Bantu Farming

Bantu Farming

In the thousands of small villages on riverbanks, on the savanna, or in the rain forest of West Africa, the most important activity has been raising food. The Bamana people, who for centuries have lived near the upper Niger River, began the agricultural season with prayers, songs and dance. According to Bamana legend, the Chi Wara, an antelope spirit, taught the people how to cultivate with digging sticks.

Before the annual rains fall, two masked dancers, from the Chi Wara association, along with drummers, enter the fields and reenact the gift of planting knowledge. The gracefully carved Chi Wara headdresses illustrate symbols in Bamana beliefs. One dan cer representing the male antelope, the other representing the female, enter the fields with digging sticks.

The male headdress of Chi Wara represents the sun. The female Chi Wara headdress symbolizes the earth. The fawn, carved on the back of the female's back, symbolizes human beings. The fiber from the Chi Wara headdresses represent water.

As there must be the union of sun, earth and water for plants to grow, there must be cooperation between men and women to bring a successful harvest. Membership in the Chi Wara association is open to both men and women because the Bamana believe that s uccessful food production requires cooperation between men and women.

Millets and sorghums have been the staple foods of the Bamana and other groups in the savanna. These grains survive in regions with little moisture. Rather than die during drought conditions, sorghum and millet become dormant, and resume their growth when the rains return.

Millet can survive with as little as ten inches of annual of rainfall Rice is also grown in the savanna vegetation zone. But rice needs abundant water, so it's an ideal crop in areas like the inland delta of the Niger where annual flooding occurs.

The rain forests of West Africa have produced a greater variety of foods than the savanna. With more rain, unwanted vegetation can quickly overrun food crops. In order to grow, food crops farmers made small clearings by cutting down trees and burning the stumps and undergrowth. In these clearings they grew edible roots, such as yams and cassava. These tuberous stables sometimes grew larger than a single person could lift.

Other starchy foods included cocoyams, plantains and bananas. Beans, okra, onions, melons and peppers added variety to the meal. Trapped or pulled in by nets, the oceans and rivers provided more protein in the form of fish.

Labor in both the savanna and forest regions included the farmer and a few regular helpers. Usually his sons, and sometimes wives and younger unmarried brothers, were obligated to contribute to the planting process. Such a labor force could manage ab out eight acres. If he had more wives and more unmarried sons, a farmer could put additional land under cultivation. He would need to, in order to feed the extra mouths.

The farmers knew that when billowy clouds began to form in the sky and the winds rustled the tall grasses beyond the village, that it was time to prepare the fields with long rows of earthen mounds. The actual planting began about April or May, when t he lightening flashed across the black sky. Accompanied by great thunder, the earth trembled, followed by the welcomed downpour of the first rains .

If these rains continued long enough to soak the soil, the farmer and his helpers walked to their fields beyond the village. They carried light iron farm hoes over their shoulders. In addition each would have several gourds containing food, water and seeds.

With a hoe in their right hand and seeds in their left, the farmers and their helpers scratched the rain softened soil, with the hoe blades. Rhythmatically tossing the seeds into the prepared rows, they then covered the seeds with the back of the hoes . This pattern was continued for a week, broken each day only by noon time meals and the descent of the sun's light.

Soon after the planting, the farmers needed to begin weeding and transplanting, a long and back breaking process. Often this task was performed by women or young children. Once the green shoots started pushing through the soil, farmers needed to pro tect their crops from birds and monkeys. Shouting, throwing stones and long sticks, the farmer's younger sons helped to scare off such predators. A youth skilled with the bow and arrow might even contribute some bird or monkey meat to the evening meal.

After approximately three months, the crops were ready to harvest. The heads of the sorghum or millet grains were cut off and removed for storage. Cassava or yams would be dug from the ground. The stalks, of the plants, would be left in the fields t o dry. Dry stalks would be collected and woven into floor matting. Sometimes the stalks would be allowed to rot into fertilizer. The top growth of yams and cassava would eventually be burned and mixed into the soil, to increase its' fertility.

How were these staples eaten? Usually as a sticky porridge. In the morning the millet might be served as a cereal mush. For the afternoon meal, some grain would be fried into seasoned bread-like balls. Stews were the popular evening meal in West Afr ica. The grains and cassava, prepared into dumpling, would swim in a highly seasoned sauce, along with meat, fish or chicken. And like the rice wine of Asia and the barley beer of Europe, millet was also brewed into a beer that lifted the spirits of the West African farmers, and helped to softened the monotony and pain of their daily labor.

Traditionally, before the food was consumed, families in West African villages called up the name of God and their ancestors. For once again allowing them to share in the earth's bounty the family gave thanks.

Date: Wed, 22 Nov 1995 20:15:15 -0800 Message-Id: From: (Hassan Adeeb ) Subject: AFRICA PAGE K - 12 LESSONS

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D.
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