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truly African crops, and transplants from America and Asia

Native and Non-native crops

When one considers the number of crops commonly grown in sub-Saharan Africa that originated in some other part of the world, it seems no surprise that sub-Saharan Africans consumed so much bush meat--they seem to have had little else. It is undeniable that over the past two millenniums sub-Saharan African farmers have cultivated many crops that are not native to Africa, but there are also some African crops which have largely been replaced by non-native crops. Africa has always been linked to the Middle East and Asia via the Egyptian and Ethiopian civilizations which brought many crops to Africa even in prehistoric times. More non-native crops came to Africa in two long migrations, the first from Asia, the second from the Americas.

Malayo-Polynesian colonizers from the Pacific Ocean islands came to the islands of Madagascar and the Comoros in the middle of the first millennium AD. There they came into contact with Bantu-speaking Africans who had come from mainland Africa. Together they formed Madagascar's unique African-Asian culture. At more or less the same time, traders from Arabia, who had long sailed along the African, Arabian, and West Asian coasts of the Indian Ocean, reached Zanzibar and the nearby African coast and settled there in increasing numbers. These migrations of Arabs and Persians, combined with African migrations from the mainland, became the Swahili civilization on Africa's East Coast. Both the Malayo-Polynesian and Arab-Persian migrants brought Asian food crops to Africa. These new foodstuffs included Bananas and Plantains; Asian Rice; Taro; Eddo; Cocoyam; Mango; Lime; Breadfruit; Sugarcane; Black Pepper (Piper nigrum); and Ginger; among others. Most of the new crops gradually spread throughout most of tropical Africa. The banana and plantain, along with the ability to work iron into tools and weapons, allowed the Bantu peoples to dominate Central and Southern Africa.

Europeans, particularly the Portuguese, began looking for a sea-route around Africa to Asia in the 1400's; a sea-route would allow Europeans to trade directly (more profitably) with Asia, instead of buying Asian goods from Arab and Turkish middlemen. The Portuguese first sailed around the coast of Southern Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, in 1488, by which time ports (needed to take on fresh water and food) and trading posts had been established along the Atlantic coast of Africa. Four years later Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and the die was cast for the Atlantic slave trade. The Atlantic slave trade obviously took people from Africa to the Americas, but it also brought many foods from the Americas to Africa (and some foods from Africa to the Americas, notably okra). The Europeans brought American food crops to Africa to provide food for enslaved Africans awaiting transport. The most important American food crop brought to Africa was Cassava (also called Manioc) which is grown for its tubers, though in Africa the leaves are also eaten as greens. Other food crops from the Americas that were eventually brought to Africa by European and American traders, missionaries, colonial officials and development experts include: Corn (also called Maize; see: Ugali); Peanuts (often called Groundnuts; see: Peanut Soup); Tomatoes; Chile Peppers (not black pepper); Potatoes; Papaya (Pawpaw); Pineapple; Avocado; Guava; and others.

Thus there is a long list of food crops native to Asia and America that have been cultivated in African for centuries. It would be easy to assume that Africa had no indigenous crops, but this is not true. Important crops indigenous to Africa include: the African Oil Palm, which is grown for its fruit and oil (see: Palm Butter Soup, Poulet Nyembwe, Moambé Stew, and Palm-Oil Chop); various species of Yam (some yams are native to Asia); Millet (such as Finger Millet and Guinea Millet); and Sorghum (also called Durra, Milo, Kafir Corn, and Egyptian Corn). Millet and Sorghum are some of the oldest cultivated cereal crops, grown as long ago as the stone age; these plants have been cultivated for such a long time that their origins, whether African, the Middle Eastern, or Asia, are almost completely obscured by time. The Tamarind tree (despite its botanical name, Tamarindus indica) is native to tropical Africa. Its seed pods are most often used in Indian and Asian cuisine, as well as an ingredient in worcestershire sauce. (See: Mchuzi wa Samaki, Samaki wa Kupaka, Tamarind Drink). There are also many African fruits and vegetables, cultivated or collected from the wild, that are little known outside Africa; for example: a tropical fruit-bearing tree called African Plum or Bush-butter (Dacryodes edulis) by English speakers (Safou and dozens of different names in African languages)--the fruit is the size of a golf ball, has a tough purplish skin, and a layer of bitter greenish fruit surrounding a large seed--boiling it for a minute makes the fruit tender enough to eat.

There are also many crops native to Africa that have been cultivated for centuries but have been largely replaced by non-native crops which are preferable because of their ease of cultivation or higher yield. A few African crops that have been displaced by non-native crops are Grains of Paradise (a spice), the Bambara Groundnut, a plant very similar to its replacement, the American peanut (see: Peanut Soup); and African Rice (Oryza glaberrima), the red-hulled rice of Africa, which has been largely replaced by Asian Rice (Oryza sativa).

An interesting book on this subject is Lost Crops of Africa: volume I, Grains from the National Academy Press (Washington, DC, 1996).


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