#22. Conserving life-sustaining grains and foods

I hardly have any conversation with childhood colleagues without bringing up memories of my childhood work on the farms to produce grains and the foods we ate in those days. These grains are the basic source of food and nutrition that sustained us and still sustains people living in the savanna Ghana. 

Most people who grew up in the savanna belt of West Africa will always remember the thick paste made from the flour of grains such as millet, sorghum or maize. This is called Tuo Zaafi(TZ) in northern Ghana or Nigeria. In the francophone countries, it is generally called Patte. The Bisa and Kusaal names for this food are Wu and Sa’ab respectively. Different languages in the savanna belt will have their local names it.

The grains used for TZ are usually obtained from millet, sorghum or maize. There has been a general perception that millet and sorghum production is gradually being replaced by maize in northern Ghana. This perception is being confirmed by practices in households; particularly in the Upper East Region. A quick and limited survey in this area showed that there has been increased cultivation of maize with a corresponding decreased cultivation of millet and sorghum. There are several reasons for this trend.

The yield per acre of maize far exceeds the yield per acre of millet. For economic reasons, most farmers will therefore prefer to cultivate maize instead of millet. Population growth has put pressure on land thereby, decreasing the land area available to the average farm family. Farmers, therefore, resort to the cultivation of high yielding crops such as maize. The cultivation of millet is more labour-intensive than maize. One farmer in the Bolgatanga area calls maize farming “the lazy man’s farming”. The changing climatic conditions brought about by climate change resulting in a decreased number of months with adequate rainfall makes it easier to cultivate maize which matures quicker than millet; particularly late millet.

Farmers have complained about the attack of birds on their early millet. Research into improved production technologies is funded mainly by the donor community. This community focuses mainly on maize, soybean and rice. Agricultural scientists therefore have to use whatever extra funding they have for other research activities to carry out research on millet and sorghum. Some consumers prefer the sensory qualities of TZ made from maize(It is whiter than the one made from millet) compared to millet or sorghum without consideration of the superior nutritional value. Despite all these reasons, it has generally been accepted by rural farmers and scientists that millet and sorghum are more nutritious than maize. 

The idea of farmers moving from subsistence to commercial farming was started in the early 1960s when several tractors were brought to the Manga Agricultural station to provide services to farmers in nearby villages who needed the use of these tractors. As a matter of fact, it looks as if nobody considered that deep ploughing using tractors will damage the soil in the Upper Regions. The ploughs that were used on these tractors were developed using European soil structure. Indeed our neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger hardly use tractors. In the late 20th and early 21st-century, development facilitators started encouraging community farmers to think beyond subsistence farming and approach farming as a business that can earn increased income to respond to household needs and grow their wealth. It is most likely that the current trend of replacing millet with maize is in response to this call for agriculture as a business. If this is the case leaving millet behind compromises nutrition for wealth. 

Anytime I talk to research scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Savanna Agricultural Research Institute(SARI), I get blown away by the technical know-how of the scientists and the amount of research they have been done so far. In putting together information on life-sustaining grains, this is what I found when I talked to the Director of the CSIR-SARI sub-station in Manga, Dr Issah Sugri. After a period of research and experimentation, several varieties of millet have been released between 2016 and 2020. These include Akad-komAfribeh-NaaraWAAPP NaaraKaanati, and Naad-Kohblug. They have the following qualities: 

Drought resistance to water stress.

Higher yield over conventional varieties.

Early maturing to respond to changing climate conditions.

A variety that has bristles to resist attack from birds for early season production.

A variety with bigger size and cream seed colour grains. 

A variety with increased micro-mineral (Iron and Zinc) contents. 

The fact that researchers are working to produce varieties of millet in response to changing climatic and economic conditions is indeed very commendable and gives the hope that millet is not a crop that will vanish in Northern Ghana. I am however not sure about how the development of these varieties will translate into actual production by local farmers in Northern Ghana. In the first place, the successful Ghanaian government agricultural promotion policies do not target millet. Secondly, seed companies do not find it profitable to adopt new varieties of millet and produce them in large quantities for sale to farmers.

It is reassuring that these improved varieties of millet are available at CSIR-SARI Manga Agric Station. Cost of seed may however be higher than what farmers will find in the open market and these farmers are likely not to be prepared to pay higher amounts of money for the improved seeds. It is disappointing that several years after independence and nearly 90 years of the Manga Agricultural Station, farmers still want free inputs to increase the productivity of their crops. 

Replacing millet and sorghum that have higher nutritional value with maize that has a lower nutritional value in the preparation of TZ could have a negative impact on the health of community members in the long run. Something needs to be done urgently to maintain the production of millet and sorghum and indeed increase its production to the levels observed in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Three possible lines of action include policy-level, field-level and donor motivated. At the policy-level, a policy that makes available a certain percentage of the national budget for research into millet and sorghum will ensure that research by CSIR-SARI is not led by the donor community and is specifically directed at on millet and sorghum. This kind of policy will help reduce dependence on donor funding for research and ensure that the very competent and well-trained scientists in the country research into foods that will benefit rural Ghanaians. At the practical field-level, government departments of agriculture can do more to bring the outputs of research to the common farmer in the communities. For

example, when I was a child, in the 1960s, the technical officers came to my father and asked for 20 square meters of his farm, preferable at the edge of his land, on which they planted improved seeds. They then visited the plot every week throughout the farming season to ensure that he was going according to their instructions in weeding and chemical application. At the harvesting season, my father clearly saw the difference between the output of the improved seeds and his traditional variety of seeds. Adoption of the improved variety was guaranteed at that point. If this practice could be restarted, it would go a long way to bring the results of research done by scientists to local farmers. Finally, Ghanaian development workers should make an effort to advocate strongly for donor funding for advancing the cause of millet and sorghum. Non-governmental organisations need to provide leadership in advocating for funding for research and community engagement on millet and sorghum. 

Early millet takes about 58 to 64 days to mature and be ready for harvesting. This millet matures early enough to create the bridge between the period of food shortages and the harvesting of all the other crops. One common scenario I remember is to be crowded with my siblings in my mother’s Bissa household kitchen called Genla Che, a room with traditional fireplaces made up of stones fixed to the ground that combined with the wall of the room to form a tripod on which a cooking pot can be placed and fire made under the pot. In this room, a platform is erected to occupy about 1/4 of the room against part of the wall and raised over a metre high on which grinding stones are fixed and used for grinding grains. The common scenario is to crowd into this room particularly during the middle of the rainy season when the rains drizzle for very long periods and roast early millet to eat. 

Until recently early millet and late millet have been the predominant grains from which TZ is prepared and the predominant grains for preparing several life-sustaining snacks. The easiest snack to prepare is called Nyaasi in Bissa and Zom in Kusaal. It is prepared by kneading roughly ground millet with a little amount of water, sometimes with the addition of shea butter and pepper, and moulded into balls not bigger than a clenched fist. Water is poured over it to create a foamy liquid that leaves a conspicuous foam on the upper lip of the drinker. The fact that this snack does not need heating at all could mean that people drinking this water and eating the snack get the best nutrients from millet. The water is generally called Nyaasipi in Bissa and Zomkoom in Kusaal. By the late 1980s, this drink had been commercialized in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. The drink is now available during ceremonies all over Ghana particularly in Northern Ghana and Northern communities Accra and Kumasi. 

The second easiest meal to prepare from millet is called Baambuurey in Bissa and Walsa in Kusaal. It is prepared by pouring the flour into a small amount of boiling water and stirring it until it cooks. This is eaten hot after adding shea butter, salt and pepper. Other Bissa foods prepared with millet flour include Tunto NyaasiDuubaambureh, PumpunniBeyisgaPipirrKariyaama. A detailed description of these foods is beyond the scope of this narrative. A recipe book for these foods will be a great way of preserving Bissa culture. I have referred to these foods as snacks because they are normally taken during the daytime and the main meal for households will normally be in the evening and it will be in most occasions TZ

While flour from the different varieties of sorghum can be used for the preparation of TZ these grains are normally used for the preparation of the local alcoholic drink called pito. As stated earlier the use of flour from maize for the preparation of TZ is a recent development in the 21st century. I remember that when maize was first introduced to Manga, a neighbour’s wife came to my mother to find out how she was able to grind these big grains on the grinding stone. My mother advised her to crash the maize in a mortar to reduce the size before taking it to the grinding stone. Although corn mills were available in Bawku it would have cost extra money to take the maize to town for grinding. 

Other life-sustaining grains in the savanna belt of Africa include rice, groundnuts, and the different varieties of beans such as Bambara beans, Black-eyed beans etc. Soya beans is a new variety that has come up in the 21st century. Apart from simply cooking the Black-eyed or Bambara beans and then adding shea butter, salt and pepper to eat; beans are also used for the preparation of a variety of foods. The most common food prepared from Black-eyed beans is called Tubani in Hausa, Gawur in Bissa and Gonya in Kusaal. Other foods prepared from beans include KooseyKansaZare pumpunni (names in Bissa).

There is an annual Bissa festival held around Easter in Kulungungu where these Bissa foods are prepared and displayed. Any development worker in Burkina Faso or Northern Ghana who visits this annual festival will go away with a lot of knowledge about life-sustaining foods. 

Rice has been the most common food prepared for occasions and festivals such as funerals, weddings, Christmas celebrations and other religious festivities. It is prepared either as rice bowls with soup, Jollof rice or plain rice with sauce. It can also be combined with Black-eyed beans to prepare rice and beans commonly called Waakye in Hausa. Waakye is a delicacy in big cities in Ghana. It is also a common breakfast for the average Ghanaian worker.

The gradual disappearance of life-sustaining grains and foods is worrying. Unless the call to reverse this trend is heeded to, the consequences in the next 40 to 50 years could be disastrous. 

The next blog will be subtitled “Disappearing practices and Emerging alternatives”


3 thoughts on “#22. Conserving life-sustaining grains and foods

  1. A very insightful and brilliant presentation worthy of notice and action by our Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to save these important and indigenous savanna grain crop from extinction !!


  2. Sadly however I wonder if the Government of Ghana through its flagship programme : PLANTING FOR FOOD AND JOBS can have a copy of this presentation for action


  3. Do our present generation know that our generation never had what the call stew? All dishes requiring stew was catered for by boiled oil, pepper and salt. All the dishes described here apart from sa’ab which was eaten with soup the rest went with what I gave described.
    By the way, TZ is the short for “tuo zaafi” in Hausa, meaning hot sa’ab


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