Food sovereignty as cultural heritage protection
An interview with Dimah Mahmoud
This week, we’re trying out something a little different. Since beginning this newsletter, we envisioned it being a space to explore questions about the future of our food system and a place to share some of the visions for that future arising from our community. As part of that work, we wanted to begin bringing you interviews centring on how different people understand food sovereignty, what they envision for the future, and what kind of work they’re doing to make this vision a reality.
This week, we’re bringing you an interview with the incredible Dimah Mahmoud. I’ve had the honour of working alongside Dimah for the past year and a half, and I have gained so much wisdom and perspective from her presence and contributions to A Growing Culture. Dimah brought the unique lens of her previous work with cultural heritage protection into food sovereignty, which greatly strengthened and broadened the organisation’s perspective. I hope you gain as much from her words as I did.
TW: Can you tell me about kind of your journey towards working in food sovereignty and cultural heritage protection?
DM: In 2016 I co-founded the Nubia Initiative with my sister to protect, preserve and promote Nubian cultural heritage. Documenting our elders’ stories I noticed all memories revolved around the land, the river Nile, the language, and the food. I was at the heart of the fight for food sovereignty - I just didn’t know it then cause the only term I heard in the news or academia was food security. Food sovereignty as a movement had not crossed my path until I sat outside the embassy of Sudan earlier in our revolution (#SudanUprising) to tell people on the streets of DC what is going on in Sudan because it wasn't being covered anywhere in the media. I was hearing fear-mongering reports that the Sudanese are going to starve unless we advocate and lobby the US government to lift sanctions against Sudan, which would legitimise the military and ultimately the genocidal terrorists leading it. That made absolutely no sense to me. All I could think was, what do you mean “we're going to starve?” The land is so fertile. If you spit, a tree will come out.
Thinking back, I had subconsciously succumbed to the weaponisation of words, accepting security over sovereignty. It wasn’t until I had to reckon with our liberation that I realised that food security won’t cut it — we must have agency over our food. It was then that all the stories from my elders came rushing through. Our ancestors were food sovereign; we can unlock “the how” because it’s rooted in our heritage that our governments continue to tokenise and erase with the same pen-stroke.
Can you tell me about how you began seeing cultural heritage protection as a pathway towards food sovereignty?
A lot of what we did with A Growing Culture was to focus on the system—the failed system. That helped me contextualise a lot of things because we addressed food from the lens of power. But over time I felt the focus was predominantly on the power of the system and not the power of the people. Or at least not enough focus on the power of the people, but to me, people are power. People are the only true power that actually matters.
I find it counterintuitive to focus so much on the system and not the people. On reflecting on my time with AGC, I feel most grateful for the clarity on the unlimited potential of being part of a collective or "movement". There are so many ways to be involved. For me, I no longer choose to be driven by fear. I'll admit i was subconsciously drumming up fear because the majority of the content or the information out there is about how this big, bad system is going to finish us if we don't do anything about it. I now choose to be driven by love, where we can focus a lot more on what's been working and that's where cultural heritage comes in because cultural heritage is continuity. It's the epitome of continuing to exist in the face of all forms of injustice.
Cultural heritage is more people-centred than system-centred. And I feel like that's the difference, if we continue to look at food sovereignty solely, or primarily from the lens of it being a movement, we are in some ways playing into the same cycle of keeping the people to the side. And the way to remind people that they are the power that they already have, the power is to put them centre stage and say, “how do you continue to exist?”
It seems to me that one of the barriers to that approach is just that so many people, especially in Minority World contexts are really disconnected from the linkages between food and cultural heritage. I'm wondering how you think we go about beginning to rebuild those connections for people who aren't currently connected to where their food comes from.
I feel like we're starting to see a shift in that. Younger generations of Indigenous peoples, particularly people of African ancestry in the diaspora, are looking to connect. They're starting to dig in and find these connections through food.
So even if the connection is not crystal clear in front of people, people are seeking culture. People are seeking these connections. People are seeking what it is that brings them together with others. And they're not looking at it as just food. They're looking at it as culture, which is why I'm saying if we use this entry point, then we are able to open up that conversation about food and its centrality to who we are, how we are, and our power.
Your work tends to kind of focus less on dismantling the dominant system, so to speak, and more on building alternatives. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
If people come together, the system will crumble. It's not the other way around. It's not “if the system crumbles” or “when the system crumbles,” then people will come together. The system crumbles when people come together—that's the starting point.
It doesn't matter how many established institutions there are, how much money they have, or how many companies have control over what kind of policies. And I get it, you know, this can be viewed as a naive approach because people really believe the system's controlling how we come together.
Is it though? Is it really controlling how we come together? Or are we succumbing to their superficial borders? I've seen just through the Sudan revolution how we have erased borders—physical, mental boundaries—all the kinds you can think of have been erased. The system's still very much in place. We just learned how to leverage it. We've thought of ways to circumvent anything that will keep us apart. And I believe that's where the focus is. Sure, it's important to know what's in place, but that doesn't need to be our focus. Our focus does not need to be on bringing them down. Our focus needs to be on building us up.
We'll continue to be distracted if we're driven by fear because those driven by fear are only led to the next obstacle. There'll always be another institution that's going to pop up. There's always going to be someone with more money who wants to hold more power.
You mentioned before being driven by love in this work, over being driven by fear. What does that mean to you?
It means eradicating the limiting “what-ifs.” it means not worrying about “what if this doesn't work? What if the system is too strong? What if we render our resources obsolete? What if no one believes us? What if we continue to be told that we are naive and this will never happen?” That's what fear does. Love, on the other hand, is complete faith. And I'm not talking about religion. Understanding that love is the most powerful force, you become unstoppable. It also shifts our understanding that everything that surrounds us is love. This ultimately starts having us question not just people; it has us interrogate our relationship with mother earth and mother nature, and that opens so many more doors because then you start working with all that is divinely created and that's a power the system cannot touch. That's a power the system has been built to suppress.
What’s your vision for a future where both food sovereignty and culture are thriving together?
I dream of a space. Whatever that space looks like—physical, virtual, I don't know—but a space where we are able to tap into every bit of wisdom that this earth has witnessed, has carried, has shared. And if we're talking about what this earth has witnessed, we're talking about land. We're talking about every inch of soil that a group of people roamed, lived, and interacted. We’re talking about having the ability to access this wisdom, to access this knowledge, to practice different cultures and different knowledge.
To me, it’s such a powerful emotion to sit in this feeling. To know that I don't need to speak every language in the world, but there is a space where I can go and get this knowledge from whatever language it originally came in and be able to translate and apply it to my life. And to also be able to do this, to share my ancestral knowledge with the rest of the world.
This can look like many things. A family home converted into a community heritage centre, like the one I started in my village, or a digital archive of some sort that has all the seeds and all the recipes and all the stories that are linked to food from all the different places around the world, where I go in and I look for what Black seed is, and I can know the benefits of it and how it's used in my culture, but be able to click on it and see that it's also an integral seed in India, and how it's being used there and how this can maybe change how we do things in Nubia.
And what do you think are the first steps towards realising that vision?
Ask more questions. Always, always start by getting curious. So many people, especially young people, have been conditioned to question their questioning. To be afraid of asking questions, to be afraid of not knowing.
I think the first step is to be ready to be wrong. Be ready to be wrong about everything; it doesn't matter who taught you, it doesn't matter how you come to know it, be ready to be wrong about it. And when you are, then you're open to receive and change and expand and grow and understand that growth. It’s being open to taking and embracing criticism and growing—growth is a two-way street. You take and you give, you give and you take.
Our curiosity is something that will create something else that we, whatever nagging question or nagging feeling that we have towards something that we wanna know more about, that's leading us somewhere else. Trust that, trust those questions.
If your language is an indigenous one that you don't practice, learn a word or two and incorporate it and infuse it into your daily life. Sit with elders, ask them for their favourite memories. Record it, share it, blast it, tag some friends. That's how I personally started. I started asking questions and then I realised that the questions I'm asking were connecting me with so many different people. So be curious, recognise, define what growth means to you and just start by starting and be ready to be wrong.
Absolutely. I love that you focus on approaching change in a way that really begins with the individual. I think it's a really beautiful way of approaching change on a collective level because I think sometimes we focus so much on building movements right on the front end, rather than looking inwards before we try to go and do that work.
I really appreciate you saying that because the collective versus the individual debate is something that I really feel we need to look more closely at and really get uncomfortable with the questions we ask because if we’re not careful the collective we claim to be part of can be actively erasing the “I” in the collective. There is an “I” in the word collective. You are that I; I am that I. I came to that collective with certain questions, seeking certain things with certain curiosities, with certain determination. It's very easy these days to lose sight of that.
To lose yourself in the name, of the collective to erase the individual. And the truth is if all the individuals in the collective get erased, what are you left with a thought, a principle, a mission— based on whom? Whose thought?
I think that's a distinction that I would hope more people sit with and recognise that you can be part of a collective and be an individual and that you're actually more of service to the collective as an individual. Because what you bring in is unique to you and culture and heritage allows us to do that in a way where you're getting to know the collective, but you're getting to know them from the lens of your curiosity. Culture holds space for us to embrace our differences and choose how we want to show up.
Absolutely. We're so much more powerful when we're deeply rooted. And right now I think we're really missing a lot of that rootedness, especially in activist work. It feels sometimes, at least in my own experience, very disconnected from place. And I think that's why the focus on cultural heritage is so powerful because it re-situates us into our own context and our own histories and our own stories. And I think that's such a strong point to rebuild from. Instead of kind of this approach of taking up arms against an enemy, which often kind of permeates our movement-building approach.
And that's another connection between culture, heritage and food sovereignty: both culture and food have been deliberately de-politicised, but both are extremely political. Because they are extremely powerful, but when they're taken out of their context, when you're only looking at food as aid, like “let's help the starving people” and you are only looking at culture as “this is something nice and pretty.” You're not getting to the root of how this is all rooted in power.
As a woman of African ancestry, travelling to certain parts of Europe can be could raise certain questions for me if I don't speak the language for example, or if I don't know anyone there. But being of African ancestry, I don't feel that way going anywhere on the continent, anywhere in Africa, because wherever I am, I'm home.
Wherever I am—I don't know their culture, I don't know their history, I don't know their language. I don't know anyone there, but I know if I stand in the street in any of these countries and look lost, someone will stop to help. That is a kind of power that I don't think a lot of people have reckoned with. It's such a powerful way for us to connect and realise that we're not really that different and that where we do differ, there are ultimately elements of strength that we can use to come together and weave a much stronger fabric to trap and crack this system.
Right. If we forget our individuality in favour of that larger tide of the movement, then in a sense we're kind of playing into the same dynamics that we're trying to fight against. We're trying to dismantle monoculture, and yet without rooting ourselves into our own individuality, then how are we supposed to re-diversify anything, the natural world included? That’s why tapping into culture as a starting point is so powerful.
Yes. You think of individuals as seeds. Some seeds are the same, but they all carry their own story. They'll have their own timeline. They need different things. They sprout in different ways. And what happens when, in the name of the collective, we're all being told to act a certain way and think a certain way and believe a certain thing? And this is also why I say that if you are consuming food, whether you know it or not, you're part of the food sovereignty movement.
You may not be comfortable calling it a movement. You may not be comfortable thinking that you're engaging in anything political, but if you're consuming food, you are political. Whether you're conscious about it or not is a different story. If you're consuming food, you have power, but how you are wielding that power and how present you are in wielding that power is a different story.
Now, the invitation is: consider redefining your relationship with food by understanding that everything you are putting in your system is a step towards your power; is a step towards your liberation. And your liberation is connected to my liberation. Your power is connected to my liberation. Your power is connected to my power. How does that change how you view food?
This is really the invitation I'm hoping to extend to people from the lens of cultural heritage safeguarding.
Thanks for reading this week—as always, we’d love to hear your feedback, suggestions for people to interview, or anything you taken from these words. If you want to find out more about Dimah’s work, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram @thefacipulator and can also follow the work she’s doing with Edfu Foundation at www.edfufoundation.org.
This week, I asked Dimah to send me some pieces of media that have inspired her over the course of her work in this sector. Here’s what she shared.
This article by Sara El Sayed titled “Going, Going, Gone: Egypt’s Endangered Foods.” In it, the author explains how “Egyptian food is constantly evolving, but there are some foods and crops that are disappearing from our cuisine, many of which provide important nutritional advantages, have cultural meaning, or are important aspects of our traditional agricultural landscape.” The article documents some of these foods, explaining their significance to the culture.
The Seed is Power Rally from AGC x AFSA last year (recording). Dimah was the primary organiser for the rally, which brought together seed savers, farmers, and other voices in a day-long rally to honour African seed, celebrate the work of farmers across Africa, hear their stories, and unite for seed sovereignty.
This briefing from ReliefWeb called “Sudan’s Grain Divide: A revolution of bread and sorghum.” The brief “unpacks the connected political and economic crisis that reached a climax in early 2019 through the contrasting but connected worlds of Sudan’s bread and sorghum eaters.”
This article titled “Nubian Agricultural Practices, Crops and Foods: Changes in Living Memory on Ernetta Island, Northern Sudan.” In it, the authors “explore how agricultural and food heritage are connected, and to better understand reasons for crop changes.”
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This interview was carried out by Thea Walmsley. It has been edited for length and clarity.