Central Africa

views updated

Central Africa

Central Africa is broadly defined as the Congo River basin, plus adjoining areas in equatorial Atlantic-coast Africa. It comprises all (or parts) of Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Rwanda. (The list varies from one authority to another.) Where it meets Africa's Northern and Southern regions there are grassy savannas and veldts, at its juncture with East Africa, mountain ranges and great lakes. Central Africa's dominant feature, however, is equatorial rain-forest and numerous rivers and swamps.

Central African gastronomy is the least known of any other similarly sized region, due partly to lack of documentation, as most Central African languages were not written down until the colonial era of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slaves, ivory, rubber, and minerals, not the region's cuisine, interested most non-Africans (Europeans and Arabs) who went there.

The First Inhabitants

The equatorial forest of Central Africa has remained unchanged by the cycles of global warming and cooling that, over tens of thousands of years, have frozen Europe and dried the Sahara. It is the home of the descendents of the first human inhabitants of the region: the Mbuti, Aka, and Efe people of the Ituri forest, the Twa of the Lake Kivu region, and related peoples. (Collectively these groups are called "Pygmy," a term that has fallen from favor, yet no other collective appellation has emerged.) When the forest people first arrived in Central Africa is unknown. One of them, taken to Egypt by an expedition that explored the area south of Egypt, is mentioned in Egyptian texts from between 2255 to 2152 B.C.E.

Unmatched in their ability to survive in the forest, the forest people live, for the most part, as they have for millennia. Using bows and poison-tipped arrows, nets, or spearssometimes with the aid of Basenji dogsthe men hunt everything from antelope and birds to elephants and hippopotamuses. The women gather berries, fruits, insects, leaves, mushrooms, nuts, and roots. To move from campsite to campsite, they must have lightweight household goods. The most basic cooking methods are appropriate: roasting, smoking, and drying meats, and stewing meats and vegetables. When they kill a large animal, it is easier for them to move to the meat than vice-versa. The Mbuti brew a beverage called "liko" from berries, herbs, and kola nuts. A favorite sweet is wild honey.

The Arrival of Agriculture and New Foods

Over the past two millennia, because they have had increasing contact with other Africanstrading with them (exchanging forest products for agricultural foods and manufactured goods) and partially adopting their languages and culturesforest peoples also eat foods such as the leaves and tubers of cassava (manioc, Manihot esculenta ), rice, beans, peanuts, and tomatoes, from which they prepare stews and sauces.

The "other Africans" are the present-day Kongo, Mongo, Luba, Bwaka, Kwango, Lulua, Lunda, Kasai, Douala, and related peoples (there are hundreds of Central African ethnic groups). Collectively, they are called Bantu speakers, as their languages are part of the Bantu language group. (Bantu is a linguistic designation, not a racial one, and can be misleading because many people who speak Bantu languages are not related to the original speakers.) Bantu speakers began migrating into Central Africa from around the Nigeria-Cameroon border approximately two to three thousand years ago.

Over the course of several centuries, the population of Bantu speakers increased and they spread throughout Central and Southern Africa because they did two things that the original forest inhabitants did not: they worked iron into tools and weapons (Central Africa completely skipped the Bronze Age), and they obtained food from agriculture and, to a lesser extent, domesticated animals. (Diseases carried by Africa's tsetse fly prevent keeping livestock.) The forest people had lived in and with the forest; the Bantu speakers turned forests into farms. However, food obtained by hunting and gathering remained (and continues to be) an important part of their diet. In many Bantu languages, the words for "animal" and "meat" come from the same root, attesting to the close association of the two.

Contributing to Bantu expansion were Asian food crops that arrived in Africa at roughly the same time (circa the first century C.E.): bananas, plantain, and tuber crops such as yam and taro, which have been staple foods ever since. African varieties of millet, rice, sorghum, other yam species, and okra were also cultivated. Agricultural production of these high-yield crops enabled the Bantu speakers to increase their population dramatically, and they are now the overwhelming majority. More increases in population, and further migrations, occurred after the 1500s, when crops from the Americas were introduced to Africa: cassava, corn (maize), peanuts (groundnuts), tomatoes, chili peppers, sweet potatoes, papaya, pineapple, and avocado.

Central Africans have practiced swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture for centuries. Men clear the forest and prepare the ground, but women do the rest of the work on the "plantation" or "shamba" (cultivated fields): planting, weeding, and harvesting.

Not every crop grown in Africa has been imported, but foreign crops have replaced many indigenous crops. The American peanut (Arachis hypogaea ) replaced the Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea ); Asian rice (Oryza sativa ) replaced African rice (Oryza glaberrima ); the chili pepper (Capsicum ) replaced melegueta pepper (grains of paradise, Aframomum melegueta ); and onions and garlic replaced various herbs and roots. Even the salt changed. In the Central African interior, the only salt once widely available came from various plants. It was obtained by burning leaves or bark, soaking the ashes in water, and evaporating the water in pans. Some cooks still use sel indigène (indigenous salt) or substitute baking soda to approximate its taste. Thus, foodways have not been static throughout history, and the larder was stocked for contemporary Central African cuisine.

Stews and Starches

Stewing has probably been the most common cooking method in Central Africa for centuries. Central African kitchens are located apart from the living and sleeping quarters. In each a large pot or cauldron for making stews rests on three stones above a wood fire. These dishes are usually simple, made with only a few ingredients. Stews are usually thickened with African oil palm fruit or crushed peanuts, but other thickeners are also used: crushed seeds of Cucurbitaceae (gourds, melons, and pumpkins), known by the West African name, egusi, and called mbika in Central Africa; crushed seed kernels of the mangue sauvage (wild mango) fruit (Irvingia gabonensis ), called odika, dika, or etima ; and okra, which is called ngumbo.

It is difficult to know whether to call these dishes stews, soups, or sauces. Part of the confusion is that they are eaten with a starchy staple dish. Many Africans believe that the only real meal is one that combines a stew or sauce with a starch. In West Africa, fufu is boiled pounded yam or plantain. In Central Africa the same process, pounding with mortar and pestle (often made from an entire tree trunk and limb), followed by boiling and vigorous stirring or steaming, is used to make similar starchy staples. The word fufu refers to a dish made by boiling any sort of flour: maize, sorghum, millet, or cassava. (Cassava flour is dried ground cassava tuber; tapioca is the same thing.) These foods, called "dumplings" or "porridges" by English speakers, are comparable to East Africa's ugali and Southern Africa's nsima, or sadza. Another fufu-like staple is prepared by soaking cassava tubers in water for a few days, pounding them, then wrapping the resulting pulp in leaves and steaming it. The soaking and steaming breaks down poisonous cyanide compounds in the tubers. The finished product is called kwanga, chickwangue, bobolo, mboung or placali (usually ball-shaped), or baton de manioc (manioc stick). Women prepare kwanga in large batches to sell, ready-to-eat, in the market. They make the flour-based dumplings and porridges, as needed, in the home. These foods are heavy and thick, much more so than mashed potatoes. Many non-Africans do not like them at first, but they often make the mistake of taking a bite of such starches without sauce. Africans eat these bland starchy foods with a stew or sauce, usually heavily seasoned. As with West African fufu, a bite-sized piece of the kwanga (or something similar) is pulled off, dipped into the stew, then eaten. Rice and European-style bread, especially French baguettes, are also eaten with stew.


One distinguishing characteristic of Central African cooking is the use of edible leaves, which Americans call "greens." Indeed, the greens of the southeastern United Statescollard greens, kale, and mustard greenshave their roots in Africa. In French-speaking Central Africa these are commonly called "feuilles" (leaves). It is hard to overstate the amount and variety of greens consumed. Oftentimes greens are the main ingredient in the daily stew, cooked with only a little onion, hot pepper, meat, fish, or oil for flavoring. Some of the greens consumed in Central Africa are bitterleaf, cassava, okra, pumpkin, sorrel, sweet potato, and taro. People cultivate greens and gather them from the wild. Cassava leaves ("feuilles de manioc") are the most commonly farmed. In many tropical areas of the world cassava is grown primarily for its tubers, but Africans have a long tradition of eating both the leaves and the tubers of this plant. Gnetum africanum, called okok, koko, or eru, is a variety of greens that grows wild. Before cooking, women pound greens in a mortar and pestle, or roll them like giant cigars and use a sharp knife to shred them finely. Saka-saka, or pondu, is a dish made from cassava leaves, onion, and a bit of dried fish. Saka-madesu is cassava leaves cooked with beans. Another recipe, variations of which are found all over sub-Saharan Africa, calls for greens to be cooked with tomato, onion, and mashed peanuts. Other greens dishes are made with tomato, onion, chili pepper, and fresh, salted, or smoked fish, or even canned sardines. Greens and meat are also often cooked together.

Red Palm Oil

Another distinguishing characteristic of Central African cuisine is the use of red palm oil, obtained from the fruit of the African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis (not to be confused with the clear oil pressed from the hard kernel). Reddish and thick, it has a distinctive flavor for which there is no substitute. Women make red palm oil, or palm butter, at home by boiling and hand-squeezing fresh palm nuts. The oily pulp is cooked with chicken, onion, tomato, okra, garlic, or sorrel leaves, and chili pepper to produce a stew called moambé or poulet nyembwe (also gnemboue ). Moambé is also made with other meats. This is one of many Central African dishes related to West African counterparts, in this case the West African palm oil chop, though the Central African versions tend to be simpler and made with fewer ingredients. Outside of Africa, canned palm soup base (also called sauce graine, noix de palme, or cream of palm fruit) can be used.


Peanuts are roasted and eaten as snacks, but they are used more interestingly in stews and sauces. The chicken-groundnut stewmade from chicken, peanuts, tomato, onion, and chili pepperis common in Central Africa, as it is throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Peanut sauces are served with roasted meats or fried fish, or boiled yams, sweet potatoes, or rice. Greens are cooked in groundnut sauce; meat, fish, or fowl can be added to produce a variety of stews.

As with red palm oil, there are similarities between the ways peanuts are used in Central African and West African cooking. West Africa's groundnut chop is similar to the muamba nsusu (chicken soup) of the Kongo people, though the Central African versionmade with chicken, onion, palm oil, tomato, ground peanuts, and hot chili pepperis the less elaborate of the two. It is also the source of the peanut soups served in colonial North America. Many Americans mistakenly believe that peanuts are indigenous to Africa and were brought by Africans to the United States. After all, an American name for the peanut, "goober," comes from its Kongo name, "nguba." Africans may have brought peanuts to North America, but in fact they are indigenous to South America and were introduced to Africa in the early 1500s. (Diffusionist historians, who posit that Africans sailed between Africa and the Americas before Columbus, challenge this.) Africans quickly adopted the American peanut because it resembles an indigenous African plant, the Bambara groundnut. Like the American peanut, the seeds (legumes) of the Bambara groundnut grow and ripen underground. Africans used the Bambara groundnut in the same way they use the peanut. For various reasons, farmers and consumers preferred the American peanut, and the Bambara groundnut is a nearly forgotten crop.

Banana Leaves

An interesting Central African cooking method is steaming or grilling food wrapped in packets fashioned from the leaves of banana trees or other plants. This is an old cooking method, predating the use of iron, maybe even clay cooking pots. It is very practical when camping or traveling as it eliminates the need to carry pots, and the leaves can also be used as plates and bowls.

Certain leaves are especially favored because they give a particular flavor to food. Kwanga, for example, is wrapped in leaf packets before its final steaming. Maboké (singular liboké, also called ajomba or jomba )leaf-wrapped packets of meat or fish, with onion, tomato, maybe okra, seasoned with lemon juice or hot chili pepperare grilled over hot coals or steamed in a pot. Crushed peanuts, or mbika, are sometimes included in the packets. Filling the leaf packets with mashed beans (such as black-eyed peas) and sautéed peppers, then steaming, produces koki (also called ekoki or gâteau de haricots ).

Meat, Fish, and Fowl

Generally, people in Central Africa eat meat, fish, or fowl whenever possible. Every village has domesticated chickens (or guinea fowl) and goats. Wild game, viande de brousse or bushmeat, is very common: antelope, birds, buffalo, crocodiles, fish, monkeys, pangolins, wild boars, and many other species are hunted. Almost every type of wildlifefrom insects to primatesis hunted and eaten in Africa, though individual ethnic groups have their own traditions regarding what is edible and what is not. Some will eat snake meat, for example, while others will not. There are many traditional beliefs concerning who should eat certain foods and who should not: for example, a certain food may be reserved for men because it is believed that women who eat it cannot become pregnant or will suffer other ill effects. Women in the Odzala region of the Congo Republic do not eat gorilla meat, fearing that doing so would cause their husbands to become as brutal as gorillas.

Killing a large animal means a feast for everyone. Where there is no refrigeration, drying, salting, or smoking meat or fish is used to preserve it. All sorts of bush-meatantelope, buffalo, crocodiles, hippopotamusesas well as fish, are preserved in this way. When meat is not plentiful, a small amount is added to stews for flavor.

Beverages, Snacks, and Desserts

Bottled beer and soft drinks, sometimes unrefrigerated, are available throughout Central Africa. Traditional beverages include vin de palme (palm wine), self-fermented palm tree sap. Beer is made from corn, millet, plantains, and sorghum. Cassava, yam, or plantain porridges are thinned with water to make breakfast beverages, weaning foods for infants, and nutritious drinks for convalescents. Coffee and tea are also popular beverages. Central Africans are great snackers. Vendors selling hot beignets (French-style doughnuts), fried plantain, grilled corn-on-the-cob, kola nuts, brochettes (shish kabobs), roasted peanuts, soft drinks, and various fruits are seen on urban streets and near bus and taxi stops and train depots.

Generally, the traditional Central African meal is not followed by a dessert course. Sweet snacks include sugar cane, fruits, and European-style candies.

Food and Eating Customs

Traditionally, women and girls do the cooking. Men and guests eat apart from women and children. Oftentimes, breakfast is leftovers from the prior evening, a snack is eaten during the day, and a large meal is eaten in the early afternoon. People have adopted the Western custom of three meals a day, with certain foods, like bread and coffee, eaten primarily for breakfast.

Many other Western influences are seen in Central African cuisine. In urban areas, much of the diet of well-to-do consumers would be familiar to any European or American: hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream. Even in small towns, people can obtain imported spaghetti, canned meats and vegetables, and L'Arome Maggi® bouillon cubes (which seem to be essential for cooking). In both urban and rural areas, farmers and traders sell locally produced foodstuffs in open-air markets. Cities also have sprawling markets that are busy from sunrise until late at night, while small-town markets may be open only one day a week. In rural areas, households sell farm produce and bushmeat on the roadside, displaying it on a barrel or table. It is common to see urban dwellers lugging home large sacks of food after a visit to the countryside.

Festivals and Celebrations

People in Central Africa celebrate Christmas, New Year's, the end of the school year, and marriage with parties and family gatherings. African religious festivals and ceremonies, however, vary from one group to another. Many ethnic groups celebrate the nkanda or mukanda, which are initiations for young people. They signify the beginning of adulthood and may include ceremonial songs and dances, special teachings given in seclusion, induction to secret societies, circumcision, and symbolic death and rebirth. There may be special foods that are consumed only on these occasions, and there is always an emphasis on having plenty of food, preparing elaborate dishes, and, perhaps, obtaining imported food and drink. The African-influenced Christian Kimbanguist Church prohibits eating pork or monkey or drinking alcohol.

Central African cuisine will no doubt continue to adapt to new circumstances and adopt new influences. More attention should be paid to this relatively little-known area.

See also Banana and Plantain ; Game ; Hunting and Gathering ; Nuts ; United States: African American Foodways .


Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Selections from The Congo Diary. New York: Modern Library, 1999. Classic account of the Congo Free State.

Food and Agriculture Organization. FAO Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture. Special Report. Rome: FAO. Available at http://www.fao.org/giews/.

Food and Agriculture Organization. Crop and Food Supply Situation in Kinshasa and the Provinces of Bas-Congo and Bandundu of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2000.

Forbath, Peter. The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration, and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic River. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Grace, M. R. "Cassava Processing." FAO Plant Production and Protection Series No. 3. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1977.

National Research Council (U.S.), Board on Science and Technology for International Development. Grains. Lost Crops of Africa, vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996.

Hachten, Harva. Kitchen Safari: A Gourmet's Tour of Africa. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998. Missionary family in Belgian Congo, as colonial era ends.

Meditz, Sandra W., and Tim Merrill, eds. Zaire: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1994.

Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. Novel set in early independence-era Kisangani, Zaire.

Post, Laurens van der. First Catch Your Eland. New York: Morrow, 1978.

Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Tayler, Jeffrey. Facing the Congo. St. Paul, Minn.: Ruminator Books, 2000. Recent voyage down Congo River.

Van Sertima, Ivan. They Came before Columbus. New York: Random House, 1976.

Viola, Herman J., and Carolyn Margolis, eds. Seeds of Change: A Quincentennial Commemoration. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.

Winternitz, Helen. East Along the Equator: A Journey up the Congo and into Zaire. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Ed Gibbon

Central African Cuisine

Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century traveler and writer, is famous for his efforts to discover the source of the Nile and his account of a visit to Mecca. He could have been describing Central African cuisine when he described the food he encountered in Bonny River, in present-day Nigeria, near the boundary between Central Africa and West Africa . In the first sentence, Burton gives the "Anglicé" (English) names for African foods: "obeoka" = fowl; "nda" = fish; "fufu" = mashed yam; "fula" = soup; and "tomeneru" = tombo, or palm wine.

breakfast is served. It is a little dinner, ordinarily consisting of obeoka, nda, fufu, fula and tomeneru,Anglicé, fowl, fish, mashed yam, soup i.e. (the liquid in which stews have been boiled), and tombo, or palm-wine the latter however, hard, tasting like soapsuds, and very intoxicating. The cooking is excellent, when English dishes are not attempted. . . . Most of the dishes are boiled, and copiously peppered with cayenne and green chili pods to induce thirst. There are many savoury messes of heterogeneous compounds, fish, fresh and dried, oysters, clams, and cockles, poultry, goat and deer, salt beef or ship's pork, yams, plantains and palm oil. Smoked shrimps are pounded in a wooden pestle and mortar, with mashed yam for consistency, and are put into the soup like forcemeat balls.

A dinner similar to breakfast is eaten at 4 to 5 P.M. Soup and stews are the favorite ménu, and mashed yam acts as a substitute for bread. It is also made into a spoon by a deep impression of the thumb, and thus it carries a thimblefull of soup with every mouthful of yam. The evening is passed with the aid of music, chatting with the women, and playing with the children.

SOURCE: Richard F. Burton. Wanderings in West Africa. Vol. 2. New York: Dover, 1991, p. 289.

Diffusionism: Did Ancient Africans Sail to the Americas?

Who came to the Americas, and when, is a subject of debate between scholars who believe that ancient peoples, including Africans, sailed the world's oceans to the Americas, and others who say there is no evidence of pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New.

The traditional view is that Native Americans, after migrating into North America from Asia (via Beringia) tens of thousands of years ago, gradually spread south and east, developing their civilizations without input from the Old World until Christopher Columbus (or Leif Erickson) sailed across the Atlantic in recent historical times. Likewise, the traditional view holds that plants, foods, and cultural artifacts of the Western Hemisphere did not reach the Old World (and vice versa) until the post-1492 era of European conquest.

The diffusionist view of history challenges traditional scholarship. Diffusionist historians maintain that, in addition to the Asian incursion across Beringia, there were many transoceanic contacts between the Old World and the New, beginning in ancient times and continuing until the era of Columbian exploration. Supporting the diffusionist position is the life's work of Thor Heyerdahl, who proved that it is possible to sail great distances using ancient shipbuilding and navigational technology (in 1947 sailing from Peru to eastern Polynesia and in 1969 sailing from North Africa to Barbados on balsam rafts). Further support comes both from the existence of Old World artifacts in the New World (and vice versa) that evidently predate the Columbian era and from oral history. Opponents of diffusionism argue that because ancient peoples could have sailed across the ocean is no proof that they actually did, that other evidence is either coincidental, occurred after Columbus, or has not been correctly dated, and that oral history is only myth. Complicating the debate are charges of prejudice from both sides.

As concerns Africa, diffusionist scholars believe that Egyptians and Phoenicians sailed to the New World in ancient times, as did Malians (of the former Sudanese Republic) in medieval times, observing that the design of Mesoamerican pyramids is strikingly similar to those found in Egypt and that Mesoamerican statues depict African explorers. If regular trade relations between Africa and the Americas are assumed, American plants such as cassava, chili, maize, tomato, and tobacco may have been known in Africa hundreds of years before they were introduced by Europeans. Likewise, African foodways may have been brought to the Americas before Columbus. It has been a quarter century since the publication of the important (though by no means only) work in this field: They Came before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima. More research and evidence are needed before this debate can be resolved.


"Bushmeat" (or, in French, viande de brousse ) is wild game, meat taken from wild animals of the African forest or savannah, often called "the bush." Bushmeat can come from nearly any species of wildlife including antelope, boar, buffalo, cane rat, chimpanzee, crocodile, elephant, gorilla, hippopotamus, monkey, pangolin, and porcupine, as well as various birds and reptiles. Each ethnic group has its own traditions and taboos concerning which animals can be eaten and which cannot, but hunting wild animals for meat (and other products) is an extremely old tradition, predating the development of agriculture. Certain African peoples are herders and farmers, but in parts of Africa afflicted with the tsetse fly or poor forest soil and climate the food produced from domesticated animals and plants may not be sufficient to replace what hunting can provide.

Traditionally, hunting is a sign of manhood in much of Africa, and it is considered "men's work," whereas women are expected to tend the fields and care for children. Also, as is the case with horsemeat in France, people believe that certain types of bushmeat are especially healthful or possess curative properties. Bushmeat is an important protein source in the diet of rural people; when they do not eat it, the money they earn from selling it is a significant portion of their income.

Like loss of habitat and poaching animals only for their hides or tusks (leaving the meat for vultures and insects), hunting for bushmeat threatens African wildlife with extinction. In the past, human populations were small and hunting was less of a threat to the survival of any given animal species; also, certain types of bushmeat were reserved only for the chief. Modern times have brought larger populations, the development of urban elites willing to pay high prices for favorite bushmeat, roads connecting rural villages to large cities, and airports connecting Africa to the outside world. The resultant commercial trade in bushmeat has caused many ecologists to be concerned about the possible extinction of certain species. As populations and incomes grow, the demand for bushmeat is likely to increase. Logging activities in virgin forests, which bring roads and trucks to undeveloped areas, have the unintended consequence of connecting rural hunters to urban markets, and many logging workers supplement their income by being bushmeat middlemen, in addition to consuming bushmeat themselves. Hunting is generally a laissez-faire enterprise, and national and international regulations concerning wildlife and hunting are usually ignored. Any awareness among rural people of the need to preserve wildlife is outweighed by their need for food and money. It is easy for people outside of Africa to criticize their customs and actions, but it should be remembered that Africans are not the first to hunt an animal to extinction, as the history of aurochs, dodo birds, passenger pigeons, and other species makes clear.

About this article

Central Africa

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article