Corn and the Europeans
by Phil Bartle, PhD
The corn plant, maize [Zea mays ssp. mays], is indigenous to central America (Balsas River, Mexico). Once it was a small cob, but through centuries of selective planting, it grew to the large size it is today (like the West African Oil Palm did).
aburu (Zea mays ssp. mays)
Phoenicians were trading along the coast of West Africa for over three thousand years. Their descendants are the Syrian and Lebanese traders who have settled in the coastal towns and cities. The earliest known European traders, Portuguese, arrived for the first time in Elmina about 1472. They named it “The Mine” because it had so much gold for sale. Ten years later they built the Elmina castle in 1482, ten years before Columbus. There was no demand for slaves across the Pacific then, because they did not know the Western hemisphere existed, and the sugar plantations were yet to be built. In return for gold, the Portuguese sold slaves (from Sao Tome) to the people at Elmina.
Written records so far have not revealed what starch food was being eaten along the coast, but oral traditions indicate that sorghum and guinea corn were grown on the Accra Plains, and were fermented to make dokonu (kenkey). Later, maize was brought by the Europeans to West Africa from America where they had found it.
Maize is so important in the Accra area, that annual rituals are built around it among the coastal Ga-Adanbe peoples. In my own research among the Kwawu in the rain forest, maize grown in its valley on the northern slopes of Kwawu was one of the plants that the Nansin tutelary spirit proscribed.
Dokonu (kenkey) is a food that has deep roots in the culture of the Akan, so it is very likely that it goes back father into history than the European introduction of maize, although maize is the only starch ingredient in it today. In the famous Asante tales, known as Kwaku Anansi (Spider born on Wednesday), one of the popular characters is Dokonu Fa (Half a Ball of Kenkey).1
Spending a lot of time in remote villages for my research, and being a Canadian with European habits, I usually took a roll of toilet tissue with me. When the tissue ran out, I was introduced to the rural Akan method. After the kernels of maize were removed from the cobs to be made into kenkey or porridge, the cobs are kept to dry. They make a much better product for tidying up than does toilet tissue.
I asked my primary cultural informant and teacher, the Kontihene of Obo, if the name given to the European, Obruni, was derived from the Akan word for maize, aburu. I thought the fine yellow hair inside the cob resembled the hair of the Europeans. He replied, no, it was just the opposite. The name Obruni was given to the European, and later when maize came, it was named after the European.
“When the European came, he brought new ideas and customs. Whereas the Akan would celebrate the day of birth as a personal Sabbath as did the tutelary spirits (Supreme God on Saturday, Mother Earth on Thursday, Ocean on Tuesday, Each river or cave on its selected week day), all these Europeans would rest on Sundays, go to their special little shrine house, and conduct their spiritual activities. The people watching them started to suspect that European women all crossed their legs until Sunday so that their children would all be born on Sunday. The soul name (see 40 Days) for European men was thus Akwasi (Kwesi) and for women, Akosua. Since in their books (the bibles) they read special rules and regulations, especially to argue a point, the people thought that they were quoting new proverbs. The Akan people always quoted proverbs to make a point. The phrase “ne o bu be fufero ni” meaning “they who brought new proverbs” was given to the Europeans. Eventually “o bu be fufuro ni” was contracted to “Obruni,” the current word for European (mzungu in Swahili).”
Dokonu (kenkey) is a delicious food made from maize. The wet corn meal is allowed to ferment for three to seven days, and then formed into balls and steamed. In Accra, Ga Kenkey is wrapped in the leaves covering the cobs, while Fante Kenkey made at Cape Coast is wrapped in plantain leaves. The flavour corresponds to those different wrappings during the steaming. The plantain leaves give a slightly bitter flavour, and since the wrapping is close to air tight, Fante kenkey is better designed for carrying long distances while travelling. The Accra kenkey tastes sweeter, reminiscent of sweet corn. White corn is preferred for making kenkey.
At the Reading University Home Economics and Agricultural research station in Weybridge, UK, kenkey was studied and it was shown that the fermentation process added protein to the kenkey, in a more digestible and available form than the protein of the original corn meal that was used to make the kenkey.
Shortly after Ghana’s independence, in 1957, USAID imported large quantities of high protein yellow corn meal. The donors were dismayed to see that the corn meal was not eaten, but just fed to the domestic animals. When they were asked, the people replied that the reason was that the USAID corn meal was “Yellow Corn,” and therefore fit only for animals.
The USAID officials thought of themselves as culturally sensitive, so they went back to the USA and gave out contracts to research institutes and universities to develop a white corn that was high in protein. This took several years, and in 1971, brought the new white corn meal to Ghana.
To their shock and surprise, the people just fed the new corn meal to animals.
“Why?” asked the USAID officials. “Because this is yellow corn, not fit for humans,” was the reply. The aid officials were miffed and mystified. To them the new corn meal looked white, and they knew it was nutritious. It finally took an anthropologist, specializing in West African languages, to solve the mystery.
To the Akan people, in the Akan language, the word “yellow” was not a description of colour as Europeans would understand it. It was an indication that the corn meal had too much protein in it. The protein would not ferment when making kenkey, but would rot, and not be edible. They needed high starch corn meal that would ferment to make kenkey. The fermentation process added twenty per cent more available protein to the kenkey that was in the original corn meal.
The European (Kwasi Bruni) has much to learn about African culture, and especially learn that they (we) are not the sole bearers of knowledge, and should learn not to make ethnocentric assumptions.
Some Web References:
Note: 1. The Spider tales of the rain forest are equivalent to the Hare stories of the savannah. These tales became the Aunt Nancy stories of the Caribbean and the Bre'r Rabbit stories of the southern USA. Some analysts see Kwaku Ananse, the trickster, also as the mortal manifestation of God.
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