Tanzania: Local Understandings of Global Processes: Food as a vehicle of and metaphor for Modernity on Mafia Island


A research project of Professor Pat Caplan
Funded by the Leverhulme Foundation and the Nuffield Foundation

Key terms: Modernity, globalisation, Tanzania, Mafia Island, food security

Lobsters are a new source of cash for young men, as they are sold for export, 2002Mafia Island, Tanzania, is a remote and underdeveloped part of one of the world's poorest countries, Tanzania It is an area where I have been carrying out research since 1965, so I have come to know its inhabitants well. Between the 1960s and 1990s, my research focussed on the lives of people in several villages in the north of the island, but the current project considers the island as a whole, and traces links outwards from Mafia to region, nation-state, and beyond.

While the coast of Tanzania has long been a very cosmopolitan area, influenced by other areas of the Indian Ocean, including the Gulf, and colonised successively by Omanis Germans and British, it is now subjected to globalising forces as never before. Islanders have seen coconuts, the main cash crop which supported them for a century, drop dramatically in price. Since Mafia is not self-sufficient in food, the drop in cash incomes has had a deleterious effect on the ability of local people to purchase food.

At the same time, Mafia's fish stocks have become of increasing commercial interest, not only to local artisanal fishermen, but to bigger, international companies. Yet more than half of the waters of Mafia are now included within the Mafia Island, Marine Park, where fishing is restricted in order to ensure sustainability. Furthermore, much of the most profitable form of fishing, such as catching lobsters for export, can only be done by young, fit men, who have found a new source of income which they well wish to spend on consumer goods.

Villagers in Kanga watch a video (powered by a diesel generator) about Welsh rural life, 2002A further development is the increase in tourism, much encouraged by government policies: the single hotel which existed in the south of the island for many years has now been joined by a number of others, with many more planned. Because of their acute need for cash, villagers have sold their land to development companies, even though there are concerns that such hotels will deny access to beaches to local fishermen and traders.

How do people make sense of these development, many of which appear to be outside of their control? How much room for manoeuvre do they have? And how do they cope? What do villagers think about the new imported foods (rice from Pakistan, Indonesia and Japan for example) which can now be found in the island's market? Do people think that their standard of living has improved and if not, why not?

In my research in the summer of 2002, I did not only talk to villagers, some of whom I have known well for many years, but also to government officials posted to the island capital, to those who run the Marine Park (funded by the World Wildlife Fund and UK's Department for International Development). Questions were also put to people working on voluntary organisations such as NGOs, both international and local, to relevant government ministries and to local scholars working at the University of Dar es Salaam.Photograph of Hadia making bread, 2004

Although the focus of this project is on material aspects of life, particularly food, I am also interested in the way in which various manifestations of culture are used to make statements about identity. For example, Zanzibar now holds a very successful annual international 'Festival of the Dhow Countries, Zanzibar Town has become a World Heritage Site, and tourism has developed into a big industry. What do such developments mean for the identity of the Swahili-speakers of the coast? How is Swahili culture conceptualised by local people and how is it presented to outsiders?

Publications arising from this research

  • Life in a Tanzanian village. A video by Pat Caplan (camera, script) and Carrie Clanton (editor) 2003. 49 mins. Commentary in English.
  • Maisha ya watu, Kisiwani Mafia, Tanzania. A video by Pat Caplan (camera, script) and Carrie Clanton (editor) 2003. 85 mins. In Swahili
  • COSTECH%20REPORT%20final%20060803 Report presented to The Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) on fieldwork carried out June-August 2002 Mafia Island, Tanzania (pp. 88) [ PDF Format - Size: 420K ]
  • Terror, Witchcraft and Risk AnthroGlobe e-journal Jan. 2006.
  • 2006. 'But is it real food? Responses to globalisation in Tanzania and India' Soc. Res. Online, Vol. 11, 4, (also in David Inglis and Debra Gimlin (eds.) The Globalization of Food. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2009).
  • 2007. 'But the coast, of course, is quite different’: academic and local ideas about the East African littoral' Journal of Eastern African Studies vol.1 no. 2. 305-320, July. 
  • 2008. 'Between socialism and neo-liberalism: Mafia Island, Tanzania, 1965-2004'. Review of African Political Economy no. 114: 679-94.
  • 2009. 'Understanding modernity/ies on Mafia Island, Tanzania: the idea of a moral community'. In Kjersti Larsen (ed.) Knowledge, Renewal and Religion Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.