Cuisines and Crops of Africa, 19th Century – Zambezi River Watershed in Southern Africa

Zambezi river basin.

Zambezi River watershed.  Wikipedia

Between 1858 and 1864 Dr. David Livingstone and his brother, together with several other persons, explored  the Zambezi River and its tributaries in south-central Africa.

Livingstone-Frontispiece from Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi

Livingstone-Frontispiece from Narrative of an expedition to the Zambesi

Although this was one of the most difficult of the colonial ventures into the interior of Africa, and was considered fruitless by some members of the Royal Geographical Society, it nevertheless provided a wealth of information on the people and politics of the area as well as on flora and fauna, agriculture, trade and other information.

I have already put up a bit of information from their exploits – about  collecting and eating lotus – in this blog.

This, and several future blogs, give passages from this book on crops and foods on the Zambezi watershed.  These I have selected in order to illustrate both major  indigenous foods and crops, as well as the crops that were introduced by Swahili and Portuguese traders.

The major ethnic group located in the watershed are the Manganja, who migrated into the area from the south of the Congo in about the 15th Century AD.  They are a Bantu group, primarily agriculturalists but with some livestock.  Throughout the area Swahili and then Portuguese merchants had traveled for several centuries – first, seeking ivory and then increasingly also slaves.

Some settlements were founded by either the Swahili or Portuguese traders along the river and in these places a variety of seeds were imported for use by the trading communities, many of which became incorporated into indigenous cropping and culinary systems.

In the section below I have highlighted the crops grown by the Manganja that had been introduced.  It is clear that, with the exception of patches of sorghum and millet,  little by way of indigenous crops are systematically grown – a topic I will take up in later blogs.

Future commercial agricultural activities that Britain could pursue was one of the topics of the exploration, and the passage suggests that the growing of cotton was considered one such possibility.

Women with Water-Pots, Listening to the Music of the Marimba, Sansa, and Pan’s Pipes

Women with Water-Pots, Listening to the Music of the Marimba, Sansa, and ‘Pan’s Pipes’

From:  A Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone‘s Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries: And of the Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa, 1865.

The Manganja are an industrious race; and in addition to working in iron, cotton, and basket-making, they cultivate the soil extensively.  All the people of a village turn out to labour in the fields.  It is no uncommon thing to see men, women, and children hard at work, with the baby lying close by beneath a shady bush.

When a new piece of woodland is to be cleared, they proceed exactly as farmers do in America.  The trees are cut down with their little axes of soft native iron; trunks and branches are piled up and burnt, and the ashes spread on the soil.  The corn is planted among the standing stumps which are left to rot.

If grass land is to be brought under cultivation, as much tall grass as the labourer can conveniently lay hold of is collected together and tied into a knot.  He then strikes his hoe round the tufts to sever the roots, and leaving all standing, proceeds until the whole ground assumes the appearance of a field covered with little shocks of corn in harvest.  A short time before the rains begin, these grass shocks are collected in small heaps, covered with earth, and burnt, the ashes and burnt soil being used to fertilize the ground.

Large crops of the mapira, or Egyptian dura (Holcus sorghum), are raised, with millet, beans, and ground-nuts; also patches of yams, rice, pumpkins, cucumbers, cassava, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and hemp, or bang (Cannabis setiva).  Maize is grown all the year round.

Cotton is cultivated at almost every village.  Three varieties of cotton have been found in the country, namely, two foreign and one native.  The “tonjé manga,” or foreign cotton, the name showing that it has been introduced, is of excellent quality, and considered at Manchester to be nearly equal to the best New Orleans.  It is perennial, but requires replanting once in three years.  A considerable amount of this variety is grown in the Upper and Lower Shiré valleys.

Every family of any importance owns a cotton patch which, from the entire absence of weeds, seemed to be carefully cultivated.  Most were small, none seen on this journey exceeding half an acre; but on the former trip some were observed of more than twice that size.

The “tonjé cadja,” or indigenous cotton, is of shorter staple, and feels in the hand like wool.  This kind has to be planted every season in the highlands; yet, because it makes stronger cloth, many of the people prefer it to the foreign cotton; the third variety is not found here.  It was remarked to a number of men near the Shiré Lakelet, a little further on towards Nyassa, “You should plant plenty of cotton, and probably the English will come and buy it.”

“Truly,” replied a far-travelled Babisa trader to his fellows, “the country is full of cotton, and if these people come to buy they will enrich us.”  Our own observation on the cotton cultivated convinced us that this was no empty flourish, but a fact.  Everywhere we met with it, and scarcely ever entered a village without finding a number of men cleaning, spinning, and weaving.

It is first carefully separated from the seed by the fingers, or by an iron roller, on a little block of wood, and rove out into long soft bands without twist.  Then it receives its first twist on the spindle, and becomes about the thickness of coarse candlewick; after being taken off and wound into a large ball, it is given the final hard twist, and spun into a firm cop on the spindle again: all the processes being painfully slow.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Southern, Agriculture, Colonialism, Cuisine, David Livingstone, Food and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cuisines and Crops of Africa, 19th Century – Zambezi River Watershed in Southern Africa

  1. Pingback: It’s That Time of the Year Again: Rice Harvesting and Processing « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. claudia levy says:

    I would like to follow this blog!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s