“Cynthia,” I called across the courtyard. “Tell me about the White Maggi.” Cynthia was a cook and an expert at helping me figure out the obvious—although she never missed a chance to tease me for asking silly questions.
She laughed and shook her head, “Oh, Mr. Aaron, you don’t want it. It’s bad! It will make you sick.”
“But, what is it?”
“Some people put it in their food. When they start eating it, they can’t stop,” she said over her shoulder while walking into the kitchen.
In Northern Ghana, whenever anyone mentioned White Maggi it was with a disapproving click of the tongue. It arose so often in conversations that I had to learn more. What was White Maggi? Why were there so many negative associations?
Maggi brand seasonings are ubiquitous in Ghana. The most common are bouillon cubes, available in chicken, shrimp, beef, and other flavors, which market vendors stack into golden pyramids on their kiosk counters next to matchboxes, razor blades, and jars of cocoa butter. People use Maggi and its imitations in a range of recipes. I expected no seasoning, particularly a “white” variety I had never seen, to index such ambivalence about health, overconsumption, and, I later learned, nefarious intentions toward others.
A few weeks after I asked Cynthia, a woman spoke of White Maggi in an interview. While traveling back to Sirigu, the Nankani village at the center of my ethnographic research, I urged Matthew, my friend and assistant, to tell me more.
“What does it taste like?”
“It is very sweet,” Matthew responded. “You know, it will cause sickness in your body. Some of us are Maggi children. We don’t grow properly. When we were children, we used to say that when the Whiteman came, he would wash his clothes in it.”
“It was used for laundry?”
I was now more intrigued and baffled. People’s references to White Maggi’s sweetness added to my confusion. Was it a sweetener? Locally, sweetness indicates something is flavorful, perhaps even umami, rather than its literal meaning. I learned this distinction the hard way when a cook once asked if my fish was sweet and I told her it was surely not.
White Maggi came up during public health workshops. During one meeting, the nurse asked the group to describe the substances dangerous to pregnant women. “In the old days it was different,” a middle-aged mother said. “But these days the foods and drinks the women eat can cause the child to be malformed. Sometimes the White Maggi is put in food. It’s sweet and causes other sicknesses in the body. White Maggi can extract the blood or water from the child, and it may become deformed or have other problems.”
The Nankani people attached a range of associations to White Maggi: whiteness, health problems, sweetness, insatiable cravings, ritual medicines (sorcery), witchcraft-like practices, and as a startlingly effective cleaning agent. Later, I learned that other cultures shared their suspicions and ambivalence.
Julius Maggi did not know his brand of convenience foods, comprising ready-made soups, bouillons, and instant noodles would become a global phenomenon or a thought-provoking cultural motif. Maggi’s products came into being in 1886 with the support of a prominent physician and urging from the Swiss Government. Nutritional deficiencies were emerging among working-class families. Industrial expansion and the need for labor were resulting in greater numbers of women working outside the home. This work, however, accompanied their existing domestic obligations—there was little time to prepare meals. Packaged, low-cost foods were a solution. Because women no longer needed to spend hours in the kitchen, people linked Maggi’s soups to women’s emancipation (Shurtleff and Aoyagi 2012:2323). Nestlé acquired Maggi in 1947 and grew it into a globally recognized brand.
When White Maggi appeared again in an interview unprompted, I probed. Matthew and I were visiting Ayanobasiya, a Nankani grandmother. We sat beneath shade trees and talked about food and the cuisine changes she experienced throughout her life.
“In our days,” she said, “the ingredients we used to prepare our foods would always give us the proper nutrients. But today we now go to buy things at the market. The Maggi, the white one, these days, people always buy those things to prepare food. Now when we eat those, we realize we get other diseases. In my days, we would find the dawa-dawa and prepare it with food. When we eat, it is okay for us.”
Other elders reflected on how the arrival of foreign foods, such as packaged noodles and canned goods, resulted in not only negative health consequences but also disrupted ancestral offerings and drove away the forest spirits in disgust. People reciprocate to the ancestors and spirits with traditional food sacrifices and libations. Losing bush spirits, attributed in part to forest destruction and changing foodways, sever people from important sources of local knowledge. People credit spirits for teaching them farming techniques, introducing new foods, and conferring supernatural powers.
“Ayanobasiya, that White Maggi you mentioned, is it just those bouillon cubes?”
Matthew, tiring of my persistence, cut in. “I think when we get to the market later we’ll have to find them.”
“No,” said Ayanobasiya. “You won’t be able to get them. They only sell them secretly. Those who go to buy them, they know where to go. They know the signs, so when they go to the market, they will see those signs and get it.”
There was an occult association. “So, it’s bad for people, but they eat it anyway and it tastes good?”
Matthew replied, “When you put it inside of food, it tastes very nice, very sweet. It makes you want to eat more. But, it’s ruining us, it’s causing…”
“You mean it’s making you sick?” I interrupted.
“You’ll easily fall sick,” said Matthew.
Ayanobasiya added, “It can make you lose your eyesight. I have eye problems. Sometimes I can’t see well. When I close one eye like this, I can’t even see you.”
“Mmm,” I replied. “Where do they make it? Is it made in Ghana, or brought from Nigeria or some place?”
“That thing, I don’t know where it’s from,” said Matthew.
I never found White Maggi in the market, nor a product labeled as it. And I never saw White Maggi used in a sauce, although I am sure I tasted it. When I asked, most vendors pointed to another seller or told me they didn’t carry it. People wondered why I wanted it. The search felt illicit. My curiosity grew. Why did so many people mention it? What did it mean? Even if White Maggi was just a rumor, people linked it to truths, experiences, and debates that were indeed “real.”
Poor and exploited populations, those subject to the effects of local and global inequalities, and communities where the means of production and the pathways to wealth are distant, mystified, or denied often use rumors, fantastic narratives, or even occult practices to comprehend their circumstances, master complex and rapidly changing processes, and access material resources.
Stories of impure and adulterated food, such as the addition of fecal additives, vermin parts, and unfamiliar ingredients, are common across societies (see Sinclair 1906). Consider the jokes surrounding hotdog production in North America and the debates on what animal remains are in chicken nuggets. Conspiracy theories and humor help people identify and manage the unknown, foreign, and ambiguous.
Rumors connecting food, colonialism, and whiteness have long circulated throughout Africa. For example, in 1952 an anti-Central African Federation pamphlet distributed in Northern Rhodesia reported that the “House of Laws” in London had put poisoned sugar on sale for Africans. The Federation claimed the sugar caused stillbirths and made men impotent. Such concerns express anxieties around colonial power, reproduction, and political processes (White 2000:84).
There are similar rumors about Maggi. In Northern Nigeria, Usman reported that people believed Maggi cubes contained the blood of cult members. If you consumed them, you would become a follower. In a separate region, accounts held that Maggi cubes contained fingertips, likely because people could not identify the ingredients (Renne 1996). In a family planning study, participants said the Maggi cubes that Renne and her research assistant gave as interview gifts were contaminated with contraceptives. People in Northern Nigeria often question researchers’ motives, particularly around medical interventions, vaccinations, and family planning, which could be measures to eliminate the Muslim community (Renne 1996:134).
Badkhen describes a similar aversion to Maggi cubes among the Fulani people. One of her friends, Oumarou, said he would eat nothing cooked with Maggi seasoning, “because Maggi seasoning made men blind and impotent.”
With that Oumarou agreed. ‘That’s true. You take two or three of those Maggi cubes, dissolve them in a little water, give them to a bull and the bull will become sterile. I’ve never done it to any of my bulls but I’ve heard people tell it so’ (Badkhen 2015:209)
Food is a magnet for symbolic associations. It has obvious significance for survival, but food also attracts meanings around nurturance, pleasure, memory, relationships, reciprocity, and themes related to transiting body boundaries. Some cultures so closely link sex and eating that to consume a meal prepared by someone other than one’s wife is equal to adultery. Food is a convenient tool to explore purity, dependency, and power imbalances. It is a medium for resistance and a mechanism to express misgivings about foreign others and bodies. When the identity, source, and meanings of food or other products are ambiguous or unknown, people, to fill those voids, draw from familiar attributes, assumptions, and associations related to that food. We start with what is accessible. Then the cultural and moral imaginations fill in the cracks.
Taking another perspective, food rumors and anxieties can be “idioms of distress”—culturally resonant means of experiencing and communicating disturbance and suffering (Nichter 2010). From this vantage, people’s manifest concern appears to be about Maggi itself, but Maggi also works as a charged idiom that ultimately conveys, for example, worries around fertility and reproduction, losing traditions and foodways, maintaining ethnic boundaries, and other issues.
It soon became clear that White Maggi was monosodium glutamate (MSG). I never found pure MSG cubes under the Maggi label (other Maggi cubes contain some MSG), but people use “Maggi” to describe an array of seasonings and similar products. People often call the white MSG powder sold as Ajinomoto, made by a Japanese food company of the same name, “White Maggi.”
The Nairaland Forum, an online community frequented by Nigerians, contained questions about White Maggi. “How Hash/Bad is White Maggi on Humans Body?” a user posted. “I grew to know that white Maggie are hazardous on humans health but some local food joints … can’t do without it. But as for my family we hate it. Not only my family, most Nigerian families don’t use it. Plz how bad is this white maggi?”
“Very hash,” someone replied. “U go shyt immediately u finish eatn any food prepared wit it.”
“It is what I call toxicated,” remarked another. He then described how it affected his gastrointestinal tract and noted that, “Moreover the monosodium glutamate content in the so called ‘white maggi,’ is quite high and so excessive consumption of it causes high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.” (https://www.nairaland.com/2160486/how-hash-bad-white-maggi accessed on August 9th, 2019).
MSG has long been a subject for concern. In North America, accounts of “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” wherein people claim sensitivity to MSG associated with Chinese food, have circulated since the 1960s. The condition, comprising headaches, weakness, and limb numbness was disproven (Tarasoff and Kelly 1993). Yet worries and rumors persist.
High salt diets are on Ghanaians minds. People throughout West Africa are experiencing rapid increases in non-communicable diseases and they are learning about sodium because of public health campaigns. But global health messages do not replace existing knowledge. Here, people’s understandings and experiences of Maggi products assimilate the sodium warnings into local ways of knowing.
For many cultures across West Africa, excessive craving and extraordinary consumptive patterns point to trouble. In the market of Sirigu, people warned a pregnant woman who frequented a pork kabob seller daily that if she continued to eat copious quantities of pork her child would look and act like a pig. People in Sirigu rarely eat pork because, they say, pigs live in filth and eat human excrement. Her unchecked consumption became subject to surveillance and public discussion. Despite the stigma and warnings, the expected mother (who was unmarried) said she could not control her appetite. People wondered what forces were behind her behavior.
The “sweetness” and insatiable cravings attributed to food or substances like White Maggi direct people to draw on occult understandings and cultural models for witchcraft to explain their urges. Common witchcraft themes involve consuming substances or parts of others to gain power. These motifs ultimately point to issues around greed, envy, wealth, vulnerability, and inequality. Witches in West Africa might slip bits of human flesh or other substances into their victim’s food, driving the victim to unnatural cravings and compelling them to consume their family members (Graeber 2004:28). Part of White Maggi’s ambiguous status centers on similar concealment themes. No one knows what’s in Maggi products, and anyone can place it in your food without your knowledge.
From a Western perspective, this might appear paranoid. But in Ghana, people associate heightened forms of intimacy with food, and these concerns are normal. Individuals attend to food and its movement as an indicator of relationships. Eating is a shared, social activity. Only witches eat alone. Accusations of food tampering and hidden substances strike at the heart of interpersonal insecurities and even perceptions of inequality and instability at a global level. References to consumption in stories and everyday talk are an effective way of talking about social disruptions, transformation, and relationships (Stoller 1997).
What about White Maggi in the Whiteman’s laundry? I found a novel naming White Maggi’s use as a bathroom cleaning product (Ugbabe 2011:156), and I discovered two Nigerian scientists reporting the effects of MSG on rat kidneys. They offered the following aside:
In Nigeria, most communities and individuals often use monosodium glutamate as a bleaching agent for the removal of stains from clothes. There is a growing apprehension that its excellent bleaching properties could be harmful or injurious to the tissues and organs of the body (Eweka and Adjene 2007:15).
White Maggi’s use as a food additive and as a non-food bleaching agent generates dissonance. If White Maggi has the power to remove stains, what could it do to one’s insides if eaten? Could it turn you white from the inside out? White Maggi’s unnatural power to induce cravings, which people identify with the supernatural, means rivals can hide it in food to exert control over others. Since Maggi causes excessive thirst, is it taking water from my unborn infant? Could I have a “Maggi child?” Such questions pull us into Maggi’s web of associations and meanings.
White Maggi is not a product of people’s imaginations, misplaced ideas, or irrational beliefs. Attending to rumors or minor conversational themes can reveal a salient network of cultural and materially shaped concerns and meanings that show what is at stake in people’s lives. Everyday objects and commodities often gain complex meanings and associations that their creators never intended. To explain the ambiguous, powerful, or the new, people assemble a bricolage comprising hearsay, local associations and theories, and official public messages for how and why, in this case, a substance transforms one’s body or behavior. Maggi products, particularly the “white” variety, showed me more about the Nankani people’s lived experience than I first imagined. One should be wary of something too “sweet,” for it might harbor malevolence or is too good to be genuine. And rumors, even the most fantastic, are often closer to reality than they appear.
Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and my other essays here
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