Straight from the Pot: Cuisine and Power in West Africa and in the Epic of Sunjata
By Hannah Victoria Nelson
Master’s Thesis, Dallas International University, 2018
Abstract: In this thesis I study the activity of cuisine in Guinea-Conakry and its representation in the literary tradition of Sunjata. Many key events involving women in the epic of Sunjata center on their role as cooks and cuisine provides female protagonists with the resources they use to demonstrate their power and competence. Not only does cuisine take on heroic proportions in this Mande literary tradition, but it also continues to play an important social function in modern Guinea.
Through the activity of cuisine, Mande diaspora women in Conakry demonstrate artistic ability that is both acknowledged and respected by men. I explore the activity of cuisine both through library research involving comparisons of a variety of published versions of Sunjata, and through fieldwork in Guinea-Conakry where I focused on values and perspectives regarding cuisine.
Introduction: In this thesis I analyze two levels of culinary experience in West Africa: the primary level, expressed by women through the daily performance of cuisine and the culinary experience of consumers, and the secondary level, at which cuisine intersects with feminine heroism in the Sunjata epic of Mali and Guinea. This project, therefore, touches on a variety of themes pertaining to multiple academic fields. Drawing on theories from folkloristics, I consider characterization in the Sunjata epic tradition and the social function of cuisine as a marker of identity in modern Guinea. The Sunjata epic describes the founding of the Mande Empire of the thirteenth century and bears the name of its founder. Laye, in his novel Le Maître de la Parole, explains that the name originated from the contraction of Sogolon-Diata. The descendants of Sunjata bear the clan surname Keita.
Top Image: Map of the Mande or Mali Empire- Wikimedia Commons