Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Grain Revolution; the Impact of Imported Rice on Millet-Based African Civilizations

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Grain Revolution; the Impact of Imported Rice on Millet-Based African Civilizations

Article excerpt

A grain revolution

The impact of imported rice on millet-based African civilizations

IN rural Africa today, drought anddesertification have wrought profound changes which have upset the balance of the agrarian food-production system.

For centuries, millet and sorghum werethe food staples that enabled the farmers of the Sahel to achieve self-sufficiency in an exchange economy. These farmers domesticated and improved Pennisetum spicatum, or bulrush millet, also known as "pearl millet'. Owing to its short growth cycle, this crop draws the fullest benefit from the short rainy season.

In the southern Sahel, millet is cultivatedas a supplement to sorghum, or "great millet', which originated in the Sudanese regions of tropical Africa. The area under sorghum cultivation has expanded considerably in the tropical regions of other continents, and even in warmer temperate countries. This cereal is nowadays the staple food of more than 300 million people, most of whom live in Africa, India and Central America.

Millet and sorghum have always been apowerful link between the African farmer and his environment. From a cultural point of view, millet plays a central role in the organization of community life and in the interpenetrating systems of kinship and values. Learning to grind millet with the traditional pestle and mortar and to process it into an edible foodstuff was part of every girl's introduction to the art of cooking.

The grain is dehusked by moisteningand pounding with a pestle and mortar. After drying it is milled, by means of a second and then a third pounding, each of which is followed by winnowing. Then comes the fermentation stage, achieved by humidification, kneading, mixing and even germination. The end product is cooked in water and eaten with milk or a sauce, types of nourishment which are more liquid than solid.

Steaming became popular with the adventof recipes for couscous from the Maghreb peoples, who invented the technique and utensils and transmitted them to other cultures. The Senegalese cook has improved the recipe by meticulously working the flour by hand into a finer, firmer texture. The resulting semolina is then steamed, sealed with laalo (dried baobab leaves, ground into powder) and given a smoother consistency before being soaked.

Recorded in every African's memoryare the working songs of women pounding millet, sung to the rhythm of the thudding pestle as it crushes the grains into flour. This millet or sorghum flour, made into porridge, is an excellent restorative for those who do hard manual work, for women who have recently given birth, and for convalescents.

Millet cakes are the first symbolic solidfood given when a child is weaned. And couscous, thanks to traditional processing techniques, will keep for several months. It is the food on which nomad peoples survived during their long journeys. Millet, a sacred cereal, is also valued for its use in sacrifices connected with the Islamic or animist traditions of West African countries. In Africa dried millet stalks are used as building materials and as cattle fodder. Red sorghum is used to make beer.

Sorghum and millet also have exchangevalue in the rural African world and are bartered for other foodstuffs. The millet granary is a sign of wealth and abundance, and has a mythical significance. …

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