Wednesday, 18 April 2018

P is for Plantations...and...Photographs...

is for

Percussion to die for! Here is Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria: 

This track is a super popular one from his album Drums of Passion, which introduced African percussion to global audiences in 1959. The track went onto sales of millions and has been covered by other artists as well.

And here’s P Square, also from Nigeria, band of twin brothers Peter and Paul Okoye. A different era, a different genre and a different sound altogether – take a listen.

Plantations. Photographs. And Picnics.

Image from my parents' album
One of my enduring memories from my childhood in Africa is picnics in the plantations around Maiduguri. Here is a photo of one, three families in a cashew plantation a little way outside town. Three friends and three sets of parents, one of the dads is of course behind the camera. There were many other picnics too, where unfortunately no one remembered to take any photos. 

Image courtesy: Ifi Ahmed
My family never possessed a camera till my father bought me a tiny Kodak when I was 17. These photos, and they aren’t very many to begin with, were taken by other people – friends, their fathers or siblings. Here’s another, this one taken sometime in the late 70's. We're slightly older, all in secondary school by then, so we’re on our own, in Bauchi. No plantations there, just on a spot at Gubi Hill. 

Image courtesy: Malini Mehan
It was a childhood quite unimaginable by today's standards, no gadgety toys, just hours of badminton or walking or climbing the rock outcrops around, no TV in most houses, indoor board games and cards after dark. Music on vinyl and those cassettes which you had to tighten up with a Biro-tip, remember those? - C-60s and C-90s. No restaurants, no malls, only the officers' clubs to hang out in, strictly in designated kid spaces and times. Forget personal cell-phones, not even a landline in the home of a fairly senior expat government officer. I think telephones came to Bauchi in the last few months before I graduated school and left. 

Image courtesy: Malini Mehan
Two words - isolated and peaceful. That's what life was like then. Never again the same peace anywhere else, the same depth of connections, the same wide open glorious skies. But I digress. Let's get back to plantations.

Plantations in Africa have a loaded, mostly unpleasant past. They were initially introduced by the colonisers – huge tracts of fertile lands forcibly evicted, resettled and sown with cocoa, coffee, tea, rubber, cotton, groundnuts to supply the increasing demands of an industrialised economy. Prior to European colonisation, African lands were in African hands, and farmers grew food crops, a whole range of cereals and tubers. The Europeans generally dissed the indigenous varieties of food crops, over 2000 grains, tubers, roots and plantains, including native strains of rice, sorghum, fonio, guinea and pearl millets, and many varieties of wild cereals – they were deemed fit only for animal feed.

In fact a recent US study hypothesises that had these varieties not been lost due to colonisation and supplanting with cash crops, many regions of Africa which are now dependent on food handouts may have been self-sufficient if not in surplus. So what exactly happened? To understand, we need to go back to the Portuguese and the seeds they sowed...

The Portuguese and the seeds of Partition.  

The seeds of colonial takeover of Africa were sown first by the Portuguese in the 15th century. In their quest for a sea route to India and China, they established a colony at Cape Verde, which was a strategically important for the slave trade. They reached the Cape of Good Hope (then called Cape of Storms) in 1488, but beyond building fortifications at the various outposts along the African coastline, did not put up any settlements. Minimal disturbance in terms of agriculture, as the tribes in the interior were nomadic hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. That changed when the Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652 and built a settlement. Gradually ranchers came to live and farm there. Over the next 150 years the colony grew hundreds of km northwards and eastwards into the interior.   

The Portuguese reached modern Ghana by 1469, and further down established their presence along the Congolese and Angolan coast. This helped their participation in the slave trade and undermined Arab interests. As the 16th century started, the other European powers gradually arrived to grab a share of the slave trade pie, the British, the Dutch, and the French. Fat profits were made for 3+ centuries from slavery, the Brits emerging as the 'market leaders.'

By mid- to late-19th century, the main African rivers had been explored and their sources established, the interiors known to European cartographers, and European missionaries were working in Africa. The abolishment of slavery in America and Europe meant that profits from it had dried up. At the same time, industrialisation in the West created mass displacement, urbanisation, poverty, and unrest, not the whole of the population could be absorbed by the new capitalist industries. There was a need for assured raw materials to feed the industries, as there was an equally pressing need for assured markets. The European powers at the time were jostling for supremacy within Europe, and acquiring territories became a signifier of pre-eminence. Altogether a somewhat dangerous socio-economic and political combo! And this spurred the colonisation of Africa. The competition to stake out their respective patches in Africa was so fierce that war seemed imminent. To defuse the tensions, Bismarck - the then Chancellor of Germany, called a conference in Berlin at which the Treaty of Berlin was signed. It partitioned Africa up in neat parcels of land for each of the European powers. Only Ethiopia and Liberia remained autonomous.

Incidentally, this parcelling out is the reason why there are these strange straight vertical and horizontal lines that pass as borders in many African nations, cutting through things that shouldn’t be cut through and joining things that shouldn’t be joined to each other. Just in case you’ve ever looked at a map of Africa and wondered. Yup, the same as the Indian subcontinent, only on a grander scale. Anyhoo.

Plantation crops were introduced first by the Portuguese in tiny ways and then spread mostly in the 19th century with colonisation. The British especially spearheaded the production of plantation crops on a commercial scale in many regions of Africa. Large areas in Ghana and Nigeria came under cocoa for instance, which required upto 15 years to mature. Similarly, cotton was introduced in North Africa. Tea and coffee in Kenya and so on. Rubber was produced commercially in Congo by the Belgian King Leopold at great human cost.

In much of Africa tribes were chivvied off their traditional lands into areas with poor, infertile soils. Those that remained were treated as squatters and were forced to work for the white settlers in return for living on ‘their,’ the settlers,’ land. The colonial governments made it illegal for the indigenous farmers to participate in the export trade, and prohibited them from growing certain cash crops outright such as tea and coffee. As lands were switched to more commercial crops, food production suffered and a whole range of native grains was lost. Not a picnic at all! A tad unfair all round, if you ask my free and frank.

From the Safaris

Books n Stuff

Alan Paton (1903-1988) - now, what can I tell you about him? Paton was a South African poet, short fiction writer, novelist, biographer, teacher and anti-apartheid political activist, most famously known for his first novel Cry, the Beloved Country, a lucid, simple and passionately told story about a clergyman whose son's life has gone terribly wrong. The novel was published in 1948 and brought worldwide attention to race relations and apartheid in South Africa. The eldest son of English settlers, Paton was born in Pietermaritzburg and completed his education in University of Natal. He drew heavily upon his own experiences to write CtBC, for he did teach at a reformatory in Ixopo. He helped found the Liberal Party which was based on a non-racial alternative view of South Africa, but it was forcibly dissolved. Paton had his passport confiscated for his political activism.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke, and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill...

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil...Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator...
Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton.

That is how CtBC begins, Paton's prose is imbued with a monumental love of nature and humanity and a lyricism that defies description. I read it in school and adored it enough to get my own copy. I had this dream of travelling to Ixopo - of being able to stand barefoot on the ground he called holy and look upon one of the fairest valleys of Africa. 

It's still on my bucket list, but this is the thing - no-one really needs to go to Ixopo. The earth feels holy in a million places, and the next fair valley is just a few steps away wherever I may be standing...Ixopo isn't all that far away really...

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2018 


  1. Very interesting. So, if they had well enough alone, the world might have been a much different place...

    1. Different without a doubt, and probably a whole lot more varied in terms of food crops. Thanks for visiting.

  2. Percussion is something which gets to even the least musical among us (me), isn't it? I think it is almost impossible to listen to without reacting to the beat.
    I too grew up in a simpler, more peaceful time. For which I am grateful.

    1. Rhythm is innate to every human really, starts with hearing the mother's heartbeat in the womb from the moment a fetus can hear. I too am deeply thankful for the less urbanised, simpler and peaceful times. Though children of the present time would think it a huge hardship. It wasn't.

    2. Most definitely not. And thank you so much for your kindess about my WEP post.

  3. Hari OM
    aaaeeee Babatunde! Had not seen the Ps before, something 'Nollywood' but am enjoying. Oh those memories of expat living in the 1970s... you made me smile so much today Nilanjana! Loved the history too - some I knew, some not. And CtBC is sublime... YAM xx

    1. The main thing that's changed since then in expat living is the communication system - can talk to anyone anywhere at the push of a button, unimaginable in the 70's :) Glad you enjoyed travelling back down memory lane.

  4. Percussion is brilliant - loved it ... and yes I wonder if the European colonisers hadn't messed around with the land the world would be a different place. We are now trying to conserve the seeds ... both in Norway and in the UK ...

    Loved the thought of that earlier life - simple in its pleasures and easy in its way ...

    You've set out clearly what was going on in this world over the last 600 years or so as exploration took a hold - not necessarily a good thing - cheers Hilary

    1. I think everywhere we are more conscious now about conservation of agricultural resources, and others. Which is fab. Most humans did not take a long term view 500 years ago, most did not have any education so naturally...power struggles and tribal warfare were ways of life. We've come a long way since then, though sometimes it feels like plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose...

  5. Replies
    1. Terribly grainy pics, but oh such a great fix of nostalgia! :-)

  6. Very interesting - and unfortunate - how the Europeans didn't appreciate all the varieties of grains and other crops grown by the Indigenous people. What a loss for people then and now. Enjoyed reading about the picnics on the cashew plantation. Have never seen a cashew tree before. That would be neat!


    1. Land acquisition, or any other acquisition, wasn't really done in the 15/16th centuries with an eye on conservation, or respect for the cultures - a totally different world view then and now.

      The cashew fruit actually is a fleshy fruit, and the nut is attached below it. Quite a surprise if one doesn't know that beforehand, I certainly didn't when i first saw it :)

  7. Such heart-breaking history lessons, on so many levels. The information about the lost food crops and the potential benefit they would have had has my mind reeling. And certainly wanting to make sure we increase our efforts at heritage seed saving.

    On a happier note, what precious photos of a gentler time of serenity.

    1. It's like the dodo - thoughtlessly squandered resources and species...
      Am truly thankful for that serene childhood!

  8. It's strange how some families pretty much shun photography, while other families heartily embrace it. My mother's family was always taking pictures, more than one could ever count. I have dozens of photos of her, starting at the age of two or three and "following" her all the way to adulthood and beyond. On my father's side, however... I have one photo of him as a baby, and that's the only one I've seen until the day he married my mom twenty-four years later.

    1. As you say, funny how people can be classified into photo clickers and the clicked and totally non-photo types.

      It's also quite strange that my father never got a camera - he is/was a great fan of all kinds of pictures - still photos, paintings, films...Regularly took us all off to the galleries everywhere, and to films of all description. My love for images and poetry is inherited from him.


Comment moderation is on. Anonymous comments will be deleted forthwith. Nonymous comments always welcome :) Thank you for your patience!