Thanksgiving Adventures – and A Military Coup – in Sudan

El-Obeid is located ‘here’. Source:

Sharing with you an earlier post about Thanksgiving, people and work conducted in western Sudan;
Please have a joyous Thanksgiving, my friends!

In 1988 I became COP (Chief of Party) of the field component of a large natural resource management project in Western Sudan that was funded by USAID (US Agency for International Development).  Situated south of el-Obeid, the project was to address issues of deforestation and environmental degradation, together with training of Sudanese staff both in community-based approaches to these issues as well as training in GIS and GPS applied methodologies.

Our major focus was on the the vast area of Acacia senegal*  stands of the region, which for millennia had provided inhabitants with a rich source of products – primarily gum arabic – and related income.  As well, these hashab trees, as they are called locally, are important nitrogen fixers in the rather impoverished soils of the area and provide both fodder and fuel wood.

  • Acacia senegal has been renamed and is now known as Senegalia senegal. There are several other Acacia species that are similarly important in the Sahel, including S. sayel

Our meetings in the villages were generally organized in this way.  Source:

The dry land forests of the Sahel region provide a rich habitat for people, livestock and wildlife.  Source - FAO

The dry land forests of the Sahel region provide a rich habitat for people, livestock and wildlife. The traditional – and still most important crop in the area is obtained from the gum arabic trees that are indigenous to the Sudan. Our project was working in the so-called hashab belt of the Sahel, which stretches from the Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west, just below the Sahara.  Source – FAO

I headed training and research in the rural areas together with developing  data on agroforestry practices, while for the remote sensing training and research, we had excellent staff from USGS (United States Geological Service) and several other institutions who came out for training missions of several weeks at a time throughout the months that we were there.

As far as we knew, this was the first project to attempt integration of socio-economic data within a GIS (geospatial; biological) framework.

More information on the project, and on a later slice of work in Sudan (this time with dry land bamboo) can be found here: Sorghum ‘Stew’ and Dry Land Bamboo – Adventures with GPS in the Sudan

The Hawazma branch of the Baggara arabs are a major pastoral group that annually passes into this area with their herds of cattle and small stock. I have been told that clashes over both pastoral and water rights have increased since our work there. Source: SOS Sahel. Wikipedia

Moving camps for pastoral groups across the Sahel involves packing cattle (or, further north, camels) as well as donkeys with household goods. Source:





















The dry forests of the Sahel provide shade for migrant groups, under which they can construct their temporary housing, as here.  Source - FAO

The dry forests of the Sahel provide shade for migrant groups, under which they can construct their temporary housing, as here. Source – FAO

A brief discussion of the project and research methods that we used can be found  in this link: Sudan Reforestation and Antidesertification Project.

A Military Coup and What Followed:

Then came the military coup in 1989, and our work was briefly placed on hold, as everyone awaited the results of the coup: would the new government agree to foreigners ‘wandering’ about in the hinterlands of N. Kordofan Provence, with sophisticated GIS tracking equipment, and working systematically with local villagers to assess environmentally based problems and opportunities? For reasons that are still not quite clear to me, the answer was – Yes – we could continue our work.

However, since the U.S. Government does not support projects in countries in which there are no free elections following a coup, the answer from USAID was ‘No‘ – but we were given about a six-month grace period during which it was hoped that elections would take place and we could continue our 5-year project.

Some of the Sahelian areas in which we worked looked like this, where ground cover is almost completely removed for both use and for grazing. Terrible degradation in the el Fasher area, Source: UNEP

We had many adventures during those months of waiting, which I will write about another time.  Now, merely to say that as time passed – due to structural changes in the government and the economy – daily consumer goods gradually disappeared from the markets and soon tea, sugar, oil and other basic items were not available. It was indeed a bad time.

We all became somewhat despondent – though the team continued in relatively good cheer with regard to our project work.  So when November came, I went into Khartoum with my driver – about a 12 hour trip following sand-tracks – with the aim of purchasing items from the U.S. Embassy store for a Thanksgiving feast for the Sudanese staff, which numbered about 20 persons (I had become by then the only non-Sudanese on the project – in fact, the only non-Sudanese in the area).

During the rainy season the tracks are often like this – just as difficult in a smaller, 4 wheel-drive. Source-Unknown

Camel market at El-Obeid, early 20th Century. Camels continue to be used in this Sahelian region of the Sudan. Source: Wikipedia.

In the embassy store, I selected the largest frozen turkey I could find, together with items such as tea, sugar, coffee, flour, Crisco (lard), tomato paste, stuffing cubes, some premixed cakes, and so forth –  all of the things that had disappeared from the markets – as well as some that were typically American.

Then, with the help of the hotel in Khartoum in which I was staying, we surrounded the turkey in great amounts of ice and wrapped it in gunny sacks.  So the driver and I returned to el-Obeid, where I put the turkey in the freezer of the nearby agricultural research station.

A residential area of El-Obeid. Source:










“We Need to Talk”

However, before Thanksgiving I noticed that staff were hovering in corners talking, and ceasing their conversation on my passing them.  On Thanksgiving morning  all of the women came to my house, which had a very big oven and stove, and we set about a massive cooking and baking routine.

But before, my Sudanese counterpart told me that the team wanted to have a meeting.  There it came out, that relatives of our agricultural economist who lived at the research station (who was a member of our team) came to visit him, and not finding him at home – and being hungry – had found the huge turkey in the freezer.  Never having seen a bird so big, they were fascinated and so took a hatchet and cut off one of the frozen legs to cook, putting the rest of the turkey back in the freezer.

When this was discovered, the agricultural economist discussed with team members what they could do – to repair the damage (hence the whispering meetings here and there).  The best ideas that I recall included the following:

  • Find the largest chicken possible and suture on one of its legs
  • Cut a wooden leg the same size and attach it

Well, of course none of these would really work and so the whole story came out – and then we all had a wonderful laugh at the thought of a turkey with a wooden leg, etc; the story was so funny, that it became a tale all around the town of el-Obeid (‘the American turkey with a wooden leg,’ etc, etc).

Thanksgiving Well-Celebrated:

So, cooking went on all day – and in the evening we had a huge feast and I had been sure to buy enough tea and sugar that each person could take a little home.  As I remember, we had also a huge fish, baked and stuffed, and we also had a variety of local dishes – sorghum-based ‘asida porridge and accompanying vegetable sauces.  I made the cake-mix cakes, which were a great hit.

It was a most successful highlight during those grim, post-coup months – and is the kind of event that, I think, Thanksgiving should be all about.

Posted in Environment, Food, Food & Politics, Humanitarian Assistance, Research & Development, Social Life, Sudan | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Magicality of Cuisine 5 – A Spicy Warriors’ Stew, Gabon West Africa

Cuisine in premodern societies may contain a variety of ingredients that are meant to imbue the dish with magical attributes directed to specific ends.  In past blogs on this topic we have seen dishes that are to secure love for women, love for men, successful fishing ventures, and  productive garden plots.

In this entry we are given a complicated recipe for guaranteeing a successful war venture.  It contains a variety of ingredients – some downright obnoxious to non-magical ways of thinking.  However, remember that the goal here is to construct a magical dish – not simply a dish to eat.

The procedure is explained by the Rev. Robert Nassau  in the late nineteenth century as follows:

A native of Batanga recently described to me the war-fetich as formerly prepared by his people. The medicine for it is arranged for thus.

A house is built at least several hundred yards from the village. There will be present no one but the doctor, who eats and sleeps there while he is arranging with the spirits and deciding on the medicine.

After two days he tells the people that he has finished it, that his preparations are ready, and that they must assemble at his house. He tells them to bring with them a certain shaped spear with prongs. Men have already gathered in the village, to the number of several hundred, waiting for the war. \

The doctor chooses from among them some man whom he sends to the forest to get a certain ingredient, a red amomum pod. (It contains the “Guinea grains,” or Malaguetta pepper, which taste like cardamom seeds, which a century ago were so highly valued in Europe that only the rich could buy them.)*

  • This is a common misnomer; the pepper is not ‘Malaguetta’ but ‘Melegueta'; I am doing a blog about this important West African spice and several others.

Aframomum melegueta is a species in the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. This spice, commonly known as grains of paradise, Melegueta pepper, alligator pepper, Guinea grains, fom wisa, or Guinea pepper, is obtained from the ground seeds; it imparts a pungent, peppery flavour with hints of citrus. Source – Wikipedia

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) pods. Source - Wikipedia

Grains of paradise (Aframomum melegueta) pods. Source – Wikipedia

Then the doctor and the man, leaving the crowd, go together to the forest with knife and machete and basket. They may have to go several miles in order to find a tree called “unyongo-muaele.” The doctor holds the chewed amomum seeds in his mouth, and blows them out against the tree, saying,

“Pha-a-a! The gun shots!  Let them not touch me!”

The assistant holds the basket while the doctor climbs the tree and rubs off pieces of loose bark which are caught in the basket as they fall.

They then go on into the forest to find another tree named “kota.” There he blows the chewed seeds in the same way saying the same,—

“Pha-a-a! Thou tree! Let not the bullets hit me!”

And the assistant, with basket standing below, catches the bark scraped down as the doctor climbs this tree.

They return to the village and enter the doctor’s house. No women or children may enter the house or be present at the ceremonies. The men bring into the house a very big iron pot*, and the doctor says,

“This is what is to contain all the ingredients of the medicine.”

From the beginning of 16th.Century copper and brass goods were shipped from the Low Countries to Portugal and from there to Guinea and inland, where Portugal merchants maintained vibrant trade networks and so-called ‘factories’ in which they settled and conducted business with uplanders.  Imported pans and cauldrons were used often for salt making or, as here, to prepare magical stews.  
For more information see: The Exchange Economy of Pre-colonial Tropical Africa, By Lars Sundström
Factory on the Ogooue.Compiegne,1874 . Source -

Following the demise of the Portuguese in West Africa, both the French and English stepped into the area.  This picture shows a French factory on the Ogooue, to which upstream folks are coming – presumably with goods to be traded. Source – Compiegne, 1874.

Then the doctor, with two other men, takes that spear by night, leaving all the other men to occupy themselves with songs of war, while the townspeople are asleep; they go to the grave of some man who has recently died. They dig open the grave, and force off the lid of the coffin.

The doctor thrusts the spear down into the coffin into the head of the corpse. He twirls the spear about in the skull, so as to get a firm grip on it with the prongs of the spear. He changes his voice, and speaking in a hoarse guttural manner says,

“Thou corpse! Do not let any one hear what I say! And do not thou injure me for doing this to you!”

When the spear is well thrust into the skull, he stoops into the grave, and with a machete cuts off the head.

He goes away carrying the head on the spear-point. While doing all this, he wears not the slightest particle of clothing.

They go back to the village to the doctor’s house; and there they catch a cock, and in the presence of the crowd the doctor twists (not cuts) off its head.

  • The blood of the cock is caught in a large fresh leaf.
  • He takes the fowl to the big pot, and lets some of its blood drip into it.
  • The head of the corpse is also put into the pot, with water, and
  • all the other ingredients, including the spear.
  • The bullets of the doctor’s gun are also to go into the pot, which is then set over a fire.
  • After the water has boiled the doctor takes
  • a furry skin of a bush-cat, and all the hundreds of men stand on one side in a line.
  • He dips the skin into the pot, and shakes it over them. As he thus sprinkles them, he lays on them a prohibition, thus:

“All ye! this month, go ye not near your wives!”

All that month is spent by them practising war songs and dances.

  • Then the doctor takes the blood that was collected on the leaf, and mixes it with powdered red-wood.
  • This mixture is tied up with the human head in a flying squirrel’skin.
  • He hangs this bundle up in the house over the place where he sits.
  • The body of the fowl next day is torn in pieces, not cut with a knife, and placed in a small earthen pot with
  • njabi oil (the oil of a large pulpy forest fruit), and
  • ngândâ (gourd) seeds.
  • An entire fresh plantain bunch is cut, and
  • successive squads of the men peel, each man, his small piece with his finger-nails.
  • These … they shred with their nails, part into the pot, and part on a plantain leaf,…

The doctor himself lifts the pot from the fire, and

  • first eats of the mess, and
  • then gives each of the men, with his hand, a small share.
  • When all have finished eating, he opens the bundle that had been tied in the squirrel skin, and with the fibrous inner bark of a tree, kimbwa-mbenje (from which formerly was made the native bark-cloth), sponges the red rotten stuff on their breasts, saying,

“Let no bullet come here!”

  • Then, led by the doctor, they march in procession to the town. There he tells the people of the town to try to shoot him, explaining that he does not wish any one to be in doubt of the efficacy of the charm. As he leads the procession, he holds the bundle in his hand, shouting,

“Budu! hah! hah! Budu! hah! hah!”

  • The “hah” is uttered with a bold aspiration. This is to embolden his followers. (“Budu! hah!” does not mean anything; it is only a yell.)
  • The people are terrified, though he is still shouting to them to fire at him. He is safe; for he leads the procession to where is stationed a confederate, who does fire at him point blank from a gun from which the bullets have been removed.
  • It is a triumph for him! The crowd see that not only he does not fall dead, but he is not even wounded! The charm has turned aside the bullets!
  • The townspeople are then invited to join the procession. They stand up with the doctor and his crowd, and dance the war-dance. When the dancing is ended, he takes the bundle and anoints all the townspeople, even the women and children.
  • And the men go to their war, sure of victory. But the doctor himself does not go; he remains safely behind, saying that it is necessary for him to watch the bundle in his house.
  • Defeat in the war is easily explained by saying that some one in the crowd had spoiled the charm by not obeying some item in the ritual.




Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, Ethnography, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Three Coptic tunics and a hat from Medieval Egypt


Shown below, from Miriam’s blog, are three lovely,well-preserved Coptic tunics and a hat.  These items, as similarly well-preserved clothing pieces, have generally been found in Coptic cemeteries in the Nile valley.  Arid conditions and sealed tombs over many centuries are responsible for the amazingly vibrant colors and retained shapes of the garments.

However, so many of these finds have been looted and sold on through dealers with little information regarding their provenance and often with the pieces having been cut in ways thought to enhance their salability. seems to be one of the greatest contemporary purveyor of unprovenanced  and anonymous finds.  For example, the following piece of a Coptic textile that has clearly been trimmed from the full piece and is currently for sale on eBay:



Happily, this is not the case with clothing items on Miriam’s blog, for she treats items that are found  in museums and provides interesting information about the pieces.

On the looting and sales of antiquities from Egypt, I will be writing more on this important topic.  In the meantime, do enjoy Miriam’s blog!

*   *  *  *  *

 Post Script: Many years ago I visited the small town of Akhmim in southern Egypt, which has been the site of Coptic textile work for centuries. Most interesting and I wonder what has become of these families and their businesses. Their work was so outstanding.
Coptic Tunic,

Coptic Tunic,

Originally posted on Miriam's Middle Eastern Research Blog:

coptnecklinetextilemeseum This textile is 64 cm long and 114 cm wide. It is made of plain woven linen with wool tapestry weave inserts. It was made by Coptic Egyptians between the 9th and 12th centuries C.E. It is currently in the Textile Museum of Canada. There is a zoom view available on the page.

coptictunic1textilemuseum This textile is 105 cm long and 122 cm wide. It is wool, with tapestry woven inserts of bird decorations and thought to have been made between the 6th and 7th centuries. The bottoms of the tunic is fringed. The tunic is in the Textile Museum of Canada. The tunic has a zoom view available on the page.

coptictunic2textilemueum This tunic is 76.7 cm long and 112.3 cm wide. It is made of plain woven linen, with wool tapestry woven inserts and appliqué. It was thought to have been made between the 7th and 9th centuries…

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Posted in Antiquities looting, Egypt, Egypt - Medieval | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Magical House-Breaker of Gabon, West Africa – 19th. Century

The following story told to the Rev. Nassau contains several features that are characteristic of groups living in the area in which he lived and worked:

  • Separation of settlements from the gardens maintained by women of these settlements;
  • Honorable characteristics of an upright woman;
  • Characteristics of a debased kinsman – in this case, a brother;
  • Jealousy among close kin, and how it might be addressed;
  • The appearance of a bright light seen by the aggrieved woman – the  sigh of a sorcerer.

In other words, a worthy morality story to be related around home compounds.


Kangou Falls on the Ogooue River, tropical West Africa.  A combination of impenetrable tropical forest and unfriendly waterways contributed to the isolation of groups in Gabon and the surrounding area.  Source –

The Rev. Nassau states that –

… the witchcraft [magical] part of the story consists in the strange light which wizards and witches are said to possess; it is under their control to display or hide, and it gives them power to overcome time and space.

The story continues:

There were a husband and wife who had been married a number of years. She had a child, a little boy. The husband had a brother; and this brother had taken a strong fancy to the woman, and wanted to possess her. Secretly he was asking her to live with him. But the woman always refused, saying,

“No, I do not want it!”

Then this brother’s love began to change to anger. He cherished vexation in his heart toward the woman, and asked her,

“Why do you always refuse me? You are the wife, not of a stranger, but of my brother. He and I are one, and you ought to accept me.”

But she persisted,  “No, I don’t want it!”

The brother’s anger deepened into revenge. He possessed nyemba (witchcraft power), and determined to use it. One day this woman had to go to her plantation; and she arranged for the journey, taking her little boy with her. Before she left the village to go to the plantation, she told the townspeople,

“I will remain at the plantation for some days, to take care of my gardens; for I am tired of losses by the wild beasts spoiling my crops.”

But the other women said, “Ah! your plantation is too far; it is not safe for you to be by yourself.”

But she said, “I cannot help it; I have to go.”

Gabon sur l-Ogooue Hutte de pecheurs

It is claimed that huts of the interior of the Gabon and area of the Ogooue River are square, as shown in this picture.Source –

She was brave, and persisted in her plan, and made all preparations.

On a set day, with her basket on her back, her child on her left hip, and her machete in her right hand, she started. She went on, on, steadily; reached the plantation, and rested there the remainder of that day with her child. After her evening meal she shut the door of the hut and went to bed.

The door was fastened with strings and a bar, for the plantation hamlets had no locks. She awoke suddenly about midnight, and thought she heard a noise outside. She listened quietly. Then she heard the sound again. Presently she discovered by the noise that some one was trying to climb upon the top of the hut, for the roof was low.

Soon, then, she observed that this person was trying to break open the palm thatch of the low roof. She still lay quietly. But she remembered a big spear which the husband always kept in one of the rooms of that hut; so she slowly got out of bed, and very softly went to the corner of the room where the spear was standing, and returned to bed with it.

The breaking of the thatch continued.

Soon she saw the room filled with a strange light, and then she saw a man trying to enter the roof head foremost. She bravely kept still, and watched his head and shoulders enter. She could not see his face, and did not know who he was. But she did not wait for certainty; she thrust the spear upward at the man’s head. Immediately the figure disappeared, and she heard a heavy thud as he fell to the ground into the street outside.

She now began to be frightened; she no longer felt safe, and dreaded what might happen before morning. So she began to get ready to return to town that very night. She girded her loin garment, fastened the cloth for carrying her child, took her machete, hasted out of the hut, and started for her village. In her fear she ran, and rested by walking.

Hanging bridgens made of woven vegetation twine continue to be used today in rugged areas.  Source -

Hanging bridges made of woven vegetation twine continue to be used today in rugged areas. Source –


Thus, alternately running and walking, she reached the village so exhausted and weak with loss of sleep that when her husband’s door was opened she fell fainting on the floor. He and others were alarmed, and asked,

“What? What’s the matter?”

As soon as she was able to speak, she told the whole story. They asked her,

“Did you see the person? Do you know him?”

She said, “No; only one thing I know: it was a man, and he fell into the street.”

So, when daylight came, the husband and others went to the plantation to see whether they could find the man. When they reached the plantation, they were very much surprised to see that the man was this brother. He was lying dead, with the spear in his neck.

The husband was not vexed at his wife for the death of his brother; he was pleased that she had so well defended herself.

Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Ethnography, Gardens, Magic, Missionaries, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Martyrdom and Terrorism


Also –

Asma Afsaruddin’s excellent ‘Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and Practice: A Historical Survey’, which explores how classical Islamic jurists made the distinction between martyrdom and hiraba, the term used by Islamic jurists to identify and condemn terrorism. (Like the Greek martus, the term shahid originally means ‘witness’; over time it evolves into meaning ‘one who bears witness for the faith’.)

Afsaruddin’s study is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the current debate about who has the right to claim that their actions represent ‘True Islam’.

Originally posted on kateantiquity:

Martyrdom & Terrorism Dustjacket_FotorOne of the nicest things to arrive in the post recently: a publication copy of Martyrdom and Terrorism, the product of a collaboration among historians working on different cultures and periods, in which I took part some time ago. Two of the volume’s three sections are useful in a way that might have been predicted from the title. Part One covers ‘classic’ historical martyrdom, and includes my own ‘Martyrdom, Memory, and the “Media Event”‘ on the Early Christian Period, along with Asma Afsaruddin’s excellent ‘Martyrdom in Islamic Thought and Practice: A Historical Survey’,  which explores how classical Islamic jurists made the distinction between martyrdom  and hiraba, the term used by Islamic jurists to identify and condemn terrorism. (Like the Greek martus, the term shahid originally means ‘witness'; over time it evolves into meaning ‘one who bears witness for the faith’.) Afsaruddin’s study is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the…

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Posted in Christianity, Fundamentalism, History, Islam | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Magicality of Cuisine 4: Feeding the Soil a Stew of Leaves and Bark to Guarantee Successful Gardening, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

Just as people and spirits must be fed, so, too, is the case with the soils that are to be cultivated.  Hence, magically based recipes that are specially destined to nourish the soils and/or spirits associated with a woman’s garden plot were common features of smallholder agriculture as described to the Rev. Robert Nassau in the late Nineteenth Century.

The following example of such a magical recipe for garden soils is complicated – not only with regard to specific wild ingredients, but also in terms of procedures and products to be used and/or hidden.

While it is unclear which of the social groups residing in the Ogowe Watershed in West Africa used this particular recipe, it is probable that similar magical recipes for soils and their spirits were to be found in the area.

We would like to know more: was the dish to feed the spirits of the soil, the ancestors of the women who looked after her garden, or was this aspect of the recipe – who were to be the major recipients of the stew – well explained in local lore?

Now, of course, this process has been largely secularized.  Concoctions placed on the soil of women’s garden plots tend to be either fertilizers or insecticides.  An example of this in our own gardens here on the north shore of Lake Tanganyika is given at the bottom of the blog.

While women do the gardening, men are responsible for tending The palm trees in the gardens.  Source - Mary Kingsley, West African Studies, 1899.

While women do the gardening, men are responsible for tending The palm trees in the gardens. Source – Mary Kingsley, West African Studies, 1899.

Here is what the Rev. Nassau has to say –

Planting is accomplished almost entirely by women:

A man assists his wife in the clearing of the forest for a garden plot;
but she and her servants attend to the planting, weeding, and other working of the garden itself
  • 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 “tubĕ,”
    • another called “injĕnji,”
    • the bark of a tree called “bohamba,”
    • the bark also of elâmbâ, 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 [fire sticks], 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 ground, 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 tubĕ leaves and puts them into:
  • Four little cornucopias (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 breaks 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 time 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 raid or its injury in any other way.
Dabbing each plant with a small amount of goat dung slurry , our contract farming site. However, there are no magical ingredients in this slurry - only goat dung.

Dabbing each plant with a small amount of goat dung slurry at our contract farming site. However, there are no magical ingredients in this slurry – only goat dung.  It is a common method by which smallholders fertilize their crop.

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:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
  3. The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, Ethnography, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa

KingsleyW.AfricanStudies.Batanga Canoes, Ogowe River region of West Africa.  Source - Mary Kingsley, West African Studies

Batanga Canoes, Ogowe River region of West Africa. Source – Mary Kingsley, West African Studies

While early travellers and explorers in Africa tended to ‘extract’ cuisine from its social and cultural context, thus walling off dishes as specific and secularized recipes,  missionaries often did not.  Perhaps due both to their lengthy stays in one region as well as to their focus on sacred as well as secular aspects of the people with whom they lived, their descriptions of rituals and related recipes are sometimes characterized as having fluid boundaries.

We have seen such fluid boundaries in the following entries:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon

In the first instance, the recipe, which is part of a woman’s love charm, emphasizes the food aspects that are integrated with specific magical aspects.  In the second entry, food items are very specific but minimal, whereas the magical steps involved in the preparation are emphasized.

Today’s entry focusses on a magical dish for fishermen, as explained by Rev. Nassau (reference below; recipe-type template added to the original text):

Fishing was an integral aspect of daily life in the Ogowe River watershed and surrounding areas in which Rev. Nassau lived and worked. The following recipe addresses the serious business of guaranteeing success to a fisherman.  Both magic and food are emphasized and the steps involved are very specific:

  • Go in the morning early while the rest of the villagers are asleep, to an adjacent marsh or pond. (Almost all African villages are built on or near the bank of some stream or lake.)
  • Find a place where pond-lilies are growing.
  • Wade into the pond, bend low m the water, and pluck three lily-pads.
  • There are water-spiders, called “ mbwa-ja-miba” (dogs of the water) generally running over the surface of the water at such places; catch four of them.
  • Gather also leaves of another water-plant called “ngama.”

All these articles leave in the village in a safe place.

When other fishers come in from the sea, go to the beach to meet them; and if they have among their catch a certain fish called “hume,” having three spines, beg or buy it.

  • This you are to dry over the fire.

Watch the daily fishing until some one has killed a sharkobtain

  • Its heart, which also is to be dried.
  • Take also a plate full of gourd seeds (nganda) and some ground-nuts (mbenda)
  • also five “fingers” of unripe plantains cut from the living bunch on the stalk, and
  • a tumblerful of palm-oil.

All these above-named ingredients are to be mixed in one pot (which must be earthen) and are to be cooked in it.

  • While the mess is boiling, sit by, face over the pot, in the steam rising from It, and speak into the pot,
    • “Let me catch fish every day! every day ! “
  • No people are to be present, or to see any of these proceedings.
  • Take the pot off the fire, not with your hands, but by your feet, and set it on the ground
  • Take all your fish-hooks, and hold them in the steam arising from the pot.
  • Take a banana leaf that is perfect and not torn by wind, and laying it on the ground, spread out the hooks on it.
  • Then eat the stewed mess, not with a real spoon, but with a leaf twisted as a spoon.
  • In eating, the inedible portions, such as fish-bones, skins, rind, and so forth, are not to be ejected from the mouth on the ground, but must be removed by the fingers and carefully laid on the banana leaf.
  • Having finished eating, call one of the village dogs, as if it was to be given liberty to eat the remains of the mess.
  • As the dog begins to eat, strike it sharply, and as the animal runs away howling, say,
    • “So! may I strike fish!
  • Then kick the pot over.
  • Take the refuse of food from the banana leaf, and the hooks, and lay them at the foot of the plantain stalk from which the five ” fingers ” were cut.
  • Leave the pot lying as it was until night.
  • Then, unseen, take it out into the village street, and violently dash it to pieces on the ground, saying,
    • “So! may I kill fish!”
  • It is expected that the villagers shall not hear the sound of the breaking of the vessel ; for it must be done only when they are believed to be asleep.
  • When the bunch of plantains from which those fingers were taken ripens, and is finally cut down for food by others, you are forbidden to eat not only of it, but of the fruit of any of its shoots that in regular succession, year after year (according to the manner of bananas and plantains), take the place of the predecessor stalk.
  • You may never eat of their fruit.

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.

* * * * *

Notes on less well-known ingredients of the recipe –

  • Lily-pads – the rhizome of the lily is widely eaten in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia; the leaves can also be eaten in stews and soups.
  • Leaves of the water-plant called ngama – I cannot find the translation of this plant; perhaps it is watercress or a similar tasty herb.
  • Water-spiders – various insects are consumed throughout Africa, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.
  • The following fish, Icannotidentify:
    • hume
    • sharkobtain
Travelling by canoe, Ogowe River.  Source - Nassau

Travelling by canoe on the Ogowe River. Source – Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa


Posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Cuisine, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments