Memory and the Social Meanings of Famine

Black and white drawing of people waiting in a long line in front of building with a sign "food", their shadows cast grave stones.
Hunger (Artist: Camdelafu).

The social meaning of famine is to be found in memory.

A just-published special issue of Third World Quarterly on famine and memory, includes contributions on Bengal (India), Biafra (Nigeria), Brazil, Cabo Verde, China, Iran, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Timor Leste. These are historians’ writings, bringing famines into memory studies, reflecting on how subaltern memories persist despite official denial or disinterest, and exploring what those mean for contemporary societies.

Scholarship of this kind is in itself an act of remembrance and thus the beginning of justice. It is extending recognition and dignity to the victims and survivors, acknowledging the wrong of famine for what it is.

In my concluding reflection on the case studies, I turn this on its head, asking what memory brings to the theory of famine.

During my fieldwork in Darfur during and after the famine of 1984-85, even in the depths of hunger and distress, the people with whom I spoke wanted to tell me about how the then-current famine compared with what they understood about earlier famines. Nothing comparable had happened for forty years. This means that the local understanding of famine is constituted from social memory. This is hugely significant: in Darfur, grandmothers’ remembered practical knowledge about wild foods—where they could be found, how they could be prepared—was essential to survival.

This is not an isolated insight. Everywhere we turn, the lore around past famines, the social meanings ascribed to hunger, deprivation and the strategies needed for survival, are the raw material for understanding what they mean today, and how people will respond when extreme hunger strikes.

Famine theory has languished for years. Metrics for malnutrition and food insecurity have displaced social nutritionists’ approaches,  while vernacular understandings of famine are a fringe topic pursued by anthropologically-sensitive aid workers. This is a vast and needless gap in the academy and among practitioners, which leaves the people who suffer famine disempowered and aid workers handicapped.

Memory studies can revitalize the social science of famine and in turn breathe new life into the stale policy prescriptions that drive famine response.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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