West Africa

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West Africa

West Africa is composed of eighteen countries occupying various climate zones. The coastal region from Guinea-Bissau to Cameroon is characterized by abundant rainfall (with a rainy season of at least six months) and a thick forest of massive evergreen trees. A drier region, the savanna, lies five hundred miles north of the forest, and receives enough rainfall to sustain vast areas of rarer trees and grasses. The semiarid zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the savanna to the south is called the Sahel, which in some years has a dry season of over nine months. North of the Sahel lies the Sahara Desert.

Ancient West Africa

Eight thousand years ago, during Europe's Ice Age, the Sahara Desert supported large populations in a lush, fertile environment dominated by savanna grassland and woodland. Fruits and vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, and cattle provided a reliable and abundant food supply that sustained a sedentary population as it grew and developed. Fishing populations flourished along numerous rivers and streams that flowed throughout the Sahara. As the Sahara's climate changed, becoming dry and mostly desert, migrations south to arable land increased the populations of sub-Saharan Africa.

Cultivation of crops in West Africa is theorized to have originated around the headwaters of the Niger River. Millet seems to have been the first important crop, and may have been eaten in a porridge. The techniques developed for crop cultivation of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices were indigenous to Africa. The Diola of Guinea-Bissau, for example, transformed most of the mangrove swamps lining a number of river estuaries into a network of paddy fields. Their techniques of dyking, desalinating, ridging, and transplanting antedate all European influence. The Yoruba and Bini and other Nigerian societies have lived in settled communities on the same sites for several hundred years, evolving agricultural systems that allow continuous cultivation of their soils without significant or permanent loss of fertility.

Traditional Sources of Sustenance

In the forests of Ghana, as well as in Cameroon, traditional crops such as the cocoyam (taro) and plantain are successfully cultivated. These plants, together with raffia and oil palms, maize, cassava, African rice, and kola, thrive in the long rainy seasons, which run approximately nine months of the year.

Many West Africans who were not farmers were pastoralists or fishermen. Fish were eaten raw or pickled, fried, boiled, and prepared by "gumboing." Dried shrimp and crayfish are still essential ingredients in stews and sauces, some of which combine different types of fish with coconut milk and other ingredients. Crab, lobster, cod, mackerel, sole, pike, prawn, gilthead, eel, shrimp, sprat, flounder, carp, and other varieties of seafood provided "fisher folk," such as the Twi of Ghana and the Muslim Bozo, with fish to sell at markets located well into the interior of the continent. In many West African cities these open-air retail markets were principally in the hands of women, who were economically independent traders.

The market streets were filled with stalls selling calabashes, palm oil, palm wine, ducks, chickens, fresh beef, mutton, and other meats, yams and yam fritters, guinea corn (sorghum) and millet beers, groundnuts, raw and cooked beans, thin brown cakes (said to smell like gingerbread), bean cakes, karra (meal dumplings), oblong bean buns called jenkaraga, and soups and stews. Some of the ready-made dishes included enjibotchi (rice with sauce), ekoa (durra [a sorghum grain] porridge), killishi (roasted meat, marinated and basted with oil, herbs, and spices), and atchia-kara (a yam and vegetable sauce ladled over chunks of beef, goat, and lamb).

An item used in Africa from antiquity, kola is indigenous to the forest zone of West Africa and is still preferred by Muslims who are prohibited from using alcohol and tobacco. It was valued as a refreshing stimulant and food by desert travelers during the trans-Saharan caravan trade and in the early stages of trade between the rain-forest regions, the Sahel, and beyond. In the sixteenth century, Askia Mahmoud supplied kola to his Songhai troops as an "energizer" before battle. Over forty species of kola are grown in the region between Sierra Leone and the Congo, with several varieties existing in Ghana alone. From ancient times, West Africans have also used different parts of the kola plant for treating swellings and fresh wounds. Ghanaians use it to reduce labor pain during childbirth and for treating guinea worm. In addition, kola nuts were used as primary flavorings in Coca-Cola and other beverages before kola substitutes were manufactured.

Culinary Taboos and the Social Significance of Cattle Raising

Although chicken, lamb, mutton, and goat were raised and widely consumed, some societies adhered to taboos relating to one or all of these meats and their byproducts. Egg consumption is still forbidden in some regions, as it is believed to turn young males into thieves and make childbirth difficult for women. The Mbum women of southwestern Chad, for example, do not eat any kind of eggs, chicken, or goat for fear of pain and death in childbirth, giving birth to abnormal or unhealthy children, or becoming sterile. In societies where goats were believed to have dietary value, they were bred specifically for their milk. In others, such as in the pastoral regions of the Sahel, goat milk is less favored than cows' milk as an item of trade, but is consumed by children and herders in the field. (Lactose intolerance among some West African peoples prevents them from drinking milk.) Lamb was usually grilled or barbecued and served at special feasts. Muslims prepared whole rams for the Id el fetr, a major festival.

Throughout Africa, cattle assumed a great importance in social, economic, and religious affairs. Cows were slaughtered and various beef dishes prepared for special occasions such as weddings, the naming of babies, festivals, or funerals. Cattle raising among the Bororo clan of the Fulani herdspeople (Fulani are dispersed throughout West Africa, from Senegal to Cameroon) is carried out by men who are charged with the herds' daily pasturing and watering, veterinary care, and seasonal movements. Women milk the cows and market the milk. The Bororo produce enough milk to support the family year-round, living primarily on dishes made with milk, cheese, and butter. They sell their milk products (or heads of cattle, if milk production decreases) to pay for other foods. Meat is not a staple part of the diet, but sometimes male or aged cattle are slaughtered and eaten on ceremonial occasions. The people of the northern regions, however, consume large amounts of barbecued beef.

Cattle are raised by the Mande peoples (numerous West African ethnic groups, including peoples of both the savanna and forest, that speak a Mande language) primarily for prestige, dowry payments, and sacrificial offerings. For other peoples, cattle not only provide meat, hides, manure, and milk, they are also needed for pulling loads.

The Legacy of Colonialism and Slavery

Slavery and colonialism sharply depleted the traditional abundance of meats and other foods after Europeans "discovered" Africa's wealth in the early sixteenth century. Colonialist control over African land and resources led to crop production almost exclusively for export. Profits from expanding agricultural exports went to foreign trading companies and colonial administrators, not to improve the lives of African peoples. "Cash crops," or the major exports, became palm oil from most of the coastal forest zone (a main source of lubricant for industrial machinery before the development of petroleum in the latter half of the nineteenth century), gum arabic from Senegal (a hardened resin substance extracted from acacia trees used to fix colored dyes in printed cloth in European textile factories), groundnuts from Guinea, coffee (the largest nonfuel export), and cocoa (primarily from Ghana, but Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast were also major producers). In the twentieth century, rubber from Firestone Tire plantations in Liberia was added to the list of exports.

The increases in production of export crops meant that production of food crops dropped and food prices rose. Sierra Leone, Liberia, and most of what was then called French West Africa were forced to import rice and other foods, even though they could grow their own. The market value of export crops also reduced the available land for staple foods at the expense of the native population. Another reason for the neglect of staple food crops was the depletion of the labor force. The slave trade drained an estimated forty million Africans from the continent between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In addition, for those men between 18 and 60 years of age who remained, colonial law mandated that they labor a certain number of days for the state. Hundreds of thousands of young men left home to escape conscript labor laws in force in various parts of West Africa and found work on coffee, cocoa, and groundnut plantations in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Senegal.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, urbanization and social change in some areas also pulled many people away from agricultural work, as the introduction of packaged and canned convenience foods made the traditional "from scratch" methods of food production and preparation almost obsolete. Still, West African holidays, feasts, and celebrations have been maintained, with some alterations, and continue to showcase the numerous dishes prepared with indigenous ingredients.

Festive and Everyday Dishes

Celebrations and festivities mark numerous occasions: the start of seasonal rains, new planting season ceremonies (between May and August), the "first fruits," the call for blessings for good harvests, the harvest, the start of the hunting and fishing seasons, weddings, the birth of a baby (mothers are celebrated as well on this day), the baby-naming ceremony, pubertal initiation rites, festival dances, the completion of the building of a new home, religious holidays, and funerals. Huge feasts are the highlight of such celebrations, and numerous special main dishes, meats, breads, and snacks are prepared. Banga and jollof rice (a spicy Ghanaian dish of chicken, ham, stewed tomatoes, and onions), egusi (melon seeds) and peanut stews and coconut soup, tiger-nut mold (a favorite pudding made with fish and yams), bean and abala (ground rice) puddings, roasted and barbecued meats, cassava dumplings (prepared with the leaves of the fluted pumpkin), tiébou dienn (pronounced "cheb-oo jen," Senegal's national dish, a fish and rice stew made with yams, okra, eggplant, cabbage, and chili peppers), vegetable side dishes (such as akee cooked with two or three varieties of greens), coconut candy, chinchin (twisted cakes), abacha mmili (cassava chips), ipekere (plantain chips), meensa (millet cakes), and banana fritters (rolled in groundnuts and sorghum or corn flour or cassava meal before frying) are just a few of the items on the celebration menus. Poulet yassa, chicken marinated in a lemon and onion mixture then grilled or sautéed, is one of Senegal's most famous dishes.

These are foods enjoyed in most of the countries within the Sahelian zone today (Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Cape Verde), where some of the dominant staple foods are millets, Bambara groundnuts, yams, Asian rice, sorghum, cassava, cowpeas (black-eyed peas; there are forty varieties), sesame (mixed with wheat for biscuits, used in chicken recipes, and in sesame sucre [sugar], a children's snack), maize, peanuts, and fonio (for hot breakfast cereal). Dominating the diets of the coastal countries (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon) are cassava, Asian rice, maize, cowpeas, lima beans, pigeon peas, sorghum, peanuts, plantains, cocoyam (taro), and yams. Plantain is the basic ingredient for many popular snack foods throughout Côte d'Ivoire, and, with bananas, bridges the gap between the dry season and harvest months of January to May, when other staples are unavailable or scarce. The cocoyam is rapidly becoming a major staple in coastal communities, while cultivation of yams in producer countries has been gradually decreasing. Nigeria is the world's largest producer of cocoyam, followed by Ghana. Served by themselves, or mixed with plantains, yams, or cassava and other ingredients, cocoyams are used to make the traditional dish called fufu (also fou fou ): the staples are cooked and pounded into a smooth soft dough used to make dumplings.

In addition to being popular foods, cocoyams and yams have always carried social and cultural significance. In Nigeria, the cocoyam festival, Alube, is celebrated annually in May. Yams are intertwined in the social, cultural, and religious life of the farming communities where they are the major crop. In remote areas of West Africa, yams were an important status symbol, conferring prestige on families who consumed large quantities. Many customs dictate that yams should be used to wean babies, and special yam dishes are prepared for birth rituals and the naming ceremony for children. In some societies, yams are also important foods for funerals as ceremonial offerings to the gods and to the spirits of the departed, in others as food during the funeral feasts.

Throughout West Africa, the yam is revered by many traditional societies including the Ibo of eastern and midwestern Nigeria. Although many of their customs have been lost or modified due to European influence, it is believed that the Ibo are more devoted to yam cultivation than any other yam producers. Their religious devotion to the food has prevented its displacement by other crops.

The New Yam Festival is, in many West African regions, the most important celebration of the year. The annual festivals are associated with planting but more particularly with the yam harvest. Some of the groups that celebrate the festival include the Ashanti of Ghana, the Ibo and Yako of eastern Nigeria, the Yoruba of western Nigeria, the peoples of the eastern Ivory Coast, the Ewe of Togo, the people of Benin, the Tiv of the Benue region of northern Nigeria, and the Kalabari of the eastern Niger Delta.

Other Indigenous Foods

Yams can be stored for six to nine months, but if they begin to run low, they are usually supplemented by fruits, seeds, and nuts that grow in abundance at different times of the year. In various regions of West Africa, these crops include the African breadfruit, the African pear, the incense tree, the star apple, the African mango, the shea butter tree (Vitelleria paradoxa, which produces a nutlike fruit57 percent of its seed's weight is oil), various species of gourd (many have yamlike roots that grow deep underground), and the cultivated species of sword lily or corn-flat, the Leguminosae, which produces tubers and edible roots, and the all-purpose baobab tree.

The baobab grows wild in the savanna regions of Mali and other areas of West Africa. Rope was made from its bark and medicines were manufactured from extracted liquids as well as from its dried leaves; the dried leaves were also used as a thickener for stews. In addition, its fruit is not only a great source of vitamin C, but is also used to make refreshing drinks containing tartaric and other acids. A meal for making bread was derived from this plant, as was a red dye.

Sorghum, another indigenous food crop, also provides a red dye that is rubbed into animal skins to make red leather, and its stems yield large amounts of sugar. Sorghum is probably one of the world's most versatile food crops with undeveloped genetic potential. In Nigeria, young children eat the yellow varieties of sorghum to prevent blindness because their diets are deficient in vitamin A. The most common food prepared in Nigeria is tuwo, made by stirring sorghum flour into hot water and allowing the thick paste to cool and gel. Once cooled, tuwo is cut or broken up and eaten with soup. In West Africa it is generally known as guinea corn, and the grains of certain varieties are popped like popcorn. Sorghum grain is made into flour for a thick pancake batter fried in groundnut oil; sorghum beer is a favorite beverage consumed at wrestling matches as burkutu, an alcoholic gruel, or as pito, with the sediment removed. Dawaki are flat fried cakes made with a mixture of sorghum and bean flours, and sometimes accompany soups. A flour and water batter, akamu, is used to flavor and thicken porridges and cereals.

Sorghum, rice, maize, yams, plantains, cassava, and taro (cocoyam) are staples along with common ingredients such as onions, tomatoes, palm fruits, egusi and other melon seeds (used for thickening), okra, pumpkin, coconut, coconut milk, and a variety of nuts. Fish, meat, and vegetable dishes are heavily seasoned with numerous hot peppers and spices, such as Guinea pepper grains (melegueta ), spicy cedar (called atiokwo in the Ivory Coast; the seeds are roasted, ground, and used in soups or with leafy vegetables), tea bush (known as an-gbonto in Sierra Leone; its fragrant leaves are used to flavor meat dishes and vegetable, egusi, and palm nut soups), African locust bean (harvested, boiled, and fermented to produce dawadawa, an indispensable condiment in Nigerian and Cameroonian cuisine), and West African black pepper (known as fukungen to the people of The Gambia and Senegal). Several oils are used in preparing West African dishes, such as groundnut (or peanut, sometimes preferred in stews), melon seed, sesame seed (gingelly or gingili ), coconut, corn, shea butter, and palm, the favorite because it imparts a reddish color to foods. Cooking methods include frying, simmering or boiling, roasting and steaming (foods are steamed in banana, plantain, miraculous berry, cocoyam leaves, or corn sheaths), and baking, or combinations of two or three of these methods. Broiling was added in the twentieth century.

Two to three very large meals are prepared and consumed daily, and West Africans eat until they are full. Breakfast can consist of pap (or ogi, a hot beverage made with corn meal, milk or sour milk, and sugar), akara (bean cakes made with black-eyed peas or other beans, water, salt, onions, and peppers, then fried in peanut or palm oil), moi-moi (steamed bean pudding, made with blackeyed peas or other beans), roasted or fried plantains, and tea or coffee. West Africans enjoy gari (the dried and ground form of cassava) with soup for lunch, along with okra, egusi or agbono soup (seeds from the egusi melon are toasted and ground; agbono are the dry seeds from the African mango, ground to a smooth paste before using), and fufu (pounded yam). All soups contain various greens, such as ukazi and cassava leaves, and smoked or dried shrimp and crayfish. For dinner, there is jollof rice or coconut rice with roasted meats, boiled rice and a chicken, beef, or fish stew (or palm nut or pepper soup) containing okra, cabbage, groundnuts (or peanuts), and other ingredients. Vegetable side dishes, including beans and rice or rice garnished with fried plantains, are very popular. An indigenous Ghanaian dish, kenke, is steamed pudding made with fermented maize pulp; its two varieties are served with soups and stews. Occasionally fruits are served as appetizers, but traditionally all dishes are served at the same time rather than in courses. Fruits, nuts, and snacks, such as chinchin (twisted cakes sold by vendors along roadside markets), are sometimes eaten between meals.


As host for centuries to fortune hunters, colonialist regimes, and migrations from Europe and other countries, West Africa has been perceived as the recipient, not the provider, of cuisine and culture. Even as French and other foreign languages began to blend with those native to the continent, thereby changing the names of certain dishes, and as minor changes in ingredients were made in those dishes (by way of foreign influence), West African cuisine remained a significant cultural force.

Archeological excavations, together with new studies on Africa's agricultural and culinary past, demonstrate that Africa had many indigenous crops. Unfortunately, emphasis is too often placed on foods brought into Africa during the period of slavery and colonization rather than on indigenous foods consumed domestically or exported to foreign countries, and most studies limit African agriculture and diet, prior to European influence, to a small number of indigenous foods: yams, cowpeas (black-eyed peas), sorghum, millets, okra, some bush greens, and whatever items were gathered. Watermelon, akee (Blighia sapida ; also ackee or achee, a bright-red tropical fruit with black seeds and a creamy white flesh), tamarind, bottle gourd, fluted pumpkin, egusi melon, sesame, and one or two other beans have been added in a few studies.

In Volume I of its Lost Crops of Africa, the National Academy of Sciences reports that Africa has produced more indigenous cereal grains, including its own species of rice (nutritionally superior to Asian rice), than any other continent. Among Africa's more than two thousand currently known native food plants are grains, such as African rice, pearl and finger millets, and fonio; cultivated fruits, such as balanites (desert dates), butterfruit (africado ), horned melon, ziziphus (Rhamnaceae, the buckthorn family) and kei apple; wild fruits, such as chocolate berries, figs, custard apples, grapes, gingerbread plums, and star apples; vegetables such as amaranths, spirulina (a nutritious blue-green algae of fresh and brackish waters), edible mushrooms, oyster nuts, Ethiopian mustard, gherkins, mock tomatoes; legumes such as marama, locust and sword beans, grass peas and guar; roots and tubers bers such as anchote (Coccinea abyssinica ), Hausa potatoes, tiger nuts, several varieties of yam, and vigna roots, and a number of spices and herbs.

These foods are endangered by "botanical colonialism," the export system of "cash crops" and "one-crop agriculture" imposed on West Africa and the rest of the continent by European colonialism. In addition, "structural adjustment programs" of the 1980s, designed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to increase the role of exports in the economy and reduce Africa's deepening debt crisis, have actually intensified low agricultural productivity for domestic consumption. Poor families, in an effort to meet urgent food needs, often intensively cultivate lands and forests for subsistence or exports, frequently in areas that once yielded ancient crop species or medicinal plants, or those that are sometimes erosion-prone, where crop yields drop severely after a couple of years. Food shortages, famine, disease, and widespread poverty are the result.

West Africa has been a major contributor to world cuisine in terms of the migration of its indigenous crops, methods of production of those crops, and culinary customs. Very few of Africa's currently known native food plants have received the recognition or research deserved and warranted for so vast a larder. The scientific community has not been able to provide an exact count of foods actually native to the continent nor the age of most of its crops. The history of the continent's flora is, therefore, virtually unknown. As with environments threatened with endangered species, Africa's indigenous agricultural pantry is gradually dwindling due to lack of research and interest. Many biases exist against native African foods, biases that have kept alive perceptions of the inferiority of African crops. It is therefore hoped that there will be an eventual understanding and appreciation of Africa's endangered agricultural species, as they have much to offer, not only to Africa but the rest of the world as well in terms of solving major hunger, disease, and energy problems.

See also Agriculture, Origins of ; Anthropology ; Banana and Plantain ; Cassava ; Cattle ; Food Archaeology ; Food Supply, Food Shortages ; Fruit: Tropical and Subtropical Fruit ; Game ; Government Agencies, U.S. ; Hunting and Gathering ; International Agencies ; Nuts ; Paleonutrition, Methods of ; Rice ; United States: African American Foodways ; Vegetables .


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