Rice was introduced to East Africa by Arab and Swahili traders in the northern area of the East African coast, and by the Portuguese in the south (see this blog). It was a crop raised by Arabs, Swahili or Portuguese, or by locals for sale to these merchants, further discussed here and here.
Until recent times it was not considered a local food in east and southern Africa, and even here in Burundi many folks upcountry still reserve rice for special occasions, because it is more expensive than sweet potatoes, cassava and other ‘everyday’ crops.
Nevertheless, both Richard Burton and David Livingstone mention finding indigenous red rice in some locations in the interior of east and southern Africa; whether and how it was grown and prepared is unfortunately not explained although Livingstone gives some information (below). There are also problems as to what kind of ‘local’ rice, exactly, they talking about.
I talked recently with Burundians from upcountry, who said there is indigenous, wild red rice here and there, but that it is not systematically cultivated. The flavor is ‘not very good’, some said, and whether this is due to local processing procedures or to the type of rice itself is not clear. I will look further into this.
The first entry by Livingstone (below) suggests that when rice is eaten by locals, it is prepared as other grains, that is, made into a stiff porridge and served with a sauce. Presumably the rice was grown primarily to sell to passing Arabs, who were part of the expanding slave and ivory trade throughout East Africa, and the rice porridge was made especially for Livingstone as an outside visitor.
The second entry mentions indigenous (wild) rice being found but not used. Perhaps it was used as a famine food. I have still not been able to confirm this possibility.
1. Livingston, David – The Last Journals of David Livingstone, Vol I (1866-1868)
6th July 1866 [south central Africa] …Mtende invited us to eat at his house where he had provided a large mess of rice porridge and bean-leaves as a relish. He says that many Arabs pass him and many of them die in their Journies…
2. Livingston, David – The Last Journals of David Livingstone, Vol II (1869-1873) :
6th April, 1873 [south of Lake Tanganyika] …A species of wild rice grows, but the people neither need it nor know it…
Richard Burton provides the following bits of information on local rice:
3. Burton-Zanzibar : City, Island and Coast, 1872 :
Rice is the favourite cereal [of the Arabs and Swahili]. The humid low-lands are cleared of weeds by burning, and the seed is sown when the first showers fall. To judge from the bazar-price, the home-grown article is of a superior quality; but nowhere in East Africa did I find the grain so nutritious as that of the Western Coast [of Africa]. The hardest working of all African tribes, the Kru-men [a West African ethnic group found mainly in Liberia], live almost entirely upon red rice and palm-oil.
4. Burton-First Footsteps in East Africa, 1856 :
Preparing a caravan to go to the Arab town of Harar (now in southern Ethiopia):
Our private provisions are represented by about 300 lbs. of rice,- here the traveller’s staff of life [for the Arabs and Swahili, not for locals],- a large pot full of “Kawurmeh”, dates, salt, clarified butter, tea, coffee, sugar, a box of biscuits in case of famine, “Halwa” or Arab sweetmeats to be used when driving hard bargains, and a little turmeric for seasoning.
A simple batterie de cuisine, and sundry skins full of potable water, dangle from chance rope-ends; and last, but not the least important, is a heavy box of ammunition sufficient for a three months’ sporting tour.
In the rear of the caravan trudges a Bedouin woman driving a donkey, the proper “tail” in these regions, where camels start if followed by a horse or mule.
An ill-fated sheep, a parting present from the Hajj, races and frisks about the Cafilah [caravan]. It became so tame that the Somal received an order not to “cut” it; one day, however, I found myself dining, and that pet lamb was the menu.
 Or ‘kavurmeh’ which is dried meat stored in pots or gourds filled with clarified butter. This manner of preserving meat was also practiced in West Africa, and also here in Burundi. [Diana].
- Livingstone Discovers South Carolina Rice in Southern Africa, c.1860 (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Dreams of Agroforestry in the Highlands of East Africa (dianabuja.wordpress.com)