Harvesting Wild Grasses

To most people, it probably seems inconceivable that in this age of intensive agriculture, wild grasses are still being gathered. The following (adapted from a recent FAO report) gives a sense of the ongoing importance of wild grains in different parts of Africa.

Niger

On their way from the wet- to the dry-season pastures, the Tuareg of Niger regularly harvest wild cereals. The grains, collectively known as ishiban, include desert panic (Panicum laetum) and shama millet (Echinochloa colona). Women do most of the gathering, and around harvest time groups of five or six women often go off for a week or so to gather wild grains (as well as fruits, gum arabic, and other wild products).

They collect the grains in different ways:

  • If the seed is ripe and ready to fall, they harvest early in the morning when dew tends to hold the seed in the inflorescence. They swing a deep, cone-shaped basket through the tops of the plants to gather the grain.

  • If the seed is not ripe enough to fall, they first cut the grass and then dry, thresh, and winnow the grain as if it were a domesticated cereal

  • If the seed has already ripened and fallen, they cut or burn the stands, and later sweep the seeds up off the ground. (This spoils the taste and adds soil and pebbles, but the harvesters often have no choice.)

  • Sometimes the women search for seeds in ant nests and termite mounds. In desperate times, such as the terrible drought of the 1970s, they even dig down to the ants' subterranean storehouses.

Sudan

The Zaghawa of the Sudan and Chad harvest many annual grasses for food and beer. These include Egyptian grass (Dactyloctenium aegyptium), desert panic, shama millet, wild tef (Eragrostis pilosa), and wild rice (Oryza breviligulata). Kram-kram (Cenchrus biflorus) and Tribulus terrestris seeds are used only during famine. The women generally use the grains for their own



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