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The meaning of African and “White man’s” food at Muslim and civil wedding celebrations in urban Burkina Faso

Liza Debevec


Muslims of Burkina Faso celebrate weddings in two distinct ways; a “traditional” celebration accompanies the religious ceremony, while a “civil” wedding party marks the official marriage which takes place at the town hall. The foods served are important markers of the contrasts between these two occasions. While so-called “African” food and drink is served at the traditional ceremony, the civil ceremony is marked by the serving of tubabu dumuni or “white man’s food”. Another distinction is the manner of eating. At the traditional meal guests eat from shared bowls, using their hands, while at the “civil” celebration the food is served on plates and is meant to be eaten with cutlery. Drawing on these two ceremonial forms and the marked distinctions between them, this paper discusses the ongoing discourse of “traditional” versus “modern” in urban Burkina Faso.

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1Wedding celebrations, albeit a rather neglected subject in anthropological literature, are rich and meaningful forums that often reflect various aspects of local discourse and practice. For the researcher, therefore, they serve as important sources of information. According to Vassos Argyrou, whose book “Tradition and Modernity in the Mediterranean: The Wedding as a Symbolic Struggle” is to date the only detailed anthropological study of wedding celebrations, Cypriot weddings are “important cultural celebrations, something of a master symbol that encapsulates, expresses, and helps to reproduce a complex way of life, as current and as vibrant as any other we know” (Argyrou, 1996: 2).

2Based on Argyrou’s example, in this article I look at Muslim wedding celebrations in urban Burkina Faso, comparing the types of festivities and the foods served. I shall discuss ways in which food-related activities at traditional and civil wedding celebrations reflect local concepts of hospitality and sharing, tradition and modernity, continuity and change, about African and White ways and the Burkinabés’ attempts and success in domesticating the foreign aspects of a particular event. Using ethnographic examples of Muslim and civil wedding parties, I will consider the differences between “White man’s foods” and “African foods” in terms of their content and purpose. I will show that unlike “African foods”, “White man’s foods” are not regarded as sufficiently filling to feed people but nevertheless play a very important role as an outward token of wealth and modernity.

3Since the early 1990s, anthropologists and other social scientists have been very preoccupied with the subject of modernity. Lien has pointed out that modernity is seen in the “contradiction with that which is not modern – the traditional” (1997: 7) and that academic debates have often provided “a continuation of the orientalist dichotomy of ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’” (Latour, 1993: 3). Yet as Bruno Latour so eloquently suggests, the West has “never been modern” (Latour, 1993), which therefore suggests that “the rest” is not necessarily as “traditional” as some would like it to be. Charles Piot (1999: 1) speaks of the Kabre of the Northern Togo as being “long globalised” and what may look like “traditional features of the Kabre society are in fact ‘modernities’” which were “forged during the long encounter with Europe over the last three hundred years and thus owe their meaning and shape to that encounter as much as to anything ‘indigenous’”. Piot (1999: 2) also suggests, that it is the research carried out by African scholars that “seeks to unsettle the orientalising binarism […] that associates Europe with ‘modernity’ and Africa with ‘tradition’”. My own fieldwork data certainly supports the idea that the discourse that opposes tradition and modernity is not necessarily based on everyday reality but rooted in a political agenda that relies on the modernity/tradition dichotomy to justify its existence (Debevec, 2005).

4In the official Burkinabé discourse, modernity is opposed to tradition and the only way for Burkina Faso to move forward and upwards in the world is by embracing the modern ways of the West. For the Burkinabés themselves, this means seeking formal education in schools modelled on the French educational system, learning French and shedding backwards traditional beliefs that prevent them from becoming a truly modern Burkinabé.

5This distinction between modernity and tradition is sometimes expressed as “the way of the Whites (tubabuya)” as opposed to “the way of the Africans (farafinya)”, or sometimes as a conflict1 between “intellectuals” and “peasants” (Hagberg, 2001: 2). Both aspects may be viewed as positive or negative depending on the context of use. The Burkinabés use the term “traditional” when referring to the way things used to be, in the days of their parents and grandparents. The term “modern”, on the other hand, is usually associated with goods or ideas that have been imported from abroad and are related to the “White man”, an expression applied not only to people from the West but also from the Middle East, India and China. For them “modern” generally equates with “good”, meaning better than “old”. “Traditional” is a term to which people resort in order to excuse a practice that may seem awkward to an outsider. Also, to avoid criticism, as in the phrase “it is our tradition to do this, this is the African way”. Tradition can therefore function as an excuse, almost as if the Burkinabés were taking a (cultural relativist) stance to justify their behaviour. As pointed out by Argyrou in his study of tradition and modernity in Greek Cyprus, “an ‘authentic’ local identity is often viewed not as flawed, but as something to be proudly displayed” [and therefore] “acknowledging an Oriental identity is […] also a strategy of legitimation” (1996: 3).

6The present article is based on 18 months of fieldwork conducted over a three-year period from 2000 to 2003, and focusing on Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in Burkina Faso, located in the south-west of the country. Commonly known as Bobo, the city is a thriving urban centre with an ethnically diverse population of almost half a million and rising, that includes a substantial expatriate community, both African and European. Bobo is a predominantly Muslim city, with about 72 percent of the people following Islam. Most of my informants were Muslim and therefore the following paper also refers to the Muslim wedding practices. I worked mostly among lower- and middle-class families of various ethnic groups, with occasional visits and interaction with upper middle class families.

7During field research I concentrated on participant observation, following informants (mostly married or single adult women) from place to place and joining in their activities. Much of our time was spent at weddings, child-naming ceremonies and funerals where there was ample opportunity to observe food practices. I also carried out follow-up interviews with both men and women from these families.

8Before focusing on the choice of food at wedding celebrations, let me briefly examine the everyday eating practices in Bobo-Dioulasso. The daily diet for the majority of African peoples consists of a starch-based staple food with some form of relish (Fortes and Fortes, 1936; Richards, 1939; Goody, 1982; Hansen, 1999). For the average Bobolese, lunch is the main meal based on a staple food such as millet, maize, porridge or rice, always served with a sauce. Meat is a popular food item and all sauces should contain at least a small quantity of meat or dried fish. Wealthier urban families may occasionally prepare macaroni with sauce as main dish, but rice and porridge remain the dominant staple foods. Age and gender hierarchy are important aspects of everyday life in Burkina Faso, as elsewhere in West Africa (Roth, 1996; Brand, 2001), and they also affect the preparation and consumption of food. In terms of food distribution, it is a basic rule that the male head of the family (or in his absence, the eldest woman) gets the lion’s share. There is much more to it than that however (including who contributed the most money towards the meal, etc). In theory, people like to stress the importance of equal food sharing but in practice both the quantity and quality of food tend to differ depending on who is being served. Family resentments also come into play, with orphans and fostered children often receiving less food than those whose parents are present in the compound (Debevec, 2004).

The format of the Muslim and civil wedding ceremonies in Bobo-Dioulasso

9When speaking about Muslim wedding practices in West Africa, one must address the matter of polygamy. As in neighbouring Mali, polygamy is an officially recognised form of marriage in Burkina Faso. In the civil ceremony, which takes place at the town hall, the couple must declare the form of marriage they have chosen, and if they choose monogamy the husband is then officially prohibited from marrying a second wife. However, the practice of traditional marriage allows the man to marry a second, third and forth wife in a traditionally recognised form and, according to my informants, the first wife has little or no possibility of protesting even if monogamy was chosen at the civil wedding. Traditional marriage procedures, which include a visit to the mosque and the exchange of the bride price, are predominantly a man’s affair, but the celebrations and the party are the domain of women. Despite many changes in society, traditional beliefs about womanhood remain firmly in place. Women aspire to marriage as a social rite that marks their change to adulthood and increases their social standing. An unmarried woman will, at least in name, always remain a girl (sunguru) and married women (muso) can look down on her. Unmarried women of a certain age, especially childless ones, may become victims of mockery2 (Brand, 2001: 120). The traditional ceremony is therefore a desired and essential rite of passage for every Burkinabé woman (and man). The civil wedding, on the other hand, affirms the wife’s recognition by the husband and guarantees her certain legal rights in case of divorce or widowhood. Furthermore, according to my more highly educated informants, the civil wedding allows “intellectuals” to distinguish themselves from illiterate village people. As suggested above, this is an important distinction in contemporary Burkinabé society.

10In the following section, I will describe the main steps of traditional marriage and wedding procedures under ideal circumstances:

11After the representatives of the groom and his parents have visited the bride’s parents, the two families will agree on the wedding exchanges and share the kola nuts. After these rituals, the wedding can take place. In the past, the wedding celebrations lasted for a week, beginning with the ritual known as “the closing of the bride” which took place on a Sunday and during which the bride was covered with a white blanket and put into seclusion. Throughout the week, the bride’s and groom’s female relatives gathered at the bride’s house to join in traditional wedding songs and dances. On Thursday, when the male representatives of the two families went to the mosque to marry the couple, the bride’s home was the venue of celebrations accompanied by food and dance. This was, and still is, a women-only event. The following day, the bride was taken to the groom’s family compound where she was kept in seclusion for a few more days. These days traditional wedding celebrations in urban areas rarely last longer than a day or two, mainly due to time and money constraints. The bride may be put into seclusion on the eve of the main celebration.

12Unlike the traditional wedding, the civil wedding celebration takes place on a single morning and involves the exchange of vows at the town hall followed by a banquet at the family compound or, among richer families, at a restaurant or hotel. There is rarely any music and dancing, although some griots (praise singers) may show up at the town hall.

13The following passage is an account of a traditional wedding celebration that was partly catered by the women in my host family and which took place in the adjacent compound.

Safi’s wedding

14Safi’s family being the next-door neighbours and close friends of my host family, my host mother Mama and her eldest daughter Mamou helped to organise the party. Mama was invited to cover the bride in the seclusion ceremony, while Mamou joined in the food preparations.

15The dish served was malo zaamen, a rice-based dish that is traditional at wedding parties and indeed now synonymous with parties in Bobo and elsewhere in urban Burkina Faso. Its origins may be traced back to the Senegalese rice-based dish tiebou djen which is prepared with copious amounts of meat and fish. Malo zaamen contains large amounts of meat and vegetables (instead of fish) and though less elaborate, still ranks as a rich man’s dish. Good malo zaamen is made from top quality ingredients and numerous stock cubes. The meat and vegetables are served on a bed of rice which is cooked in the meat and vegetable stock.

Women preparing ingredients for malo zaamen

Women preparing ingredients for malo zaamen

16The meal preparations started early on Thursday. Most of the meat and vegetables had been cut and chopped before they were brought to the compound. It took several iron pots of the largest size to prepare the food for all guests, so the hearth was set in the middle of the yard and not in the kitchen. This meant that the woman in charge of stirring the dish had to cook over burning firewood in the scorching midday sun. Much of the preparation, however, took place in the shade of the large mango trees. Some of the women peeled then crushed the garlic in a large wooden mortar while others washed then pounded the parsley (also in the mortar). My task was to peel the 50 or so Maggi stock cubes used in the preparation of malo zaamen. Maggi stock cubes are now such a quintessential ingredient of African cuisine that there is hardly a dish left these days that does not contain them.

17The compound was soon filled with the smells of frying meat and boiling stock. Mamou meanwhile carefully supervised the washing of the rice – a very time-consuming process when dealing with such large quantities but nevertheless essential since sacks of rice often contain sand and insects. When the stock was ready, she removed the meat and vegetables and set them aside for later. The boiling stock was then used to cook the rice which after thorough stirring was covered and left to simmer for around an hour.

A female helper stirring malo zaamen in large pots

A female helper stirring malo zaamen in large pots

18Once cooked, the rice was transferred to large plastic bowls and topped with the meat and vegetables. The guests were served according to status, as at family meals. Mamou and a woman from the bride’s family discussed who was to get what kind of dish. The rule on such occasions is to serve generous portions to the bride’s family and all of the adult women in the groom’s family. The young women who carry the food to the guests at weddings are given strict instructions on what to serve to whom. As an outsider, I could hardly follow what was going on and indeed, was not invited to do so since this was a job for experienced adult women. The Bationo girls, who cooked on a daily basis, had no say when it came to festive occasions.

19Serving sizes do tend to be quite controversial at weddings, as the following example shows. Some of the girls carrying food to the groom’s relatives in the neighbours’ compound (where the majority of guests were seated), returned accompanied by one of the women from the bride’s or groom’s family. The serving size, she insisted, was inappropriate considering the importance of the relatives in question. After a brief argument, the women from both families agreed with her and another piece of meat and two pieces of cabbage were added to the original serving – a small difference but large enough not to cause offence – and taken back to the guests. The accusations by now were flying both ways. In our compound, Mamou commented on the greediness of the guests, well aware that they themselves would be making criticisms of the serving sizes, the cook and the stinginess of the bride’s family. Having attended several weddings with Mamou, I know how critical she herself can be when she thinks that she is not being treated in a way that she considers acceptable.

20The neighbour’s compound was packed with smartly-dressed women, most of them wearing grand boubous, made of the finest fabric.3 Some women sat on wooden benches, others on plastic mats on the floor. In the centre of each group was a large plastic dish full of rice from which the women ate, dipping their right hand into the rice, rolling it into a ball so as not to drop any grains, then placing it in the mouth. The meat is usually eaten last and chewed slowly, right down to the bone, spitting any inedible bits onto the floor. Once a woman has finished eating, she will wash her hands in the bowl by her feet (or ask a child to fetch her a bowl). Some women then drink their bag of lemburujii, a sweet lemon and ginger juice commonly served on such occasions.

21The more important guests ate in the rooms around the courtyard – a useful precaution given that the preferential treatment enjoyed by these women could offend the sensibilities of the other guests. On the occasions when I myself had been a privileged guest, the serving was so generous that at the end of the meal, my fellow guests filled a plastic bag with the leftovers and took them home to eat – something that is definitely not an option for the women seated outside.

22After they had finished eating, some of the women sat around chatting, others rested on benches or mats, others fetched a prayer bowl to perform their ablutions before going to pray in a corner. Later in the afternoon, the women gathered in a special enclosed area outside the house, for music and dancing and to listen to the singing of the griots.

Civil wedding of Aicha Sidibé and Amadou Diop, first cousins of the Bationo family

23The bride and groom in this case were first cousins of my host family. The civil celebrations took place on Saturday, two days after the traditional ceremony at the bride’s family home. The civil wedding banquet, by contrast, was held in the Bationo compound where the yard was large enough to accommodate all of the reception guests. Preparations were in full swing on Friday even though the conversation still revolved around the previous day’s traditional celebrations. I sat on the terrace helping the women to clean string beans while the unmarried Bationo girls, Madina, Assetou, and the maid, washed trays for the following day’s reception. Some of the trays were provided by the bride’s relatives who lived in Ouagadougou. Mamou meanwhile fried first popcorn followed by “beignets de crevettes”, a form of shrimp fritter imported from China which I had only ever seen before at a local Christmas party.4 This type of food is referred to as tubabu dumuni or “White man’s food”, meaning that it is not of African origin. Mamou’s sister Fati F. then used the same pan and oil to fry the meat, filling the yard with the pungent, unpleasant smell of stale cooking oil. Next Fati F. marinated the chickens (that had been killed and plucked beforehand) in a mixture of salt, garlic, vinegar, oil and Maggi stock cubes. These were then fried by Fati F.’s sister-in-law Fati K., using the same pan and oil as before. I sat next to her washing the salad. The hierarchical system and division of labour among women of the same family is quite complex and not all of the women take part in daily household chores. On the day of the party, however, all of them helped with the food preparation, even the older adult women who would normally not cook on weekdays.

24Women from other compounds meanwhile came and went, some staying to chat a while, others lending a hand with minor chores. Such a gesture is much appreciated by the women bearing the brunt of the work even though it does little to lighten their load. This being a civil wedding, the bride and groom wore western-style clothing and sat at a “table d’honneur” together with the other guests of honour (best man, maid of honour and close relatives). The food was served on plates and eaten with cutlery and the guests of honour were provided with glasses for their (soft) drinks.

25The preparations commenced at around 5am on Saturday morning, at least an hour before the usual wake-up time. Fati F. and Mamou were already busy in the lounge, chopping vegetables for the “crudité” platters. I sat on a little stool and set to work peeling cucumbers before helping Fati F. with the tomatoes. Fati K. meanwhile grated carrots. At around 7:30am we were joined by the groom’s sisters who lived in the capital and had come to Bobo for the wedding. Those already dressed-up for the ceremony borrowed old wrap-around skirts to protect their outfit. While we chopped and grated, Mamou stayed with the bride who was having her hair styled. The night before, Mamou had asked me if I had any jewellery that I could lend the bride and I had given her a matching silver necklace, bracelet and earrings that I had brought with me from home.5

26As we prepared the food, the conversation revolved around various topics with the Ouagalese women doing most of the talking. They commented on the high price of salad and vegetables, saying that even a tin of peas was difficult to afford. They all agreed that a civil wedding banquet, (or “le cocktail” as it is referred to in French), was very expensive due to the sheer number of guests involved.

27Once all of the vegetables had been chopped, Fati F. handed us a couple of platters and showed us how to display the crudités. She covered one platter with a bed of lettuce leaves then arranged the other vegetables on top: grated carrots, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and hard-boiled eggs, green beans, onion and parsley.

28Next we set out the tables in the yard. People living in compounds rarely have enough chairs and tables for such a large reception and, while renting is always a possibility, a far cheaper solution is to use what you can find. The result is an odd mix of tables of every size and shape, all lined-up in a single long row. We covered the tables with black plastic foil, followed by white tablecloths that belonged to Mama and were saved for special occasions, being careful to arrange them in such a way as to hide any holes. Fati put me in charge of flower arrangements for the “table d’honneur” and asked me to pin mango leaves displaying the words “heureux ménage” to the front of the table. Meanwhile more people arrived with large pots of malo zaamen (which I remembered had been prepared by one of the aunts). I also remember thinking that there would not be enough crudités to go around. It was soon time for all the adults to leave for the town hall to attend the official ceremony. As there was still work to do, I stayed at home with Fati, and helped to set the table. Since people normally use plastic plates and eat with their hands, the crockery and cutlery for the banquet were borrowed from different sources and, like the furniture, were a variety of shapes and sizes.

The table for the “guests of honour” at a civil wedding ceremony

The table for the “guests of honour” at a civil wedding ceremony

29By this time, some of the guests, mainly old women, had already arrived. They sat quietly on the benches on Mama’s terrace, hardly acknowledging each other's presence. I recognised some of the women as Mama’s cousins. There they sat, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive so that the food could finally be served. People soon started to return from the town hall, parking their mopeds in front of the compound then taking their seats inside. By then, all of the chairs that the family possessed were neatly positioned around the compound. The first to arrive headed straight for the more comfortable sofa-chairs which on an ordinary day would not leave the living room.

30When all the preparations were complete, I washed then dressed in my “party clothes” and joined the crowd of people standing in front of the gate waiting for the bride and groom to arrive back from the town hall. A Mercedes decorated with cotton wool soon drew up outside, and out came the couple together with Mamou and the best man. Mamou wore a Western-style baby-blue dress and lots of makeup. People clapped and cheered and a photographer took pictures. Then the couple took their places at the table of honour, joined by many of the older guests (who were not necessarily invited to do so). Mamou and the best man ended up without a seat and had to sit in the back row with the other guests. I asked Mamou why she did not claim her right to sit at the “high table” but she just shrugged it off, saying what sounded like: “Oh, just leave them, they don’t understand, so there is no point.”

31As soon as everyone was sitting comfortably, Fati F. signalled us to start serving the food. Myself and a few of the other young girls served the guests at the “table d’honneur” with salad, meat, pasta, rice and sauce. Afterwards I took platters to the people sitting at the back who were supposed to eat with their hands – which they did at lightening speed, polishing off every last crumb in a matter of minutes. As I walked around serving people, making sure everyone got a fair share, I looked out for the teenage members of the family who tend to be left out on such occasions for the reasons explained above to do with age hierarchy. Finding food for them was difficult, however, as most of the guests seemed to want more, complaining that they had not received their fair share. We also handed out bottles of soft drinks to the adults. Children, on the other hand, received no refreshments whatsoever unless accompanied by an adult. Unaccompanied children were turned away by two young men in charge of preventing gatecrashers.6 As the food started to disappear, some of the women went looking for more, first in the lounge then in Mamou’s and Fati F.’s bedrooms. Mamou and Fati F. were visibly upset but said nothing.

32By 11:30am all of the guests had left, leaving me and the Bationo family to clear up the mess. We started by picking up dishes and cups and placing them in large buckets that were used for washing-up. Fati F., the maid, Hawa, Yacouba’s girlfriend and I then set to work and I noticed that most of the plastic trays were labelled “Diop”, indicating that they were borrowed from the groom’s family.

33Madina was then shouted at for not preparing the family lunch. I found this surprising since I did not think there would be any lunch after the buffet – particularly, since I knew that Fati F. had in any case hidden enough food in her room for our family lunch. In the end it was Celestine who prepared lunch, a “ragout d’ignames” which we ate together with the party leftovers, washed down by the soft drinks that were also left over from the reception.

What looks good does not always fill the stomach: the purpose of “White man’s food”

34Jack Goody noticed in the course of his fieldwork in Ghana in the 1960s and 1970s that imported foods such as canned milk, sardines, tomato paste and others had started to appear on Ghanaian markets and in wealthier homes (Goody, 1982: 176). West African palates have since been increasingly exposed to non-African foods but with the exception of a few new ingredients, none of these have made a real impact on the local diet. The supremacy of the “real African meal” remains unchallenged, consisting today, as it has always done of a porridge- or rice-based dish with a meat and vegetable sauce.

35In this section, I shall briefly examine some of the foods encountered in the course of the civil wedding banquet, exploring their role in the everyday life of Burkinabé city-dwellers.

36As I have shown in the previous section, none of the foods served at the civil wedding banquet counted as a main dish. All of them were served in small quantities, on trays from which guests could snack rather than eat their fill. The main reason for this lies in the sheer cost of the ingredients in question – witness the above comments by the women preparing the banqueting food. Having to prepare white man’s food (tubabu dumuni) is a major concern. The price of enough lettuce to make a side dish for three people is equivalent to the rice required to make a main meal for a family of five or more. Carrots, salad tomatoes and cucumbers are equally expensive and likewise regarded as non-filling. Though all locally grown, they nevertheless count as tubabu dumuni if served raw, as crudités in a salad. And it is not only West Africans who regard “Western”7 food as insufficiently filling. The same is true of the Hui people, a Muslim minority in China. Though Hui parents are known to buy their children Western-style, supermarkets snacks, they themselves will rarely eat such foods arguing that a) they dislike the taste of Western foods (find them unpalatable) and b) do not find them “filling” (Gillette, 2005: 113). Gillette, in common with several other researchers, claims that such foods are consumed because they are perceived as “novel, expensive, and associated with the West” (Gillette, 2005: 113) and not because people have a taste for them.8 My Burkinabé informants, for example, ate the foods on offer at the banquet but only as a prelude to what they considered would safely fulfil their need for a tasty and filling dish. The truth is that for a dish to be appreciated by a Burkinabé it must be filling since there can be nothing worse than a meal that leaves you feeling hungry. I would therefore argue that the purpose of serving “White man’s” foods at a civil banquet is not to feed the guests but to impress them with expensive, novel foods that testify to the family’s wealth and progressive attitude. As commented by one of my wealthier informants whose children live in France: “We prepare malo zaamen for the illiterate village people while we, who are educated, want to have a modern wedding, with a reception, like they do in France. We, the intellectuals, wish to add the modern to the traditional.” That same woman, however, eats large portions of malo zaamen and millet porridge on a daily basis and claims that tubabu dumuni does not satisfy her appetite.

37The hosts at a civil banquet are not too worried that the food served may leave some of the guests feeling hungry but such a thing would be regarded as unthinkable after a traditional wedding meal. I have often heard informants say they were almost too full after a meal of malo zaamen at a traditional wedding party, but no one ever complained to me about having eaten too much at a civil wedding banquet.


38Traditional and civil wedding celebrations in urban Burkina Faso serve very different purposes. The traditional wedding celebration functions as a “necessary” rite of passage while the civil celebration fulfils legal requirements and constitutes a form of response to the changes imposed by official discourse on local society. The civil wedding reception serves to demonstrate the “modernity” of the couple in question, distinguishing them as “intellectuals” who went to school and are thus more “evolved” than their illiterate “peasant” relatives. Since the legal code is based on Western models, the official legal system, and with it the legalisation of marriage, may be seen as a modern innovation. The fact that polygamy is officially recognised could be seen as a compromise between tradition and modernity.

39The types of food and drink served at both forms of celebration also underline the differences between the two events. Foods and drinks at traditional events are a more elaborate version of everyday food while the buffet-style lunch served at the civil wedding reception consists mainly of “White man’s” foods (and drink) - which the average Burkinabé hardly ever consumes. In addition to the foods and drinks, the manner of eating is also noticeably different. At the traditional event, all of the guests eat malo zaamen with their fingers and drink their lemburujii from small plastic bags. At the civil banquet, there is far greater emphasis on the presentation of dishes. The guests at the “table d’honneur”, for instance, are served their food on plates and given cutlery and glasses; the rest of the guests are served food on plastic plates or trays and given soft drinks in bottles. The civil ceremony also departs from the tradition of segregating the men from the women.9 Men and women sit together at the same table and sometimes even eat from the same tray. The style of dress also differs significantly – though not as much as the food – from one type of party to the other. Neither of these two ceremonies, however, is exclusively “modern” or “traditional”. The modern influence in the traditional ceremony is apparent in the electric guitars used by the musicians accompanying the singer and in the use of photography or film to record the events. The traditional influence in the civil wedding may be seen in the traditional rules of age hierarchy that prevent a younger person from taking their appointed place at the “table d’honneur” if that seat has been inadvertently occupied by an older guest; also in the fact that, at least in principle, everyone is free to attend. That said, an increasing number of civil wedding receptions these days, particularly in wealthier circles, tend to be by invitation only, as in France and other Western countries. In view of the large families, however, the invitation is addressed to the whole family, so allowing more people to attend with one letter of invitation than would be the case in a European setting. Thus the image of Africans sharing food is maintained at least in principle, although in a more limited way than at traditional wedding celebrations.

40Comparing the two events improves our understanding of the meanings of the concepts of tubabu dumuni (White man’s food) and farafin dumuni (African food) and the role they play in popular ideas of proper food. While it could be argued that the simplicity of everyday African food is due to limited resources, some authors point to the very clear definitions of what constitutes a proper meal in most African societies (Hansen, 1999: 85; Spittler, 1999). And it is certainly not pasta or salad that will satisfy a person’s appetite. In the case of the civil wedding banquet described above, mainly based on tubabu dumuni, people still felt they needed a proper meal afterwards – despite the fact that there were many leftovers from the banquet. This further suggests that the principal purpose of the civil wedding in general and the food in particular, is to display the family’s wealth and progressive attitude. The traditional celebration, on the other hand, is not only an important demonstration of wealth (wedding presents on display, women giving money to the griots, and the typical rich man’s dish, malo zaamen) but also a source of a thoroughly filling meal. Some of my informants sometimes even skipped dinner after a generous serving of malo zaamen at a wedding. However, I never came across anyone who had felt like skipping a meal after a civil wedding banquet.

41What these findings show is that the Burkinabé are appropriating “White man’s” practices and ingredients and incorporating them into their lifestyles and menus. “White man’s” food has to be seen and interpreted in this light. A Burkinabé who wishes to eat well, on the other hand, will tend to choose a simple rice and sauce dish.

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1 For an excellent analysis of this conflict see Hagberg (2002).
2 This is true also in the case of unmarried men whose sexual powers would be questioned if they did not eventually marry.
3 Grand boubou is a poncho-like dress which is sewn at the sides and worn over a wrap-around skirt. The more expensive styles have elaborate embroidery around the collar and on the edges.
4 As this example shows, Chinese, Indian and other non-African food can also be seen as tubabu dumuni.
5 I was surprised and almost flattered to be asked since the Burkinabé women rarely thought much of my accessories – mainly African-style necklaces and bracelets, while they preferred gold-plated jewellery imported from the West. One should consider the global irony of such an obsession with the authenticity of the other. Women in the West are paying vast amounts of money for “authentic ethnic jewellery” and at the same time women in West Africa spend their fortunes on “authentic Western” golden accessories.
6 In theory anyone was welcome but in practice two young men stood at the door to keep out street children.
7 In this case I refer to “Western” rather than “White man’s” foods, because this is the term used in the articles.
8 For more examples on the consumption of Western foods for the purpose of displaying modernity see also Yan (2005) and Caldwell (2005).
9 Men do not participate at the traditional wedding celebrations. The groom may even go to work on his own wedding day and join the bride only for the wedding night.
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List of illustrations

Title Women preparing ingredients for malo zaamen
File image/jpeg, 60k
Title A female helper stirring malo zaamen in large pots
File image/jpeg, 52k
Title The table for the “guests of honour” at a civil wedding ceremony
File image/jpeg, 49k
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Electronic reference

Liza Debevec, « The meaning of African and “White man’s” food at Muslim and civil wedding celebrations in urban Burkina Faso », Anthropology of food [Online], S3 | December 2007, Online since 21 March 2008, connection on 08 December 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Liza Debevec

Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies, Scientific Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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