It is necessary to look into indigenous African knowledge for solutions to the problems of food security and sovereignty. Purikeria Tindikahwa knew a wide variety of indigenous foods and how to produce and prepare them. There are millions of ordinary women across Africa who do exactly what she did. They feed the continent. We need to celebrate these women and learn from them.
The issue of food security and sovereignty is a hot topic among policy makers and development agencies. Few countries can claim to be food secure and sovereign. And if countries with all the resources at their disposal cannot be food secure and sovereign, what about families?
To have enough food for one’s family is the big challenge all families face. All over rural Africa, there are thousands of ordinary women who have devised strategies for food security and sovereignty for their families—the unsung heroines who have been feeding the continent for centuries, one family at a time. As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day (8 March 2016) it is important to pay tribute to such women who have done so much with so little, using their feminine genius.
Such a woman is Purikeria Tindikahwa (1932-2002) of Rutooma village, Kyasano, in South Western Uganda District of Kabale (formerly Kigezi). How did this ordinary woman with limited formal education manage to produce sufficient indigenous food for her entire family, relatives and friends all her life? What lessons can high-level policy makers and development agencies learn from her? Most importantly, given the current food shortages caused by drought and poor policies across Africa, how can the strategies by Purikeria Tindikawha be of help?
SCHOOLED IN KIGA INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEM (IKS)
Purikeria Tindikahwa was born in Nyabisiika Village in Rwene, Kabale District, South Western Uganda. Like most Kiga families, her family heavily relied on agriculture and subsistence farming. She grew up as a young girl learning how to till the land, monitor weather patterns so to know when to grow which crops. She also learnt from childhood the varieties of crops and in what soils they grew best. Early in life Purikeria knew how to store food and preserve it from pests and the elements. Most importantly she learnt various ways for preparing different Kiga dishes, and the different ways to combine recipes. Without going to formal school to study biology and nutrition, she knew what a balanced diet was.
Food production is closely related to soil conservation. Purikeria knew indigenous methods of soil conservation such as mulching, furrow cropping, terracing to avoid soil erosion, tree planting, mixed cropping, and use of animal and plant manure. It is these methods that have kept land in the Greater Kigezi fairly fertile under the pressure of dense population for such a long time.
Not only was Purekeria “schooled” in techniques of soil conservation and food production, she also learnt from Kiga culture traditional values of social capital and cooperation that include informal networks that are used in exchange of labour, services and goods outside the money economy. This social capital is handy when it comes to cultivating and harvesting complicated crops such as sorghum, millet, wheat, and beans.
Kabale is notoriously hilly and so mechanized faming is next to impossible. All farming is done using hoes, and this makes all agriculture labor intensive. As a strategy, women form groups in which they help each other in turns. Others work in exchange for food and money. The system where some colleagues are called upon to give a hand is called ‘Okurarika’ in Rukiga. Those to help are informed well ahead of time; food and drinks are prepared for them. This makes work fun, and people look forward to it. Purekeria used this strategy a great deal. But for one to attract helpers one has to have a good disposition and be friendly. People would not readily come to help you if you are known to be rude, mean and lacking in generosity.
The other strategy for labor that did not involve reciprocity is known as ‘Omuzizi’—whereby a friend just comes to give a hand by working in one’s field. It is unfortunate that such ethical values related to work are being lost with the money economy. Women who did most of the agricultural work excelled in those social skills of social cooperation. Purikeria knew very well how to make use of this indigenous Kiga concept of social capital to ensure that cultivating crops was well taken care of.
Another aspect of Kiga indigenous knowledge that Purikeria was well versed in is ethno-medicine or herbal medicine. The importance of this for food security is easy to discern. When one has good health one is able to engage in effective food production, especially where direct human effort is key. Purikeria grew up with his elder brother who was a famous herbal practitioner by the name of Lurenti Itiza of Nyabisiika. From him she learnt thousands of natural remedies. Knowledge of indigenous medicine also saves some money that would be spent on buying Western medicine. Common ailments such as flu, colds, fever, fever, malaria, headache, wounds, stomach upsets, and fractures, were treated with natural remedies that Purikeria knew very well.
FAMILY ECONOMICS: DIVISION OF LABOR
Without reading Adam Smith, Purikeria with her husband Tadeo Nyebirweki settled for some sort of division of labor as a couple. While Tadeo focused mainly on design and tailoring, Purekira focused on subsistence agriculture to ensure food security and sovereignty. Whatever income Tadeo made from design and tailoring, he would purchase extra land for food cropping. Even when other families in the village of Rutooma kept their children at home to do farming instead of schooling, Purekiria and Tadeo insisted on sending their children to school. They knew too well that in future the best investment was education. The children would only do farm work during holidays, on weekends and early morning before going to school. This also helped the children to contribute to food security and sovereignty.
If agricultural work was too much, Tadeo would supplement the labor with hired workers in addition to the other methods of mutual cooperation. All the factors of production were taken care of: there was sufficient land; labor (cheap labor from neighbors and relatives); financial capital (rent, from design and tailoring) and entrepreneurship.
FRAGMENTED LAND: TURNING A LIABILITY INTO AN ASSET
Land in Kabale is highly fragmented. Plots of land are scattered all over the place because one buys pieces of land as income permits. Because of this fragmented land, soil types are varied allowing for a diversity of crops to be grown. Peas require a different soil type from beans, and so is wheat, potatoes, sorghum, millet, vegetables, etc. Food security is enhanced by diversity of foods. Purikeria mastered the science of food diversification.
The land near her home at Rutooma village (about one square kilometer) was dedicated to bananas, vegetables, beans, and sweet potatoes. This was strategic because of proximity to the home she could easily work at any time. Vegetables included: pumpkin leaves, eshwiga (an indigenous bitter vegetable), dodo, eshoji, eshaga, ekituruguma, ekyicuringanyi (nettle plant) and ekishoma (leaves of beans). These vegetables would be cooked in a variety of ways: with groundnuts paste, with beans, or on their own. Rutooma hill that is well sheltered from too much sun was very conducive for vegetable growing. During the rainy season some mushrooms would also be harvested, thanks to abundant plant cover.
The distant plots of land were as far as 1-3 kilometers away. These were used for growing sorghum, beans, peas, wheat, millet, potatoes and maize. Purikeria knew how to balance the different crops according to the season of the year. She never kept a calendar or record but knew by heart when and where each food crop was to be planted. Having a diversity of food crops helped in case one type of crop failed due to poor rain or too much rain. Crops such as sorghum could even be destroyed by wind.
The best strategy Purikeria deployed to ensure food security amidst land fragmentation was mixed cropping. Beans could be mixed with maize, peas, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, and bananas. She knew which crops could be mixed. For instance sorghum that grows tall cannot be mixed with sweet potatoes. But this could be done depending on the amount of crops one plants. If they are well spread then any crop coulc be mixed with others. Some crops that have a shorter period of maturation could also be mixed with those that take longer period, for instance beans and maize or beans and sorghum. Such mixed cropping was also a beauty to behold—aesthetics of food cropping. When one is weeding in a garden that is pleasant to behold (flowering peas, flowering Irish potatoes, and flowering beans), work becomes leisure and not a burden.
SPICE OF LIFE: DIVERSITY OF FOODS
Mixed cropping that took advantage of fragmented land also had another advantage: Nutrition. Since some crops would be ready for consumption ahead of others, some crops would provide lunch for the laborers. For instance, fresh maize would be roasted while harvesting dry beans. Similarly, Irish potatoes would be roasted for lunch while weeding beans. Purikeria ensured that work was like a feast. No room for boredom.
It is food diversity that ensured food security and sovereignty. Consider for instance the variety of ways different foods were prepared. Beans for instance would be eaten as vegetables when they are just maturing (green pods and leaves). When ripe, they would be eaten as fresh beans. And when dry they would be cooked as well (either just by boiling or pounded). Dry beans could also be mixed with dry maize or with dry peas. Fresh beans could also be mixed with fresh peas. They could also be prepared with Irish Potatoes, bananas, or sweet potatoes. Beans could also be served with millet, wheat, sorghum “bread.” All these complex combinations were a strategy to bring diversity in what would otherwise be boring monotonous dishes.
Sorghum which is a considered a master food crop for the Bakiga deserves special mention. The Kiga even have a song composed in praise of sorghum: ‘Omugusha, omugusha, omugusha, omugusha, omugusha, omugusha na ba Kiga bikundana’, translated as: Sorghum, sorghum, sorghum, sorghum, sorghum, sorghum, sorghum and the Bakiga love one another.’ Sorghum is used for soft drink (Obushera when dry or Ekyezeza when fresh) and for beer (Omuramba). It is also used to make bread (Oburo bw’omugusha). It is also chewed when fresh, and when dry (omukoma and amamera). Its stem is chewed like a sugar cane (Ekisagate). And when there is some mutation, and it does not produce grain, it produces another edible product known as engurirwa. Purikeria knew about all these varieties of getting and preparing food from sorghum.
The process of making the soft drink is known as okushigisha; brewing local beer is known as okwenga; making bread is known as okugoya; making yeast for brewing beer is known as okushembura; the process preceding okushembura is known as okutekyera. Food security and security are threatened when these concepts are lost since they are reservoirs of complex indigenous systems.
What about drinks? Drinks that Purikeria could make were also diverse. She could make soft drinks from sorghum, maize, millet, wheat, and ripe bananas. She could also brew traditional beer from sorghum, millet, wheat and ripe bananas. All the cereals could be ground together. The complex process of brewing beer from sorghum or ripe bananas is for another article on indigenous African science.
WHAT OF FOOD SOVEREIGNTY?
One can be food secure, but can one attain food sovereignty? Can one produce all the foods one needs? There are limits to what one can achieve. Even though Purikeria tried her best to produce sufficient food for her family of 8 children plus a husband, it was impossible to produce all foods needed. For instance she did not raise cattle! A few chicken were also kept and at some point a goat and a sheep, but this was not sustainable. That was all when it came to animal husbandry. But fortunately, the neighbors in Rutooma village were cattle keepers and also had plenty of chicken, goats and sheep. So meat, eggs, chicken and milk were in abundant supply and quite cheap. Seven of the elders (call them patriarchs) of Rutooma (Bazira, Rutabagana, Bwimba, Bazahuza, Rwatangabo, Semu, and Raphael) were all keeping cattle, sheep, and goats. This kind of provides a model of a self-contained rural agricultural economy. All the elders of Rutooma along with the late Karyabakora, father-in-law of Purikeria, descended from Kyarutaaba of Kabona. This is why the economy of affection and social capital that Purikeria exploited to her benefit thrived in Rutooma Village.
Not surprisingly, all the above mentioned elders of Rutooma could not bear with the land scarcity and shortage of food. They had to migrate to distant parts in search of land for resettlement. Only Tadeo Nyebirweki, husband of Purikeria Tindikahwa, managed to stay around and it is him who bought the land of these elders who migrated to places such as Kyaka, Kyegyegwa in Toro.
Purikeria with her husband Tadeo would invite these elders to her home for regular parties especially around Christmas. One of them, Bazira, was a bee-keeper and the one who supplied honey to Purikeria. Honey was a key ingredient in brewing traditional sorghum beer made called enturire.
Other foods and drinks such as tea, coffee, beer (Primus from Rwanda), fish and manufactured bread were purchased from the border town of Katuna. Purikeria’s neighbors would frequent her home early morning to have a cup of tea or coffee. Her generosity was unrivalled. She was a cheerful giver and kept the door of her home wide open and ever ready to offer passers-by some food or drink. She indeed managed to be food secure and sovereign for the good of her family, neighbors, relatives and friends. If she did it, so all of us can.
Several African countries are facing severe food shortage due to El nino phenomenon. It is not too late to look into indigenous African foods with which ordinary people like Purikeria used to be self-sufficient in food supply. Purikeria Tindikahwa knew the varieties of indigenous foods and methods to produce and prepare them. She knew methods of soil conservation. She knew how to diversify nutrition and dishes. She knew how to use social capital. There are thousands of ordinary women across Africa who do exactly what she did. We need to learn from them and draw lessons for food security and sovereignty in Africa. Africa has abundance of indigenous knowledge best preserved by unsung heroines; all we need to do is to tap into it before it gets lost into oblivion. The only fitting tribute we can pay to African unsung heroines like Purikeria Tindikahwa is to narrate a bit of their story for posterity, and to let ourselves be inspired by their resilience against all odds. This is a fitting way to commemorate International Women’s Day.
* Dr. Odomaro Mubangizi teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology where he is also Dean of Philosophy Department. He is also Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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