Food culture, eating practices at the Bush Canteen of the University of Ghana

Given that I have imposed a bachelorship on myself, I have always frequented the Bush Canteen, an eating-place at the University of Ghana, as a place to satisfy my palette and hunger. For the past five or so years, I have observed a certain eating culture at the Bush Canteen of the University of Ghana that shows a lack of understanding of western capitalism or imported food culture or crass ignorance about the socio-health logic of food.

In many Ghanaian cultures, food is not just a trite material: plant or food crops. Food constitutes a matrix of cultural expression. Inhabited in food are the religious beliefs and ethical ethos of a people. In the same way, food has a sociological function of bonding people, who are biologically unrelated. The penetration of Christianity, Islam, and other Eastern Religions has added another element to food culture in Ghana.

Religion is such an important element in many Ghanaian cultures. While we may not unquestionably and uncritically accept the assertion by John S. Mbiti and Geoffrey Parrinder that Africans are notoriously and incurably religious, what readily meets the eye of a visitor to Ghana is the ubiquitous expression of religion in the country. Religious regalia, paraphernalia, symbol, and inscriptions pervade the public sphere in Ghana. The media – print and electronic, and social – is a space for religious competition and consumption of religious rituals. That religion pervades virtually every facet of life finds expression in the complexity of rituals that accompany the lifecycle in the country. There is a considerable debate, which has been generated by the Ugandan poet and anthropologist, Okot p’Bitek, and the eminent Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, about the supposed religiosity of Africans. These two scholars have argued quite convincingly that Africans have a pragmatic view of religion, which makes them selective in their appropriation of religious rituals. Kwasi Wiredu has argued that rituals are not necessarily religious, but an innovative and creative means that have been incorporated into the African communication pool to engage with the superhuman beings (Wiredu uses the term superhuman rather than supernatural).

Whether Africans are religiously inclined or have a pragmatic bent towards religion, what is obvious to any visitor to Ghana is that food culture is an arena for the expression of religious beliefs and practices. Because many cultures in Ghana were – prior to colonialism – non-literate, material culture (of which food is included) became the vector for expressing, storing, and transmitting religious ideas, beliefs, and practices. This also explains food taboos and prohibitions in many Ghanaian cultures. Among the Akan, the first food taboo is a commonsense one, which is that: one does not eat any food one’s parents do not eat. The other food taboos are: one is not to eat with the left hand; one is not to eat food cooked by a menstruating woman; one is not to eat any new crop that has not been first offered as an offering to the ancestors; one is not supposed to talk while eating, and one is not supposed to eat any stolen food.

The beliefs about food have a bearing on orthopraxis. For example, eating from the same bowl/pot is one way of establishing a social covenant among people who may not share the same womb. I grew up in a large family, where we all ate from the same bowl. Because we had the social practice of eating from the same bowl, I never knew that some of the people I was eating with never shared the same womb with me. It was later in life, after some of these individuals had left my parents and after my own curious investigations that I got to know that I shared the same hometown (village) with them, not the same womb. But the mere fact that we all ate from the same bowl meant that we could not think of doing harm to one other. It also meant that we always moved out of the family as one group that sought the interest of one another. In a Zongo community where bullying was not uncommon, eating from the same bowl was one way of solidifying group identity to face the challenge outside.

Eating from the same bowl was also a way of enforcing seniority. Usually, older siblings had control over the meat and fish. They had the burden of sharing the meat and young siblings must accept whatever portion is allotted to them. There was also the practice of kyem pe – share equally, which inculcated the spirit of we-feeling, caring, and watchfulness among children.

I got so used to corporate eating when I finally went to the University of Cape Coast (UCC) for my undergraduate studies, I struggled throughout the first semester to eat alone. I always had to go to my friends at Oguaa Hall to eat with them. Even when I mustered the culture of eating alone, I continued to patronize corporate eating.

The idea of eating in a group in Ghana was reinforced by the introduction of Christianity and Islam. The Christian practice of the communion had a ‘magical’ way of bonding Christians from ethically and linguistically plural backgrounds. In the early history of Christianity, the ritual of communion, which was expressed in the symbolic (apart from the transubstantiation of the Roman Catholics) feasting on the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ, became one of the reasons of accusing the Christians of practicing cannibalism. This false accusation of cannibalism became one of the reasons for the persecution of Christians. Islam also introduced the sharing of food as a way of bonding and establishing group solidarity. During Islamic festivals, marriage, naming, and funeral ceremonials, Muslims share food with their neighbors. In the 1990s in Maamobi, food sharing during religious festivals was an important avenue of fostering mutual interactions between Muslims and Christians. The idea of halal in Islam also ensures that the basic and rudimentary rituals are performed before animals are slaughtered for consumption or sacrifice. This practice has given rise to what is popularly known as ‘halal’ meat in some parts of Western Europe. Among Rastafarians, the sharing of marijuana joints, as part of their cultic practices, is a creative way of embodying group solidarity in a world that is hostile to their beliefs and practices.

In some Ghanaian cultures, during agricultural festivals like Homowo for the Ga and Kundum for the Nzema, the first harvested crops are offered to the ancestors and other benevolent spirits before they are eaten. In the Old Testament, also, harvested foods were offered to God as sacrifice and expression of gratitude before they were consumed.

Food also has medicinal benefits. During the time of Hippocrates, the western father of medicine, he advocated the use of food as medicine and medicine as food. In the 1980s, the World Health Organization also recommended the need for food to be used as medicine. Indeed, prior to the advent of synthetic drugs and chemotherapy, the pre-scientific human beings depended on food for medicine and medicine for food. They were very concerned about what, when, and how they ate. For example, in many cultures, it was forbidden to eat animal foods that had not been killed by human beings. In other religio-cultures, focusing on Islam and Seventh-day Adventists, pork could not be consumed. This means, for example, that Adventists abstain from eating pork, shellfish, and fish without fins and scales. For Hindu, vegetarianism is a religious requirement for the attainment of Moksha.

However one looks at food culture, it needs no mentioning that human beings must have good food culture and eating habits to ensure healthy living. I do not believe that foods have the inherent capacity to prolong lifespan. I also do not think that food culture has any soteriological significance. Even so, I concur that human beings must be circumspect about what they eat, how, and when they eat. In the past few years, I have observed that many students at the University of Ghana who eat from Bush Canteen have poor food culture and eating habit. Many times, I have spotted many a student eating fufu with light soup/palm nut soup and sipping chilled coke alongside. Similarly, I have on many occasions seen a student combining beans, egg, fried plantain, and fried fish at a meal. In some cases, they cap this combination with a bottle of chilled coke.

Yesterday, I saw a student who was eating waakye (boiling of rice and beans together) with egg, fried fish, fried plantain, macaroni, gari, and cabbage. Instead of the usual bottle of coke, I saw him interjecting eating with water. The commonest eating habit one will observe at the Bush Canteen is a student eating and sipping a bottle of soft drink at the same time. I have also observed that some students prefer to take a bottle of coke when thirsty rather than a sachet or a bottle of water.

I must say that while at the UCC, I rarely saw this eating practice at one of the popular eating-places on campus, ‘Aunty Mansah’, close to Oguaa Hall. It was rather in Uganda and Kenya that I saw many people eating and sipping a bottle of soft drink at the same time. Because I feel this eating culture is exotic to Ghana, I have since yesterday racked my brain to understand the changing trend in eating culture among students. I have always expected that the educated would live right. But since this grotesque food eating practice is taking place at the epicenter of education, then I had to find answers to my observation.

The first reason I conjured for this eating habit was the false premise that a potpourri of food is a show of wealth. Indeed, in a country where potbelly used to be construed as a sign of wealth, one will not be surprised to find university students hazardously combining unrelated foods as an index of wealth.

The second is social pressure. There is social pressure on many students to prove their civility or financial mettle. We live in a country where social class distinction is very important. The type of food one eats becomes an important index of one’s social status in life. Eating junk foods instead of indigenous foods is a mark of civilization. Drinking a bottle of coke instead of coconut is a mark of social status. Eating pizza instead of mpotopoto shows how intercontinental one is. In the end, any Ghanaian food is equated with ‘village life’, while exotic foods are placed on the pedestal of civilization.

The third and final is self-imposed ignorance. I dare say that most of these pupils do not know the health implications of their eating habits. While some may be pressured by their peers to follow a certain toxic eating practice, many of them are roundly wallowing in ignorance. But that is where the paradox is located. Because at the university, one would have expected that students who are the ‘light’ of the society, will shed some light on the right way of eating. But to find students behaving otherwise shows how much some aspect of western education has alienated Ghanaian students from their Ghanaian root.

Research has shown that about fifty years ago, some chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, kidney failure, liver cirrhosis, stroke, and diabetes were rarely known in Ghana. While oncologists and other cancer researchers may not be certain about the exact cause of the cancer cell, there is enough evidence to show that lifestyle, particularly eating culture, has (in)direct bearing on the rise of these diseases. It is reported that these diseases are the major causes of disability and deaths in Ghana. According to Dr. Beatrice Wiafe, non-communicable diseases accounted for 41 million deaths every year, with over 85 percent of deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. In Ghana, NCDs account for 43 percent of deaths. Certainly, they are not only of public health concern. They are also a developmental problem because the rising prevalence of long-term chronic conditions has major social and financial implications for affected individuals, families, healthcare providers and the government.

In 2012 Government National policy for preventing NCDs, one of the target to reduce death as a result of NCDs was diet. The report maintained that the priority measures to achieve healthy diets will include health promotion to increase awareness about healthy diet; increase the availability of healthier foods; use pricing controls to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods; regulate advertising of unhealthy foods and non-alcoholic beverages particularly to children; enact legislation for manufacturers to display food content labels and to manufacture foods that meet defined standards. The composition of various local foods will be studied and published. Locally relevant guidelines on healthy eating and healthy foods will b published. There will be advocacy to include healthy eating into curricula of various training institutions from the primary level upwards.

Certainly, Ghana can ill afford to have the majority of its youthful citizens risking their lives on food. In ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, Yuval Noah Harari perceptively observed that in the twenty-first century human beings are more at risk of dying of abundance food than the scarcity of food. Indeed, if we are to reverse this, then the government of Ghana must definitely extend education on good eating practices to our schools – from basic to tertiary.

The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking! (Romans 14:17)


Charles Prempeh (, African University College of Communications, Accra

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