Cuisines and Crops of Africa – The Lotus Eaters of Central Africa

Nymphaea lotus.

Image via Wikipedia

Lotus plants of the species  Nymphaea lotus L. were an important ingredient in African traditional cuisine.   Found throughout tropical Africa and in the Nile Valley, their collection and processing for the table is reported by various colonial writers.

The frustration, though, is the lack of specific  information about how they were processed, stored and prepared – and who did the work – in different parts of Africa.  As well, information as to where and how they continue to be prepared and eaten.

The tubers, seeds, leaves, stems, and flowers of lotus plants can be eaten.  Source:

The rhizomes (fleshy roots), seeds, leaves, stems, and flowers of lotus plants can be eaten and some parts of the plant are used for medicinal purposes. Source:

For example, here in Burundi we have multiple swampy areas that are filled with papyrus and lotus plants.  Even though I have a strong hunch that both were eaten in the past – I have, as yet, no information that they continue to be collected and eaten.  But I’m keeping up the search.

Papyrus and lotus swamp in Burundi, c. 1910

Papyrus and lotus wetlands in Burundi, c. 1910

Papyrus and lotus swamp in Burundi, 2009

Papyrus and lotus wetlands in Burundi, 2010

Here are  entries that I’ve found from 19th Century explorers regarding the collection and cooking of lotus in differenet parts of Africa.  It’s not much, and certainly raises many questions.

English: Map showing the White Nile and the Bl...

The White and Blue Niles. Wikipedia

(On a tributary of the Zambezi River):
As we ascended, we passed a deep stream about thirty yards wide, flowing in from a body of open water several miles broad. Numbers of men were busy at different parts of it, filling their canoes with the lotus root, called Nyika, which, when boiled or roasted, resembles our chestnuts, and is extensively used in Africa as food.

Groups of men and boys are searching diligently in various places for lotus and other roots. Some are standing in canoes, on the weed covered ponds, spearing fish, while others are punting over the small intersecting streams, to examine their sunken fish-baskets.

From:  Dr. David LivingstoneA Popular Account of Dr. Livingstone’s Expedition to the Zambesi and Its Tributaries: And of the Discovery of the Lakes Shirwa and Nyassa (1858-1864)

All the tribes of the White Nile have their harvest of the lotus seed.  There are two species of water-lily–the large white flower, and a small variety. The seed-pod of the white lotus is like an unblown artichoke, containing a number of light red grains equal in size to mustard-seed, but shaped like those of the poppy, and similar to them in flavour, being sweet and nutty. The ripe pods are collected and strung upon sharp-pointed reeds about four feet in length. When thus threaded they are formed into large bundles, and carried from the river to the villages, where they are dried in the sun, and stored for use.

The seed is ground into flour, and made into a kind of porridge. The women of the Shir tribe are very clever at manufacturing baskets and mats from the leaf of the dome palm. They also make girdles and necklaces of minute pieces of river mussel shells threaded upon the hair of the giraffe’s tail. This is a work of great time, and the effect is about equal to a string of mother-of-pearl buttons.

From:  Sir Samuel W. Baker,  The Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile.  1861 

1st March, 1873.—Embarked women and goods in canoes, and went three hours S.E. to Bangweolo.   Stopped on an island where people were drying fish over fires. Heavy rain wetted us all as we came near the islet, the drops were as large as half-crowns by the marks they made. We went over flooded prairie four feet deep, and covered with rushes, and two varieties of lotus or sacred lily; both are eaten, and so are papyrus.

(Near Lualaba River)  …The amount of water spread out over the country constantly excites my wonder; it is prodigious. Many of the ant-hills are cultivated and covered with dura, pumpkins, beans, maize, but the waters yield food plenteously in fish and lotus-roots. A species of wild rice grows, but the people neither need it nor know it. A party of fishermen fled from us, but by coaxing we got them to show us deep water. They then showed us an islet, about thirty yards square, without wood, and desired us to sleep there. We went on, and then they decamped.

From:  Horace Waller The  Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Continued by a Narrative of His Last Moments and Sufferings, obtained from His Faithful Servants Chuma and Susi [1869-1873]


(Southern Sudan):”January 5.–Arrived at Kutchuk Ali’s station at 10.30 A.M., and took in wood. The country is all flooded, and both the natives and the traders are without corn, the crops having been destroyed by the extraordinary rise of the river. The people have no other grain than the scanty supply yielded by the seeds of the lotus, which they collect from the river. I met several men who had formerly served under Ibrahim, when we accompanied Khoorshood Agha’s party to Unyoro many years ago.

From: SIR Samuel W. Baker, Pacha – Ismailia.  A Narrative of the Expedition to Central Arica for the Suppression of the Slave Trade, Organized by Ismail, Khedive of Egypt.  1869-1873

An upcoming blog will be about the Lotus-Eaters of North Africa.

[First posted September 2009,  Revised 07 December 2011]

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-General, Agriculture, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt-Ancient, European explorers, Explorers & exploration, Food, History-General, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Cuisines and Crops of Africa – The Lotus Eaters of Central Africa

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  6. Karen says:

    Looking forward to learning more about lotus-eaters in fact and in lore, Diana! 🙂


  7. i must admit the texture of a lotus has always intrigued me – the fruit referred to in the greek language as ‘lotos’ is actually the persimmon


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