Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Making Meals

"Mu kre kee nga chiin?" Did you know? The grandmothers were skilled at making nutritious meals using both wild and cultivated plants.

Preparing the evening meal, interior courtyard, Kafͻnͻ Katoo, Ahenkro, 1986

Food (sro in Nafaanra) provides people with the nutrients they need to grow and survive. As such, it is a necessity of life. But how people prepare and eat food also creates social connections within and between families. Whether it is a daily meal or a wedding feast (bijasro), food ways draw on knowledge shared across generations. But just as the grandmothers drew on ways of the past in their cooking, they were also skilled at improvising during times of scarcity or as new foodstuffs and ingredients become available. Oral histories and archaeology help us to appreciate the skills and the ingenuity of the grandmothers as they worked to feed and sustain their families and communities.

Preparing Foods

Women pounding yam fufu, New Yam Festival, Ahenkro, 1982

The foods prepared by the grandmothers varied seasonally. The New Yam Festival, celebrated late in the rainy season (koo in Nafaanra), marks the time when yams (finiyjie) are ready for harvest, which is typically in late August or September. In Banda, yams are valued as a main ingredient for fufu, which is prepared by pounding boiled yams in deep wooden mortars (shio) using a pestle (sukaan). The soft doughy starch was a preferred staple food served with soup (chiin) made from a variety of seasonally available ingredients. A nutritious soup made from the pounded kernels of calabash seeds (fnumu) is a particular favorite. Soups served with fufu can also be made using groundnuts (boŋgrɛ), or garden eggs (small eggplants; piɛwɛ) and tomatoes, which is referred to across Ghana as “light soup.” Seasonally available wild greens, vitamin-rich okra and chili peppers are among the choices used to add texture and flavor to soups.

During the months when yam supplies run low, cooks typically prepare a dish known as “T.Z.,” a name derived from the Hausa term (tuo zafi) for hot porridge. Known as kambɔ in Nafaanra, T.Z is described as a less preferred yet vitally important food made from grain flour. In recent times, T.Z. is typically made using cassava or maize, but in earlier times native African grains like pearl millet (fifiire) and sorghum would have been used.

Stirring T.Z. (tuo zafi), Sabiye, 2018

Regardless of its main ingredient, making T.Z. is a multi-step process. First, whole grain must be milled into flour. The flour is then sifted to remove large pieces of chaff, after which fine flour is added to boiling water while stirring. The result is a thin porridge. As the porridge thickens, additional flour is added while rapidly stirring to ensure consistent texture. In the final step, the cook vigorously stirs the mixture using a paddle with a distinctive circular and up-down stroke that beats the mixture into a firm but springy mass. This is a skilled technique that adolescents learn as they help their female relatives in preparing the day’s main meal, which they do by sifting flour, adding flour to the boiling pot and, as girls get older, by taking control of the paddle in the final step of preparing T.Z. Click here to watch a 2018 video of Abena Kuma making an evening meal of T.Z. in Sabiye.

Like fufu, T.Z. is served with soup, with the difference that soups prepared to accompany T.Z. have a slippery texture imparted by using okra and or leaves selected for their mucilaginous qualities. Women may use the leaves of crops like cassava and cowpeas, or they may prepare leaf soup using some of the many wild leaves known to be both flavorful and nutritious. After pounding, leaves are softened by boiling, which is aided by adding lime or ash to the water. The resulting soup is flavored with additions of other seeds (like dawadawa), vegetables (like garden eggs) and/or small amounts of fish or meat.

In her 2020 book, The Scarcity Slot: Excavating Histories of Food Security in Ghana, archaeologist Dr. Amanda Logan writes about how Banda area women have long demonstrated ingenuity and flexibility in preparing daily meals, particularly during hard times or in the face of seasonal shortages. Through what she calls “flexible conservatism” (pp. 140-144), women have adapted the techniques of making T.Z. to newly available ingredients. Prior to the adoption of crops like maize and cassava, which were introduced to Africa from the western hemisphere over recent centuries, indigenous African grains like pearl millet and sorghum were the staple ingredients. Even more flexible are the ingredients for leaf soup, which oral histories emphasize as an important food source in times of drought and political upheaval, most recently in the early 1980s when people confronted serious food shortages. Women interviewed by Dr. Logan described more than 60 kinds of wild leaves that can be used to make soup, though these are becoming rarer today, in part because use of herbicides in farming is making these wild species harder to find. Importantly, it was knowledge handed down through generations that enabled women to choose among edible and inedible wild resources as they fed their families in difficult times.

Yam tuber exposed in a yam mound, Banda, 1982

Over the last century, household decisions about what to eat are based in part on the market price of staples. When yams can fetch a good price if sold, a family may opt to sell the yams they grow and eat less preferred foods like T.Z. As area farmers turned to growing cash crops like tobacco in the 1980s and 1990s and cashew over recent decades, yams have become less available and more expensive. As a result, early 21st-century Banda families rely more on maize and manioc purchased at market than on crops harvested from the family farm.

Preparing yam fufu, New Yam Festival, Ahenkro, 1986

As a result of these changes, fufu is today more often made with cassava as a main starchy ingredient than in earlier decades. This has encouraged a change in the processing tools and techniques used by Banda area women. More people today use long pestles with frayed ends like those typically used in southern Ghana where fufu is made from plantain and cassava. Their frayed ends better break down the fiber in cassava compared to the rounded wooden pestles that were favored in Banda in earlier decades. Two short videos show the different pounding techniques associated with the use of rounded pestles in deep mortars and frayed pestles in shallow mortars. In this case, using new tools means learning new techniques and ways of working together.

A number of plant foods that are central to Ghanaian cuisine today would not have been available to the grandmothers in centuries or decades past. These include crops that were introduced to Africa through the so-called “Columbian exchange,” meaning that they are plants indigenous to North, Central and South America, including the Caribbean. These plants arrived in coastal regions of West Africa at some point after the late 15th century. Among these were staples like maize and cassava, vegetables like tomato, legumes like the peanut, spices like chili pepper and drug crops like tobacco. While we cannot know precisely when people in Banda took up these crops, it is clear that they did not all come at the same time, nor did people take them up simply because they were available. As an example, archaeological evidence shows that maize was known to Banda area people as early as the 16th century, but it was not widely adopted as staple foodstuff until centuries later and then in times of warfare and turmoil (Logan 2020, pp. 59, 100-104). The fact that maize ripened more quickly than indigenous millets seems to have been a factor in its broader acceptance as a staple food during later 19th century. Cassava too was known to people long before it was routinely used as a foodstuff in Banda (Logan 2020, pp. 75, 86-89). Its acceptance was also associated with troubled times, during which its ability to grow in depleted soils with little tending was an advantage.

In these and other instances, the grandmothers experimented with using new foodstuffs in familiar ways, for example making T.Z. from maize rather indigenous grains. In similar fashion, groundnuts from the Americas (peanuts) were used like indigenous groundnuts (Bambara groundnut), and spices like chili pepper as substitutes for indigenous African pepper (grains of paradise). So too did the “Columbian exchange” involve movement of people through slavery. Enslaved Africans sent to places like the Caribbean, South America and the southern United States carried with them the skills and techniques of their home cuisines, adapting these in the face of difficult circumstances and new ingredients, with the result that a person raised today in the Caribbean would recognize familiar foods and tastes on a visit to Ghana.

Some foods that played an important dietary and social role in decades and centuries past have become rare today. Finds at archaeological sites show that pearl millet was a staple food in the Banda area for centuries, and its cultural importance is underscored by pearl millet’s role in ceremonial practice. Pearl millet is the “food of the ancestors” (Logan 2020, pp. 148-153), used to prepare special meals served to young women as they come of age and marry, and offered to household and regional shrines. Older women interviewed by Dr. Logan described a number of dishes made from pearl millet—a drought-resistant crop that helped people in the past cope with times of low rainfall. These dishes were showcased at an Olden Times Food Fair held at the Banda Cultural Centre in Ahenkro in 2014 (Logan 2020, pp. 159-165), with the elder women expressing hope that knowledge of these dishes would be passed on to younger generations.

Cooking and Eating Together

Eating sustains our bodies by supplying nutrients. But eating is also a social process that creates and sustains relationships between people, ranging from sharing food on a daily basis to connections with the wider community associated with ceremonies like marriages or offerings of food to the ancestors.

Women preparing food, Sabiye, 1986
Cooking over a coal pot, Ahenkro, 2016

In decades past, it was a common sight to see women and children who lived in an extended family household working alongside one another to prepare an evening meal. Women cooked over hearths made of three stones--or some cases pots--that held clay or metal cooking pots over wood fires. When weather allowed, women cooked over clustered hearths in open courtyards, socializing with their female relations as they prepared daily meals. In the rainy season, they cooked over hearths on roofed verandahs. Over recent decades, the use of metal coal pots fueled by charcoal has become more common, as has use of bottled gas stoves. As household composition and technologies have changed, cooking has become for many women a less social affair when compared to how their mothers and grandmothers prepared food. In 2018, members of the Banda Heritage Initiative spoke with a group of women from Sabiye pictured in this 1986 photo. They reflected on some of the changes in food preparation and food sharing that they have experienced in the decades since. You can view a video of this interview here.

Grinding and Pounding

Threshing cowpeas, Wewa, 1982
Diesel-fueled corn mill, Banda-Ahenkro, 2009

Though we appreciate the taste of a well-cooked meal, we seldom think about the many steps involved its preparation. After harvesting, grains like millet and sorghum or seeds like those of the calabash (fnumu) or beans have to be separated from their husks before they can be processed further. After threshing, winnowing helps to clean grain by removing indigestible chaff. Cleaned grain or seeds may then be ground or milled, a step that improves their digestibility after cooking. The resulting flour may need to be sieved to ensure a consistent and fine texture.

Today, many families take their harvested and cleaned grain to diesel-powered grinding mills, but before the introduction of these mills to the area in the later 20th century, women and children relied on wooden mortars and pestles to pound maize and dried cassava into fine flour used in the preparation of dishes like T.Z. Wooden mortars are also used to process cooked starchy staples like yams, cassava and plantain. But grains can also be milled by hand on grinding stones, which seems to have been a more common practice in earlier centuries than it was in the 20th century. Though grinding stones can be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from preparing foodstuffs to sharpening metal tools, they are commonly found among the kitchen equipment in centuries-old sites across the Banda area. Grinding stones are less commonly found on 19th- and 20th-century sites, which is the time when maize and cassava became more common staple foods. In sites of this time, the types of wood used to make mortars have been identified among archaeological materials. These patterns suggest that a change in processing technologies--from grinding to pounding--went hand-in-hand with greater reliance on maize and cassava.

Drinking Grains

Metal pito brewing pot and hearth, Ahenkro, 2018

Archaeological evidence shows us that the indigenous African grains like pearl millet and sorghum were important crops for the grandmothers and grandfathers over centuries. In times when rainfall levels were lower, drought-resistant pearl millet was an important staple. Sorghum seems to have been less preferred, but was grown more commonly during times when rainfall was higher. Both grains can be used to prepare a variety of dishes, including flat breads, but they can also be used to make pito, a mildly fermented beer that supplies calories together with other nutritional qualities. As described by elders, brewing and serving pito was in the past a common way to express thanks to family and community members who came together to help with farming tasks or other communal labor. Pito was also brewed in advance of funerals and marriage ceremonies (bijam in Nafaanra), when it was shared with family and well-wishers. Today, pito is sometimes brewed using maize, as described by Adjua Tini in a video that you can watch here.

Carinate globular pottery jar, exterior, Kuulo Kataa, 1995
Carinate globular pottery jar, Kuulo Kataa, 1995
Carinate globular pottery jar, interior, Kuulo Kataa, 1995

That pito has long been brewed by women in the Banda area is suggested by finds of pottery jars with distinctive interior pitting on their inside surface. Beers are acidic liquids that can erode the inside surface of a jar over time. This is a common feature on a specific form of jar found on archaeological sites like Kuulo Kataa in the time between the 15th and 17th centuries. Jars with eroded interiors are often more elaborately decorated than pots used for cooking during those times. Liquid could easily be poured from their narrow mouths and they could be covered when not serving to limit evaporation and keep flies away. Because this was a time when oral histories suggest that the area was home to a large market center where many types of goods were traded, archaeologists suspect that these attractive serving jars may have been used to sell and serve pito at the market.

Learn More

To learn more about the history of foodways in Banda, see Dr. Amanda Logan’s freely available 2020 book, The Scarcity Slot: Excavating Histories of Food Security in Ghana, which uses archaeological, oral historical and documentary sources to explore how people living in the Banda area modified their foodways in the face of changing circumstances.

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