What a humble loaf of bread can tell us about the world politics

bread riots africa
5 minutes approx.

Photo: The Christian Science Monitor

Reminiscing about my Sunday school days, two songs which until now did not mean much keep popping in my head. The lyrics of the first song is “Me I no go suffer, I no go beg for bread”(I will never suffer nor beg for bread ). The second song is “Big thing big thing weh jesus doam for me, yi butter my bread and he sugar my tea” (mighty things Jesus has done for me ). As a child I was excited singing about bread, tea and butter. It never crossed my mind  they were metaphorical meaning for being able to afford stuff and live a life free of lack.

Well this essay is not about my childhood religious interpretations of songs but about the “politics of bread”.

Today for some reason, I decided to have breakfast. For anyone who has my kind of schedule, usually breakfast is the last thing on your mind. I know what dieticians say about it being the most important meal of the day. Most often  I only remember I have not had breakfast when it’s close to midday, so as one of my New Year resolutions I took up the Most – have- a -breakfast- challenge.

bread riots africa
Photo: BBC, Bread at the origin of a riot in Sudan, January 2018

My breakfast may consist of anything my body covets, so today I opt for two thin slices of “agege” bread, daubed in peanut butter. As I take a bite into the soft spongy bread I recalled a conversation I had with my bestie Nabilla, where we likened our men-fantasies to bread. So I told her my trio of crunchy, mouthfeel warm bread will be Djimon Hounsou, Barack Obama and Denzel Washington and I would be more than happy to have these slices  of “bread “any hour of the day … on the island of Zanzibar accompanied with  weeks/months  of backrubs, foot massages and … well, YOU KNOW!

The chiming of my phone  recalls me  to reality… So I dart in-between bites of good, delicious mouthfeel of bread to read my twitter feed (another bad habit I am hoping to stop). There!! Reuters had just published an article of protests in Sudan that had already accounted for one dead and many wounded. Reasons for this was the Sudanese government’s recent austerity measures, which devalued its currency and removed wheat subsidies, causing the price of bread to spike and the people were not having it! According to eyewitnesses, police forces suppressed the protests using tear gas and batons and arrested dozens of people. So, the people were protesting their inability to purchase Bread!

 The question on my mind is what can a humble loaf of bread tell us about the world politics?

I don’t know how this is true but bread has been known as the staff of life. In much of the world, you can’t get more basic, since that daily loaf often stands between the mass of humanity and starvation, and a country`s standard of living can be measured from citizenry access to the commodity.

bread riots africa
Photo: Mount Rantmore, a man with a bread helmet in Egypt, Arab Spring

At this point of my breakfast, I remember a quote by Mahatma Gandhi “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” So, bread is more than just a breakfast meal but a political issue.  Historical events have proven this from the 1788-89 French Revolution where bread, in particular, was tied up with the national identity. Added to many other factors its alleged when the grain crops failed two years in a row, in 1788 and 1789, the price of bread shot up to 88 percent. Many blamed the ruling class for the resulting famine and economic upheaval. The masses then overthrew the monarchy, and established a republic.

What about the Arab Spring that started in Tunisia when amongst other things the rising food prices, triggered deadly riots and finally the flight of the country’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali.  Though he tried to save the situation to reduce the price of bread (milk, sugar), we all know it was a little too late for amends and he was ousted. Once again, the supremacy of the “Bread” was portrayed.

Similar to this was the 2008 protest in Cameroon that was just another violent reaction in response to the rising cost of bread and other food items. These events were deep grievances expressed by the youths that was symbolic of a larger governance issues in the country. But is it possible to break the links between food insecurity and conflict ?

We argue that building resilience to economic, environmental, and health shocks is even more important in any nation than military power. All around the world when people can’t afford bread, that is when a government will be declared as a certified failure ! When people protests about their inability to afford bread, what they are really saying is the government has to tackle  issues of bad governance, repression, corruption, poor economic policies etc.

At this point, I shoved my plate aside to continue reading the article on the Sudan protest …

So when next you want to eat your favorite bread, know that it is not just your daily warm, crusty loaf. It’s a symbol of economic and political security. That loaf has taken down governments and validated policies. Your bread is a symbol of the crucial fault lines of world politics.

I actually understand clearly my childhood song: “Me I no go suffer ,I no go beg for bread…”

  • Achoh Tebid

    Achoh Tebid is from Cameroon. She is a researcher , and human security expert. Achoh is passionate about peace and conflict related issues.

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