As with other ‘magical dishes’ in this series, it is the context and activities associated with the dish that render it effective – not merely the specified ingredients:
Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical ‘recipe’ to be constructed – but also in relation to the context in which it is situated. Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product. It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.
Dr. Robert Nassau, who served as missionary, doctor and ethnologist throughout the Ogowe watershed and surrounding areas of west Africa in the late 19th century provides us with this recipe, which guarantees a successful food harvest for women cultivators. [Previous entries on ‘Magicality of Cuisine’ can be found at the end of this Blog.]
… Planting is done almost entirely by women. If a woman says to herself,
” I want to have plenty of food! I will make medicine for it! “
… she proceeds to gather the necessary ingredients.
She takes her ukwala (machete), pavo (knife), short hoe (like a trowel), and elinga (basket), and goes to the forest. She must go very early in the morning, and alone. She gathers a leaf called “tubg,” another called ” in jenji, ” the bark of a tree called ” bohamba, ” the bark also of elamba, and leaves of bokuda.
Hiding them in a safe place, she goes back to her village to get her earthen pot. Returning with it to the forest, she makes a fire, not with coals from the village, but with new, clean fire made by the two fire-sticks. These, used by natives before steel and flint were introduced, require often an hour’s twirling before friction develops sufficient heat to cause a spark. The sparks are caught on thoroughly dried plantain fibre.
Then she builds her fire. She goes to some spring or stream for water to put in the pot with the leaves and barks, and sets it on the fire. All this while she is not to be seen by other people.
When the water has boiled, she sets the pot in the middle of the acre of ground which she intends to clear for her garden until its contents cool.
In the meanwhile she goes to some creek and gets “chalk” (a white clay is found in places in the beds of streams). She washes it clean of mud and rubs it on her breast. Then she takes the pot, and empties its decoction by sprinkling it, with a bunch of leaves, over the groujid, saying,
“My forefathers! now in the land of spirits, give me food ! Let me have food more abundantly than all other people! “
Then she again sets the pot in the middle of the proposed plantation. She takes from it the tube leaves and puts them into four little cornucopia (ehongo), which she rolls from another large leaf of the elende tree. She sets these in the four corners of the garden.
Whenever she comes on any other day to work in the garden, she pulls a succulent plant, squeezes its juice into the ehongo; and this juice she drops into her eye. To be efficient, this
medicine has a prohibition connected with it, viz.^ that during the days of her menses she shall not go to the garden.
When her plants have grown, and she has eaten of them, she must break the pot. Having done so, she makes a large fire at an end of the garden, and burns the pieces of earthenware
so that they shall be utterly calcined.
It is not required that she shall stay by the fire awaiting that result. She may, if she wishes, in the meanwhile go back to her village. She takes the ashes of the pot, mixes them with chalk in a jomba (bundle) of leaves, which she ties to a tree of her garden in a hidden spot where people will not see it.
Another strict prohibition is required of her by the medicine, viz., that she is not to steal from another woman’s garden If she break this law, her own garden will not produce.
The jomba is kept for years, or as long as she plants at that place, and the chalk mixture is rubbed on her breast at each planting season.
From time to tune also, as the leaves of the jomba decay or break away, she puts fresh ones about it, to prevent the wetting of its contents by rain or its injury in any other way.
Text source – Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.
Other entries in this series are:
- The Magicality of Cuisine 4: A Special Dish for a Woman Cultivator, 19th Century Liberia, West Africa