Although red pepper became known in Africa only after having been introduced by, presumably, the Portuguese in perhaps the 16th Century, they soon spread throughout the continent and became the most important condiment in many areas.
I agree with Burton (quoted below) that red pepper became ‘… the salt of … the inland region.’ That is probably because salt was such a scarce and therefore expensive commodity in most areas – including here in Burundi, where one still sees a good deal of goiter.
Small red peppers can be easily grown in most areas of Africa and therefore provide a quick and tasty addition to otherwise bland meals.
It is interesting that, moving east across Africa, the use of red peppers diminishes. Very heavily used in much of West Africa, moderately used here in Burundi (east-central Africa) and, by comparison, very little used in Kenya and Tanzania.
From: The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile And Explorations of the Nile Sources. by Sir Samuel W. Baker, 1865
In what is now northern Uganda:
There were plenty of wild red peppers, and the men seemed to enjoy a mixture of porridge and legumes _a la sauce piquante_. They were astonished at my falling away on this.
From: The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia by Sir Samuel W. Baker, 1861-62
In the eastern Sudan, at the large market of Gadarif, Sir Baker mentions that:
“…the most numerous stalls are those devoted to red pepper, beads, and perfumery.”
Red pepper is still heavily used in Eastern Sudan; when I worked in S.E. Egypt/N.E. Sudan with the Beja ethnic groups, coffee often was flavored with a bit of pepper (as well as with cardamom and sometimes ginger, and other spices).
From: First Footsteps in East Africa, by Sir Richard Burton, 1855
Burton mentions the importance of red pepper on local dishes in the Caravan town of Harar, now southern Ethiopia:
…we were at once provided from the chief’s kitchen with a dish of _Shabta_(1), holcus(2) cakes soaked in sour milk, and thickly powered with red pepper, the salt of this inland region.
(1)- Perhaps the word shabta is a corruption of the Arabic shatta – pepper.
(2)- Holcus was the common grain used at that time.
From: Two Trips to Gorilla Land and the Cataracts of the Congo, Vol.2, by Sir Richard Burton 1876
In West Africa, near the mouth of the Congo River, Burton describes a travelling dish that boggles the mind:
…The national dish, ‘chindungwa’, would test the mouth of any curry eater in the world: it is composed of boiled ground-nuts and red peppers in equal portions, pounded separately in wooden mortars, mixed and squeezed to drain off the oil; the hard mass, flavored with salt or honey, will keep for weeks…
- How To Roast Red Peppers (mademan.com)