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Migrants’ food habits when returning home (in Bamako, Mali, and Dakar, Senegal)

To be or not to be a model?
Pratiques alimentaires des migrants de retour au pays (Bamako et Dakar) : être ou ne pas être le modèle ?
Chantal Crenn, Anne-Elène Delavigne and Isabelle Techoueyres


This article is based on lengthy interviews with migrants from Senegal and Mali who have settled in Bordeaux, Angers and Paris from various geographic, cultural, ethnic backgrounds and socio-professional situations. Instead of questioning the link between « food and migration » in the usual way by focusing on migrants food « adaptation » in the country where they have settled, we chose to study what happens when they go back to their country of origin. The aim of this article is to present the permanence and changes or, taking up Roger Bastide’s terminology: continuity/discontinuity and discontinuity/ continuity playing a part in food habits, and the idea of ‘eating well’ among “immigrants” when they go back to their country of departure for vacation or retirement. Far from demonstrating the existence of an « original African food culture », this article rather highlights the permanent processes of food culturation taking place among both migrant and sedentary groups, while taking into account the structural constraints existing at national and global levels. Both Malian and Senegalese migrations reveal tactics used to produce alternately identity and otherness in a globalised context, but also according to different local situations.

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Introduction: different ways of questioning contact situations between diverse food systems

  • 1 We prefer to use the term immigrant rather than migrant, which is more global, because it fits our (...)

1In the field of social sciences in France, studies dealing with migratory phenomena show little interest in the question of contact situations between various food systems (Hubert, 1992). Leaving aside pioneer works by Roger Bastide on the matter (1950, 1951, 1960, 1968), the first publications appeared in the 1980’s and 1990’s, concentrating on “food adaptation” aspects (Crenn and Hassoun to be published) and on the description of the “food style” (Calvo, 1982, 1997), primarily in France in connection with populations originating from Maghreb countries (Houdaigui, 1991), following the political context concerning migration in France. Later on came out researches about “immigrants”1 from sub-Saharan Africa (Barou and Verhoeven, 1997; Bouly de Lesdain, 1999) and from Southeast Asia (Hassoun, 1997, Simon-Barouh, 1993).

2This object of research (questioning bonds between food and migration) got gradually structured thanks to the emergence of this field of study in sociology (Corbeau and Poulain, 2002) and anthropology (Hubert, 2000) and in more recent research on health (Crenn, 2004; 2006), food globalization (Tibère and Poulain, 2000, Crenn, 2003), or the industry of ethnic food (Bergeaud, 2000, Hassoun, 2009). However on the whole, work undertaken concentrates primarily on food modifications caused by migratory processes in the family sphere, on “the modes of consumption” according to Anne Raulin (1999).

  • 2 Involving Chantal Crenn, Ph.d. (UMI CNRS 3189 ESS Dakar et MCF IUT CS Universités de Bordeaux), An (...)
  • 3 For Denys Cuche: “the process which each culture in situation of cultural contact knows, that of de (...)

3This article finds its place in continuity with these works. The reflexion underneath is based on a wider collective research project2 led since 2005 about the social construction of a balanced diet, while taking into account various factors such as inter-ethnic relations besides age, gender, moment in life, social status, etc. We are going to deliver here findings and questionings of a fieldwork carried out since 2008 in France, Senegal and Mali. This is centred on the foodways of several Senegalese and Malians along various migratory patterns (permanent migration, temporary migration for vacations, as well as settling back for retirement in the country of origin, etc.). It seemed relevant for us to think differently contacts between food systems byshifting our glance to countries of departure, following in this Abdel Malek Sayad. This is what we propose here. What we want to show is the complexity of food changes processes, engaged by immigrants in France but which are patent as these people return (temporarily or even superficially) into their society of departure – also engaged in “culturation processes”3, to word it like Denys Cuche (1996).

  • 4 In other words, for them, either the cultures of American Blacks are in continuity with the origin (...)

4We will underline the negotiation processes, borrowings, and more largely social relations in situation of otherness which contacts between different food systems provoke when “immigrants” return “home”. Far from taking up the position of Herskovits (1941) or Frazier (1949) who only view culture by linking it to its « original »4 system, we rather follow Roger Bastide (1956) who rejects this static and Manichean vision, favouring a more complex reality, where there cohabit discontinuity in continuity and continuity in discontinuity.

5We shall therefore look in details at individual paths in order to understand the emergence of new practices associated with identity labels (Poutignat and Streiff-Fenart, 1995) which accompany the process of « interpenetration » as analyzed by Bastide (1984). It means the process by which “immigrants” mix their culture of departure with the culture of the country where they live while adopting elements from this other culture, thus producing their own meaning according to the logics of their own culture but also to the social framework in societies of arrival. It allows us to say that discontinuities, like food continuities among “immigrants”, can be made visible, and perceived as provoking on occasions when people return to their country for vacations or retirement for example.

6Within the general food and health theme of this study, we concentrate on how migrant food patterns meet those of their family still residing in their country of departure, that is the way immigrants transpose and use (or not) their acquired knowledge concerning food and health as a power in a context of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and malnutrition in West Africa (Bricas, 2006 : 150). Eating habits adopted by some, according to age, gender and social trajectory, are far from being stable and are dependent on the political context and social hierarchy in which each person finds himself or herself, within a wider context of North/South relationships. We are going to present in this article how comparisons between different nutritional discourses and social and cultural realities of food practices can be experienced by each one, leading to the « process of culinary reinterpretation » (Simon-Barouh, 1993), here as well as “over there” (comings and goings of those who have settled in France, moved back to Senegal and Mali, or during temporary migrations for periods of education in France).

7This article will thus concentrate on how migrants from Senegal and Mali mobilize symbolic and/or economic resources in order to hold their place in their society of departure. In the first part, we will present the context of globalization from which their norms are built and the constraints which weigh on them before focusing in a second part on situations of estrangement in the family sphere caused by returning to the country.

Facing food disease, the subjective meaning of globalization

8It is necessary to replace individual paths (or « food style » Calvo, 1982, Bricas 2001) in a more general context of contemporary Malian and Senegalese situations in order to understand the dynamics of food systems. We are therefore taking into account the effects, direct and indirect, short and long term, on food practices, as well as on representations of health and body, produced by migration and globalization, in the sense given to this term by Pierre Bourdieu (2001), that is stemming from the capitalist model: the policy of globalization is spreading throughout the world, but far from being reciprocal, it is most favourable for those who control the economy. Concerning food, global projects of agro-food industry (such as Nestlé for instance), new techniques linked to technologies of information and communication in addition to increasing supra national elements in States activities, contribute to producing scale changes which go beyond national frames, without suppressing them (Sassen, 2007 : 22). Following Marc Abeles (2008), we question the effects of globalization not only on minorities’ food practices but also on their imagination and their agency. By multiplying ethnographic sites (mobile anthropology), as anthropologists we want to show how economic, cultural, political, imaginary and subjective dimensions have to be taken into account in the process of globalization. In this scope we examine the globalized food context where “new” phenomena appear such as the structuring of a global capitalist market, commerce, and industrial production (Sassen, 2007).

  • 5 Nutritional transition means the increasing consumption of industrial foods and the reduction of ph (...)
  • 6 Both in Mali and Senegal, available statistics are based on estimations. In Bamako, specialists es (...)

9At the same time the FAO and the WHO were emphasizing, as early as 1992, the need to look into the ‘nutritional transition’5 phenomenon developing in Africa. In fact, while malnutrition still affects a large part of the population of Senegal and Mali, diseases like diabetes6 and high blood pressure are also present. However in this particular globalization context, we do not want to fall into a Manichean explanation for such diseases by imputing the entire responsibility to the Westernalization of food practices. Not only do our researches show the presence of « local » foods in the cooks’ baskets but also local reinterpretations of so-called Western products by Bamako or Dakar people themselves.

  • 7 They symbolize belonging to a globalized culture, and particularly the envied place of those who h (...)
  • 8 “Returning” is associated with wealth, to have the means of investing in a company or estate, to f (...)

10Taking into account such a paradoxical context, we shall explain the way in which “immigrants” perceive the relationship between food and health, according to their position in the social hierarchy in France, but also in Mali or Senegal like these people “returning”, that is those who have lived in the Western world. People « returning» occupy a special place in Dakar as in Bamako (among other, see de Latour, 2009) contemporary imagination.7 Using the term “returning8” enables us to avoid the miserable vision associated with the word “migrant”, and also to question migration from the point of view of departure societies which have a post-colonial character, implying a tactic way to manage their foreign origin. Since they participate highly to the globalization process (Wagner, 2008), we have tried to understand the subjective meaning of this process for these “immigrants” themselves. The aim of this article is to establish a first inventory of meeting points - conflictive or not- caused by the returning home of these migrants. Thus in this particular context - (1) Globalization of food market, (2) comings and goings of “immigrants”, (3) focusing on the need for a healthy diet in France, (4) while so-called African dishes have bad reputation in France especially in a medical perspective, (5) in a context of hardening immigration laws, (6) and pauperization in the cities of Dakar and Bamako (7) malnutrition/over-nutrition in the country of departure- how are food and medical standards here and there built in people’s reciprocal relations with Dakar and Bamako ? These seven points are as many entries which make it possible to understand (like globalization) how the circulation of human beings, goods, money and values is subjective.

Local contexts: the fieldwork

  • 9 Characteristics supported by political considerations (Lombard 2002).
  • 10 Even though many daily products are imported, transportation problems limit competition for some f (...)

11The countries in which we performed fieldwork have very different geographic, economic and sociological characteristics, while both have strong migratory links with France. Dakar, the capital of a rather small industrialized country, with its harbour open to the sea, is also the ancient capital of colonial French West Africa and an important international food market place (Bricas, 2001, 2006 and Ndao, 2009). Bamako is situated in a vast rural landlocked country9, (thus relatively « protected » from food commercial exchanges unfavourable to Southern countries10) and is considered as a “hinterland” for raw material. Socio-economic conditions in both cities are also very different, concerning housing and comfort, or even income, since Dakar households possess more equipment goods and higher income than Bamako households (Kuepie 2004).


12Both in Mali and Senegal fieldwork was performed during successive investigation phases mobilising complementary collection techniques. In a first phase, data collected was crossed with « floating observation », including semi-directed interviews and documentation research. We have spent time with Senegalese and Malian associations in Bordeaux and Angers, focusing on how members combine their food practices in relation to their country of departure (how they organize imports of food products from West Africa, the development projects they have for their villages, what dishes they prepare during festivities, the food aid to members who have economic problems, etc.). Then we visited families at home. In a second phase we collected life stories and accompanied some of them into their country of origin in Bamako and Dakar. This enabled us to observe transformations in culinary practices and to hear people’s point of view about those who remained in Dakar and Bamako.

13We have interviewed at length about 40 “immigrants” from Senegal and Mali who have settled in Bordeaux, Angers and Paris -and their grown-up children usually born in France; they are mainly first-comers and have various profiles regarding their age (25-65 years old), their geographic and cultural origin, their feeling of belonging to ethnic groups or not, within both countries, as well as their socio-professional situation. From the 1960s onwards, a cross-section of Senegalese from both urban and rural districts (Tandian, Fouquet, Dia, 2008) have come to France to work as fishermen, skilled workers in factories, street vendors, or to study and then teach at university or work as researchers (Fall, 1987).

  • 11 An important wave of migrants from Kayes, South West Mali, have come to France towards the end of (...)
  • 12 Non-European migrants have a supposed unemployment rate of 17,6 %, which is far superior to the av (...)

14“Immigrants” originating from Mali whom we have met do not belong to the same major migratory wave as the Soninke from Kaye11. These have come to France from Bamako about a decade ago, while a few have migrated 20 or 25 years ago. A small number among them work in offices, as medical doctors, teachers or are still students. Most of them work in factories, or as watchmen, in cleaning companies, as household helpers or children carers, or even only find seasonal jobs. Many of them have had periods of unemployment.12

  • 13 CFSVA report in 2005 indicated that migration is part of the way of life, of survival : 57 % househ (...)

15The “immigrants” we met in Bordeaux and Angers, Muslims as well as Catholics, introduced us to other members of their families settled elsewhere and particularly to their relatives who remained in Dakar or Bamako. All families visited in both cities had therefore at least one member living in France13. We have carried out most of our observations in urban context.

  • 14 In order to define « middle classes », we take into account household equipment meaning availabili (...)
  • 15 The part played by transferred income remains difficult to evaluate in urban context. It is howeve (...)

16In this article, we concentrate on « middle class » families, as considered in their own country, independently from the big differences in standards of living between both countries14. Considering current food shortages (including rice high prices) while food security remains a major problem (particularly in Mali), we have met relatively spared families15

17The maritime position of Dakar as well as historical political conditions have made Senegal a country open to international commercial exchanges. However, because of weak agriculture (peanut monoculture), urban centres are very much dependant on food imports (Bricas, 2001 : 9). In both countries, the degradation of production conditions as well as pauperisation of urban populations is patent (Niang, 2002 : 6). In such a context, the place occupied by emigrants “returning” from France is complex (Momar Coumba Diop, 2008 : 18).

  • 16 About 75 % financial flux coming into emigration areas are oriented towards health or daily consum (...)
  • 17 Migrating is seldom an individual project but is rather supported by a whole community, as shown i (...)

18There is much similitude between these two countries concerning migration. Even though it is more discrete than in rural zones16, the whole urban community is supported by those who take the risk to live in France under difficult legal, social and economic conditions (Spain, Italy and the USA are now most frequented by “immigrants”). However, although the idea of working for the family group remains important, people we met also leave in order to make dreams come true, to free themselves from paternal guardianship, family, life conditions and social roles (Marie, 1997).17. Due to these reasons, it seems important for us to question the way these “immigrants”, men or women, take over other food and bodily habits. During our immersion in Senegal and Mali we have observed close relations between people with different trajectories in life. Despite differences between Dakar and Bamako, we noticed that in both cities the daily life of the “immigrants”’ families(particularly concerning food and cooking) was widely conditioned by the absence or presence of relatives “returning” for a vacation period. “Immigrants” returning, either for a short or a long stay, are very noticeable in their district as they pay visits to neighbours and friends. Every time it is a festive moment, with exchanges of presents, money and food from both parts. The situation of the migrant, his/her attitude towards his/her community, are all objects of discourse, accounts and commentaries.

Being a foreigner within one’s own family

19In order to read the complexity of the food system in which Senegalese and Malian people from “here and there” live, we chose to examine both visions: the visiting migrant’s, and the vision of those who remained, and their interactions, while following them in their practices and discourses in Dakar and Bamako.

Food values circulation

  • 18 ‘Immigrants’ economic implication towards their country of origin is, with the example of Mali, su (...)

20Senegalese and Malian expatriates return to their country of departure conveying another world18 with them, symbolized by what they take in their luggage – for instance food they think necessary for their children born during migration. In Mali, one young man, Vieux (married without children, the oldest son of his family, working for a NGO) told us: ‘When my sister came, she brought lots of things: chocolate, cartons of fresh milk because the children don’t like powder milk; you pay a lot for it here in food shops. Even water, you have to pay for it, they were taking mineral water’. So they arrive with their usual purchases, processed products from the food industry, controlled foodstuffs … This « other » food world becomes concrete also for family members who remained in their country ; they do some shopping in otherwise unaffordable supermarkets in order to buy a few goods considered as essential to those « returning». People who return to settle back after having spent a long stay in the West (sometimes illegally) from Mali or Senegal bring other habits and values linked to diet, body and health and also with a system of values where food has become a ‘problem’ in terms of diet, hygiene and body care.

21This is what we are now going to examine through two antagonistic examples where food practices in relation to hygiene are at stake both in Mali and Senegal. « In Europe your food is served on plates. But not here. Take me for example, I no longer eat with my hand. I gave up the habit even though I wash my hands well. I tell myself that you can’t do that, because of hygiene»said Fatou returning to Bamako on holiday. By imposing her French table manners when coming back to visit her family, she shows her belonging to another world of values where she is not to be ashamed of her divorce and which justified her eating aside. Senegalese “immigrants” who come back to Senegal don’t all have the same problems regarding table manners. Some people from civil servant families (who have been severely hit according to Momar Coumba Diop (2008 : 19) in their social ascension with the crumbling of the post-colonial model of promotion based on school education) remark that the practice of eating with a spoon has been generalized in their family when food is eaten from a common bowl. “Immigrants” like Ibrahima, an academic researcher in Bordeaux whose father was a tax collector in Dakar and who came back temporarily in Dakar, expresses regrets for no longer using his hands for eating: “even though it is more chic, it is nevertheless less healthy” because he explains that this way less oil was eaten than with a spoon. However in both cases the adoption of Western eating norms gives foundation to their discourse about hygiene or fat.

22Some “immigrants” have also adopted the strict condemning –in France at least- of snacking. Fatou interviewed in Mali says that she sticks to the strict routine of three meals a day in France. ‘I have just eaten now, I cannot eat until 8 p.m.. Here, within two hours someone is going to take up a plate to serve himself! I cannot do that! I have given up that habit. When I have breakfast around 7-8 a.m,  I will wait until mid-day’. In the same fashion, Samba, a retired worker from Bordeaux factories and suffering from diabetes, celebrates the « food balance » of his family in Senegal: because they respect the 3-meal a day model, they prevent him from being tempted by snacking, which would raise his glycaemia rate. However his new spouse finds it hard to understand and wishes he’d rather fill up the refrigerator with western foods....

  • 19 Talibans are scholars of Daara (Coranic schools), numerous in Dakar, who beg for food and money fo (...)
  • 20 Mireille was shocked by this argument with her father ; once in Bordeaux, she explains to us that (...)

23Other “immigrants” visiting their families in Senegal are conscious of their economic difficulties and try as much as they can to diminish expenses due to their presence. For example, Mireille (a social worker in Bordeaux) in Dakar, thinking that she would save her parents money, suggests eating the week’s leftovers on Sunday evenings (like she does in Bordeaux). Her father, unable to understand this, reminded her that this food should be distributed to the poorest Talibans19, underlining the fact that “some people are more needy” than they are and that Senegalese solidarity is not a vain thought20. Mireille’s example shows this: it is unthinkable to her father to consider the food crisis as suffering, but it is rather thought of as a way of displaying wealth. Mireille is filled with doubt: has she changed that much? This is the typical feeling of a gap being dug between Senegalese from France and Senegalese from Senegal. “Us” loses its thickness, yet rather is recomposed with new social relations. Miscomprehensions regarding food are numerous and lead to adjustments.

When the family admits difference

24Vieux, in Mali, can list and name all different attitudes regarding food habits: ‘It is the children especially, they make comments, at first they cannot stand the flies, gradually they get used to them. We do everything we can to put them at their ease. They eat rice with us at midday. Peanut cakes, they like that a lot, I’ve noticed. Tô, they only take a little, Mum was making cakes for them’. The family, either in Mali or Senegal, recognizes these differences which, as we have seen, can be more or less accentuated, depending on country and social class. Faced with these imported foodstuffs, brands from the West (rich and ‘healthy’) which have become necessary for the expatriates, the family which hosts them temporarily makes it a point of honour to satisfy the emigrant and his children or his French friends arriving from a different place. They present those who return with the best of meats, considered as a festive food, as well as their favourite dishes, or even just fresh milk. Food exchanges are at the heart of relationships. The whole community, like where we stayed in Bamako, celebrates the return of “immigrants” by cooking special dishes and sacrificing animals for meat (lamb, chicken).

  • 21 Jeannette is in a training course to become a cook and she learns « international » cuisine and ch (...)

25Both in Mali and Senegal, families tend to buy, in order to please their hosts, industrial foods such as mayonnaise or sardines in tins from European type shops, according to their means. Here is what Jeannette21 reports in Dakar : “when my daughters come back with their French friends, I put everything at their disposal. I get croissants and jam and above all I make more of an effort with the French evening meal which we usually eat, but to my surprise, they wanted to eat Senegalese food all the time!.”

26While efforts are carried out in terms of food variety and quality by members of the family who host expatriates, those who “come back” must at the same time negotiate their place, especially when they have been away for a long time – due to their otherness and belonging to the world of dominants, that is to say the West. Misunderstanding occurs between members of the same family, when a migrant returns, about what “eating well” must be. However one can note that tactics differ according to social class. The most educated migrants, just like what is currently taking place in France, turn back to “terroir” products, a quest for an exoticism which combines “authenticity” and “Africa”, enabling them to assume a positive ethnic or national identity while resembling the elites of their country.

When “immigrants” have to display their food habits

27With their families, “immigrants” display to a certain extent their usual food patterns and ability to adapt to diverse conditions of hygiene. For example, if parents use mineral water for their children, they themselves drink tap water without considering the risk of bacteria (even though they may suffer from gastric perturbations). In the same way, during their stay, they give up processed foods which they are used to.

28The context of consumption doesn’t facilitate the keeping up of habits acquired in France. In Mali like in Senegal, eating is a collective act, and before deciding to adapt family dishes to host’s tastes, one needs to make sure it matches the tastes of the whole group. Trying to diminish salt quantities (by using salt-free French Maggie cubes for instance), or introducing green vegetables, is something to be discussed. Collective dishes are usually the result of family negotiation, between the tastes of elder people versus younger generations (the former preferring porridge type preparations which are disliked by the latter; such preparations are therefore not very frequent), between the taste of the householder or his wife, or of the daughter in law in charge of cooking, or the necessity to follow a specific diet for a sick member of the family, etc. The extra cost of the diverse preparations is usually born by the host.

  • 22 The status of servants is in fact another difficult subject between hosts and family : the former h (...)

29Cooking is usually done by the daughter-in-law or by a servant22, often a member of the family, seven days a week, and any modification in the recipes must be performed by her. Cooking separate dishes means extra work, extra fires, therefore a different task organisation. Among more affluent families, snacking can be observed for products such as yoghurt, fresh milk,.. or even by visiting “dibiteries” (restaurants specialized in grilled meats) or pastry shops.

30Besides such individual practices exist food principles which are supposed to maintain family cohesion and also the “ancient tradition” (Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983, 2006) which is thought to define what being a “real Malian” is. For example, they oppose dietetic knowledge to “good eating”, which expresses mainly social well-being, like when everybody shares from the same bowl (although not necessarily together, and not only that). To eat from the same dish means to nourish social relations. According to Malians in Mali, eating the same food makes up the family; an imposed common dish, which G. Dumestre (1996 : 694) calls “normal”, nourishes hunger (Malians in their own country consider the communal dish to be the best way to satisfy one’s hunger, while migrants seem to place more importance on quality).

  • 23 Families may count up to 16 or 20 persons. The financial management of refrigerators indicates the (...)

31Some people express their difficulty to do without certain food products over a long period of time, but they have to give them up because these would be too expensive for the entire family23. We collected numerous stories of people complaining about missing such products as yoghurt, jam, brioche,...). Omar, a retired worker from a biscuit factory in Bordeaux, for instance mimed with his fists how severely his belly craves after his « food habits » from France, snacks he is used to taking daily. « Staying in my house in Guédiawaye [a popular neighbourhood in Dakar] had become torture : everybody controls everything, even the fridge contents ! They all look at what you eat. Impossible to eat quietly my brioche and jam... I would have to buy some for the whole family, which is financially impossible for me.»

32The uncontrollable body which has now become unable to stand hot pepper, bacteria, etc., is being incriminated, because it expresses, despite themselves, people’s sense of being different, that they have become “foreigners” in their homeland. Mariam, a salesperson in Bordeaux, explains the tactics she develops in order to avoid such direct confrontation when she’s in Dakar : « I try to eat and drink before I go and visit my family : a bottle of mineral bottle, a sandwich from a restaurant Tangana (it’s hot), some peanuts on the way, so that when I’m with them, I can refuse their food and this way I avoid diarrhoea and heartburns...”. It remains that she needs to prove her family that she nevertheless belongs to the same ethnic and national identity.

33What one can note through these examples is the way the process of food individuation evolves for these two persons returning home. For Omar and Mariam the problem is the articulation, in Dakar, of individual and collective identity without blocking family relations but without “losing themselves” in the collective which remains the standard. The “We” is rebuilt according to new relations between the individual and the collective. Having observed migrants both belonging to modest social classes in Dakar and well-off classes in France, we also could note that, in addition to the process of food individualization, the valorization of some amount of cosmopolitanism among elites occurs. In a way they emphasize the fact that they have become a little cosmopolitan (being able to shift from one world to the other), which is indeed a recognised quality valued in Western cities. But although this ability is appreciated in Dakar among well-off families, it is less understood among middle-class families; it is rather recognized as a “physical” capacity enabling to surf between two food models. It is rather perceived as some kind of feat, devoid of any ideologic valorization.

Family belonging: a challenge.

34In fact, most people coming back from France insist in proving their identity as “Senegalese” or “Malians”, which are not only legal concepts but mostly identification processes. Such categories helped us understand how representations of the “self” and of “others” are built in societies where emigration is a structural fact. Asserting their belonging to the group, and even reassuring the group regarding the fact that they will always be one of them, is achieved through respecting food habits. Conversely, the migrant “returning home” who takes part and praises certain culinary practices (while being considered as a “come from away”), is particularly honoured.

  • 24 Muslims are the most numerous in Senegal, but there are many Catholics too.
  • 25 The question of teenage food choices was treated by Nicoletta Diazo, Annie Hubert and Véronique Pa (...)

35For example, grandparents whose teenage grandchildren Bouba, brought up in Bordeaux, wants to eat absolutely like them, consider themselves very honoured. Special ties at that moment are woven between grandparents and grandchildren who wish to become ‘real Senegalese’ (according to the grandmother’s terms). Pork refused by the grandson as a sign of belonging to the Senegalese Muslim family group24 (even though his migrant parents eat it in Bordeaux) shows the need to assert his adhesion by a ‘bold gesture’. Adhesion through food is all the more conspicuous because it is chosen.25. Contrarily to common sense, Patrick Williams (1987: 55) has shown about Gypsies how dispersal may also help cohesion. “Scattering produces a voluntary character to encounters and exchanges”. Like Bouba’s choices who has become the favourite grandson and whose grandmother manages to send him bissap, mangos, peanuts, etc.

36Another way of manifesting one’s ties to the family group through food is the critical position adopted concerning food “quality” in Europe (Stanziani, 2003). The degree of sophistication of European industrial food is an argument in the negotiation around their changing foodways. Blaming Western food because of too much industrialisation (the mad cow disease is often referred to) allows celebrating the “natural” quality of so-called “Malian and Senegalese food”.

37Peri-urban agriculture in Bamako as well as street vendors selling their own production, enable easy access to fruit and vegetable. In Dakar, self-production and supplies directly from the village also account for discourses praising « tradition ». Such a critical stance from the part of “immigrants coming back” concerning “western modernity” is reassuring for the family regarding their own way of eating and cooking. It gives more consistency to the sense of a shared “origin”, an “authentic past”.

  • 26 Life conditions are quite difficult in Dakar -and in Bamako to a lesser extent- and are hazardous (...)

38In terms of food models, local village habits are considered healthier than those from the West. This comforts families regarding their supplying modes because, whether they like it or not, agro-industry products remain largely out or reach. “Tradition” (“Cossam” in Wolof) is the term which our informants use to express their disagreement with Western contemporary foodways which they view as unhealthy. Along this line, in Mali or Senegal, the process of differentiation/ hierarchy places western food as hegemonic and altering “us”. The paradox of “authentic food”, to paraphrase Jean-Pierre Warnier (1994) is certainly due to the fact that in Dakar it is expressed by families who desire « western modernity » while living in an urban chaos, forgotten by local authorities. As Warnier (Ibid: 16) shows it, such discourse is held, in Dakar as in Bamako, by a population fascinated by new technologies and material wealth while feeling threatened by it26 at the same time.

He has turned into a “Frenchman”

  • 27 She had tried to migrate to France until she recently succeeded in getting work in a Malian admini (...)

39When a student or a worker who has lived abroad for a long time –particularly one without money or papers, who therefore is unable to travel – returns to his country of origin after 8, 10 or 15 years, he is most often categorized by his family as ‘French’. “My uncle has become French in his eating habits”, says Djenébou, who lives in Bamako27, of her uncle who has lived in Paris for 20 years. The family subconsciously pushes away “immigrants” beyond their national boundaries when they question in too radical a manner their way of eating.

40For example, in Dakar as in Bamako, they are concerned about the amount of oil used in cooking, but at the same time families joke about their thinness perceived as a sign of their French identity. However, while being slim is still badly considered by members of the family who stayed in Senegal or Mali, the question of being fat or slim is nowadays a topic in discussions (for example, young girl slimness in Dakar is examined by elders).

41Food advertisements in Dakar show how “lipophilia” meets “lipophobia”. In order to praise the merits of calorific foods, publicists superimpose butter next to fat meats and greasy sausages; while telephone advertisements display thin young women, betraying the coexistence of both body models in Dakar. Young students returning from Bordeaux do not hesitate, in the family context, to link their thinness to Dakar well-off social classes, thus showing that they are not “French” but rather “modern Senegalese women”. They claim to conform either to contemporary Senegalese aesthetic norms which are changing, or to Fulani tall and slender silhouette.

Foodways in Dakar and Bamako are changing

42Members of the family remaining in Senegal or Mali expect their hosts to follow family rules (out of respect for the elders) and therefore the way of eating is laid down as ‘inherited’, ‘unchanging’, founding the ‘us’ - although we will see what in the way of eating in Dakar or Bamako is changing and how. In both cities one can find (at different degrees) French, Italian, American, Chinese, Lebanese, Indian ingredients and dishes.

43But in Dakar especially, Western food has been present for a long time: a Senegalese meal at mid-day and French dinner in the evening (among middle class families rooted in Dakar for generations) or in recipes (ingredients, cube, oil). The French way of eating is often part of weekly meals among Dakar middle class depending on which degree the family has acclimatized to the French way of life (by colonization/migration, for study/ business/ work and by the presence of Western products in supermarkets and on TV) and also on finances. “Immigrants” respect this « clever way » in which Senegalese cooking combines Western and local ingredients. In Dakar both ways of thinking Western/ Senegalese food concur among “immigrants” and natives.

44In fact “Senegalese immigrants” “returning” say that eating habits between Dakar and Bordeaux are actually getting similar, but at the same time they explain that it would be necessary to produce more industrial foods locally, with controls and traceability in order to be self-sufficient and also for exportation. Western fast-food restaurants exist but only rich young people can afford to go there; while Maggi cubes, mustard, pasta, French fries, shrimp fritters are widely eaten, mostly during festive occasions.

45In Mali food quality is also questioned particularly concerning industrial condiments (like the too salty local cubes) and the disappearance of “traditional” ingredients which become difficult to find in the city, or time consuming (the kapok flower used to produce the slimy consistency in sauces for instance). Conditions of living, along with the strength of some representations such as access to modernity, contradict the will to maintain some “traditional cooking practices”. On festive occasions (baptism, child birthday,..) adding undefined but very sweet powders with orange taste to traditional beverages (made with fresh grated ginger) gives them a modern touch. This will be served alongside other world food-industry products, like Chinese shrimp fritters. In Bamako, as in Dakar, culinary innovation from the West is gradually introduced into the core of meals via side-dishes, from margin to core.

How to negotiate nutritional recommendations

46In Mali “immigrants” have to be particularly careful with remarks they want to make concerning quantities, by reducing their own food intake, or about hygiene. When one wishes to intervene within the family on the subject of food practices that one might find ‘bad’, ‘unhealthy’, ‘plentiful”, one must be modest: one must be careful not to offend. Mainly one must ensure one’s legitimate position in the family, as well as one’s personal well-being.

47Djénéba is one of these not well educated women we met who tried to escape so-called “traditional” roles and values of Malian society by migrating to France. She tells us about her holidays in Bamako: “I am careful too. When you come from Europe, you must be careful, otherwise they are going to say: ‘You see, she behaves as if she wasn’t one of us. She thinks she’s better than us’. In society, you must be cautious. You may give advice on things but moderately and modestly, tactfully! You must take great care. When you rush things, it’s not good.

48Fatou returned to M’bour for retirement: “I know that the women in my family don’t like me telling them what they have to do in terms of cooking. However, it is my responsibility to tell them. If on the one hand I do say something, they think I am acting as the ‘fine lady’, but if, on the other hand, I say nothing and they are ill, they are going to blame me... I need to find the right words, so that I do not give the impression of lecturing them”.

49Be it in Bamako, Dakar or M’bour, the migrant’s power of knowledge (associated to the economic power of the Westerner, and the power of mobility) may upset; which explains that it is the object of strong social pressure, criticism and suspicion. As we said, migrant's advice symbolizes the pressure of the West onto family daily life and the interference of ‘outside forces’ with the management of collective internal affairs; he may overstep the place and duty of each one in the family. Those who want to impose “how to eat well” go against the group’s standards.

50Moreover, some perceptive Senegalese like Ibrahima, a researcher in Bordeaux, are not in a position to say what is good or bad in terms of food purchases for their parents because they are aware of the contradictions of Western nutritional programmes which export their standards worldwide. Above all, they are acutely aware of the economic constraints affecting their family and inequalities between their country and Europe. In fact, food norms embodied by migrants returning to Dakar can be represented as a triangular relationship: the Western Model/ the family Model/ the individual migrant’s Model.

“Emigrants” as translators of standards when facing illness

51In Mali or Senegal, it is only when illness appears that the migrant’s ‘nutritional advice’ is sought after (culinary isolation of the diabetic for example, decrease in salt quantities, fat, need to diet). In Senegal the Ministry for Health provides information concerning balanced food diets for pregnant women; the vocabulary used in these prevention campaigns is clearly medical: proteins, calcium, iron or folic acid. Notions of health and nutrition are presented in these campaigns and eventually absorbed intellectually, but more rarely put into practice. In M’bour Mariétou, a retired lady from Bordeaux, accompanied her niece, who suffers from diabetes, to a health station for prenatal consultation. She reported that the head nurse spoke very little about nutritional information from the Ministry, because her opinion was that advice from the elders was sufficient (how to have a small baby in order to give birth more easily). She ends up to give her niece more advice because she believes that she has learnt a lot in France from social workers and councillors concerning food for pregnant women and babies. “At least she won’t say that I didn’t help her, even though I know that I will be considered once again as the one who thinks she knows it all... ».

52In Mali when illness breaks out, “immigrants” who occasionally return become ‘translators’ of western standards as Djénéba explains:

“I teach. I was for example with one of my sisters, she gave me tea. There was too much sugar; I said: ‘Fatim, honestly if you do this again tomorrow, your lips will stick! You will have to put water on your lips in order to speak! She said to me: ‘Do you think so? Is there’s too much sugar?’ I said, yes, far too much sugar, you need to take care! You cannot say ‘I don’t like your tea because it is too sweet!’ You have to take it easy’.

53In both countries, according to the emigrants, their position as translators is complicated. Recommendations are given as much to protect themselves since the outbreak of an illness such as diabetes within the family may be sign of risk for oneself, as Djénéba tells us. She explains her wish to slim down, while eating helped her facing the hard times she went through in France. Giving advice means entering power relationships and social distinction stakes within families. Irrespective of their social situation in France, those who have migrated become norm prescribers by sharing western knowledge. At the same time, their financial help allow them access to western technology. They participate therefore as much in the consolidation/perpetuation of culinary practices of the country of origin as to their transformation: they do as much as they can to improve both the food situation (buying a fridge) and the medical situation. For example, an emigrant from Senegal who brings medicine for his diabetic mother allows her to eat with the family and not in isolation.

54On this subject, one can note that if some Senegalese from Bordeaux minimize the financial difficulties of their parents (while they send money and medicine) they are surprised to notice how many healers re-appear. Sokeina: “my sister is a diabetic. Her healer told her to forget everything the doctor had prescribed her. He told her to eat what she wanted and to follow his treatment. I am very worried because she doesn’t listen to me because she believes I am lying when I tell her that diabetes is a lifelong disease”. Competition is great between two types of therapeutic knowledge, as Sylvain Landy Faye (2009) shows it about tradi-practitioners seeking recognition from the bio-medical sphere: at the same time they claim they can eradicate diabetes completely, which sounds satisfying to patients who seek cheap and radical medicine.

  • 28  « Pharmacie-par-terre »: informal stands on the street selling medecin ans so called medical

55In this context, and particularly in Senegal, problems of health linked to nutrition arise with more intensity. Within the international background of ‘food insecurity” and questioning of “progress”, so-called traditional medicines are back into the limelight (although they never completely disappeared) while at the same time access to the medical world becomes more and more costly and inaccessible. The suppression of “pharmacies-par-terre”28, forbidden since 2010, makes it difficult to take care of oneself because buying medicine in official pharmacies is expensive. Some “Pharmacies-par-terre” by street vendors still persist, selling illicit medicine, mostly dangerous counterfeiting, sold without control of expiration date and preservation conditions. Such an example shows that migrants returning home are not the only vectors of Western norms; these are also spread by State ideologies. Necessity (a healer is less expensive) meets with the questioning of the ideology of progress which migrants are accused to support.


56Carried out on two continents, this research is centred on men and women defined by Robert Park as ‘men of two worlds’. The “empowering knowledge” of returning migrants is ambiguous: such persons need at once to show how successfully they adopted values of the society of arrival (in order to consolidate a weakened status, because of divorce in the society of departure for instance) but also how he/she remained “one of them” through the celebration of “traditions” or by renouncing ostensibly to certain Western habits (sanitary habits for instance). Besides, the “empowering knowledge” which might be used to imposing norms meets the collective construction of food, a more fundamental world order, which is expressed in terms of food responsibility (the head of the household towards his family), in terms of cooking (wives and daughters-in-laws in charge of preparation), as well as technical conditions for the preparation (gas cookers and multi-fire devices are scarce) and meal organisation (a collective dish for collective tastes). This shows how the balance food/ health is a factor for food individualisation (as we know it in Europe) which may contradict values of sociability and sharing associated with food and which are all the more expressed when food is scarce. This is a contradiction of the process of rationalization: rationalization in connection with health and prevention can cause family dysfunctions...

57Food, at the heart of wide and complex processes, allows an interpretation of social and economic stakes which exist in Malian and Senegalese societies. Food does not escape from the domination relationships which characterize North/South connections which migrants -in their own life history- embody and personify. Consumption modes of those who « return » as linked to health express neither discredit regarding so-called « French foods » nor absolute faith to « ancestral » practices. They rather betray transformations which affect concomitantly –because of globalization among other things (Appadurai, 1999; Sassen, 2007 ) – societies to which they belong (here and there) as well as economic and symbolic resources they employ in order to negotiate their place, here and there.

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1 We prefer to use the term immigrant rather than migrant, which is more global, because it fits our informants better ; these persons from Mali or Senegal have worked or are intending to work their life long in France. « The term "immigrant", of American origin, insists on the settling aspect of populations, on their contribution to the nation development » (Noiriel, 2005: 40). In the same manner, the adjectives “Senegalese” or “Malian” aren’t used in a legal sense but because they take part in the processes of identification which supply references for action. Such terms defining nationality need in many cases to be completed by the feeling of ethnic belonging which is sometimes more relevant depending on place, situation, the professional status or genre of the person.

2 Involving Chantal Crenn, Ph.d. (UMI CNRS 3189 ESS Dakar et MCF IUT CS Universités de Bordeaux), Anne-Elene Delavigne, Ph.d. (CNRS MNHN UMR 7206), Matthieu Duboys de Labarre, Ph.d. (REVeSS), Karen Montagne, doctorate student (Université de Tours), Frédéric Précigout, doctorate student (Université de Tours), Isabelle Téchoueyres, doctorate student, (Université de Tours), with UMR 6173 CITERES at Tours University (dir J.-P. Corbeau) for the French National Institute for Prevention and Health Education (INPES).

3 For Denys Cuche: “the process which each culture in situation of cultural contact knows, that of deconstruction then of rebuilding, is actually the same principle of evolution of any cultural system (…) perhaps it is necessary to replace the term culture by culturation (already contained in acculturation) to underline this dynamic dimension of the culture” (Cuche, 1996: 64)

4 In other words, for them, either the cultures of American Blacks are in continuity with the original African cultures (Herkovits), or they do not exist (Frazier). Both take part in the same conception of culture as heritage transmitted from generation to generation.

5 Nutritional transition means the increasing consumption of industrial foods and the reduction of physical activity, involving body modifications like overweight, obesity and chronic diseases.

6 Both in Mali and Senegal, available statistics are based on estimations. In Bamako, specialists estimate prevalence beyond 2 % of the population, that is more than 200 000 persons suffering from it. 90 % among these patients are treated for type 2 diabetes and 10 % for type 1 diabetes. A 1996 study performed at the National Hospital showed that diabetes was the second cause for hospitalization after HIV and concerned a large part of intern medical consultations (source: Santé Diabète Mali). At Fann Hospital in Dakar, Professor Guélaye Sall, a paediatrician and nutritionist, has noticed in his ward an exponential increase of this disease among children over the past few years (interview on RFI radio, April 7th 2010 in Dakar). This is to be compared to 3 million people in France, that is 5 % of population (Bulletin Hebdomadaire Epidémiologique, November 2007). Also in Gobatto I., Traore A., Besson R., Bernard M., 2010, « La « fabrique » locale de rôles professionnels et profanes dans le domaine de la santé. Apprendre à « savoir y faire » avec le diabète au Mali. » Circulation des savoir-faire en Afrique et démarches de localisation, Presses Universitaires de Provence (Ed.) (2010) 1-13.

7 They symbolize belonging to a globalized culture, and particularly the envied place of those who have «made it» abroad, in opposition to the difficult reinsertion of those who have failed, as shown in Kal Touré’s film (2007).

8 “Returning” is associated with wealth, to have the means of investing in a company or estate, to facilitate marriages, to restore intergenerational transfers.

9 Characteristics supported by political considerations (Lombard 2002).

10 Even though many daily products are imported, transportation problems limit competition for some foods, such as deep-frozen chicken arriving with difficulty from the coast to Mali, making Malian chicken competitive (Faivre Dupaigre 2004).

11 An important wave of migrants from Kayes, South West Mali, have come to France towards the end of the 1950s ; they have been studied by anthropologists such as Quiminal (1991), Daum (1993), Bazin (1999), etc.

12 Non-European migrants have a supposed unemployment rate of 17,6 %, which is far superior to the average national figure. Their standard of living is estimated 26 % inferior to average households in France (Merabet and Gendreau 2007).

13 CFSVA report in 2005 indicated that migration is part of the way of life, of survival : 57 % households had at least one member away in migration. Data doesn’t discriminate between urban and rural population.

14 In order to define « middle classes », we take into account household equipment meaning availability of electricity, water and the possession of a refrigerator and television set. In 2004 Bamako, electricity was available in less than half households (40 %); as for tap water, only 26 %. In Dakar, 86 % households have electricity while 68 % have tap water (Kuepie 2004).

15 The part played by transferred income remains difficult to evaluate in urban context. It is however estimated that 60 to 85 % of household expenses go particularly to food, health, education as well as religious and collective ceremonies which are made possible by foreign help (Groupement de la Banque Africaine de Développement 2008).

16 About 75 % financial flux coming into emigration areas are oriented towards health or daily consumption needs and do not contribute to local economic development (Omar Merabet, Francis Gendreau 2007). Moreover, in Senegal, money transfers are not directed towards the poorest (Momar Coumba Diop 2008: 27), which contribute to increase inequalities. According to the “Enquête de suivi de la pauvreté au Sénégal (2005-2006)” (Ministère de l’économie et des finances, Dakar août 2007) 64,7 % households have problems feeding their family.

17 Migrating is seldom an individual project but is rather supported by a whole community, as shown in E. de Latour’s film (2009) in Ivory Coast, or cf. Ch-H Suremain’s article in this issue depicting the difficult re-insertion of migrants returning « home » in case of failure of their « adventure ».

18 ‘Immigrants’ economic implication towards their country of origin is, with the example of Mali, subject to negotiations in Franco-Malian cooperation agreements. It is estimated that globally 41 % migrants send money back to their country of origin, rising to 60 % in sub-Saharan Africa (Omar Merabet, Francis Gendreau 2007). This has therefore consequences on the standard of living adopted in the country of arrival, founded on sparing and privation.

19 Talibans are scholars of Daara (Coranic schools), numerous in Dakar, who beg for food and money for their Marabout.

20 Mireille was shocked by this argument with her father ; once in Bordeaux, she explains to us that she is in favour of « sustainable degrowth », and being accused by her father (although a Catholic) of “lack of solidarity with Senegalese Muslims” hurts her because she would rather want to question the hegemonic place of Marabout Islam within national politics, or the current productivist system, in relation with her concerns for sustainable development and fair trade.

21 Jeannette is in a training course to become a cook and she learns « international » cuisine and chiefly French cuisine « which is very renown and served when you have hosts » she says. What is called “Senegalese cuisine » is rather considered as family cuisine, daily routine, transmitted from mother to daughter, and reserved for privacy.

22 The status of servants is in fact another difficult subject between hosts and family : the former have trouble accepting what they perceive as exploitation of these persons and therefore do not want to add to their burden by asking for different meals.

23 Families may count up to 16 or 20 persons. The financial management of refrigerators indicates the ambiguous place migrants « coming back » occupy. If it is too full, it displays too much empowerment by the host, which locals try to contain; if it is empty, the migrant is considered as a miser.

24 Muslims are the most numerous in Senegal, but there are many Catholics too.

25 The question of teenage food choices was treated by Nicoletta Diazo, Annie Hubert and Véronique Pardo (2009).

26 Life conditions are quite difficult in Dakar -and in Bamako to a lesser extent- and are hazardous to health. Polluted water is used for market gardening; the management of household and industrial waste is also a major problem. The national Mayors Meeting which took place in Dakar on May 20th 2010 was centred on this issue. The depopulation of salt and fresh water fish, accompanied by the granting of new fishing rights to European, Korean and Japanese fully equipped ships raise both envy and concern.

27 She had tried to migrate to France until she recently succeeded in getting work in a Malian administration, because it seemed impossible for her to remain in Bamako as a single mother under her father’s roof.

28  « Pharmacie-par-terre »: informal stands on the street selling medecin ans so called medical

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Electronic reference

Chantal Crenn, Anne-Elène Delavigne and Isabelle Techoueyres, “Migrants’ food habits when returning home (in Bamako, Mali, and Dakar, Senegal)”Anthropology of food [Online], 7 | December 2010, Online since 25 June 2011, connection on 19 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Chantal Crenn

anthropologue, CNRS UMI ESS 3189 Dakar and University of Bordeaux.

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Anne-Elène Delavigne

anthropologue, CNRS UMR 7206 MNHN Paris.

By this author

Isabelle Techoueyres

anthropologue, Bordeaux.

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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