“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 people mentioned White Maggi it was with a disapproving click of the tongue and a shaking head. It came up often enough in conversations that I had to learn more. What was White Maggi? Why did it have so many negative associations?
Maggi brand seasonings are ubiquitous in Ghana. The most common are bouillon cubes, usually in chicken, shrimp, or goat flavors, which market vendors stack into pyramids on the counter of their kiosks next to matchboxes, razor blades, and jars of cocoa butter. People use Maggi seasonings and their imitations in a range of recipes. I did not expect a seasoning, particularly a “white” variety that I had never seen, to index such ambivalence about health, uncontrolled consumption, and, I later learned, nefarious intentions toward others.
A few weeks after I asked Cynthia, White Maggi came up during an interview. While driving back to Sirigu, I asked Matthew, my assistant, to tell me more about it.
“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.”
I was intrigued, but also more confused. The range of associations that people linked to it was baffling: whiteness, laundry, sweetness, insatiable cravings, overconsumption, and various health problems.
The references to White Maggi’s sweetness initially added to my confusion. Was it a sweetener? Locally, the flavor of sweetness indicates something is flavorful, delicious, or savory, perhaps even umami, rather than its literal meaning. I learned this distinction the hard way at lunch when a cook once asked if my fish was sweet and I told her it was certainly not.
White Maggie came up during community health workshops. During one maternal health 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 inside of food. It’s sweet and causes other sicknesses in the body. The White Maggi can extract the blood or water from the child, and it may become deformed or have other problems.”
It was unlikely that Julius Maggi knew that his brand of convenient food products, consisting of 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 backing of a prominent physician and the prodding of 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, came in addition to their existing domestic responsibilities. There was little time to prepare meals. Packaged, low-cost convenience foods were a solution. At the time, Maggi’s soups were tied to women’s emancipation. No longer were women required to spend hours in the kitchen.[i] Nestlé acquired the Maggi brand in 1947 and they grew it into a globally recognized product.
When White Maggi appeared again in an interview unprompted, I took advantage of the opportunity to probe. Ayanobasiya, Matthew, and I were sitting beneath some shade trees and talking about food, particularly the changes in the types of foods she had seen 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 also commented on how the arrival of foreign foods, such as spaghetti noodles and canned goods, not only had health implications, but also disrupted ancestral sacrifices and drove away the forest spirits in utter disgust. People reciprocate to the ancestors and spirits with food sacrifices. The disappearance of spirits, partially attributed to changing foodways, cut people off from important sources of knowledge. Spirits used to teach people new practices and offer their powers. Today people tend to look to NGOs and outsiders.
“Ayanobasiya, that White Maggi you mentioned, is it just those bouillon cubes?”
Matthew, tiring of my persistence, cut in. “I think that when we get to the market later we’ll have to find them.”
“No,” replied Ayanobasiya. “You won’t be able to get them. They only sell them secretly. Those who go to buy them, they know where. They know the signs, so when they go to the market they will see those signs and get it.”
It sounds a bit occult, I thought. “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. Or at least not a specific product labeled as it. And I never saw it used in a sauce, although I likely tasted it. Most market vendors pointed to another seller or told me they didn’t carry it. My curiosity remained. Why did so many people bring it up without prompting? What did it mean? Even if White Maggi was a rumor, people seemed to link it to a set of truths or debates that were indeed “real.”
Poor and exploited populations, people subject to the effects of local and global inequalities, and communities where the means of production and the pathways to wealth are distant, obscured, or mystified, often use rumors, extraordinary accounts, or even occult practices in an attempt to comprehend their circumstances.
Rumors about contaminated or adulterated food are shared across societies. Stories about food impurities, such as fecal additives or vermin parts,[ii] and the use of unfamiliar ingredients are common. Consider the jokes surrounding hotdog production in North America and the debates about what kind of animal remains are really in chicken nuggets. Humor helps identify and manage the unknown and express concerns over the ambiguous.
Rumors surrounding food, colonialism, and whiteness have a history of circulation throughout Africa. For example, in 1952 an anti-Central African Federation pamphlet circulated in Northern Rhodesia reporting that the “House of Laws” in London had decided to put poisoned sugar on sale for Africans. The poisoned sugar would cause stillbirths in women and make men impotent. Such concerns express anxieties around colonial power, reproduction, and political processes.[iii]
In parts of West Africa, worries that plastic rice, often described as imported from China, a major presence and supplier of cheap goods in the region, have been circulating since 2010. People are posting videos of supposed bouncing rice balls on social media. In an effort to quell rumors, government inspectors widely checked rice shipments and assured people that they did not find plastic.[iv]
There are also a few reports about Maggi. In 1991, in Northern Nigeria, Usman reported that Maggi cubes contained the blood of cult members.[v] If you consumed them, you would instantly become a member. In a separate region, accounts held that Maggi cubes contained fingertips, likely because people were unable to identify the ingredients.[vi] In a family planning study, the Maggi cubes that Elisha Renne and her research assistant gave out as interview gifts were said to be contaminated with contraceptives. People in Northern Nigeria are historically suspicious and question researchers’ motives, particularly concerning medical interventions, vaccinations, and family planning, which are said to be measures to eliminate the Muslim community.[vii]
Food is a magnet for symbolic associations. It has obvious significance for survival, but it also attracts meanings around nurturance, pleasure, memory, relationships, reciprocity, and a multitude of themes related to transiting bodily boundaries. Some cultures so closely link sex and eating that to eat a meal specially prepared by someone other than one’s wife is tantamount to adultery. Food is a convenient tool to express concerns about contamination, dependency, social practices, and power imbalances. Food 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, in an effort to fill those gaps, draw from familiar attributes, assumptions, and associations related to that food. People start from what is available. Then the cultural and moral imagination fills in the cracks.
It eventually became clear that White Maggi was monosodium glutamate (MSG). I never found pure MSG cubes under the Maggi label, but people use “Maggi” to describe an array of seasonings and similar substances. The white MSG powder sold as Ajinomoto is often referred to as “White Maggi.”
An online forum frequented by Nigerian users contained questions about White Maggi. “How 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 white maggi?”
“Very harsh,” someone replied.
“It is what I call toxicated,” remarked another. He then described in detail 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.”
MSG has long been subject to rumors. In North America, reports of “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” wherein people claim sensitivity to MSG associated with Chinese food, have circulated since the late 1960s. The condition, consisting of unspecific headaches, weakness, and limb numbness, however, has been scientifically disproven.[viii] Other than its high sodium content, MSG is safe for human consumption.
High sodium diets are on Ghanaians minds. People throughout West Africa are experiencing rapid increases in non-communicable diseases and they are becoming aware of sodium due to public health campaigns. However, public health messages do not automatically replace existing knowledge. In this case, it seems that people’s prevailing understandings and experiences of White Maggi easily assimilate the sodium warnings.
Excessive craving and uncontrolled or “unnatural” consumption are culturally problematic and potentially indicative of spiritual or social disruption, hidden substances, or vulnerability. References to consumption in stories and everyday talk are an effective way of talking about transformations and social relationships.[ix] The insatiable cravings attributed to White Maggi are unnatural, suspicious, and thus associated with the secretive domains of sorcery and witchcraft. Social discord, envy, and interpersonal antagonism underpin these occult worlds. Part of White Maggi’s ambiguous status centers around concealment; no one knows exactly what it consists of and someone can place it in your food without your knowledge.
What about the use of White Maggi in the whiteman’s laundry? I searched for “MSG and laundry.” By chance, I happened to find a Nigerian scientist reporting the effects of MSG on the kidneys of rats. He 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 2007, 15).
White Maggi’s ambiguous origins and use as both a food additive and 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 also has the unnatural power to induce cravings; previously, only things associated with the supernatural had such influence. Could a rival hide it in my food? 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.
The White Maggi discourse is not simply a product of people’s imagination, a misplaced idea, or an “irrational” belief. Attending to what appears to be a random rumor or a minor conversational theme can, once probed, demonstrate a salient network of culturally and materially shaped concerns and meanings that contrast what is important and demonstrate what is at stake in people’s lives. In other words, common material items can be more socially complex than they seem. To understand the ambiguous or the new, people assemble a bricolage of rumors, associations, local theories, and official messages of how, in this case, a substance transforms one’s body or behavior and why. White Maggi points to more about the Nankani people’s lived experience than I initially thought. One should be suspicious of something that is too “sweet,” for it likely harbors malicious intent. Moreover, rumors, even the most fantastic, are often closer to reality than they seem.
[i] William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi (2012). The History of Soy Sauce, pp 2323.
[ii] See Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906)
[iii] Luise White (2000). Speaking with Vampires, pp 84.
[iv] BBC article: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40484135
[v] Usman 1995 in Elisha Renne (1996). Perceptions of Population Policy, Development, and Family Planning. Studies in Family Planning 27(3):127-136.
[vi] Renne 1996, 134
[vii] see Renne 1996, 129 and Elisha Renne (2010). The Politics of Polio in Northern Nigeria.
[viii] Tarasoff L.; Kelly M.F. (1993). “Monosodium L-glutamate: a double-blind study and review”. Food Chem. Toxicol. 31 (12): 1019–1035.
[ix] Paul Stoller (1997). Sensuous Scholarship, pp 6-7.