affirms the patrilineal role of (m)otherhood in nurturing the nation. The entrance of Amai Mnangagwa with the “new dispensation” and “traditional” dishes is seen as marking the entrance of (m)otherhood and proper care and there is great anticipation that the health of the citizens and the nation would be restored. In many ways, this common-senses Operation Restore Legacy and Mnangagwa’s take over.
Through the traditional dishes, Auxillia Mnangagwa dramatises the idea of unity and community and in that way asserts her identity as a unifier who is humble, down to earth, and the appropriate (m)other of the nation, an identity that frequently features in the narratives. The traditional food ways promote and speak unity and responsible (m)otherhood while the “selfish” consumption of upmarket and fast food products is a spectacle of luxury, excessive consumption and self-centeredness, which is unhealthy for the nation. There is a narrative emphasis on the linkages between traditional food, unity and healthy and progressive nationhood.
Considering the importance of healthy and disciplined eating in maintaining healthy and functional bodies, and the metaphoric representations of nations as bodies, the spectacles of undisciplined and selfish consumption reveal the precariousness of the national body. Mrs Rhoda Kusotera, a village head in Makoni, bemoans that most people favour takeaways and other exotic dishes over traditional and nutritious food and that the “foreign” dishes are responsible for the increase in diseases. Particular foods and thoughts, in a national project rooted in chimurenga, constructed along defence from “foreign bodies”, are seen as polluting the Zimbabwean national identity and threatening its survival and progression. Such discourses of defilement have been associated with the Morgan Tsvangirai led Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. Tsvangirai was anglicised and caricatured as Tsvangson or Teaboy in a show of his constructed foreignness, femininity, homosexuality and incapacity to lead Zimbabwe (Mawere 2016).
The “mother of the nation” is complimented for managing to perform her role of mothering the nation as takeaways or what you take from elsewhere is associated with foreignness and disease. There is a notion that fast foods are easy to get and attractive, but unhealthy, hence people should stick to tradition. A number of participants locate Auxillia Mnangagwa within the simplicity, locality, naturalness and value of traditional dishes.
Related to the above, the narratives show the ways in which disease is taken as a metaphor of foreignness and danger since foreign dishes are linked to diseases, and how a return to the traditional protects or defends the body. Traditional dishes are said to “make us healthy and protect us from diseases” as they “prop up antibodies in fighting against various ailments.” Disease is a charged political metaphor, inasmuch as it refers to the attacks on the physical bodies.
In an analysis on the narrative of health, disease and nation, disease also comes out to refer to ways of knowing and knowledges that defy Zimbabwe’s “patriotic” and patriarchal history. Keeping diseases away metaphorises the ways in which particular voices that are considered deviant and toxic are silenced. This entails that what is consumed (physically and epistemologically) had to be under surveillance to keep away the consumption and toxicity of certain foods and ensuring “healthy” national bodies. Thus, the configuration of the nation as a body and its potential to be diseased invites surveillance and policing of national beings. This normalises actual and symbolic violence meted out on particular bodies that are associated with the consumption of particular foods that (re)produce unhealthy and undisciplined subjects.
The traditional dishes promotion shows that processed foods and foreign dishes provide unattached and unnatural mothering detached from nature, without originality and naturalness, which is cold, toxic and resembling cultural invasion, poor mothering and a diseased nation. This is different from the traditional dishes that are warm, attached, relational, communal, body-building and protective. Good food relates to the bodies of knowledges that produce good politics, good politicians and good national imagining and offers Auxillia Mnangagwa space where she mediates social and political identities in the “new” dispensation. Food is rendered an expression of an idea, it positions one’s political identity and national imagination. Food, which is there for satiation and life sustenance, also manifests as a space for the performance of power, and a space for struggles around citizenship.
In our engagements with food, it is important to ask: Who decides what we eat, how we eat and for what and whose benefits? Why do nations need healthy bodies? Where does the politico-aesthetic of food locate us and how does it shape our nation and being national as embodied and performative?
For me, the ways in which food has been talked about and performed have provided me with food for thought on the ways in which particular knowledges, politics and power are normalised and made sensible. The traditional dishes speak to the restoration of national identities and healthy bodies, appropriating the military coup’s name, Operation Restore Legacy that ended Robert Mugabe’s “poisonous” rule and brought in Emmerson Mnangagwa as president.
In many ways, food has been located within a charged discursive context and the rhetoric around it has provided the language with which to talk of healthy and disciplined bodies that ensure that the nation is healthy, unpolluted, secure and in continuity. The discursive context has also provided symbolic resources for defining the self and others, for including and excluding, and for the glorification of national purity and sovereignty. From the narratives on their promotion, the traditional dishes replace the poor, unhealthy, foreign dishes as well as bad food ways that had been promoted by “Mama” Grace Mugabe during the Robert Mugabe dispensation. He or she who decides what we eat aims for power over our bodies and how they are disciplined and how their disciplining subvert/conform to particular knowledge regimes. Food is a striking and complex component of the mundane in Zimbabwe.
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Gamatox is a very dangerous chemical used to kill weevils and other pests, but the name was appropriated to name Joice Mujuru’s faction within Zanu-PF.
 There have also been narratives, especially from a former Zanu-PF member and currently Norton constituency parliamentary representative, Temba Mliswa, that the G40 are “gay gangsters”.
 This is an identity associated with a loose, urban, pompous and flamboyant woman.