The presence of cassava in Africa and Ghana has suddenly become an issue following Pastor Mensa Otabil`s remark on Fufu preparation. This morning senior journalist Gordon Asare-Bediako asked me to throw light on the origin of cassava, and this is my historical bit on it:
Although cassava or manioc is a staple crop for one-eighth of the world’s population, and Africans seems to consume it most, but it was not indigenous to Africa. It was originally a staple food of American Indians, and it was brought to Africa by the Portuguese and later by small migration of freed slaves from Brazil to West Africa. According to Alpern (2008:65), cassava was first introduced to Africans by the Portuguese at Sao Tome (Equatorial Guinea) in 1612. By 1700 it was an important food crop there, in Principe’, on Fernando Po, and at Owerri (Warri) in Nigeria on the mainland. From here the Portuguese spread it to other West African territories.
William Bosman, who was chief factor for the Dutch at Elmina at the end of the seventeenth century, also in his detailed account of the food-stuffs of Liberia, the Gold Coast, Dahomey-Togo, and Benin (in Nigeria west of the Niger) observed that cassava was on these lands while trading along the coast.
According to Jones (1957) the second introduction of cassava resulted from a small migration of freed slaves from Brazil to West Africa beginning in about 1780 and continuing for over a century that resulted in close contacts being maintained between Bahia and the Lagos-Dahomey coast. The returning Africans formed an important trading class dealing mostly in slaves, and their prestige and influence in the African societies, especially in Lagos and at the court of Abomey, was high.
The Afro-Brazilians also brought with them many practices learned in the New World, including the preparation of cassava meal and of tapioca. They were undoubtedly responsible for the present widespread use of cassava meal (gari) in West Africa, as contrasted with its only sporadic occurrence in the Congo-basin. The use of gari seems to have spread from the Brazilian center to the old yam-growing areas, and since 1900 has spread over large areas inland. With the establishment of law and order under European control there has been great expansion of trade and of internal movement of laborers. In some instances mi-grants have carried cassava meal with them and have introduced it into new areas.
In East Africa, when David Livingstone first crossed the continent in 1853-55 from Sesheke on the Zambezi River above Victoria Falls to Loanda in Angola and thence back down the Zambezi to its mouth, he found cassava being used as a staple food throughout most of the area. Du Chaillu also reported manioc in the forests of the eastern Gabon and in northern Angola, which he explored from 1855 to 1859. Stanley found cassava all along his route down the Congo in 1876-77, and when Schweinfurth, in 1870, reached the Uele River near its headwaters, he reported seeing large cassava plantations there.
Alpern, S. B. (2008). Exotic plants of western Africa: Where they came from and when. History in Africa, 35, 63-102.
Greenway, P. J. (1944). Origins of Some East African Food Plants: Part I. The East African Agricultural Journal, 10(1), 34-39.
Jones, W. O. (1957). Manioc: An example of innovation in African economies. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 5(2), 97-117.
Kweku Darko Ankrah