Cuisine and Crops in Central Africa – Colonial and Contemporary – Pt. 3

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.

A trainee discussing locally collected herbs, vegetables and nuts

A trainee discussing locally collected herbs, vegetables and nuts

Some of the nuts and fruits that, while growin wild, were carefully protected from cutting and otherwise damaging the trees.

Some of the nuts and fruits that, while growing wild, were carefully protected from cutting and otherwise damaging the trees.

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:

Source:  Speke 1864

Source: Speke 1864 (Need to verify this)

Hoes constructed like this can most easily break up large clots of soil and clear weeds.  Similar designs are still used today.  Source:  Varify 1818

Hoes from the eastern Congo, 1818.  Traditional metal-working throughout tropical and sub-tropical (central) Africa focused primarily on tools and weapons.  In some regions, such as here in Burundi, metal working has been a major occupation of the BaTwa pygmies.  Hoes constructed like this can most easily break up large clots of soil and clear weeds. Similar designs are still used today.   Source: verify

A woman with hoe and lunch balanced on her head, off to work in the field in upcountry Burundi.

A woman with hoe and lunch balanced on her head, off to work in the field in upcountry Burundi.

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.

Pombe Brewing can be a great social activity. 1864

Pombe Brewing can be a great social activity. 1864

More details and discussion to follow…

Advertisements

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, History, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cuisine and Crops in Central Africa – Colonial and Contemporary – Pt. 3

  1. Pingback: Cuisine and Crops in Central Africa (and the US) – When is a Garden a Food Garden? « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. dianabuja says:

    Thanks, Karen. More to come, on lotus and other local crops, herbs, and collectibles in the bush.

    Like

  3. Karen says:

    Fascinating, Diana. I remember you starting to talk about this way back on bookofrai, so am happy to hear more! Can’t wait for the lotus post! 😀

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s