Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past


Yam tuber exposed in a yam mound, Banda, 1982

Over the centuries, farming (flaŋga in Nafaanra) has been an important livelihood for people living in Banda. Banda farmers (falifun; pl. falifɛɛniɛ) have grown a wide range of domesticated crops. Some are ancient and native to Africa. These include staple foods like pearl millet (fifiire), sorghum (yua), and yams (finyjie), and sauce vegetables like okro (lɔndɔ), garden eggs and cowpeas. Others were first grown as crops in the Americas and came to Banda in recent centuries. These include starchy staples like maize (bleju) and cassava (also known as manioc; dwa in Nafaanra) and sauce ingredients like tomato, ground nuts (or peanut; in Nafaanra, boŋgre) and pepper (or chili; gbena). Some of these were brought to Africa in early centuries of European Atlantic trade (after 1492) and others came to the area more recently. Archaeology can help us to learn about when farmers in Banda began to experiment with these new crops and when they became common in local diets or important as cash crops.

Cash cropping has to do with whether crops are grown primarily for market sale rather than household use. Until the second half of the 20th century, Banda farmers grew food primarily for their households and exchanged or sold any crops not needed by the household in the community and at local markets. Yams are a favored staple in the area and Banda farmers grew different varieties, some ancient in Africa, as both a household and cash crop for many decades during the 20th century. Calabash (chrɛ in Nafaanra), another crop with a long history in Africa, was also grown for local use, exchange and sale during the 20th century. In the 1980s, Banda farmers began to grow tobacco (twa) as a cash crop and in the early 21st century many farmers planted cashew trees, selling the harvested nuts to buyers for the international market. A difference between earlier cash crops (yams and calabash) and later ones (tobacco and cashew) is that the later ones are grown exclusively for outside sale and not used locally.

In deciding to grow cash crops, farmers have to balance the cost of buying food against the need to get money to meet other expenses like school fees, buying clothes, tools, or other necessities. Cash cropping can also require different technologies. While cash crops like yams and calabash can be grown in intercropped fields among other food plants, tobacco and cashew were grown in single-crop fields (known as mono-cropping). A benefit of intercropping is that different kinds of plants aid each other, by providing support for climbing vines, creating shade for those that need less sun, or enhancing soil fertility. Intercropping also helps farmers to experiment with new plants; planted among other crops, a farmer can gauge how well a new type of food plant will grow. The diversity of plants in a mixed field can also reduce loss of crops to insect damage.

Intercropped farm field near Banda-Ahenkro, 1982

Mono-cropping is associated with different field-clearing practices. Unlike intercropped fields on which small trees are left to provide support for yam vines, mono-cropped fields are cleared of all trees and vegetation and may be tractor-plowed, increasing the chance that soil will erode with heavy rain. Large fields planted with a single crop are more susceptible to the spread of disease and insects. Farmers must therefore use commercial industrial fertilizers and pesticides to ensure good yields of mono-cropped cash crops.

An important way in which farmers maintain soil fertility without using industrial fertilizers is through crop rotation and fallowing. By experimenting over the years, farmers in the Banda area developed a system in which yams are planted in mounds (flom in Nafaanra) on newly cleared fields. The mounds provide well-drained soil for yams, which are deep-rooted. Shallow-rooted plants like cowpeas, okro, calabash and groundnuts, which mature before yams are ready for harvest, are planted on top and sides of the mounds. Fields are weeded regularly so that unwanted plants do not sap soil nutrients. In the second year, farms are planted with calabash, sorghum and maize, together with cassava. After two to three years, soil nutrients have dropped off and farmers leave fields to fallow for some years.

Tobacco field near Nyire, 1994
Cleared and plowed field, Banda-Ahenkro, 2009
Ma Mnama weeding at farm near Banda-Ahenkro, 1982

An important way in which farmers maintain soil fertility without using industrial fertilizers is through crop rotation and fallowing. By experimenting over the years, farmers in the Banda area developed a system in which yams are planted in mounds on newly cleared fields. The mounds provide well-drained soil for yams which are deep-rooted. Shallow-rooted plants like cowpeas, okro and calabash and groundnut which mature before yams are planted on top and sides of the mounds. Fields are weeded regularly so that unwanted plants do not sap the soil of nutrients. In the second year, farms are planted with calabash, sorghum and maize, together with cassava. After two to three years, soil nutrients have dropped off and farmers leave fields to fallow for some years.

Bui Power Authority sign on Ahenkro-Bongase road, 2016

Farmers in the early 21st century do not have enough land to support fallowing. This is a particular problem for farmers whose villages were relocated when the Bui Dam was built. Relocated farmers were allocated fixed 4-5 acre plots that do not allow households to rotate fields as soil fertility declines. Additionally, the exercise of eminent domain by Bui Power Authority has resulted in large areas of farm land being subject to compulsory acquisition, substantially reducing the amount of farmland available.

Tobacco Farming in the 20th Century

O tolԑԑlԑ na o lelԑԑlԑ na ja na yirԑ fͻnyi pini, a pra ja na yire fa keen na mbe koolee fͻnyi cha.

"Our grandfathers and grandmothers knew how to try new things, but also to draw on the past and to change paths if needed."

The history of tobacco farming in the Banda area is an example of how Banda farmers weighed the benefits and problems associated with cash-cropping.

Tobacco is an ancient cultigen long grown and used by Indigenous or First Peoples of the Americas. Europeans first learned of the plant in the Americas and they introduced tobacco and the practice of smoking in pipes to Africa by the late 16th century (1580s-90s). Tobacco and pipe smoking spread rapidly in West Africa. For many centuries Europeans imported cured tobacco and European-made pipes into West Africa. However, tobacco was also locally grown and people made pipes from local clays like those used in potting. The grandfathers and grandmothers experimented with shape and decoration of smoking pipes over time, but the basic form remained the same: a small bowl held tobacco; when lit, smoke was inhaled through a reed inserted into the pipe's wide, short stem. Unlike European manufactured pipes which were held in the hand while smoking, local-made ones (pictured below) were typically placed on the ground while being smoked. Traces of wear on a pipe's base provide clues for how a pipe sat while being smoked.

Clay smoking pipe, Site A212, 2001
Clay smoking pipe, Site A233, 2001
Clay smoking pipe, Makala Kataa, 1989

People living in Banda had tobacco from the 16th century, which they may have grown locally. Tobacco seeds are fragile, but a small number have been found in 16th-century contexts at the site of Kuulo Kataa. Unlike tobacco itself, clay pipes preserve well on archaeological sites and locally made ones are present on Banda area sites as early as the 16th century. Pipes like these become more common on 17th- and 18th-century sites, but the distinctive white-clay pipes manufactured in Europe were not used in the area until the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While people living in Banda in earlier centuries smoked and may have grown their own tobacco, it was not until the 1980s that tobacco was grown as a cash crop. Early in the 1980s the Pioneer Tobacco Company, which had regional headquarters in Wenchi, gave incentives to Banda farmers to grow tobacco commercially. Farmers were provided with resources like seedlings and commercial fertilizer, but also with bags of cement, boards and roofing sheets. These supplies were used to build drying barns in which harvested tobacco leaves had to be processed. The tobacco company also provided a tractor for shared use by the area’s tobacco farmers. Farmers received these resources as an advance against their harvest. This meant that, after selling their harvested and dried tobacco leaves to the tobacco company, the cost of resources supplied by the company was deducted from the farmer’s earnings. From an early start around Sabiye, tobacco cultivation expanded across the Banda area, particularly around Ahenkro.

Tobacco drying barns, south side of Ahenkro, 1994
Readying tobacco leaves for drying, Ahenkro, 1986

The work of tobacco farming is intense, particularly at harvest time. Leaves must be picked, transported from the field to the drying barn, and tied to poles on which they are hung in the barn for curing, all in a short period of time. Tobacco farmers needed the labor of men, women and children to complete these tasks. Tying the leaves is tedious and--as people who did the work remember--it left hands tainted with the leaves’ bitter taste.

As the number of tobacco farmers in the area grew through the 1990s, the effects on land and natural resources became clear to the community. After being planted with tobacco, land fertility declined and could not be used to grow food crops. The fires that cured the tobacco in the drying barns also consumed a lot of wood as fuel. Tobacco farmers collected and transported wood by tractor and wagon from the surrounding landscape, contributing to a loss of forest cover around the area. It also made life harder for women who collected and carried wood home from family farms and surrounds to fuel their cooking fires. Wood became harder to find as more of it was used to dry tobacco.

After some years, the Banda Paramount Chief and Traditional Council decided that tobacco farming was causing greater harm than good around than area. By the late 1990s/early 2000s, the practice was stopped by decision of the Traditional Council. The many drying barns that had been built across the area were taken down, leaving little trace where they previously stood. Though tobacco has not been grown commercially in the area for decades, the tractor-plowed fields once planted with tobacco remain visible reminders of late 20th-century experiment in cash cropping, some now planted with cashew trees.

Elder Yaw Manje was one of the farmers who grew tobacco during this time. Listen to his reflections on tobacco farming in Nafaanra or an English translation of his advice to young people about the lessons learned from tobacco farming.

Farming through Time

Staple foods are those on which households rely as main ingredients in daily meals. Staple plant foods include grains like maize and sorghum and tubers like yams and cassava. Use of these staples in cooking varies seasonally as crops become available or as supplies run low. Because many area farmers have switched to growing cash crops over recent decades, people living in Banda increasingly buy staple foods that are grown outside the region. In the second decade of the 21st century, many households rely on maize and cassava as staple foods, in part because these crops store well once they are processed and dried. Many people still prefer to eat yams, but their local availability declined as more farmers turned to growing cash crops like tobacco in the late 20th and cashews in the early 21st century.

Planted early in the dry season (January-February; kowam), yams grow in the rainy months (April-August) known as koo in Nafaanra. Yams are harvested in late August or September, after communities have celebrated their annual New Yam Festival. Grains like sorghum and pearl millet are grown less today than in earlier centuries, but in times past they added important flexibility to the area’s food system. Planted during the period of summer rains, their harvest time (kunyjila) is at the beginning of the dry season when yams are less available. In decades past, a second harvest festival (Yualie) celebrated the ripening of pearl millet and sorghum.

In light of their cultural importance, it seems likely that yams have long been a valued staple for people living in Banda over centuries, though archaeologists are unlikely to find evidence of them. Unlike grains and other seed-bearing plants, the edible portion of a yam is its tuber, which decays rapidly and does not survive to be found by archaeologists. Because grains have hard seeds which are sometimes accidentally charred, archaeologists have learned about the history the grain use by studying small plant parts recovered through excavation.

Oral histories and archaeology show that ancient African grain crops were important staples for Banda area farmers in earlier centuries. Pearl millet was a particularly important crop for Banda farmers. Pearl millet is ancient in Africa and was cultivated in northern Ghana by about 1500 BCE (before the common era) as documented at the archaeological site of Birimi. Pearl millet is very drought resistant and more nutritious than many other grains. Though it has fallen out of favor in recent decades, pearl millet is used in many Banda-area ritual practices, which speaks to the crop’s cultural importance. Also important was sorghum (guinea corn) which can be grown in wetter conditions than pearl millet. Sorghum is less nutritious than pearl millet, but more nutritious than maize. While all three grains (pearl millet, sorghum, maize) can be used to make flour needed to prepare local dishes, the ancient African grains keep better in storage than maize.

Archaeological evidence shows us that both pearl millet and sorghum were important foods for Banda-area people living in the period from about 1400 to 1650 CE. During this time the wider region was experiencing strong drought (wam in Nafaanra) and these ancient African grains gave farmers the flexibility to cope with varied rainfall patterns. Maize was known to people living in the area at this time, but it was not widely grown, a choice which suggests that the grandmothers and grandfathers preferred familiar African grain crops. They used these staple grains to prepare a variety of dishes (see "Making Meals"), but also to prepare beverages. Pito is a fermented beer made from sorghum or millet. When clay pots are used to store fermented liquids, over time the inside of the pot becomes marked and eroded in a distinctive way. Archaeologists have found distinctively shaped jars with eroded interiors that lead them to think that people living at Kuulo Kataa in the period from about 1400 to 1650 CE were making pito for exchange or sale, perhaps in a nearby marketplace described in oral histories.

Farmers in more recent centuries lived in times of higher rainfall. As archaeologists have learned from studying plant remains from sites where people lived during the later 18th and 19th centuries, farmers grew more sorghum at the same time as pearl millet remained important. They grew more maize than in earlier centuries, but archaeological evidence suggests that it was not as important to the diet in the way that it became during the 20th century.

It is less clear when cassava began to be grown as a staple crop. Like yams, the tubers of cassava do not leave archaeological traces. People living in coastal areas of Ghana grew cassava from the late 17th or early 18th centuries, but cassava was widely regarded as an undesirable food and only became commonly grown in times of need. Because cassava needs little care after planting and can be left in the ground to be harvested over a long period, it is a crop that was relied during times of warfare and upheaval. As such, cassava may have been a crop first grown by Banda area farmers during the middle and later 19th century when warfare affected the wider region.

The overall picture that emerges from what we know about farming in earlier centuries is that people benefited from growing a range of crops. The grandfathers and grandmothers managed uncertainty by planting a mix of crops. In wetter than average years, pearl millet might not do as well as sorghum, but in dry years pearl millet gave a better harvest than sorghum. By planting both grains, farmers were more assured of having food for their families despite year-to-year rainfall variations. Adding maize and cassava to the mix of crops seems to be a way in which farmers during the 19th and early 20th centuries coped with political uncertainties, even if these staples were less preferred than the ancient ones like yams and African grains.

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