Dr. Livingstone travelled throughout sub-Saharan Africa further and for a longer period (about 30 years) than any other explorer in the 19th Century – and with that, came an acute eye and understanding for both the unique and the universal in the different societies in which he travelled. That, framed within the perspective of the 19th Century English World View, provides for interesting and informative reading.
In the following snippet from his journals he encapsulates a basic feature of African cuisine and hospitality: the importance of fat and local beer (pombe).
Cuisine throughout Africa relied (and among the poorer strata still does) on meals that were made into stiff porridges and dressed with a bit of (usually) vegetarian relish, to which would be added some type of fat. This usually was vegetable fat, but could also be rendered fat taken from elephants or other wildlife.
The beer, made of grains or bananas, was a way both to prolong life of the product as well as to vary what were often fairly unchanging diets – depending on the season of the year and state of the harvest. And, of course, to add enjoyment to both socializing and eating!
By consequence, the habit of gifting visitors with some combination of these products was universal within the continent. Added to that, some measure of salt could be given, depending on the level of salt-deprivation within a particular area.
Even now, upcountry in Burundi among the very poor, if asked what are their most important items to obtain, the response is often ‘some palm oil and some salt’ – these families being generally self-sufficient in basic carbohydrates, whether maize, grain, roots, or bananas – and in making beer.
The chief of the village below described by Livingstone really goes out of his way to show respect to his visitor by gifting both beer and a huge, fat-tailed sheep – as well as other eatables:
From: Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone, Vol.i. This entry written by Livingstone in 1866
In southern-central Africa, Livingstone arrived at a village that he had visited some years before, and whose chief, Kimusa, he therefore knew:
Kimusa…came this morning, and seemed very glad again to see his old friend [Livingstone]. He sent off at once to bring an enormous ram [*], which had either killed or seriously injured a man. The animal came tied to a pole to keep him off the man who held it, while a lot more carried him.
He was prodigiously fat; this is a true African way of showing love – plenty of fat and beer. Accordingly, the chief brought a huge basket of pombe [local beer], another of nsima, or porridge, and a pot of cooked meat; to these were added a large basket of maize…
[*] The sheep are of the black-haired variety, their tails grow to an enormous size. A ram which came from Nunkajow, a Waiyau chief, on a former occasion, was found to have a tail weighing 11 lbs.; but for the journey, and two or three days short commons [not much food], an extra 2 or 3 lbs. of fat would have been on it. – ED