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 Food for thought – Feeding the soul of SOAS

By Emily Dickinson-Holdcroft, BA Social Anthropology

Nana Oforiwaa is a familiar face amongst SOAS students, some of whom excitedly interrupt our discussion in the SU to find out why she hasn’t been selling her delicious food on campus recently. In the hour or so we sit talking, I can’t count how many people she’s waved to, embraced or caught up with – and it’s not just her magic with flavours that causes this warm reaction to her presence, her magic with people certainly has a lot to say for it too. Since she started her stall at SOAS seven years ago now, Nana Oforiwaa has fed thousands of students hearty Afrikan meals as well as a multitude of international cuisines from Iranian, Malaysian, and British to Eastern European. Every week she takes three days to prepare the array of dishes – vegan-orientated and packed with fresh, organic produce – yet this is not even a personal business venture. 

Nana Oforiwaa’s food funds go towards the vital cause of healthcare for African women suffering from lupus, fibroids and fibromyalgia. Given the deeply embedded racism in the British healthcare system, these conditions that most commonly affect black women often don’t receive the research, funding or treatment options that are so needed. As a result, many women have to seek private healthcare or therapeutic treatment options which are far more costly. Nana Oforiwaa’s fundraising is able to help facilitate some of these options, even helping some SOAS students who struggle with the conditions – all whilst dealing with chronic pain from fibromyalgia herself. 

Her selfless commitment to aiding others around her and within her community is evident in the number of prestigious awards of recognition she has received throughout her lifetime. Even within the walls of SOAS, she gifts the cleaners free food, has donated to campaigns like J4W and the Palestinian society, as well as ensuring that students struggling in the dire economy of London can eat something delicious and homemade. The collective community environment she helps to foster is seen in Nana Oforiwaa’s words, ‘sometimes I’ll say a plate is only £3 if you buy a book from Rani’ referencing another one of SOAS’s favourite familiar faces. To many she is an agony aunt (aptly trained in the area of mental health support),offering comfort and solace they haven’t found within the university services.

Despite all the joy Nana Oforiwaa brings to this space, throughout the seven years (and plenty more, given generations of her family have studied at SOAS), she tells me that she had her right to be in the SU space questioned, and the terms of her being able to fundraise at SOAS continually changed.

Despite all the joy Nana Oforiwaa brings to this space, throughout the seven years (and plenty more, given generations of her family have studied at SOAS), she tells me that she had her right to be in the SU space questioned, and the terms of her being able to fundraise at SOAS continually changed. Through her time at SOAS, Nana has felt continually disrespected and endured what she names ‘hostilities’ on the part of SU Staff. From all of this, she no longer feels comfortable returning. In the last couple of months Nana Oforiwaa has had her precious tableware, silverware and candleholders – used for fundraising dinners and some of which were sentimental gifts from friends – thrown away. In an email response from SU management they detailed ‘Khaled [Zaida] had a Health & Safety Inspector arriving from Camden Council so he was clearing the space. He opened your bag and found mouse droppings in there, so he had to dispose of it immediately.’ Zaida also ‘had concerns with the health risks associated with the way the food was being served’ (as written in an email to Nana Oforiwaa from the SU CEO). On top of this, her hotplates were also thrown away, at a personal cost to her of £140. 

There is a notable contrast of SOAS’ branding of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘the world’s university’  is starkly clear in  the treatment of an Afrikan woman fund-raising for other Afrikan women. In our conversation, Nana Oforiwaa speaks of her experiences, which include allegations of racist micro-aggressions, such as being called ‘aggressive’ by a former SU manager.   

This follows a trend of afrophobic behaviour at SOAS; from Habib’s racist comments, to the defunding of the Africa department that makes up the acronym, to the attempt to wipe history from the SU walls, and a forceful securitised response to freedom of speech. SOAS has been regarded in the past as a radical community stronghold, yet the current occurrences at SOAS suggest otherwise. 

Many students, even those who are now alumni, have found a beautiful friendship in knowing Nana Oforiwaa. Given Nana Oforiwaa has been fighting to stay fundraising for years now, with the support of many others, there was an SU motion drafted and voted on in 2016. The motion was drafted after the claim that ‘the SU Shop will lose ‘£300’ each time Maame (Nana Oforiwaa) sells food’. However, the vote confirmed that she was allowed to continue selling her food. Since then, the SU management have again developed a new ‘process and procedure for any sort of external food selling’ which they argue will ensure ‘no perception of unfair or unequal treatment.’ In the same email as detailing this commitment to equal treatment, the SU CEO informed Nana Oforiwaa that due to there being ‘no witnesses’, her complaints will not be upheld. This is a response that many argue speaks to a wider culture of black women being disbelieved and dismissed. Where it stands, Nana Oforiwaa has received an apology ‘on behalf of the organisation for any miscommunication or misunderstanding’, which she feels disregards the lack of investigation into her reports of harassment. Nana Oforiwaa was told that the ‘SU is not in a position to compensate (her) for these items.’

SOAS students across the years have been compelled by these actions to shout loud about why they care, and why people like Nana Oforiwaa are of such deep importance to the shared space and experience. Whilst we sit on the mismatched furniture, scattered in crumbs, more students come to join us, they exclaim they need to tell their friend who ‘waits the whole week’ for her to return with her feasts. Another friend comments that this is the only place on campus where she can find food from her culture. As we close up our conversation, Nana Oforiwaa shakes her head, telling me, ‘it’s enough’; the fatigue felt with the situation is visible on her warm face – although not enough to stop a bright smile breaking through as she waves to another student. 

The SU’s official comment is as follows: “The Student’s Union has a responsibility to provide a space for student clubs and societies who wish to carry out their activities in the JCR. We have communicated our policy to Nana in a transparent way and have repeatedly said she is welcome to continue serving her food and we have put this in writing for the record. The policy exists to protect the health and safety for students where any sort of unpackaged food is served due to risks associated with allergies and the storage of hot food prepared off the premises.”

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