West African Cuisine and Hunger Crops, 1800s

The kinds of food consumed by local people were often a great surprise to European explorers travelling in Africa.  Here are several passages from the journals of Mungo Park regarding crops and foods that he found singularly weird.

Mr. Park was one of the earliest explorers in West Africa, having set out to discover and then to describe the source of the Niger River as well as its termination.   He was killed on his second expedition, in 1806.

In the Foula region of West Africa:

The present inhabitants, though they possess both cattle and corn [grain] in abundance, are not over nice in articles of diet; rats, moles, squirrels, snakes, locusts, are eaten without scruple by the highest and lowest.

My people were one evening invited to a feast given by some of the townsmen, where, after making a hearty meal of what they thought fish and kouskous, one of them found a piece of hard skin in the dish, and brought it along with him to show me what sort of fish they had been eating. On examining the skin I found they had been feasting on a large snake.

Another custom still more extraordinary is that no woman is allowed to eat an egg. This prohibition, whether arising from ancient superstition or from the craftiness of some old bushreen who loved eggs himself, is rigidly adhered to, and nothing will more affront a woman of Teesee than to offer her an egg. The custom is the more singular, as the men eat eggs without scruple in the presence of their wives, and I never observed the same prohibition in any other of the Mandingo countries.

Source: Mungo Park – Travels in the Interior of Africa, Vol.1.  c.1800

The following passages were recorded during his second trip.

…About four o’clock we reached Sooseeta, a small Jallonka village,…. Here, after a great deal of entreaty, we were provided with huts to sleep in, but the master of the village plainly told us that he could not give us any provisions, as there had lately been a great scarcity in this part of the country.

He assured us that, before they had gathered in their present crops, the whole inhabitants of Kullo had been for twenty-nine days without tasting corn [grain], during which time they supported themselves entirely upon the yellow powder which is found in the pods of the nitta, so-called by the natives, a species of mimosa, and upon the seeds of the bamboo-cane, which, when properly pounded and dressed, taste very much like rice.

As our dry provisions were not yet exhausted, a considerable quantity of kouskous was dressed for supper, and many of the villagers were invited to take part of the repast…

Source: Travels in the Interior of Africa, Vol 2.  c.1806

Especially interesting is the use of bamboo seeds in making a rice-type food as a hunger-crop. They may have been quite lucky to have found bamboo seeds, which I expect were from  Oxtenanthera abyssinica, which is a dryland species found in a belt across the Sahel as far as the Ethiopian border, and also in  parts of east Africa, including here in Burundi.

I’ve collected bamboo seeds in the east of Burundi (during die-backs – see below photo) for propagation. Next time, will try eating some!

Die-back of  Oxtenanthera abyssinica in eastern Burundi, followed by seed dispersal

The ‘yellow powder’ from pods of a ‘mimosa tree‘ that Park mentions sounds as if it could be the powder from pods of the baobab tree, which is quite high in Vitamin C and makes an excellent thin porridge or drink.

Baobab tree in Tanzania. Source: geoimages.berkeley.edu

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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-Central, Africa-West, Colonialism, Cuisine, Explorers & exploration, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Niger River, Sahel. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to West African Cuisine and Hunger Crops, 1800s

  1. Pingback: Agriculture; Livestock; Indigenous Plants; Agroforestry – Links | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, the Middle East, Agriculture, History & Culture

  2. Pingback: Nibbles: Hunger foods, Pollinators, Sacred Seeds, Neglected species, Grasses, Yields, Hawaiian History | | FarmIQFarmIQ

  3. Pingback: Nibbles: Hunger foods, Pollinators, Sacred Seeds, Neglected species, Grasses, Yields, Hawaiian History

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