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Cooking more than food

The social and cultural products of women’s alimentary agency in rural Mali
Cuisiner plus que de la nourriture : les produits sociaux et culturels de l’agentivité alimentaire des femmes du Mali rural
Stephen Wooten


In contemporary rural Mali, when it comes to cooking, there is a strict division of labour. Women always make the meals. Each and every day, they transform raw ingredients into cooked fare for themselves and their families. Through their quotidian, alimentary activities they produce essential physical nourishment. However, their labour at the hearth helps to create more than food. In this paper I highlight the important role women in the region play in the life-giving realm of food preparation and by extension in the creation of key threads of the fabric of social and cultural life. Using insights from extensive, longitudinal ethnographic research on the Mande Plateau in central Mali, I show how women's culinary activities have supported the creation and maintenance of long-lasting, socio-cultural dynamics. Their cooking and meals help foster fundamental values and dispositions, facilitate elemental family and community dynamics, and perhaps most importantly (re)produce gender identities and gender relations. I use this case study to draw attention to the cultural significance of cooking and women’s alimentary agency more broadly.

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My work in Mali has been supported by the Fulbright Program and the University of Oregon. I have benefited from collegial feedback in a variety of formal and informal settings from international symposia to hallway conversations on campus. My friend, brother, and collaborator Sekou Berte has played a key role in this project, from helping to collect data and to translation and interpretation. Ellen Ziesenhene and Emily Capdeville, alumni of the University of Oregon’s Global Studies Program, provided timely and insightful editorial guidance along the way. My family has always recognized the importance and value of my “work” and for that I am grateful. Thanks also go to the anonymous peer reviewers of my manuscript. Their comments, challenging and compelling, helped me bring forward a stronger paper in the end. The editors of this special issue deserve my gratitude. Their vision for the project was keen and their management of the publication process was skilful and compassionate. The deepest debt of gratitude I have is to the people of the Mande Plateau who have allowed me to learn about their lives. In particular, thanks are due to the women who shared their experiences and spaces for the current project. Tobilimusow, aw ni ce! Aw ni baara.


1In conversations with women in rural Mali about local foodways, I have often heard a simple and passionate declaration: “Our men don’t cook! We are tobilimusow (cooking women), we make food.” Men and boys eagerly affirm their wives’ or mothers’ observations. “Cooking is women’s work.” It all seems so “natural” to them and, for a long time, it did to me as well. Indeed, over the course of more than 25 years of research in rural farming communities in this region of West Africa I have never seen a man prepare a meal for his family. Men certainly do other productive and important things, but they do not – as rule – make meals. An enduring interest in this dominant and “naturalized” dynamic has led me to look more closely at the highly gendered and gendering nature of food preparation and to seek a fuller understanding of the things that tobilimusow produce through their labours of the hearth. They certainly cook food consumed by their family members, but I argue that they produce more through the preparation of meals. They are also creators of key cultural values and elemental connections, of alimentary ethics and the related social ties that bind.

2In this paper I present an ethnographically detailed and nuanced examination of cooking and meals in rural Mali and position women’s agency in this space as influential and consequential. My analysis of food and gender is informed and inspired by a growing body of scholarship that engages the intersection of these parts of life in new and productive ways. Recent studies have helped clarify the significance and power of cooking and the common meal in a wide variety of cultural and ethnographic contexts (e.g., Albala 2016; Carsten 1997; Davidson 2016; Holtzman 2009; Huhn 2020; Weismantel 1989). These studies reveal how an analysis of commensality and food dynamics can fruitfully engage the actors and processes that bring the common meal into being: the actions and contributions of the cooks. Geographer Maria Christie’s concept of “kitchenspace” (2008) offers an ethnographic pathway toward a substantive and theoretically valuable engagement with such dynamics. Kitchenspace is “a privileged and gendered site of social and cultural reproduction, where society’s relationship with nature is inscribed in the patterns of everyday life and ritual celebrations” (p. 1). It “is created and maintained by the food preparation activity carried out by gendered subjects” and these spaces “are women’s domains,” sites of women’s power, agency and creativity (p. 2). Building on these studies, in what follows I show how the labour the tobilimusow I have come to know in rural Mali nourishes their families, and I focus attention on what their labour produces beyond the food itself.

Ethnographic setting and methods

3My analysis stems from more than 25 years of engagement with rural farmers in the savanna region of Mali. While I have conducted research in various locations in the country, my principal engagement has been in one particular community. Niamakoroni is a settlement on the Mande Plateau in south central Mali, approximately 35 kilometres from Bamako, the capital city. According to community elders, the village was founded at the close of the nineteenth century when a lineage segment from a nearby community settled there in order to gain access to new farmland. Contemporary residents of Niamakoroni, like their ancestors before them, assert a Bamana (Bambara) ethnic identity.

4The people of Niamakoroni live in a small, tightly knit settlement that bears a close social, cultural and economic resemblance to other rural Bamana communities across the region (Becker 1989, 1990, 2000; Grigsby 1986; Lewis 1979, 1981; Grosz-Ngate 1988, 1989; and Toulmin 1992, 2020). Its population has ranged in size from about 250 in 1992 to approximately 450 in 2018. Descent in Niamakoroni is traced patrilineally and control over productive resources is generally corporate in nature. Age and sex are important characteristics in social, political and economic contexts, with elders dominating juniors and men typically holding more power than women. Becker (1990: 315) refers to this as “a patrilineal gerontocracy.” The dominant residence pattern is patrilocal, and marriages are frequently polygynous. In the community, the primary domestic group (residential and food production and consumption unit) is called a du (duw, plural). Niamakoroni’s duw are multi-generational, joint families in which junior males and their spouses and families typically live and work under the authority of the group’s eldest male, the dutigi or household head. As senior members of their lineage groups, dutigiw have access to arable uplands and the authority to direct the labour of those who live with them in the subsistence realm. The members of each du live close to one another and share meals throughout the year. Women in the community are responsible for food processing and cooking, as well as for all household maintenance tasks. Men typically have few domestic obligations aside from building and maintaining houses.

5I began my research in Niamakoroni in June 1993 with a two-month field study focusing on household and individual agricultural activities. From June 1994 to July 1995 I lived full time in village. Over the course of 13 months, I was a participant observer in the day-to-day life of the community. Specifically, I undertook an intensive study of the relationship between farming “for life” (ka balo) and “for money” (ka wari nyini). I have returned to the community numerous times for periods of field research (in June 1998, April-May 2002, June-July 2008, and June-July 2015). I spent eight months in Mali from August 2011 to March 2012. During that time, I continued my research on farming and added a new focus on cooking dynamics. Throughout the years I have used Bamana as my primary mode of communication and research.

6Over the years, I have eaten literally thousands of meals with people in Niamakoroni and across the wider Mande region. For more than a year in early 1990s, I lived with and ate almost all my daily meals with one particular family. Nene Jara, the leader of the community at that time welcomed me, as the resident ethnographer, into his large household in a time-honored fashion: by integrating me into a group meal. At the time, Nene’s family consisted of 59 people, his dumògòw, or house-people.

7This group had one central hearth or gwa, and the nine married women living the household took turns cooking for this “family.” Each day one tobilimuso gathered grain from the central granary, assembled ingredients for an accompanying vegetable sauce, and prepared a meal for the group. When family members like those in Nene’s household lower themselves to crouch around bowls of porridge and sauce, they eat and they forge bonds that all depend on for survival and community spirit. As I will show, in addition to nourishing the individual physical body, food consumed with others in these settings provides essential enculturation in the art of being a good person and constitutes and nourishes key social groups among the proud farmers I have come to know.

8By eating so many meals in common I have gained an intimate understanding how food helps foster connections, the spirit of family and community—what local people call badenya or motherchildness. As one woman explained it to me, “A united family eats together; they eat baden (motherchild) porridge” (see Wooten 2009:35-61 for a fuller treatment of this concept and its counterpart fadenya or fatherchildness). As we will see, household meals embody and promote key values and kinship connections, and these ethics and bonds are reinforced every day when residents partake of the food that nourishes them. And the women who cook these meals are thus instrumental actors in the social and cultural landscape.

Producing for life: the household economy

9In The Art of Livelihood: Creating Expressive Agri-Culture in Rural Mali (2009), I provide a detailed analysis of the contemporary, local farming system. I have also examined the deep roots of this agrarian economy, a foodway that has sustained generations of farmers on the West African savannah (Wooten 2020). A brief overview of this system provides context for my examination for food preparation and consumption. Very clear gender relations of production and domains of experience and knowledge mark the food production process, and likely have been, for a long period of time.

10During each rainy season (roughly June-September), the vast majority of working age community members (roughly 12-45 years of age) focus their productive energies on the cultivation of food crops, a process community members refer to as producing “for life.” Working under the direction of their dutigiw, members of each group labour to ensure that food coffers will be full at harvest time. The men in each household work collectively in their group’s main field to produce staple crops including sorghum, millet, corn/maize, cowpeas, peanuts, and Bambara groundnuts. Married women in each group work individually in fields assigned to them by the dutigiw to produce nafenw or sauce things. In most cases, women inter-crop peanuts, cowpeas, kenaf, roselle, and okra. These crops complement the grain to comprise the daily meals. Aside from assisting their mothers or sisters-in-law, unmarried girls are rarely involved in agricultural activities. Instead, they devote their time to household tasks such as hauling water, child care, and sweeping domestic areas. Likewise, senior men and women do not participate in the household economy. They are retired from productive roles in domestic labour. Those men and women who are active in their household economies spend the vast majority of daylight hours during the rainy season tending to the food crops.

11In October, a village-wide work team comprised of all the active men in the community harvest in rotation each du’s main cereal field. Each group’s harvest is stored in its own granary for use throughout the year. For the most part, each woman harvests her own sauce crops. Sometimes individual women recruit assistance from the other women in their du. Women’s crops are typically bagged and stored in their respective houses for use when they prepared meals in their household Throughout the year, consumption is strictly a du-level activity with meals prepared in turn by the married women in each household and composed of products resulting from men’s and women’s distinct production processes. The dutigiw oversee and manage the “for life” component of the farm economy. This general pattern of distinct gender contributions to the food economy, with men providing grains and women providing sauces, is widespread among the Bamana (Becker 1996; Thiam 1986; Toulmin 1992, 2020).

12The production and consumption pattern in Niamakoroni and surrounding communities on the Mande Plateau focuses on the “for life” economy. Unlike farming communities in the “peanut belt” of western Mali (Koenig 1998) or “cotton belt” of southern Mali (Laris et al 2015; Moseley 2005), producers in the study region devote the bulk of their land and labour during the farming season to producing food crops for their own consumption. Households do not grow peanuts for sale nor do they farm cotton for the market. Even if they wanted to do so, the environmental setting is not conducive to those crops. The crops they do grow end up in the bowls and bellies of the community members.

13In addition to labouring within the context of their respective duw for domestic consumption, individuals of all ages in Niamakoroni have the option to engage in independent commodity production activities that will earn them personal incomes. People typically classify income-generating activities as ka wari nyini (for money) activities. Due to the seasonal nature of labour demands in the rain-fed farming cycle, most people do not devote time to such personal activities until the close of the year’s farming season. However, once their obligations to the food economy are met, most people – young and old, male and female – devote at least some amount of time to producing or collecting products that are sold in nearby markets. For example, some people produce charcoal, while others craft mats and brooms. However, despite considerable diversity, people are quite uniform in viewing market gardening as the premier avenue available for income generation and potential accumulation. As I describe elsewhere, these commercial activities are gendered and men generally derive more benefit from them than do women (Wooten 2003, 2004).

Cooking women, women’s things, and the common meal

14Marriage plays a key role in shaping women’s food preparation activity in Niamakoroni and other Bamana communities. Generally speaking, only married women cook meals for their families. And once a woman’s son marries and a daughter-in-law joins the household, the mother-in-law “retires” from cooking, replaced by the household’s new wife. Cooks learn from their mothers and aunts before marriage and from senior sister wives after joining their husbands’ families. In both cases, learning happens by helping, watching and through direct instruction. Unmarried daughters aid their mothers or aunts.

15A household analysis from 1993 offers a sense of these dynamics and reveals an enduring tobilimusow pattern. Of the adult (non-elder) married women in Niamakoroni, 76 percent (32/42) cooked food in their respective households. Recently arrived new wives (musokuraw) accounted for the 14 percent (10/42) of adult (non-elder) married women who had not yet assumed their roles as tobilimusow in their respective duw. After a year or two new wives begin to cook for their new families. In Nene’s du, 9 women were tobilimusow. In Dugukolo’s du, there were 8 and in Mpe’s du, 3 women cooked. There were four cooking women in Bogoli Kulibali’s du and 8 in Dosege’s household. Following the farming pattern described above, all of these women cultivated women’s fields and used their sauce crops when they took their turns at the household hearth. For females, the age at marriage is usually around 16. With the prevailing pattern of polygamy, husbands are typically older, around 25 at first marriage and often in their forties or fifties by their second or third marriage. Subsequent research in the community confirms that this cooking pattern continues into the present day.

“Women’s things”

16In performing the essential labour of meal preparation, the women of Niamakoroni make use of a fairly standard and relatively simple tool kit. Men and women alike refer to these items as musofenw or “women’s things”. The standard “batterie de cuisine” includes: several clay pots for cooking grain, several clay pots for cooking sauce, a clay steamer, metal versions of most clay cooking pots, large and a small wooden mortar and pestle sets, serving spoons for sauce or gruel, serving spoons for porridge or rice, several storage and serving calabashes, several wooden vessels for serving and storage, several water jars, a water bucket, a hanging basket for utensils, a stiff hand brush, fiber sponge, a container for pungent spices, a stool, a knife for cutting sauce leaves, a pan for holding coals, and a fiber fan for stoking the fire. The sizes and numbers of items like cooking pots and serving bowls varies according to how much food is being prepared and the numbers of people being served.

17As noted above, a woman’s cooking is related to marriage and so is their toolkit. As part of a bride’s preparation for her transition into her husband’s family she receives items to support her in her new life, especially for her coming role as a cook. A bride’s female kin typically provide her with gifts for her hearthwork. When she arrives in her husband’s household her cooking kit and general trousseau is laid out for all to see. This is a very public accounting and offers people a way to “see” what the new wife brings to the household. Some of the items in the cooking toolkit are more like “common property” while others are more “personal property.” Some items are kept in the gwabugu, others in the individual woman’s home. Most large items stay at the central hearth or nearby work area.

Cooking the common meals

18A day or two in advance of their cooking turn, tobilimusow make their way to their household’s central granaries, which are typically located in the remote bush fields where the crops are grown. Cooks walk to their granary to retrieve the amounts needed for their cooking cycle. The grain is stored on the panicle and women load baskets woven from sorghum stalk strips. They carry these baskets back to the village for processing. The first step is to remove grains from the panicle. This is done by light pounding using a large wooden mortar and pestle. Once the grains are free, they are washed and then pounded into coarse flour. The flour is safe guarded for use on the day the women take their turn at the household hearth.

19Before the sun appears, a cook in each one of the community’s compounds rises in order to prepare the morning meal (daraka) for the people of her compound, her fellow dumògòw or house-people. Establishing the cooking fire is a starting point. Fires are tended in the space between three large stones or gwakuluw. The rocks provide a space for the fire and a foundation to hold the cooking pot. Women will have collected a store of wood from the bush to fuel their cooking fires. With the fire ready, the cook moves on to another key element in the process: gathering water from the village well. Using a rubber bucket and rope, she will draw enough water for all her cooking activities.

20For daraka the cook typically prepares a thin porridge or gruel called siri. The cook uses the pre-ground sorghum or millet flour for this meal. She boils the flour in water and carefully stirs to avoid lumping. She keeps a close eye on the cooking grain and watches to see how it thickens. The goal is to produce a uniform gruel that can be sipped. When seri is ready she pours it into a series of bowls for household distribution. Seri served to household members in large enamel or plastic bowls, most of which were produced in China. The fare is consumed by individuals using gourd spoons or galamaw. Small groups of family members organized along lines of gender and age, crouch around and dip their gourds into a common bowl.

21After the morning meal, all members of the du disperse to pursue their day’s activities; some head off alone, and others depart in groups. During the rainy season, the adult men typically depart en masse for work in the du’s main grain field. Except for the tobilimuso, who is responsible for the day’s cooking, the du’s adult women typically head off in the company of their young children to work their own women’s fields.

22After her early morning activities, the tobilimuso turns her attention directly to the task of readying the midday meal or tilelafana. The cook has two main elements to produce for the mid-day and surofana (nighttime-meal) alike. These meals are usually the same: a stiff, thick sorghum or millet paste or to, accompanied by a green leaf sauce or na. The cooking process for these items is similar to that used for the morning seri. It is worth noting that the word for cooking is based on the porridge: tobili, to make the porridge. And that is the base for the term for cooking women, tobilimusow. Clearly, making porridge is a central part of all cooking and for the women who do it too.

23To make the to, women take the pounded flour and add it to boiling water. They stir it frequently to keep it from sticking to the pot and to keep it from burning in the later stages. The pot is typically cast iron or aluminum, usually made in the nearby capital city of Bamako. The size of the pot varies according to the size of the household. Typical sizes are 20 kg and 30 kg. The pots are modelled on clay pots of old. The current metal versions have small tripod style feet while their clay predecessors did not. Unlike the thinness of seri, the target consistency for the porridge is a stiff but not completely hard texture. To reach the right consistency the cook must vigorously turn and turn the steadily thickening mix. As it progresses the mixture becomes quite heavy, requiring considerable arm strength.

24Making the sauce or na follows a similar process. The most common sauce is comprised of some type of green leaf. Cooks will gather wild plants in the bush and/or collect leaves from plants in their fields (musoforow) or gardens, which tellingly are called nakow or sauce-streambeds. The leaves typically come from okra, cowpea or sorrel plants. They will fill a basin with an amount they know will produce a sufficient quantity of cooked sauce. They then slice bunches into a plastic or enamel bowl. The cut leaves are then processed in a small mortar to create a finer ingredient. Cooks will then add cooking oil (often peanut oil), the pounded leaves, salt and perhaps some soumbala (a condiment made from the seeds of the néré [Parkia biglobosa] tree) or datu (a spice made from roselle seeds [Hibiscus sabdariffa]). Some Maggi Cube, a mass-produced bouillon cube that has become widely available over the last few decades, might be added. This mixture will simmer for an hour or so.

25With the to and na prepared, the cook will then assemble the tilelafana or surofana meal. Using a metal ladle, she will place dollop after dollop of porridge around the inside of a plastic or enamel basin. This process is artistic in that the additions converge to compose what to my eye always looks like a collage. When completed the basin may have about 30-40 dollops of to, some across the bottom of the vessel and more up and around the sides. The result is a clean and organized matrix with an open well in the centre. The cook then adds the sauce to the vacant space, filling the well. While the food is fairly simple, the presentation is striking in its elegance. The midday meal is distributed first to those who typically remain in the village—the young children, the elders, and the sick or injured—and to the women who return to the compound from their nearby fields. Young women and girls usually bring bowls of to and na to the men working in the distant foroba.

26At approximately 6:00 p.m., all du members reunite for suròfana, served in the du’s common area like the morning meal. Usually, the fare is identical to the midday meal: to and na. On some special occasions, rice (a purchased staple) is the grain of choice. Again, separate eating groups form within each du, divided first by gender and then within gender by age. However, the oldest man in the group, the cèkòròba and dutigi, typically eats with several young boys (between four and seven years old) and the oldest woman (musokòròba) typically eats with several young girls. Toddlers eat with their mothers.

27The tobilimuso brings the cooked food out from the gwabugu and begins by placing a bowl on the ground in front of the dutigi, then places one in front of the next group of men, and then continues through all the assembled men and women. With their right hands, people take a bit of the to and dip it into the na, which has been placed in the hollowed area in the center of the to. The process continues until each individual is satisfied or the food runs out. If the food in a particular bowl does run out before someone is full, he or she is free to move on a neighbouring group that is still eating. When they are full people say, “A barika” or “thanks be,” to which the others assembled respond by passing the thanks to Allah, “A barika Allah ye.” (Even the many non-Muslims in the community use these phrases.) They then pull back from the intimate eating circle, licking their hands before washing them off in the same bowl of water they used at the start of the meal. When everyone has finished eating, the tobilimuso collects the bowls. Sometimes she gives the remains to the compound’s dogs, or, if food is scarce, they are kept for breakfast the following day. She then proceeds to wash the bowls and cooking pots so that they will be ready for the next meal.

28Interestingly, while all tobilimusow produce basically the same meals of porridge and sauce, they can do so with individual flair. Regular consumers of household meals can distinguish one woman’s sauce from another’s. It is not uncommon to hear someone, typically a man, praise a particular tobilimuso’s sauce publicly by saying, “I ni gwa, I ni na” or “You and your hearth. You and your sauce.” This statement is a commentary on the woman’s distinctive culinary style. In a social world where women typically have few public opportunities to secure status, those who receive such praise seem to take pride in being acknowledged.

29While the core of the fare and toolkit have remained quite stable over time, some cooks have experimented with and adopted new ingredients and technologies. As mentioned, consumer market items like Maggi Cubes have become more commonly used by local women. And cast iron and aluminium pots and enamel and plastic containers are being used more regularly with a parallel decline in clay and calabash items. Barbara Frank (1998) discusses this dynamic in terms of a shift away from pottery and toward iron and aluminium vessels, and Jerimy Cunningham (2009) explores the expansion of enamel serving bowls in the region. Cooks in Niamakoroni and across rural Mali are definitely not averse to change. However, they navigate changes in terms of cost and availability and convenience.

30By and large these shifts have been fairly limited in scope and magnitude. For example, while Twagira (2020) documents the increasing use of machines for milling in the Office du Niger, this occurs in a unique and highly specialized, official development zone. Another study shows that some rural cooks, when working closely with and guided closely by non-governmental organizations, integrated improved cookstove technology into their kitchens, at least some of the time (Johnson and Bryden 2012). A recent 30 year, systematic study reveals that even in Bamako, Mali’s bustling capital city, where use of liquid propane gas (LPG) stoves for cooking has become an option, they have remained relatively uncommon. In 2015 LPG comprised only 7% of fuel use in the metropolis, with the traditional fuel sources wood and charcoal predominated (Gazull et al 2019). When labour-saving and/or natural resource conservation innovations in cooking do occur, they are often well appreciated by the women involved.

Cooking more than food

31As I have shown above, cooks produce the meals that fuel and nourish their family members, every day and several times a day, year in and year out. Generation to generation. This is not a small thing. However, I argue that their alimentary activities produce more than food.

Producing the ties and values that bind

32“Commensality has been a perennial interest among anthropologists as both a source and expression of group identity” (Tierney and Ohnuki-Tierney 2012: 119). Pioneers like Malinowski, Mauss, and Radcliffe-Brown all recognized the social value of food. Richards (1939) developed the idea of a “clanship of porridge,” the kinship created through the sharing of a meal. As discussed in the preceding section, the very material process of food consumption is paramount in this regard. The portrait of the daily round of meals shows that the people of each household are united by their consumption of food prepared from a common hearth.

33One of the most common phrases heard in discussions of food and family dynamics, du kelen, gwa kelen, or “one household, one hearth,” is typically rendered with conviction, as if it communicated a prized social value. The upshot is that the character of meal preparation and the nature of its consumption define households; if you have two hearths and two eating groups, you have two households. Each and every day, dumògòw come together to gather around bowls on food prepared in a common kitchen. Instead of a series of discrete eating groups, the households of the village are unified consumption units. Even if the people could eat alone, they choose not to. Instead, they choose to share their meals. Interestingly, on occasions when I was sick or simply overwhelmed with the social intimacy of day-to-day life and chose to prepare meals alone in my house-people often came by to check on me, to see if I had a problem – they meant a social problem, not a physical one.

34However, there is complexity within this framework and within the “unity.” All people do not technically eat together within the community, and even within households, there are some dividing lines. As families grow over time, distinct groups tend to emerge, groups that over time constitute their own residential units, farming units, and ultimately, eating units. Naturally, when issues of scale become significant, transformation needs to occur, new eating groups need to be constituted through the construction of new dwellings and, most importantly, new hearths at which women can cook common meals to feed the house-people. This is a normal process, a process that replicates rather than replaces the basic ideology.

35Another distinction within the realm of eating together occurs between age groups and genders within the household. At all meals, men and women eat separately. The women eat on one side of the public space, and the men eat on the other. Within each gender group, people are further differentiated by age with rough age-mates eating together from a common bowl, the only exception being the aforementioned: when favoured boys eat with their grandfather. So, in a sense, the unified eating group is actually composed of a set of sub-groups.

36While there are ways in which the meal is not fully shared, there are also ways in which it is extended beyond the household. On countless occasions, people called out to me as I passed by their households, “Come eat with us!” This call was clearly an act of hospitality, but it went further than that; a call to eat is a call to connect. As mentioned earlier, the extension and acceptance of an offer is viewed as one of the best means to build unity or badenya. “By inviting someone to join you, you are opening up the possibility for connection, for empathy. If your invitation is taken up, this shows that we are and can be one, which is badenya,” explained Sunje Jara, a quiet but insightful male elder. By accepting such invitations to “come and eat,” I learned a lot about who eats together and why.

37Through the habitus of the shared meal, eaters learn what their communities uphold. The common meal prepared by tobilimusow teaches and fosters the all-important badenya value. The mother-child unity that is so important to people in Niamakoroni and Mande people at large. Elsewhere I describe “daily acts of badenya,” actions that kin undertake to create belonging or motherchildness. These include the ubiquitous daily greetings and periodic housebuilding activities (see Wooten 2009, p. 51-57). However, while there are other ways they teach and foster unity, I suggest that there is nothing more badenya focused than the shared meal: the foroba to. Indeed, when people want to call attention to a family’s unity they say, “U be to dun nyogonfe!” or “They eat porridge together!” From the earliest exposure to the shared meal children are? learning what’s important. As they gather around the bowl with a set of relatives or friends and use their hands to gather a portion of the porridge and sauce, they perform and embody the principle and substance of badenya. And they do so for the whole lives, as they progress to elderhood.

(Re)Producing gender

38Perhaps the most significant thing cooking helps to create is gender in the cultural and social senses Henrietta Moore has explicated (1988). Activities that are strongly differentiated, like cooking, help to construct and reinforce gender identities: the meaning of woman and man and the doings of women and men. “We are tobilimusow. We cook. We make meals that feed our people. Our men do not.” In these declarations and associated actions, gender identity is strong and visible. As discussed above, women move into their husbands’ families and through their cooking they “feed” and sustain their new families. With each meal they become more fully “insiders” in their new social settings. It is interesting to see cooking as a way of becoming less and less of an “outsider.” Cooking helps new wives to transition, to change status. Becoming a good cook or a praised cook adds another dimension to this dynamic. A cook who receives praise is publicly celebrated or called out. She rises into a different status in this way too.

39In her analysis of the processes relating to the “gendering food,” Carole Counihan (2012) calls attention to the “power” of cooking and feeding (p. 104). She points out that these activities present an opportunity for women to develop a “food voice” and a space for power that, while not necessarily “celebrated” by men, is nonetheless significant and potentially influential. In the discussion above I have called attention to the ways women in Niamakoroni, through their roles as cooks and mothers, develop and tend a space of power. A site from which to negotiate relations with men. Through their daily work in gender coded processes and locations, they establish and maintain culturally defined and accepted space, literally and figuratively. Cooking or not cooking contributes to identity formation – women cook; cooking helps to make women. Men don’t cook; not cooking helps to make men. In this sense, gender is practiced and performed. Experienced directly and seen by young people, girls and boys. Due to the patrilineal orientation of the society, men, especially household heads, have power over household produced raw grains. However, women take some of that power into their hands when they pound it and grind it and cook it. They gain some degree of control and agency within a strongly patriarchal system. The realm of cooking offers women a relatively autonomous space for creating identity and social status.

40In Niamakoroni and the wider Mande world mothers are viewed in a respectful and in fact celebratory way (Hoffman 2002). As a common proverb suggests, “we are all in our mother’s hands.” The meaning here is that the lives and destinies of children stem from their mothers. Good mothers, mothers who care for and nourish the offspring successfully and with a sweet heart (sonkadi), will create good children. It is not by chance that the principal value of unity or badenya is derived from the term for mother and child. It conveys a sense of the quality that emerges from good mothering. Mothers are the baw of the badenw and the source of badenya. Mothers feed you and care for you. It is important to note that this relationship is based on one’s biological mother, but is applicable to mother’s cowives as well, to baniciniw in Bamana, minor mothers. So, cooking and feeding creates mothers and mothering as well. The conceptual or cultural space women create through their feeding and nurturing is one aspect. In a way it is facilitated by the occupation of physical space.

41Christie’s notion of “kitchenspace” (2008) calls attention to the spatial aspect of gender identity: the sites of cooking and consumption. For the tobilimusow of Niamakoroni, these are the gwabuguw, literally the hearthgrounds. In Niamakoroni and across the Mande region, the hearth is comprised of three simple stones or gwakuluw. Open-hearth cooking and the three-rock arrangement are of course ancient and widespread. In some Bamana communities gwa is used to refer to the family (see Lewis 1979, Toulmin 1992, 2020), signaling the centrality of the cooking space. Of course, the hearth is the place of the fire.

42As Wrangham (2009) has argued fire is perhaps one of the most important elements of humanity’s consequential discoveries. In the hands of humans, it facilitates the all-important development of cooking. It is perhaps not surprising then for fire and fireplaces or hearths to be celebrated. Noted French ethnologist Dominique Zahan (1979) calls attention to the special status of these places of fire. “’Temples’ related to fire are more numerous than one might think, since any hearth where an African woman prepares food can be properly considered a sacred place of worship. This is not so much because of the holiness of food but because of the ‘sanctity’ of fire” (p. 29). He goes on to say, “As the ‘soul’ of the household, the hearth turns the house itself into a humble ‘sanctuary’ of prayer, of the silent invocation addressed by man (sic) to the divinity or to the family’s ancestral souls. When an offering is made of food cooked in the fireplace before it is taken into the body to be transformed into blood and life, this is not only a way of ‘nourishing’ the ancestors but also a way of thanking the Invisible for the gift of fire, the symbol of life” (p. 97).

43As a rule, men do not enter gwabuguw or cooking spaces, the temples of fire. I cannot recall seeing any man in a there in more than two and a half decades of field research. Sometimes a man might come to the doorway and greet the women inside but even then, it’s usually in passing, not an extended visit. I have probably spent more time in the cooking spaces of Niamakoroni than any other resident male. There is a degree of fear of this space for men. Fear of what power women might have in this realm, be it material (poison) or ritual (spells). In a rich article on ‘the gender of beer” Walter Van Beek remarks on the fear dynamic among the Dogon people of northern Mali, albeit in this case with millet beer not porridge. “Dogon beer is a female force. Men, the main drinkers, depend on women for the production of their beer, and they fear that aspect.” (2011: 157). Likewise, David Conrad (1999) has observed fear of women in the oral traditions of the Mande. He recounts several situations where food and cooking reveal the power of the cook, for good (as in medicine) and danger (as in poison). Legendary leader Fakoli’s wife Keleya Konkon’s feat of producing vast amounts of food from a simple pot and the cooks that produced poison meat to help defeat enemies in the Mani/Mande battles.

44So, through cooking, a steady and ever-present activity, women create a space for themselves, physically and socio-culturally speaking. In fact, groups of tobilimusow do this, not one woman. This is a collective effort within a household and even more so across the community and indeed society. Mande women through their culinary actions produce a literal and figurative space for themselves and for women in general and those to come. The gwabugu is women’s space and being in that space creates women, in the cultural sense as well as the social sense. When daughters or junior sisters help out in the cooking process, they are learning about being a woman and being in and of a woman’s space. It is a site of enculturation and socialization, of gendering. And it is a women’s place of power. Indeed, women sometimes refer to the cooking space as “musow ka bureau” or “women’s office” in parallel to ritual houses or offices where elder male dutigiw hold power.


45It is important to return to the “naturalized” aspect of the gendered nature of cooking that I presented in the opening of this paper. As Counihan has noted (2012: 105), until recently, relatively little appreciation has been given to women cooks and their cooking, especially in non-professional, daily contexts. Indeed, cooking and meals are often taken for granted or seen as naturally occurring; especially by men – be they insiders or outsiders. And this is particularly true in contexts where the cuisine is seen as relatively “simple,” without a lot of ingredients or technological complexity. In the analysis above, we see the women behind “simple” meals in rural Mali. And we see their labours more clearly. We see the products of their work more completely. In doing so, we gain a deeper sense of and appreciation for their alimentary agency and power. We see them not simply as food makers or providers of sustenance, but as creators of culture and community as well. We see cooking as a creative process, thereby expanding our appreciation for the kinds of processes we might consider as socially and culturally productive.

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Electronic reference

Stephen Wooten, « Cooking more than food », Anthropology of food [Online], 16 | 2022, Online since , connection on 01 October 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Stephen Wooten

University of Oregon,

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