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The status of traditional vegetable utilization in Kenya

Patrick M. Maundu
National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya

Abstract

Leafy and fruit vegetables form a significant part of the traditional diets of agricultural communities. Their consumption is, however, generally less significant among pastoral communities. About 200 indigenous plant species are used as leafy vegetables in Kenya. Only a few (4) have been fully domesticated, more (15) are semi-domesticated while the majority are wild. The species used and the wealth of indigenous knowledge vary with the culture, economic pursuits, species availability and level of influence by modernization. The variety of species used as a vegetable, the diversity within the species and the knowledge about their utilization is currently on the decline among many communities. This paper discusses the factors affecting utilization, current status of both fruit and leafy vegetable consumption, past and current trends and the role of indigenous knowledge in their utilization in Kenya.

Introduction

The use of plant parts for medicine and fruit, tubers, seeds, leaves, etc. for food is an important old practice among pastoral and non-pastoral groups. Among traditional pastoral systems, an important use of plant parts is in soups and milk for flavour and good health. In such cases there would not be a clear distinction between food and medicine. Cooking of leafy vegetables is, however, of more significance among agricultural communities and hunter-gatherers.

About 200 species growing naturally in Kenya are used as leafy vegetables. About 10 more exotic species introduced during the pre-colonial period have been integrated into the traditions of various communities and can therefore be regarded as traditional vegetables.

The importance attached to vegetable consumption depends on the community in question. The species used, the value of each species to the community and the wealth of indigenous knowledge vary a great deal as well. Vegetable consumption among traditional African societies has undergone big changes since the pre-colonial days, these being brought about mainly by interaction with other cultures. Ethnobotanical studies have shown that during the pre-colonial days:

· Leafy vegetable consumption in many African cultures was not as important a practice as it is today. The practice was and is still lacking among some pastoral groups.

· Plant species used were generally few.

· Use of fruits as vegetables was uncommon. Wild fruit consumption was a more common practice.

The age of discoveries and colonialism brought new species of crops and weeds, some of which became important sources of vegetable. Intercommunity exchange occurred mainly during intermarriages, trade and during famine. These early interactions not only increased the range of species but also the practice of eating vegetables. Despite these interactions, communities have tended to cling to their traditional vegetables and acceptance of other people's vegetable species has been a slow process.

Role of culture and economic pursuit in vegetable consumption

Role of culture

The culture of using vegetables is richer in some communities than in others. The Luhyia and the Mijikenda have an extraordinarily high number of species used as vegetables, an indication of food production systems that evolved with emphasis on vegetable cooking.

The table below shows the number of recorded indigenous leafy vegetable species in five communities.

Community

No. of species

Giriama

78

Kamba

25

Kikuyu

9

Maasai

13

Turkana

17


Despite the high species richness among the Maasai, the range of species consumed as vegetable is relatively low. This is attributed to their pastoral-based economy. Like the Maasai, the Turkana are pastoralists but have increasingly turned to plant food owing to persistent droughts. Through trial and error coupled with an ability to quickly adapt to other people's vegetables, their list of leafy vegetables has gradually grown.

The economic pursuits of each community fall between each of the following three categories: purely pastoral, purely agricultural and purely hunter-gatherers. At present, only a few communities are in only one category; the majority usually combine all three.

Figure 1 shows the main economic pursuits of some communities in Kenya and their relative dependence on wild food (hunting, gathering, fishing). The diagram shows relative community dependence on each of the three systems - crop farming, pastoralism and hunting/gathering/fishing. Gathering here includes collecting wild fruit, roots and leafy vegetables, honey, insects, bird eggs, etc. The Ng'ikebootok for example are crop farmers but supplement a lot of their garden produce with wild food, mainly from hunting and gathering. The Kikuyu depend much less on food obtained from the wild.

The pastoral Pokot of North Baringo, on the other hand, depend on their livestock as a source of livelihood but supplement this a great deal with wild food. On the other hand the Somali supplement their animal food with agricultural food produce (such as rice) grown elsewhere.

Among purely pastoral groups such as the Maasai, leafy and fruit vegetable consumption is almost lacking in the traditional foods. Plant parts are, however, used in soup for flavour or as a drug and in milk for the health of children.

Indigenous Knowledge

It should also be noted that communities that pursue more agricultural lifestyles depend less on wild food resources. The knowledge about wild food resources is as a result generally less. Vegetable consumption is, however, associated more with the cultivators than with pastoral groups. Knowledge is thus most abundant in communities that, besides farming, depend a great deal on the environment such as the Ng'ikebootok and the Giriama.

Fig. 1. Main economic pursuits and relative dependence on wild food systems by some Kenyan communities. Relative positions are based on author's own perception.

Role of external influence

Interaction with other communities has over the years passed on the use of certain species of cultivated or wild vegetables to others. Early contact with Asian and Arabian traders had a profound influence on vegetable species consumed by coastal. communities. The use of species such as Amaranthus spp., Gynandropsis gynandra, Basella alba and Corchorus spp. for food might have been introduced to many communities this way. The use of Latin American species such as pumpkin, cassava, sweet potato and Asian cocoyam (Colacasia antiquorum) as leafy vegetables was passed on during these early days.

Trade between communities and interactions due to proximity with one another also brought about cultural and species exchanges. Local names of the species can give us clues. For example, G. gynandra is used by the Luhyia, Kisii, Kipsigis, Luo and Giriama. It is eaten as a vegetable in southern Africa and in South Asia. Its important role in the local traditions of the Nilotic groups suggests a long use. Similarities in the local names for the plant among the western Bantu and highland Nilotes suggest a common origin. Among the Kisii, where the plant is known as chinsaga, it is an important vegetable for mothers after delivery. The neighbouring Kalenjin groups of Kipsigis and Nandi call it sakiat or kisakiat, a name bearing a similar structure to that of the Kisii. The conclusion is that one community adopted the use from the other, probably via the Ogiek (Okiek) groups that have members of both communities. The plant is not a traditional vegetable among the Kikuyu who nevertheless have a name for it - sageti or thageti, a direct adoption of the Kipsigis word.

Processing techniques

These may vary with the community but the following are some common techniques:

Boiling the vegetable. For coarse leaves 'Magadi salt' may be used to soften the leaves. To add flavour, these may be salted and mixed with butter added or fried. The vegetable is eaten along with stiff porridge made from cereals commonly referred to as ugali.

Mashing with maize mixture. The vegetable may be cooked with maize, a mixture of maize, a pulse, pumpkins or a starchy tuber like English potato (githeri - Kikuyu, isyo - Kamba, nyoyo - Luo). These are mashed together. Butter may be added or the food fried. This is a common practice among the Kikuyu. Common species used are:

Cereal

Maize

Pulse

Cowpea, lablab bean, pigeon pea

Vegetable

Pumpkin leaves, kahurura (Cucumis sp.),
cowpea leaves, stinging nettle (Urtica massaica)

Starchy food

Pumpkin, english potato.


Cooking with flour. The vegetable is boiled in water, flour added and the mixture cooked together. The mixture may be solid (ngunzakutu - Kamba) or semi-solid (nang'aria, atap - Ng'ikebootok). The flour may be made from cereals or dried tubers.

In times of famine, vegetables may be boiled and eaten with nothing else.

Fruit vegetables

The use of fruit vegetables is an uncommon practice in Kenyan communities. Citrullus lanatus (watermelon), now used all over the world, has its origin in Africa. Local varieties are cultivated by the Turkana where the plant is a traditional food commonly called namunye. The Mbeere also cultivate a variety of the crop. It stores well and provides food in times of food shortage. In south Turkana it is intercropped with sorghum.

The gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) used in most of Africa as a container also has forms with edible fruit. These are picked when young and soft and boiled or fried and used as stew. Up to six cultivars of this type have been identified in Kenya.

The fruits of Coccinia grandis, a local climber, are also used as stew by the Turkana.

Leafy vegetables

Cultivation of crops solely for vegetables does not seem to have been an important practice in the African cultures. One explanation is that there was plenty to be picked from the wild while among some communities such as the Maasai it was simply not part of the culture. Growing of vegetables in home gardens became increasingly important with interactions with other groups from outside.

Although the use of a particular species may cut across several communities, some of the species are only used by particular communities despite their wide occurrence. Their use may be either missing or of little importance in one community but traditionally significant in another. The consumption of Crotalaria brevidens is common among Western groups but the species is not used by the Central Bantu cluster.

Corchorus species and especially C. trilocularis and C. olitorius are also typical vegetable species of the coastal and western regions, being mainly used by the Luhyia (murere), Luo (apoth) and the Giriama (kikosho). It is not a traditional vegetable of the Central Bantu communities and the plain, Nilotes. Its use is, however, spreading with the Luhyia name as the trade name. It is also broadcast in home gardens and often preserved when found in cropland.

Solanum nigrum (black nightshade) is among the most widely used leafy vegetable, being used by both Nilotic and Bantu speakers. It is a cosmopolitan weed.

Recent trends

Over the years, communities have built up the list of vegetable species in their environment, through trial and error, especially during periods of food shortage, and partly through exchange of information and species with other peoples. In addition, knowledge on ways of preparing the vegetable also has been enriched. Agricultural communities who depend more on cooked plant food have had more experience in this.

In recent years this knowledge has, however, been threatened. The following trends have been noticed.

· little knowledge is being passed from the knowledgeable to the less knowledgeable
· species or their forms/cultivars are locally disappearing
· consumption of traditional species is despised by modern people.
The result of this is loss of knowledge (of names, uses, etc.), genetic erosion and in some instances loss of species.

From the early 1980s, however, there has been a deliberate move by both government and non-governmental organizations to increase the growing of indigenous and traditional vegetables. Awareness of their nutritional value and importance in alleviating malnutrition also has been on the increase.

Recommendations

The rapid loss of genetic diversity in vegetables calls for a concerted effort among researchers and development workers to:

· identify species/forms under threat

· encourage home and village level conservation through establishment and maintenance of 'home' genebanks and retention of traditional practices that encourage genetic diversity

· collect germplasm for storage in genebanks.

Genetic diversity has a direct relationship with indigenous knowledge. There is thus a need to:
· collect ethnobotanical information on the species, their forms, characteristics, etc.
· document preparation techniques.
To enhance the two, there is a need to:
· promote the utilization and conservation of vegetables through educational programmes for schools and communities

· increase their potential through breeding/selection

· increase appreciation through nutritional and agronomic research.

Suggested reading

Armento, J. Beverly et al. 1991. Bantu migrations 500 BC - AD 1500. In Across the Centuries. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Fedders, A. and C. Salvadori. 1989. Peoples and Cultures of Kenya. Transafrica/Rex Collings with KTDA, Nairobi.

Ichikawa, M. 1980. The utilization of wild food by the Suei Dorobo in Northern Kenya. J. Anthropol. Soc. Nippon 88 (1, Jan):25-48.

Maundu, P.M. 1994. The role played by indigenous food plants among the Ng'ikebootok of Southern Turkana, Kenya. In Proceedings of the 13th AETFAT Congress, Zomba, Malawi, April, 1991 (J. Seyani and Chikuni, eds.).

Maundu, P.M. 1993. Important indigenous food plants of Kenya. Pp. 15-18 in Proceedings of the Indigenous Food Plants Workshop, National Museums of Kenya, April 14-16 1993.

Polhill, R.M., ed. Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A Balkema, Rotterdam/Boston. (Available in parts with various dates and authors).

Silberfein, Marilyn. 1989. Rural Changes in Machakos, Kenya: A Historical Geography Perspective. University Press of America.

Williamson, J. 1975. Useful Plants of Malawi. University of Malawi, Zomba.

Appendix I. Traditional fruit vegetable species and communities where commonly used

Exotic



Pumpkin (cooked)

Cucurbita maxima

widespread

Indigenous



Watermelon

Citrullus lanatus

Tur, Pkt, Mbe

Gourd (cooked)

Lagenaria siceraria

Kam, Miji-kenda, Tai

Appendix II. Traditional leafy vegetable species and communities where commonly used

Note: Only the first three letters of community groups are used. An asterisk (*) indicates that the vegetable is used as in related species but only occasionally.

1. Leafy vegetables

A. Exotic

Cassava

Manihot esculenta

widespread

Pumpkin

Cucumis maxima

widespread

Kahurura

Cucumis ficifolius

Kik

Sukuma wiki

Brassica oleracea var. acephala

Widespread

Moringa

Moringa oleifera

Miji-kenda

Cabbage

Brassica oleracea

Luo, Luh

Sweet potato

Ipomoea batatas

*


B. Indigenous

Cooked

Adansonia digitata

Kam, Tai, Miji-kenda

Aerva lanata

Miji-kenda

Amaranthus hybridus

Widespread

Amaranthus dubius

Coastal communities

Amaranthus sparganiocephalus

Maa, Tur, Sam, Pkt

Amaranthus lividus

Kis, Luo, Luh

Amaranthus graecizans

Widespread

Amaranthus spinosus

Widespread (mainly Coast and Western)

Asystasia mysorensis

Luo, Luh

Asystasia gangetica

*

Balanites aegyptiaca

Tur, Mar, Tug, Pok

Basella alba

Luo, Luh, Kalenjin

Brassica carinata

Luo, Luh

Cleome hirta

Luo, Luh, Miji-kenda

Cleome monophylla

Luo, Luh, Miji-kenda

Coccinia grandis

Kik, Mbe, Luo

Coccinia trilobata

Mbe

Commelina forskaolii

Kam, Miji-kenda

Commelina benghalensis

Widespread

Commelina africana

Widespread

Commelina imberbis

Miji-kenda, Tai

Corchorus olitorius

Miji-kenda, Luo, Luh

Corchorus tridens

Miji-kenda, Luo, Luh

Corchorus trilocularis

Miji-kenda, Luo, Luh

Crotalaria ochroleuca

Lou, Luh

Crotalaria brevidens

Luo, Luh

Cucumis dipsaceus

Pok, Tur, Kam, Tha, Mbe

Cyphia glandulifera

Kam

Digera muricata

Kam, Miji-kenda, Tur, Pkt

Erucastrum arabicum

Kik

Gynandropsis gynandra

Luo, Luh, Kalenjin

Ipomoea mombassana

Miji-kenda

Ipomoea aquatica

Miji-kenda

Kedrostis gijef

*

Kedrostis pseudogijef

Kam, Tai, Tha

Lablab purpureus

Kam, Miji-kenda, Kik

Lagenaria siceraria

*

Launaea cornuta

Miji-kenda, Kik, Kam, Mbe, Emb, Mer, Tha

Leptadenia hastata

Tur, Pkt

Mushrooms

Widespread

Oxygonum sinuatum

Miji-kenda, Tai, Luo, Kam

Oxygonum salicifolium

Miji-kenda

Pentarrhinum insipidum

Maa

Portulaca oleracea

Tur, Pkt, Mar, Kei

Portulaca quadrifida

*

Sesamum angustifolium

Luo, Luh

Solarium nigrum

Widespread

Urtica massaica

Kik, Kalenjin

Vatovaea pseudolablab

Maa, Pkt, Tur, llc, Mar, Tug

Vernonia cinerea

Miji-kenda

Vigna unguiculata

Widespread

Vigna membranaceae

Kam


Leaves (fresh)

Commiphora rostrata

Tur, Pkt, Som, Sam, Ren, Bor, Gab

Oxygonum sinuatum

Luo, Kam, Luh

Rhus tenuinervis

Maa, Sam

Rhus natalensis

Maa, Sam

Rumex abyssinicus

Kip, Kam, Tai

Rumex bequaetii

Kip, Kam, Tai

Rumex usambarensis

Kip, Kam, Tai

Tamarindus indica

Widespread

Hydnora abyssinica

Maa, Tur, Pkt, Sam, Ren, Gab, Ilc


2. Fruit vegetables (cooked)

Citrullus lanatus

Widespread

Coccinia grandis

Tur

Ficus sycomorus

Tur, Kam

Lagenaria siceraria

Kam, Gir, Kik, Emb, Mbe, Tha, Mer

Appendix III. Cultivated traditional fruit vegetables

Indigenous

Exotic

Watermelon (eaten fresh): Citrullus lanatus

Pumpkin

Gourd (cooked): Lagenaria siceraria


Appendix IV. Cultivated leafy vegetables

Indigenous

Exotic

Cowpea

Cassava

Lablab bean

Sweet potato


Pumpkin


Kahurura


Cocoyam

Appendix V. Semi-cultivated

This group includes species picked from the wild but occasionally planted on a small scale, especially in home gardens.

Amaranthus hybridus

Crotalaria brevidens

Amaranthus lividus

Crotalaria ochroleuca

Amaranthus dubius

Kedrostis pseudogijef

Basella alba

Gynandropsis gynandra

Corchorus olitorius

Sesamum angustifolium

Corchorus trilocularis

Solanum nigrum

Appendix VI. Marketed species

Most of the species are marketed in specific areas and seasons. The buyers may belong to only specific communities.

Leafy vegetables

Area commonly sold

Adansonia digitata

Kitui, Coast

Amaranthus hybridus

countrywide

Amaranthus dubius

countrywide

Amaranthus lividus

Kisii, Nyanza, Western

Amaranthus spinosus

Nyanza, countrywide

Asystasia mysorensis

Nairobi, W. Pokot, Western, Nyanza

Asystasia gangetica

Nyanza, Western

Basella alba

Nairobi, Coast, Western, Nyanza

Brassica carinata

Nyanza, Western

Corchorus trilocularis

Nairobi, Coast, Western, Nyanza, Central R. Valley, countrywide

Corchorus olitorius

Nairobi, Coast, Western, Central R. Valley, Nyanza, countrywide

Crotalaria ochroleuca

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza, Central R. Valley

Crotalaria brevidens

Nairobi, Western, Nyanza, Central R. Valley

Digera muricata

North R. Valley, Coast

Gynandropsis gynandra

Countrywide

Ipomoea aquatica

Coast

Kedrostis pseudogijef

Voi

Mushrooms (edible fungi)

Nyanza, Western, Central R. Valley

Portulaca oleracea

Nairobi

Sesamum angustifolium

Nyanza, Western

Solanum nigrum

Countrywide

Vigna unguiculata

Countrywide

Appendix VII. Definitions of terms as used here

Indigenous crop

A crop whose natural home is known to be in a specified region (Africa in our case).

Introduced species

A species whose origin is known to be outside a specified region.

Traditional crop

An indigenous or introduced species which due to long use has become part of the culture of a community.

Food production

The organized process of acquiring food for an individual or a community. This in our case is used in a rather wide sense and encompasses the process of acquiring food from wild environments.

Community

A group of people living together in a specified area whose members have something in common. Here it is used to mean an ethnic group.


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