Christmas in the Kenya highlands

No matter how many times I come up into the highlands of the Central Province of Kenya it never fails to surprise me how little the place looks like “Africa.” The main cash crop is tea (there is also some pyrethrum still around, but tea largely displaced it in the 50s and 60s), giving the landscape something of a south Asian vibe. Tea is grown both in large plantations and by smallholders like my mother-in-law Hilda.

Her food cropping system at Gataka (Gitiha, Githunguri, Kiambu District) on the other hand, would not be out of place in Mexico. She grows potatoes, maize, beans and pumpkins, which all go into making the staple food called “irio” — basically mashed potatoes coloured with the pumpkin leaves and encrusted with the beans and maize. Some farmers grow sweet potatoes and taro where it is warmer and wetter. There are scattered plum and pear trees in my mother-in-law’s cabbage and kale fields, which would look like Europe if not for the reddish tropical soils. She stall-feeds her six Friesian cows on maize stalks, the smaller potatoes and napier grass, although they are also let loose in a grassy paddock for a few hours a day. She has a woodlot of Australian species, mainly blue gums and black wattle, used mainly for firewood.

Hardly a cultigen of African origin among that lot: “lost crops of Africa” indeed! Of course if you dig a little deeper you do find some local plants being used. A few weedy leafy greens among the potatoes, some local trees in the small remaining patches of native forest and hedges, yams here and there perhaps. But the overall look of the agriculture surely owes more to the “Columbian exchange” and the globalizing tendencies of colonialism and missionary activity than traditional African crops. An object lesson in global interdependence in genetic resources. When I’ve pointed this out to the people here in the past the first thing they always asked me was “so what did we grow before?”.

A good question. Sorghum and finger millet instead of maize, I suppose, cowpeas for beans and yams for potatoes. No sense in going back to that wholesale, of course, but certainly more could be made of some local resources, hence the considerable — and successful — recent work on African leafy vegetables and local fruits. Actually one of my sisters-in-law did try to grow vegetable Amaranthus up here. There is a weedy type among the potatoes, but she got the seeds of a larger-leaved, erect, single-stemmed variety from her mother and sowed them in a corner of a cabbage field. Unfortunately, germination was poor and nothing much came of the experiment. We’ll see if we can source some better seeds from somewhere. Will keep you posted.

Now I’m off to Christmas dinner of roasted goat and irio. Happy holidays!

The Garden of Eden revisited

The Iraqi wetlands made famous by Wilfred Thesiger as the home of the Marsh Arabs and devastated by Saddam Hussein are apparently making a comeback, thanks to a UNEP “project to restore the network of watercourses which provided inhabitants with water for drinking and farming, and supported the region’s unique ecology.” I’m intrigued by that reference to agriculture. What did (do?) the Marsh Arabs farm? Rice, wheat, barley and millet, as it turns out, although there is apparently another group which specializes in raising the buffalo. But do they still have their traditional crop varieties and livestock breeds? If not, will it be possible to recover at least some of them from genebanks around the world? I hope someone is looking into this.

Coincidentally, from half a world away, comes an example of a genebank helping to restore an indigenous community’s crop genetic resources.

Grape origins

A paper in Conservation Genetics identifies (not, I think, for the first time) the Caucasus as the centre of diversity and origin of wild grapevine, at least based on microsatellites. A genetic refugium was detected in Sardinia, and it would be interesting to know whether the plastid lineage that is fixed there is responsible for the high levels of procyanidins in some local wines.

Rescuing food traditions around the world

Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) “is a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and educational organizations dedicated to rescuing America’s diverse foods and food traditions.” You can download here their great book explaining what these traditions are. There’s also a map of North America’s “totem foods.”

Same topic, different region: Dr Lois Englberger of the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (right, with some of her NGO’s information products) has made Pacific Magazine’s list of “293 Pacific Leaders You Need To Know” because of her efforts to promote local island foods, food crops and food traditions. Congratulations, Lois, and keep up the good work!

Barcoding the Kruger Park

Botanists are collecting all the plants in the Kruger Park, according to this article. Fine, admirable: it’s good to have a full inventory of the flora of such an important protected area. We’ll know what crop wild relatives and medicinal plants grow there, for example, and thus perhaps be in a better position to tailor management interventions to suit them (at least in some parts of the park), and monitor changes. But actually that’s not why the specimens are being collected. Rather:

“We hope to be the team to identify the genetic bar-code for plants,” said team leader Dr Michelle van der Bank of the department of Botany and (Plant) Biotechnology.

That’s at the University of Johannesburg. I’m not sure I understand the logic, though. I doubt the Kruger is the most botanically diverse place in South Africa, or the most convenient (not to say safe) to collect in. What am I missing here? Anyway, it should make for some fun fieldwork.