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Eating alone or together? Commensality among Ghanaians in London

Manger ensemble ou séparément ? La commensalité entre Ghanéens à Londres
Helena Tuomainen


Eating together, or commensality, signifies unity and sharing in most cultural contexts. The concern for the fate of meals is associated with the apparent descent of shared family meals as a central element of family life, around which family is reproduced, suggesting a loosening of family ties and an upheaval of social life in general. Yet, latest research into and writing about commensality has been mainly on Western populations. This paper broadens the perspective by examining the social context of eating in a diasporic West African community. It compares eating arrangements among Ghanaians in London with their past practices prior to migration. While commensality is of essence among many ethnic minority communities, the Ghanaian family meal is possible without company, and in line with kinship and household structures and patterns in Ghana. The lack of concern for shared family meals enables the unity of family and community in the diasporic community. The notion of the ‘family meal’ appears to be ethnocentrically Western.

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I thank Isabelle Darmon and Alan Warde and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments that helped shape the paper.

Commensality and the significance of family meals

1Commensality is the practice of eating together with other people and signifies unity and sharing in most cultural contexts. Commensal relationships mirror social roles and positions, revealing an individual’s location in social networks and social systems (Sobal et al., 2002). Commensality occurs in workplace canteens, cafes and festive occasions, yet the most fundamental ‘commensal unit’ is the family; in Western societies in particular the nuclear family. ‘Commensal circles’ are networks of relationships that define the range of people with whom individuals could, and do, eat. Meals draw the line between intimacy and distance, and form occasions for groups to discover themselves as groups (Douglas, 1972; Sobal and Nelson, 2003; Counihan, 2004).

2In the West in general, family meals have been seen to be central in sustaining the cohesiveness and for reproducing of the family (Holm, 2001; Murcott, 1982; Charles and Kerr, 1988; DeVault, 1991; Counihan, 2004). The entry into marriage has been associated with a shift towards a regular, substantial meal eaten by both partners at the same time (Kemmer et al., 1998), with social norms prescribing shared eating as a crucial part of the marital relationship, indeed, ‘a key component of how people accomplish or ‘do’ marriage.’ (Sobal et al., 2002: 380) In households with children, family meals provide time for discussion and exchange, and an occasion for parents to teach children to eat ‘properly’, in a socially acceptable manner (Brannen et al., 2013). Although the quality of evidence varies, higher frequency of shared family meals has been shown to be related to better nutritional health in children and adolescents, and less high risk behaviour and better psychosocial wellbeing in the latter group (Hammons and Fiese, 2011).

3All cultures have rules and customs that regulate the way in which people gather around to share a meal, how food is distributed and shared, and what table manners are observed. In many societies or cultures, people perceive that meals are not proper, or real, without company (Charles and Kerr, 1988; Mäkelä, 1996; Counihan, 2004). Eating alone is generally viewed unfavourably, as something atypical, even unhealthy, or associated with eating snacks or other ‘minor meals’ (Sobal, 2000; Fischler, 2011).

4Yet, organising a shared family meal can be difficult due to different schedules of family members (Brannen et al., 2013) and lack of space (Charles and Kerr, 1988). The home is frequently a site of ‘multiple consumption practices’ (Valentine, 1999: 502), not only in terms of the contents of meals consumed, but also regarding the timing and location of eating. Fears have been expressed that the institution of the family meal is disintegrating and that eating is becoming an individualised activity that lacks any social significance (Kristensen and Holm, 2006; Fischler, 2011). It has been questioned whether the assumed disruption indicates an upheaval in family life and social life in general. Eating alone without others whom provide social support leads to dietary individualisation and ‘gastro-anomie’ (Fischler, 1988). There is a loss of traditional collective eating identities. Furthermore, eating alone has been associated with an increased risk of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours and potential diet-related illnesses, such as obesity (Fischler, 2011).

5However, most of the recent sociological research into and writing about commensality has been on Western populations, focusing on white middle class nuclear families. Little attention has been paid to other population groups (Anigbo, 1987), and research into the social aspects of eating among migrants and/or ethnic minority populations is scant (Walker, 2012; Renzaho and Burns, 2006), or limited due the focus on individuals rather than families (Chapman et al., 2010). Furthermore, in many studies on ethnic minority foodways, researchers have been distracted by the food and overlooked the eating, ‘neglecting sociability as an important component of meals as social events’ (Sobal, 2000: 119), even when families have been the unit of analysis (Harbottle, 2000; Ray, 2004; Chapman et al., 2010). Nevertheless, the overall impression from the scarce evidence is that commensality and shared family meals are an important feature of eating practices in many migrant and ethnic minority communities.

6This paper focuses on commensality in a West African diasporic community, Ghanaians in London, and the underlying hypothesis is that the current notion of the family meal is limited and doesn’t apply in all cultural contexts. Furthermore, people have different understandings about the significance of commensality: eating alone may be no indication of weakening family ties or other social bonds. In the following, after a closer look at the literature around commensality in migrant and ethnic minority communities, I turn my attention to the Ghanaians involved in my ethnographic study, elaborate on their current and past eating practices within the family, and compare these with the traditional context of eating in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa. The last two sections delve into the way in which food and meals are shared in the wider Ghanaian community in London, and the significance of this to families.

Commensality among migrant and ethnic minority communities

7The significance of commensality in migrant or ethnic minority communities is that it is an important way of transmitting culture and ethnic identity associated with food and eating to children and other community members (Counihan, 2004). Food habits are often the last traits to be lost in the acculturation process, as eating usually takes place in the privacy of the home, or the private domain in broader terms among other in-group members (Kalcik, 1984; Kittler et al., 2011). It is where food, meals and associated customs are transformed into ‘the essence of identity’ and ‘the focal point of loyalty’ (Diner, 2001: 73).

8In the historical analysis of migrant foodways in America, Diner (2001) describes how poor Italian migrants started using food for socializing and eating together as a family in their new homeland, although this practice had been limited to the rich in Italy. Furthermore, they started inviting friends and neighbours into their homes for food, which became a ‘hallmark of their behaviour in America’ (Diner, 2001: 61). Past studies have also shown the importance of family meals for Chinese in London (Wheeler and Tan, 1983), Latin Americans in Sweden (Borda, 1987) and South Asians in Glasgow (Bush et al., 1998), the latter broad group of people being the focus of research in several parts of the world in both nutritional and sociological/anthropological studies (Ray, 2004; Holmboe-Ottesen and Wandel, 2012; Chapman et al., 2010).

9Commensality is an essential part of Iranian food culture as well. Harbottle (2000) refers to the level of hospitality that visitors are bestowed, yet she doesn’t discuss family meals at all, apart from stating that they are important. What she doesn’t clarify either is that for many Iranians, most of whom are Muslims, religion plays a part in the tradition of commensality. The Prophet of Islam emphasised the importance of company when he said ‘Eat together and not separately, for the blessing is associated with the company.’ (Ibn Majah)

10African migrants have received research attention only relatively recently (Walker, 2012; Crenn et al., 2010). An Australian study involving non-English speaking migrant and refugee families from various sub-Saharan countries found that the main meal, which was described as the ‘heaviest’ meal of the day, was eaten together as a family in the majority of households (Renzaho and Burns, 2006). Such commensality had not been the norm in their countries of origin, most of which were in eastern and southern Africa. The authors refer to gendered division of eating in parts of Africa, but fail to discuss the likely cause for the change in practices.

11The above accounts give an impression that many migrant and ethnic minority communities prioritise eating together in families and sharing of meals. However, upholding commensality can be jeopardized by irregular working hours and different activities and time schedules of family members, just like in the majority population (Ruud, 1998; Valentine, 1999; Brannen et al., 2013). Ethnic minority children’s desire for different food from their parents has also been documented well, making unified habits even more difficult to maintain (Harbottle, 2000; Thomas, 2004; Chapman et al., 2010).

12The significance and meaning associated to commensality can vary among the same ethnic group, depending on which country they live in: ‘In the Comoros, where Comorian foodstuffs are banal and choices of foods have little significance for identity, commensality remains crucial; in diaspora, where Comorian foods are either less easily obtained or less palatable to consumers, be they Comorians or others, the foods themselves are more salient in the productions of identities.’ (Walker, 2012: 189)

  • 1 Khan’s (2014) study on commensality focuses on the role of the picnic trip (chakar) for Afghan male (...)

13At the time of my research, I was not aware of studies exploring in detail the way in which the social context of eating varies or differs between the country of origin and the country of destination, or how practices have evolved over time in the migration context (cf. Crenn et al., 2010; Khan, 2014)1. I focused on this aspect as part of my larger and more complex ethnographic study among Ghanaians in London, which examined the relationship between migration, foodways, ethnic identities and gender (Tuomainen, 2006; Tuomainen, 2009).

Commensality among West Africans in the diaspora

  • 2 The households varied in size, ethnic (tribal) and educational background, length of stay in the UK (...)

14I conducted ethnographic fieldwork within Ghanaian homes, social gatherings, food stores, and restaurants in London over a period of ten months (in 1999 and 2001, covering January to August), with my main attention on the food and eating practices within 18 diverse households recruited through accessing the community through different gate keepers and using snowball sampling (Tuomainen, 2009). My migrant status, former close contacts with Ghanaians, and basic knowledge of Twi all helped in gaining access, and purposive sampling ensured that families were varied2. My observations, conversations and in-depth interviews with the female head and other members of the households were guided by the eating system framework (Tuomainen, 2006), which incorporates the social context of eating, and also by my previous research experience of the Ghanaian food culture, which included exploratory fieldwork in Ghana (Tuomainen, 1996).

15I analysed the structure of food and eating as an integral part of everyday life, but also contextualized it historically, largely by analyzing memories related to food and eating prior to migration to the UK, and in the early years after migration. The easting system framework guided all discussions. It depicts the various spheres that define the eating event in the centre: meal format, social context, and cooking. When time is added to the system, two additional spheres evolve: eating pattern (eating events of one day) and meal cycle (e.g. everyday vs. festive eating). When I interviewed a first generation Ghanaian migrant in London, the session dealing with the past started with a typical day when still living in Ghana. I asked informants to focus on the time before migrating to the UK, but many preferred to go further back in time, to primary and secondary school days, hence highlighting how habits and practices had evolved already in Ghana. The informants described the eating events of a usual day (i.e. eating pattern) and then provided further information related to the other spheres of the eating system. A session dealing with the present usually started with a qualitative 24-hour recall of the various eating events, and of food and drink consumed, covering all spheres of the eating system. This was followed by a discussion whether it was a typical day and what a typical week would be like. A 24-hour recall was collected during follow-up interviews as well.

Ghanaians in London

  • 3 Main informants had arrived in the UK between 1965 and 1993.

16The study population was biased towards Ghanaians who had lived in Britain for a long time, more than ten years3, had a permanent residence permit, or were, in fact, British. Ghanaians have been settling in the UK in larger numbers since the 1960s, mostly in London (Storkey and Lewis, 1996). After Nigerians, they are the second largest group of West Africans in the UK. Participants were from tribes of the southern part of Ghana, or of mixed tribal background, which reflects the ethnic mix of the majority of Ghanaians in London (Elam et al., 2000). Many had lived in various parts of Ghana before migrating to the UK, some living with relatives after their parents had already migrated to the UK, others spending a large part of their secondary education in a boarding school located in a different region to their home. Most had lived in semi-urban or urban areas; a few had a rural background.

  • 4 The two further households were a divorced man living on his own, and two young sisters sharing a f (...)

17Eight of the 18 households were two-parent and another eight were single-parent households with a female head4. In two of the latter households, the husband was living in Ghana, travelling regularly to London on holidays, and in another, the partner lived elsewhere in London. Other studies carried out on Ghanaians in London have noted the high number of single parents: ‘separate households for man and wife can be perfectly normal and social workers should beware of assuming that if husband and wife are apart there is something wrong with the marriage.’ (Stapleton, 1978: 20) Married couples frequently live apart in many ethnic groups in Ghana (Sanjek, 1983).

18The number of children varied from one to four, two households having no children. Children’s age varied from 2 to 23, some having been born in Ghana, others in the UK. The large majority of participants lived in local authority rented housing, within 10 miles of the city centre, which reflects the reality of many Ghanaians in the city. Many lived in cramped conditions. Higher educational levels were not automatically reflected in better living conditions and more space. As housing was low on the list of priorities, many families lacked appropriate room for a large dining table, although most had some sort of a smaller table.

19The educational and occupation background of the adult informants was similar to that of the wider Ghanaian community. Despite their high educational levels, only a minority of Ghanaians work in managerial, professional or associated professional jobs (Vasta and Kandilige, 2007). Instead, they proliferate in manual and non-manual service sector occupations. Many have low status positions within the NHS. A great number of Ghanaians are also ‘student workers’: full-time students who work part-time and full-time workers who study part time or at evening classes. Others may be working illegally (Daley, 1996). Many Ghanaians experience downward mobility and de-skilling when they arrive in the UK.

The social context of eating in Ghanaian households

20Within Ghanaian households in London, the evening meal was usually the main meal of the day. Contrary to practices in Ghana, breakfast was either skipped or consisted of a hot beverage, while lunch was mostly ‘English’ style, a minor meal. Snacking wasn’t customary among first generation migrants, although young British Ghanaians had acquired a taste for snacks. Many first generation migrants were readily eating what they called ‘English’ or ‘European’ food, however, in the evenings they preferred their traditional food. Ghanaian offspring appeared to go through three main phases. Young children ate Ghanaian food quite happily – provided it was offered to them – until they went to school and wanted the same as everybody else in class. As they grew older and became more culturally aware – in their teens – and possibly fed up with (bland) school food, they started identifying again with Ghanaian/African culture and turning back to Ghanaian/African food. Parents reacted to the various stages their children went through in different ways. Some had distanced themselves from Ghana and enhanced their children’s ‘British’ (or non-Ghanaian) identity by introducing English/European (or other ethnic) food in the everyday weekly menu.

  • 5 All names of Ghanaian informants are pseudonyms. The information within the brackets refers to the (...)

21The closer analysis of the social context of eating revealed diverging consumption patterns within Ghanaian households in London. Children often ate at different times and different foods from their parents at the main meal of the day. Joint family meals around a table appeared to be the exception. ‘Sometimes Kwame eats before I do, sometimes I eat before he does. But I always sit at the table and eat, but he likes to watch telly and eat at the same time. So he normally sits here on the carpet and eats.’ (Lillian: hhA, Fanti, 30+)5 Parents ate together with their children habitually in only a very few families. It happened regularly only in one household headed by a well-educated single mother who incorporated European food in the weekly menu on a regular basis. In a two-parent household it occurred only on Sundays, and even then parents did not sit together with children around the same table or even in the same room. In other households, eating together, or simultaneously, wasn’t planned, but rather something that occurred only if everyone happened to be home at the same time. Furthermore, if all family members happened to have a meal simultaneously, they did not necessarily eat together in the same space or room. ‘But the children, they normally, they tend to eat in their rooms more because they’ve got the telly and everything in their rooms, you know, so they just take their food and go upstairs.’ (Evelyn: hhI, Fanti, 46)

22Different working patterns and schedules of parents and children contributed to the diverse mealtimes of family members. Numerous Ghanaians told me about the habit of going to bed with a full belly of fufu and soup after a long day of work and/or study. Some informants in low-paid employment (e.g. cleaning) had several jobs, and eating was squeezed between shifts. In Evelyn’s household (hhI), both of her older daughters were employed with differing working hours and her son was still at college.

23The only family members who seemed to eat together regularly in most households were young children (cf. Brannen et al., 2013). In one household, children sometimes ate with their father but not their mother: ‘It’s me who is never at the table! But whoever is hungry and if all of them are hungry and the Dad is hungry, they all go and sit at the table and I serve them. It’s never me! (…) I prefer them to finish eating before me actually. I enjoy my food more [laughs] when they’ve finished eating.’ (Caroline: hhJ, Ashanti/Fanti, 44). As Caroline indicated, some family members even preferred eating alone than in the company of others.

24Christmas was one of the few occasions when effort was placed on eating together in most households. This went together with the English style Christmas dinner cooked in many families and represented, therefore, their acquired English identities. ‘Well Christmas is more or less like what the English people do. I go to my Mum’s for Christmas dinner which she does. And it’s a normal turkey, potatoes, sausage you know the small ones.’ (Lillian: hhA, Fanti, 30+)

  • 6 The practice of sending children back to Ghana to be looked after by relatives before school begin (...)

25On the other hand, in some families even Christmas didn’t bring all family members together. At the time of the study, Lillian’s (hhA) three year old son had been living in Ghana over a year and was not going to return until after another 16 months6.

26Differences did not occur only between adults and children, but also between spouses. Many had different tastes which were partly attributed to diverse ethnic backgrounds and length of stay in the country. None of the adult partners arranged to share a meal together:

HT: When you’re here with your husband do you make a thing of it that you sit together sometimes?’

C: No. We don’t. I eat whenever and if he’s eating and I want to discuss something I can sit down, but it doesn’t mean I have to eat too. And if he’s eating something the kids like, they’ll go and eat with him. But it’s not the matter they have to wait for him or he has to be there at a certain time to eat, he can eat whenever. And anybody can dish up what they want when.’ (Carol: hhO, Akuapim, 40+)

27What was striking about the situation in Ghanaian households was that none of the married couples even aspired to eat together, or with their children as a family. They did not mind eating at different times, or in different spaces within the home, and found this quite normal, not worth discussing at length. The joint evening meal seemed not to be part of Ghanaian culture in Britain.

Eating arrangements before migration

28The social organisation of eating in Ghanaian households in London was, nevertheless, in many ways similar to that in Ghana, before the study participants migrated to the UK, despite the change in social and physical environments.

29If focusing on the weekday evening meal in Ghana, family members seldom ate all together at the same time and in the same place. None of the less affluent households in Ghana had a dining table. Women usually ate in the kitchen, which was their domain and where they could keep an eye on the hearth. Men, on the other hand, ate in some other part of the living quarters: ‘My father ate alone. Inside the house. Because my father had a small shop so my father ate alone and all the girls ate with my mother. There were five girls who ate with my mother in a big pot. And then the boys had their own little bowls.’ (Grace: hhE, Ashanti, 55+)

30Most of the wealthier households possessed a big dining table; however, eating did not necessarily occur around it. Many families still preferred using little stools and tables, which could be easily moved around, generally sitting outside where it was cooler. I remember this happening too when I visited Ghana in the early 1990s. Furthermore, as many of the fathers of upper class families came home late from work, they seldom enjoyed the meal at the same time with other family members: ‘The predominant image is us leaving his food there, and then we finishing, we eating, and he’ll come back and have his meal later on.’ (Gladys: hhN, Ashanti/Krobo, 48) In some households, traditions were held onto even when both parents were present: ‘My dad sat alone in the dining hall, and we had to sit in the kitchen. I just don’t understand it. ... He’s never eaten with mum. My Mum was always like eating with us.’ (Pauline: hhH, Ga/Fanti, 36)

31Consequently, men had a separate bowl even if other family members shared one. The sharing of a bowl between the mother and her children was seen as an opportunity to teach children the proper way of eating, i.e. with fingers. However, it didn’t occur in every household.

32Thus, it appears that family meals as understood in the Western context were not a goal in Ghana in my participants’ youth and young adulthood. Company was not seen as essential for a proper meal. The main thing was that everyone had a meal: ‘So in a way, family meals are not a big thing, but making sure that you know the family has had a meal, sometime, is more important than being together. Because you’ll always know where somebody is. (…) Because we don’t have a meal and then it’s finished. The meal will be there. Somebody anybody that comes up after we’ve eaten they’ll still have a meal.’ (Serwa: hhM, Ewe, 50)

Traditional context of eating

33The social context of eating in Ghana, as well as in London, can be understood better if one considers the traditional set-up of matrilineal Akan (e.g. Ashantis, Fantis, Nzemas) and patrilineal Ga families based commonly on duolocality, and the meaning of cooking in marriage. Customarily men did not even eat in the same house as their spouses, but received food from their wives who lived with their kin, and ate it alone, or in the company of other men (Clark, 1994). This practice is similar to that among the Bantu: ‘(t)he most honourable form of hospitality is to send a man dishes of porridge and relish, a lump of meat, or a calabash of beer so that he can dispose of it as he pleases in his hut alone. The least honourable is to ask him to share in your dish, in what would seem to us a more friendly and convivial manner.’ (Richards, 1939:135)

34Along these lines, in Ghana in the past, as well as in present-day London, allowing men to eat alone, or in a separate space, was actually bestowing them respect and honour. Eating alone did not make the meal less proper. This is contrary to many a Western idea of a ‘real’ meal requiring company.

35In Ghana, however, people seldom eat alone, because there is usually someone in the compound house to share a meal with, either members of the extended family, or other people. Even in the homes of the educated elite, there are usually more people around than just the nuclear family (Oppong, 1974). Traditionally though people eat in groups subdivided along the lines of sex, and to some extent age and generation, and the common meal is a medium for building the relationships between consanguines, along the patrilineal or matrilineal line, not spouses. The extended family system, by its very nature, emphasises kinship much more than the marital bond (Nukunya, 1992).

36Similarly, in Ibagwa Aka, Nigeria, eating together physically is not important for commensality (Anigbo, 1987). What matters is the sharing of the same type of food cooked by the same person at the main evening meal of the day: ‘Food can be kept for those who are absent. Thus a man should not break off a discussion with his friends in order to share meals with his family.’ (Anigbo, 1987: 67)

37While family meals as understood in the western context aren’t important for West Africans couples and their children in Africa or the diaspora, the eating of the food cooked by the wife or mother is.

38In Ghana, cooking actually suggests marital obligations. It is synonymous with marriage in the Akan society: ‘The defining element that distinguishes marriage from a more casual heterosexual relationship is the exchange of a regular cash allowance for food (called akroma or chop money), on the male side, and cooking the evening meal (implying sex), on the female side.’ (Clark, 1994: 346)

39The symbolic relationship between food and sex is inferred in the Akan verb stem di which stands for both eating and sexual relations. If a wife is satisfied with the relationship she has with her husband, she will prepare ‘prompt, attractive, large meals’ for him, taking extra care in cooking (Clark, 1994: 346), although the task may be undertaken with the help of a maid. If a wife can’t cook or doesn’t learn to cook her marriage will suffer.

‘It’s a disgrace if a woman goes you know to get married and the husband complains that she cannot cook. It’s a disgrace to the family because they haven’t done their duty. When your daughter is ripe for marriage they should be ripe in everything. They should be able to keep the house, look after a child, cook food, because (…) to be loved by your husband you have to be a good cook [laughs]. (…) So our parents are very keen on making us sort of well, what’s the word for it? (…) You know Charles Dickens era. (…) Accomplished you know. You have to be accomplished to be married.’ (Serwa: hhM, Ewe, 50)

40However, as the sexual and financial pressures associated with cooking are focused only on the evening meal, married women are able to compromise ideal standards for the morning and midday meals, which in Ghana are frequently bought from cooked food vendors (Clark, 1994).

Sharing food and meals with friends and kin in London

41Many Ghanaian women in London were prepared to cook food not only for their own family, but also for their friends and relatives. Food exchange and reciprocity were activities through which women established, maintained and expressed their social positions. Cooking for others happened especially if someone was unwell and living on his/her own, but also if the person was thought to be too busy to cook for him/herself, and sometimes simply out of the sheer pleasure of cooking.

42Cooking for others is an old Ghanaian tradition, a common phenomenon in other cultural contexts too, symbolising and constituting social relationships and union (Richards, 1939; Theophano and Curtis, 1991). Women cook not only for their husbands but often for other kinsfolk, reinforcing social ties and networks.

43In London, cooking for others was generally done spontaneously, without asking whether the other person was in need or not, and without expectation of joining in with the meal: ‘(I) then decided to go to Shepherds Bush on the off chance. Did some cooking on the Saturday to take ... to my uncle. So I went there. He wasn’t expecting me. Dumped the food, drove back.’ (Serwa: hhM, Ewe, 50) The distance that some were prepared to travel to deliver food underlines the significance of, and the value placed on, the act of giving of food. ‘I even went to see the man on that Monday because the wife is gone home [i.e. to Ghana], and I said ‘oh a man and two boys, making their own food, let me cook some food for him’. So I cook, put them in the basket and everything and set off all the way to Sydenham Dulwich.’ (Caroline: hhJ, Ashanti/Fanti, 44)

44Yet, not all women in the study were engaged in food exchange. It appeared to be dependent on the stage in the domestic life cycle, working women with young children having less time and opportunity to engage in it (cf. Theophano and Curtis, 1991). Serwa (hhM), a widowed nurse, had more time at hand as her daughter was grown up and looked after herself, although they still lived together:

‘I love to cook for people to come and eat more than to cook for myself. [laughs] (…) That’s why I don’t do okro soup a lot. Because I don’t enjoy it by myself. I like somebody to enjoy it with (…) sometimes I cook okro soup and then I take some to Elisabeth [hhQ]. I phone her from work, I say ‘Will you pass through?’ ‘Oh what have you got for me then?’ She comes and takes okro soup and then I phone somebody else, people I know that like it.’ (Serwa: hhM, Ewe, 50)

45Friends gave Serwa the opportunity to share the pleasure of cooking and meals. Apart from maintaining social networks, the special dishes she prepared also reinforced their Ghanaian and tribal identities. Serwa, who often cooked for friends or relatives, received food from others as well, underlining the reciprocal nature of food transfers and importance of meal sharing, even though these meals were not necessarily enjoyed in the company of others.

Commensality in the community

  • 7 This is the formal presentation of a new-born child to the gods, society at large and dead ancestor (...)

46Characteristically Ghanaians have strong family and community links, and these are maintained in the diaspora as well. The maintenance of strong ties with kin, friends and acquaintances through various alumni, tribal and religious networks and gatherings helps with settling in London and making it their home (Vasta and Kandilige, 2007). Furthermore, Ghanaians who can afford it celebrate ‘outdooring’ of babies7, christenings, weddings, birthdays, and funerals on a large scale at local halls or community centres, invitations going out far beyond their own (extended) family. Funerals form an important part of life among the Akans, and it is usual to attend funerals or memorial services even if one has not known the dead person.

47The cohesive and diasporic nature of the Ghanaian community in the metropolis was apparent at the large functions I attended. They were occasions to display traditional clothing and jewellery as well as special hair styles. I was usually the only white person among hundreds of Ghanaians. The importance of tribes or ethnic groups was noticeable, as usually functions were arranged and attended primarily by members of the same ethnic group.

48Food and drinks were served in abundance at most functions. Similarly to Pakistani migrants in Norway (Ruud, 1998), Ghanaians were prepared to spend a lot of money on festive meals and social arrangements. I was told that the aim for many was to give an impression of high social status and successful migration or settlement, even if they weren’t very well off. Food was usually comparable irrespective of occasion, the organiser, or the tribal background of the group, unless it was an Ashanti funeral, when only drinks were served, or a formal dinner dance. Many of the dishes were similar to those eaten within Ghanaian homes in London, yet excluded the most cumbersome and heavy ones.

49Unless a professional Ghanaian catering service had been given the task, it was quite common for women to share the cooking for these occasions. This was another form of food exchange and reciprocity that took place in the Ghanaian community. People had to find time at weekends to cook for the occasion. Pauline (hhH), Caroline (hhJ) and Carol (hhO) indicated that they were asked to prepare food quite regularly, but then Gladys (hhN) had only prepared something once. ‘One thing with the Ghanaian community is ah when you have something [a gathering], everyone will cook something for you, you know. Everyone will be prepared to cook something for you so the burden isn’t just you’ (Evelyn: hhI, Fanti, 46)

50Consequently, functions provided an opportunity not only to socialise and display collective identity, yet also to share food or meals prepared by Ghanaian women. ‘I think a lot Ghanaian life is centred around food. Culturally, food seems to be something that unites us. So we sort of associate happiness, contentment, or helping each other by making meals, and … it’s a great relaxation thing. Even when somebody’s parent or relative dies in Ghana, we meet, we have a social gathering, and then we eat.’ (Serwa: hhM, Ewe, 50)

51Attendance at functions seemed to form a frequent source of entertainment and food for many Ghanaians in the study. The busy lifestyle in London meant that people could not attend social gatherings until they had seen to their own household chores, including shopping and cooking for the week ahead, or been to work, because many Ghanaians had weekend shifts too. Functions therefore started quite late in the evenings and continued well past midnight, some until the early hours of the morning. ‘Yeah Saturday is normally with the Ghanaian society, normally Saturdays there is something going [on]. Either you go to a memorial service or something. (…) So especially summer time most Saturdays you know, I’m not home.’ (Evelyn: hhI, Fanti, 46)

52Seating arrangements depended on the type of function, sometimes being rows of chairs without tables and at other times grouped around smaller tables or along long rows of tables, men, women and children mingling on these occasions. I was told that some Ghanaians went to functions to escape the loneliness they felt at home, ending up eating a great deal, and sometimes feeling even lonelier, if they didn’t know anyone there or were sat next to strangers.

53It appears that people attended functions regularly partly to strengthen their social networks but also out of the need to share food with others, in particular other adults, as they were unable to do so within the home due to various constraints, such as space, time and distance from friends. Social isolation compelled people to seek companionship in larger circles. Although some Ghanaians had close and more distant relatives living in London, many relied on friends and less close acquaintances for commensality. They took the place of (extended) family members in Ghana. Through eating with them they satisfied ‘a need for interaction by a union with others, where conviviality establishes and reinforces social ties.’ (Sobal and Nelson, 2003: 181)

Discussion and conclusion

54Migration to London and the associated busy and demanding lifestyles are not the only reason why members of Ghanaians families eat without company or in a serial fashion. In many instances, spouses or family members eat separately out of tradition. Indeed, the notion of the ‘family meal’ in the literature appears to be ethnocentrically Western: the Ghanaian ‘family meal’ is possible without company, or commensality, and in line with kinship and household structures and marital relationships in Ghana. Company is not seen to be essential for the enjoyment of a proper meal within the home, and eating alone does not make the meal less ‘real’. This is contrary to the perception in many other cultures, where ‘solo eating is generally seen as abnormal, undesired, and even unhealthy’ (Sobal, 2000: 120) or associated with eating snacks or other minor meals. The phenomenon among Ghanaians is in fact comparable to the situation in other traditional cultures, and prevalent in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa (Renzaho and Burns; 2006, Fischler, 2011).

55The situation in Ghana and among Ghanaian families in London is also seemingly similar to that in the West in the past. Diner (2001) describes how in poor households in Italy in the past men generally ate first and women later after serving the men (cf. Murcott, 1997). The circumstances in Ghana as well as in the diaspora reflect Murcott’s (1982: 693) notion that ‘simultaneity is not the only way in which a meal may be shared.’ Murcott’s concept of the ‘plateful’ is valid particularly in cases where family members share the same food, even if they eat it at different times or in different locations. The familiarity of the dinner provides those who partake in it ‘reassurance, commonality and communality.’ (Murcott, 1982: 693) However, if all family members eat different food and enjoy it separately, then the only common denominator is the person who prepares and serves the food. In the diaspora, Ghanaian women ensure that family members eat a hot meal, not a snack, which in effect is not regarded as food. They have developed strategies which enable them to satisfy the diverse preferences and tastes of their partners and offspring. The most noteworthy is cooking several dishes in bulk at weekends and freezing part of them for the week ahead (cf. Brannen et al., 2013). Consequently, family members are united by the consumption of food prepared by the mother, confirming that the act of cooking is more significant than joint meals between couples and close family members. Ultimately, cooked food, or Ghanaian dishes, are more important in the production of ethnic identities than commensality for Ghanaians in the diaspora (cf. Walker, 2012), which is also evident in the act of reciprocal food transfers.

56Therefore, although some Ghanaian children in London eat typically Ghanaian food, or alternate between Ghanaian and ‘English’ dishes, they frequently eat without any direct parental attendance. In Ghana this is an unlikely situation, as usually there is someone – even if not the parents – to keep them company and to supervise the meal. Considering the importance commensality to the transmission of ethnic identity and to the development of healthy dietary habits, these British Ghanaians may lose a significant part of their Ghanaian identity sooner than desired, and simultaneously unwittingly jeopardise their health.

57Ghanaian migrant women’s sense of loyalty extends in many instances far beyond the immediate household, which is an outcome of their upbringing and migration history. Through cooking and offering of the ‘plateful’, or potful, to friends who take on the role of kin in the diaspora, women are able to widen their immediate ‘commensal circle’ and ‘do family’, even when eating happens in a different space and time. The ‘appropriate’ eating partners (Sobal and Nelson, 2003) are in many cases not close kin, but other diasporic Ghanaians. Furthermore, as Ghanaians are not able to share the food they love with their nearest and dearest, many go further afield to seek the pleasure of a joint meal. Large social functions provide Ghanaians a significant arena for commensality, and they require further investigation in order to capture the full complexities of commensal relationships in the community.

58To conclude, Ghanaians vary from many other ethnic groups whose culture and/or religion emphasise the custom of sharing meals with other members of the ‘nuclear’ and potentially other extended family (Sobal and Nelson, 2003). Family meals can essentially exist only in cultures which have a model of nuclear (or extended) family living together in the same place. Furthermore, depending on the cultural context, caring can be expressed in diverse ways in the family and food can mediate this in different ways. Eating together may not be the only way in which families are united around food. While the aspirations regarding food and commensality of Ghanaians in London seem to be oriented by the organisation of family, or married, life in Ghana, this may also be because their ways of life in the metropolis, especially their working lives, confirm this organisation as the most suited.

59As researchers we should take greater notice of the complexity of eating patterns and arrangements and family structures in modern day multicultural societies. The inclusion of time and space (e.g. comparison between the place of origin and destination) in the analysis will result in an even greater understanding of the role and significance of commensality and family meals in the community and for the identity and wellbeing of the people we are interested in.

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1 Khan’s (2014) study on commensality focuses on the role of the picnic trip (chakar) for Afghan males living between UK and Pakistan, not family meals. Crenn (2010) doesn’t discuss commensality at all, although reveals some aspects of it in the context of return migrants.

2 The households varied in size, ethnic (tribal) and educational background, length of stay in the UK and geographical location in London. I involved 47 people (18 women, 6 men, 23 children/young people) as part of the intensive household research, which included in-depth and more casual interviews, participant observation, cooking and sharing meals. Interviews usually lasted 1-3 hours, and I interviewed 11 people, mainly female heads, more than once (2-4 times). I obtained information about food habits and Ghanaian (food) culture from a further 24 informants (15 women, 9 men), but their families were not part of the more intensive household research. I wrote up my extensive field notes and tape-recorded a total of 64 interviews, most of which were fully transcribed for analysis in NVivo.

3 Main informants had arrived in the UK between 1965 and 1993.

4 The two further households were a divorced man living on his own, and two young sisters sharing a flat.

5 All names of Ghanaian informants are pseudonyms. The information within the brackets refers to the household, ethnic background of first generation migrants, and age.

6 The practice of sending children back to Ghana to be looked after by relatives before school begin in the UK is a pragmatic solution to childcare and financial constraints, but was also explained as an opportunity to expose the child to the extended family and Ghanaian culture.

7 This is the formal presentation of a new-born child to the gods, society at large and dead ancestors.

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Electronic reference

Helena Tuomainen, « Eating alone or together? Commensality among Ghanaians in London », Anthropology of food [Online], S10 | 2014, Online since 13 January 2015, connection on 28 April 2017. URL :

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About the author

Helena Tuomainen

University of Warwick, Division of Mental Health and Wellbeing, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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