But Abukutsa-Onyango is not promoting indigenous crops at the expense of all crops. Instead, she sees a future food landscape where Kenya’s cool, moist highlands continue to produce Westernized crops for export (and to supplement Kenyan diets), while the lowlands produce better yields of indigenous bambara nuts, for example, or amaranth, spider plant and pigeon pea, without irrigation and in spite of less fertile soils.
“For example, grain amaranth has high protein content, in the range of 10-15 percent, so it is definitely more nutritious than traditional maize. My recommendation here would be to grow the hardy sorghums and millets in combination with other short-lived grains like amaranths and traditional maize.”
It’s a scenario that would benefit both Kenyan prosperity and the health of Kenya’s inhabitants, since the indigenous crops have been shown to contain more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and micro-nutrients. This leads to greater dietary and nutritional diversity, which is especially important to growing children and pregnant women.
Many African indigenous vegetables also have medicinal properties. Spider plant is known to help constipation, as well as facilitating birth. Nightshades have been used for centuries to cure stomachache, and Colocasia esculenta, or Elephant Ear (also known as taro root), has been used to treat rapid heartbeat.
There are undoubtedly many more, but their medicinal use has been largely forgotten as Westernized medicine replaced native lore.
Perhaps an added benefit of indigenous cropping would be the rediscovery of natural medicines. Even if this fails to happen, though, Abukutsa-Onyango’s work represents not only a uniquely valuable African (and Kenyan) perspective, but also a global trend toward “homegrown” food and an increasing realization that traditional growing methods – like the Native American (of corn, beans and squash) – are not only more sustainable, but essential to food security in a warming world.
Her final words of wisdom represent an arrow in time, pointing to a future in harmony with the cycles of Nature rather than an attempt to control it. In fact, her prescription may be the only viable solution:
“I believe we cannot talk about meeting millennium development goals pertaining to food and nutrition security and poverty and health issues without the complementary use of African indigenous foods like indigenous vegetables.”
(Photos: NAFIS, IRIN)