‘The food we eat here weakens us’: food practices and health beliefs among Congolese forced migrants in South Africa – a case study of Yeoville in Johannesburg
This study explores the cultural context and relationship between food, health, and illness amongst Congolese forced migrants in Johannesburg, South Africa. It specifically seeks to understand Congolese migrants’ perceptions of South African foods and the importance of Congolese foods in treating and preventing illnesses. Since the beginning of the political crisis in the D.R. Congo (DRC), more than eight million people were killed and thousands forced to leave their country to seek safety in foreign countries, including South Africa. Congolese who migrated to other countries experienced various ruptures which included not only the loss or separation with their relatives but also the change related to their eating patterns. The absence of traditional dishes and the consumption of food of the host country are believed to have a negative effect on their health. The significance of this study is to explore indigenous knowledge regarding food, herbal drugs and the health and wellbeing of refugees, and by so doing to promote a better understanding of their health beliefs and healing strategies. It specifically emphasises the perceptions or meanings that Congolese refugees living in South Africa have about food from the DRC and food eaten in the host country. Since food is part of identity construction, it is argued that land and the mode of production contribute to the quality of food consumed in the foreign land, which is believed by the refugees to be harmful to their bodies in South Africa. The study employs Kleinman’s model on the three sectors of health care systems to analyse and understand the impact of foreign food on Congolese refugees’ health in South Africa. Thematic analysis was employed to analyse and interpret data collected. Drawing on case study material based on semistructured interviews and focus group discussions with ten Congolese refugees living in Yeoville, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, findings reveal how Congolese refugees link their health problems to food consumed in their receiving country, believing that change in diet has led to them being weakened physically and in losing ‘supernatural power’ to defend themselves. More importantly, findings reveal that participants rely on their traditional food from the DRC, which they believed to be organically healthy, as a remedy to treat and prevent physical diseases. While the results of this study cannot be generalised to the entire Congolese people, they stress the importance of foodstuffs in the knowledge system of people, particularly in refugees’ communities.
Keywords: food security, food practices, health beliefs, forced migrants, DRC, South Africa