Cuisine before Colonization:
What did local people eat, prior to the introduction of New World crops? I ask this, because from the prior blog on Cuisine and Crops in Central Africa, it is primarily New World crops that were mentioned by the explorers Speke and Burton. This leaves the impression of a very impoverished range of indigenous foods.
However, based even on the range of indigenous plants that are today used in rural areas, it is certain that far more indigenous foods were eaten during and prior to the colonial era – about which explorers such as Speke and Burton were not familiar, or perhaps even knew the names. So, a few words on indigenous foods before proceeding.
A Note on Indigenous foods today:
One exercise that I like to do in my training with technicians working in local agriculture and livestock projects entails finding out what is locally eaten. Most trainees, having been educated according to the principal that ‘the only good crop is a fully domestic crop’, are generally surprised by the variety of plants, seeds, and fruits that are collected or semi-cultivated. And many are similarly surprised at the range of crops or crop varieties that are regularly cultivated but that fall outside of the focus of modern agronomy.
The following photo shows a trainee discussing some of the results of a survey last year in eastern Burundi that was conducted with local farmers as part of a training exercise I conducted. The crop Muciabanki, that is listed towards the bottom of the chart, is a variety of wild amaranths that is very delicious and exceedingly hardy in low rainfall areas. We have therefore introduced the variety in a community near Lake Tanganyika, where there are similar agro-ecological conditions and where there is a very strong market for lenga-lenga, as amaranths is known.
Trainees initially had some difficulty categorizing indigenous foods that were collected or cropped as being separate from collecting the leaves of tomatoes, red peppers, sweet potatoes, and several other crops that are not indigenous and that are cropped.
The primary categorization being used by the trainees was ‘collection’ rather than whether or not the crop was ‘indigenous’ and so time was spent in this particular training course in working out these differences, and this led to discussions about what ‘indigenous’ actually means in a Burundian context.
What and how much people collect from the bush – and how many indigenous (but largely unrecognized) crops are cultivated – depends on a variety of factors, including season, relative success of crops, socio-economic status, specific agro-ecological zone, etc. That would have been also the case in earlier periods, to which we now return.
Returning to colonial and pre-colonial agriculture and cuisine:
In spite of the lacunae, we know that primary nutritional sources for energy – aside from millet and sorghum in areas where they could be grown – consisted of a variety of indigenous gourds and tubers – some of which were highly poisonous or caused sickness without proper and often complicated processing. This is also the case today with many wild or semi-domesticated crops, for in the process of domestication, crops have been ‘tamed’, both in terms of ease of processing as well as in taste factor.
The variety of different crops and collected foods required an array of implements for all stages of the agricultural round as well as for processing. The specific tools themselves depended on the area, but could be quite complex, as these drawings from the Nyam-nyam in Uganda show:
There are a number of other wild foods that are know to have been collected during the colonial and pre-colonial era, including flour made out of the seeds of the lotus and several other plants (manioc, maize, etc), and eaten as a kind of porridge – but NEVER BREAD/S. Lotus were also used as food in southern Africa and in the Nile Valley; I will do a separate blog about this.
Mildly alcoholic drinks made of bananas were – and continue to be important as sources of nutrition as well as simple enjoyment in social gatherings.
More details and discussion to follow…
- Plantains and Bananas: “The Staff of Savage Life” (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Are Western Conservation Efforts Causing Famine In Africa? (indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com)
- The 10 Most Important Crops In The World (businessinsider.com)
- Grievance, rainfall, & migration in Burundi (rachelstrohm.com)
- Small farmers in vanguard of Africa’s battle for agricultural development | Mark Tran (guardian.co.uk)