July 16, 2015

Shame in the City? How the Urban Poor Experience Social Exclusion and Food Insecurity in Kampala Slums

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series
By Diana Caley, PhD candidate in Food Studies at New York University, a US Norman Borlaug Global Food Security Fellow, and 2015 Next Generation Delegate.
I love good food. (And to the delight of my roommate, cooking also happens to be my favorite form of ‘productive’ procrastination.) I pore over Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty while sipping my morning coffee, and I pride myself on preparing fresh, high-quality food for friends and family. Last week, however, a friend of mine here in Kampala pulled out a quart-sized bag of neon-orange powder from my kitchen cabinet and held it out at arm’s length. With a raised eyebrow she asked, “What is this?” I half-laughed, half-stuttered that it was in fact “really good” cheese powder that I use to make macaroni and cheese when I’m alone and too lazy to make “real” food. Her eyes said it all: I can’t believe that you (you!) eat that cheap junk.
The interaction was a reminder (albeit a lighthearted one) to appreciate an important luxury that hundreds of thousands of my neighbors here in Uganda’s largest city don’t often enjoy: privacy. I felt slightly embarrassed that my friend had “outed” me for possessing such unhealthy food, particularly since I typically eat and serve a diversity of nutritious foods. When I consume foods that fall outside what is considered “good to eat,” my decisions are not automatically broadcast to friends or neighbors who might mock my poor choices or weak will. (One important exception to this was when I served in the Peace Corps in Morocco [a predominantly Muslim country with strict dietary taboos]: I occasionally caught my neighbors brazenly sifting through my garbage in search of evidence of what I was consuming.)
As a current US Borlaug Global Food Security Fellow, I am here in Kampala collecting data for my doctoral dissertation on how urban slum dwellers experience hunger and food insecurity. I have been observing day-to-day life, conducting interviews and focus groups, and collecting surveys from hundreds of individuals and families throughout the city. Over the last three years, I have come to appreciate why privacy is such a luxury in dense, urban environments. Approximately 50 percent of Kampala residents live in slums that are crammed with densely packed, single-room dwellings. Space comes at a premium in these tenements, so meals are typically prepared in alleyways and on sidewalks in clear sight of neighbors and passersby.
In urban slums, the poor are not only vulnerable to physical hunger and malnutrition, but also the shame and humiliation that come with preparing and consuming inadequate or so-called “poor food” in public spaces. By mid-day here, the alleyways and drainage channels that weave through Kampala’s 56 slums are lined with women bent at the waist preparing posho or any number of other nutrient-poor, starchy staples. Steam and pungent smoke rise from beneath kettles of water—even the poorest boil their drinking water whenever possible, knowing that failing to do so will inevitably lead to illness and painful diarrhea.  
The poor here are exceptionally clever at finding ways to escape judgment and ridicule from others. One young mother recounted how she once concealed cassava flour—a cheap staple widely considered to be a “poor food” in this part of the country—in a maize flour bag so that her neighbor wouldn’t discover she was not providing quality food for her young children. Another woman remarked that the wafting aroma from frying just one onion was enough to convince her neighbors she was preparing a full, proper meal for her family. Over a dozen mothers from as many communities lamented they had trained and re-trained young children not to beg for food from neighbors for fear of being chastised or mocked.
Robert Walker explains how deeply held fears of social exclusion operate like “glue” to bind society together, and shame is the mechanism by which we externally enforce social norms and rules. Culturally taboo coping strategies employed by the urban poor in times of desperation often lead to social exclusion and excruciating feelings of embarrassment, guilt, anxiety, and stress. Allowing a child to beg for food, for example, breaks the social contract between neighbors and violates cultural norms about good parenting. Men here describe feeling anxious, guilty, and ashamed when they are forced to steal or cheat in order to provide for their families. They implicitly recognize that these particular coping strategies not only constitute breaking the law, but are also deeply held cultural taboos. A number of women in my focus groups have also confessed they engage in occasional sex work in order to avoid starvation for themselves and their families. Mothers of hungry children face a particularly cruel paradox of choice: It is considered shameful to sell one’s body, and it is also considered shameful to remain idle while children starve. What to do? Severely food insecure people have to carefully navigate a minefield of survival decisions, each of which has myriad legal, social, and health implications.
My interviewees describe feeling “bad,” anxious, guilty, and stressed when they cannot provide enough food for their families. When asked how they feel when neighbors know that they cannot provide, the list of anguishing emotions expands to include feelings of deep shame and stigmatization. These feelings characterize an important dimension of food insecurity called “social acceptability.” When women have to engage in sex work, beg on the street, or gather food scraps from the garbage pile, they behave in ways that are considered socially unacceptable. While most scholars recognize social acceptability as a fundamental dimension of the food insecurity experience, there are still significant concept-to-measurement hurdles that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners must overcome. How can you measure something like “social acceptability” or “shame” after all? In order to accurately capture the full picture of food insecurity in densely populated cities, we must further explore how to use both objective measures (e.g. dietary intake and diversity) and subjective ones (e.g. acquisition of food through socially unacceptable means such as begging or stealing).
As the world’s cities grow to accommodate an additional 2.5 billion people by the year 2050, future policy and program interventions must take a comprehensive and nuanced view of food and nutrition security. Being “food secure” means more than just having access to a diversity of healthy foods. It also means having the means and stability to eat with dignity.
  • Coates, Jennifer, Edward Frongillo, Beatrice Rogers, Patrick Webb, Parke Wilde, and Robert Houser. “Commonalities in the Experience of Household Food Insecurity across Cultures: What Are Measures Missing?” Journal of Nutrition 136, no. 5 (2006). 
  • “Uganda.” UN-HABITAT. Accessed July 15, 2015. 
  • United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352) New York: United Nations, 2014.
  • Walker, Robert. The Shame of Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.   
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:  


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