Millet and sorghum are indigenous to Africa. Millet, which grows up to about 0.5 to a metre high and possesses grains with shades of brown and cream, depending on variety, was cultivated first in Sudan, around the Niger River, Ethiopia and parts of East Africa between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago.
On the other hand, Sorghum, which grows up to one to two metres high with grain colours ranging from red and white to dark brown was first grown about 3,000 to 7,000 years ago in the Sudan, Ethiopia and parts of East Africa, including Kenya.
The cultivation and domestication of these crops entailed a long process. First was the gathering for consumption of the cereals from wild grasses by hunter-gatherer communities whose remnants in Kenya today include the Ogiek.
Later, after many hundreds of years, and as a result of the Neolithic revolution, pastoralists, including the Cushites and Nilotes, preferentially and carefully selected and planted the best of the millet and sorghum seeds.
The Bantu are said to have migrated into Kenya already possessing knowledge of crop cultivation. In subsequent years, many varieties of the two cereals proliferated largely as a result of climate and technological change.
The kinship system, based on blood relations, facilitated the process of domestication. Members of the family and clan formed social groups and mechanisms of seed selection, growing and exchange. Inter-ethnic relations, including trade, were important in the process.
Women particularly played a vital role in the development and spread of these crops and development of pre-colonial agriculture generally.
Millet and sorghum in pre-colonial Kenya was thus communally pioneered. Generally, African people’s cultivation of millet and sorghum is a testimony of their innovative capability and their contribution to the development of global agriculture.
The crops became popular and widely grown in Kenya because of their distinct qualities, including resilience and adaptability to many climatic and soil conditions, their many uses including in the making of ugali, porridge, alcoholic drinks and in the treatment of diarrhoea and during the solemnisation of births, marriages and circumcision rituals. These cereals were, therefore, treated with veneration.
ABLE BODIED MEN
In most communities, families erected special granaries in the care of wives for storing of harvests. Other millet granaries belonged to husbands.
They used these as a grain reserve bank from which members of the family found relief during famine. Men also exchanged surplus grain for livestock.
With the advent of colonialism, the fortunes of millet and sorghum as well as social and economic relations that characterised its production changed dramatically.
During the colonial period, the two cereals became victims of economic and social development. For instance, the colonial state in Kenya actively promoted the production of crops like cotton, maize, coffee and tea because of their export value at the expense of millet and sorghum.
The other factor, which led to the decline in the production of millet and sorghum, was related to Kenya’s colonial labour system.
The recruitment of able-bodied men to work for European settler farmers and government departments took away the necessary labour for the production of the two crops. Millet and sorghum cultivation was comparatively more labour intensive.
Equally significant was the colonial government’s practice of distributing posho in the form of maize flour to wage labourers.
Similarly, students in boarding schools were fed with ugali and porridge made from maize flour. These popularised the use of maize flour, which came to be perceived as an item of modernisation and prestige. This happened in spite of the fact that maize is far less nutritious and more destructive to the soil than the two crops.
In addition, the influence of Christian missions also diminished the importance of millet and sorghum because the two crops were central in preparing alcohol and other means of celebrating African rituals.
The missionaries in their “gospel of salvation” preached that for Africans to enter heaven, they had to abandon their “heathen” cultures. Many African Christians interpreted this call to mean stopping to grow millet and sorghum, which were now condemned.
As a consequence, the quantities of millet and sorghum from growing areas of Nyanza, Rift Valley and Central province, which were initially higher than of maize, progressively declined as the years passed.
By late 1930s, it was reported that the production and sale of millet was largely confined to Kisii highlands from where consignments valued at over 2,677 sterling pounds were exported from 1937 through to 1938. It is possible that most of the other areas consumed most of the millet and sorghum that they produced.
Furthermore, the colonial state, through its Department of Agriculture, never formulated any serious policy to assist in the production of the two crops.
This meant that Africans were left to rely on their primordial mechanisms of growing the crops, which were treated as miscellaneous cereals.
The only contribution the colonial state made was the distribution of millet and sorghum seeds. But this was financed to a very limited extent by the Department of Agriculture but mainly by through the votes of the Local Native Councils.
In 1955, A Plan to Intensify the Development of African Agriculture in Kenya report, which was compiled by R.J.M. Swynnerton, the assistant director of agriculture, did not mention about the roles millet and sorghum should play in agricultural development. Crops that were accorded high priority included the usual high foreign exchange earners.
Twenty years later, independent Kenya’s ideological blueprint, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya of 1965, reiterated many aspects of the Swynnerton Plan, but without specific mention of any crop in its only two pages, out of a total of 56 pages of the entire document, on agriculture and land tenure.
However, the document was clear about the role of exports crops, internal and foreign investors in Kenya’s economy.
It also stated how the more valuable exports and their large-scale farmers were to be assisted and the foreign investors’ interests protected. Once again, neither the state nor any of these interests was interested in either millet or sorghum.
Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University, [email protected]m