May 25 is celebrated as Africa Day on the African continent and in the African Diaspora.
It commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. In Jamaica, many people and organisations will celebrate Africa Day, and with good reason. Africa has played a central role in Jamaica's development, and this should be celebrated.
Africa's contribution to Jamaica's food heritage is perhaps the area that is least known and celebrated. There are many edible plants in Jamaica which are of African origin that have become intrinsically linked to Jamaica's economy and identity. These plants were brought to Jamaica during the Spanish and British colonial eras.
The British and the Spanish colonials realised that, given the tropical nature of Africa and Jamaica, the plants of Africa could be easily grown in Jamaica. As such, they transferred many plants from Africa to the Caribbean. The colonisers were also in search of new spices and plants that could become major income earners as well. Plants were also brought to Jamaica to feed the enslaved Africans who were already familiar with them.
Among the many edible African plants introduced to Jamaica are rice, cow peas, gungu peas, watermelon, bonavist bean (banabis bean), tamarind, ackee, egg plant/garden egg, sorrel, okra, kola nut (bissy), guinea corn and coffee, among others. Peanut, banana, and plantain were not native to Africa but were introduced to Jamaica via Africa. Africans consumed these plants long before their arrival to Jamaica.
The careful observer will note that the plants listed above have been entrenched in the Jamaica diet and identity. Ackee has become our national fruit and is part of the unofficial national dish. Its image adorns several official iconographies. Perhaps no other plant represents the spirit of African Jamaicans than the ackee, which arrived aboard a ship in the late 1700s along with African captives.
Much can be said of coffee, which came indirectly to Jamaica but is of Ethiopian origin. Jamaican coffee is now regarded as among the finest in the world and is a major foreign exchange earner. Sorrel has also become such a part of Jamaica's reputation that in some Latin American countries it is called flor de Jamaica, meaning flower of Jamaica.
According to authors Judith A Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff in their informative book In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, the African Diaspora is more than just people, it includes Africa's edible plants which have been dispersed around the world. While we celebrate all things African today, let us also be mindful of the plants eaten by our African ancestors which we still enjoy today. Let us also be mindful of the matter of food security and the need to preserve our African legacy by planting and marketing these foods.
Africa has many other edible plants which were not brought by the colonial rulers. In this era of political independence and much talk about African pride and solidarity, improved transportation and communication, perhaps private individuals and government agencies could introduce other African edible plants to Jamaica and further enrichen our diet.
British colonials systematically introduced many plants to Jamaica through botanical gardens and stations across this island, perhaps our local technocrats and plant enthusiasts could do the same and teach us how to care and consume them. African diplomatic missions here should be involved in this noble cultural exchange. Furthermore, in addition to planting ornamental trees in public and other places, perhaps African fruit trees could also be planted across Jamaica, bringing multiple benefits to our people and the environment.
As we celebrate Africa Day, let us also celebrate Africa's foods and make proper plans to plant, distribute, and market them to feed Jamaica and the world.
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