African history & culture

Press Release: May 19, 2017

In her new book, “Seven Grains of Paradise,” Joan Baxter challenges many myths and explores the wealth of African food cultures and knowledge, foods and crops, and farming know-how.

It flies in the face of many media headlines, but the reality is that Africa has much to teach the world about healthy eating. Of the ten countries with the healthiest diets on earth, nine are African, some of them among the monetarily poorest nations on earth.

In her latest book, Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa, Joan Baxter highlights the wisdom and knowledge of cooks, farmers and friends who act as guides to some of the marvellous, diverse foods and food cultures in several African counties. She explores the riddle of a continent that is known more for hunger than for its rich and diverse foods and cuisines, and for having discovered and bred many of the staple foods and drinks consumed daily around the world – coffee, “cola” extracts, watermelon, palm oil, black-eyed peas, gumbo, sesame, pearl and finger millets.

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Alligator peppers containing the tasty little “grains of paradise” have important spiritual and medicinal uses in Sierra Leone. They are also a popular delicacy in many West African dishes and cuisines. Photo credit: Saskia Marijnissen

Seven Grains of Paradise draws on stories collected over the more than three decades that Baxter worked, lived and learned in Africa. From the fabled city of Timbuktu on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, to the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, from the savannah of northern Ghana to the rainforests of Central Africa, readers are invited on a delectable journey of learning and eating – and some drinking too.

Baxter doesn’t shy away from the very real problems of food insecurity, hunger or malnutrition brought on by conflict, poverty, unfair trade and climate change, which today plague not just Africa but many other parts of the world. While the book focuses on the immense potential of family farming and locally produced food in Africa, it also documents the growing risks they face. And it asks whether there is a need for a rethink about how “development” affects diets – especially within development agencies, international institutions and donors in the (sometimes lucrative and self-serving) business of food aid or improving food security and nutrition in Africa.

About the author: Joan Baxter is a journalist, science writer, anthropologist and an award-winning author who has published five books, several research reports about international development in West Africa, countless media articles and documentaries for a host of media organizations, including the BBC World Service, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Le Monde Diplomatique, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Chronicle Herald. She has worked as a science writer and communications specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre and the International Center for Forestry Research, based in Kenya, served on the Board of USC Canada, and as the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia – Gambia Association. She is a Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute.

Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa is available at bookstores in Canada or online:

https://www.nimbus.ca/store/seven-grains-of-paradise.html?___SID=U

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-CA/home/search/?keywords=Seven%20Grains%20of%20Paradise

https://www.amazon.ca/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Seven+Grains+of+Paradise&rh=n%3A916520%2Ck%3ASeven+Grains+of+Paradise

An e-pub version of the book will be available soon.

Praise for “Seven Grains of Paradise”

“Joan Baxter has given us a shimmering crystal prism blending Africa’s culinary splendour, practical agronomy, and dirty politics, with laser-like precision. Roaming around Western Africa for several decades, her anecdotes are as scathingly unforgiving of Western bias, corporate greed and agricultural industrialization, as they are of African culpability. The delicious recipes woven seamlessly into her experience of African foods had me frantically scouring the city for ingredients, but alas, she is correct, it is very difficult to find Africa’s ingredients on African shelves. I have long searched for such a book, and am hardly able to put it down.” Ake Mamo, aspiring farmer, educator and devotee of indigenous foods and fruits

“Joan Baxter has written a lyrical yet punchy and political book about food in Africa that will turn your preconceptions on their head and make your mouth water. Probably Canada’s foremost expert on West African cuisine and a hardy journalist to boot, she explores the indigenous crops that make the region’s diet the healthiest in the world. Surprised? Read this book and get woken about the market places, forests, fields and kitchens of Africa.” Cathy WatsonAshoka fellow, correspondent for the BBC and The Guardian, and agroforester

“In Seven Grains of Paradise, Joan Baxter invites us into her life and time in Africa to meet the people, communities, and families in the most down-to-earth and real way. Through the stories she shares, I found the spirit of Africa. I could smell the food in the cooking pots; I could hear the sound of the markets and feel the sun warm my skin. I could just listen to the conversations and transplant myself to the moment, to the kitchen, to the streets described. Seven Grains of Paradise is a book I will keep with me for years to come; and read over and over again.” Dr. Yene Assegid, Author and Leadership Coach/Trainer

“In an unconventional and appealing view of Africa, Joan Baxter describes her gastronomic experiences in Africa in an intriguing mix of social anthropology, ethno-botany, and eating out. The end result is a traveller’s ‘Good Food Guide’ to the restaurants and markets of Africa in the company of local cooks and chefs, providing a Master Class in African cuisine. This book also points to missed opportunities for creating a better life for Africans by promoting their own diverse array of exciting food species to replace the monotonous diet of maize and cassava imposed on many by international agricultural ‘experts’. Joan Baxter goes on to explain how local foods are being promoted by a more appropriate and emerging approach to tropical agriculture – called ‘agroforestry’ aimed at resolving the problems of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, environmental degradation (including the loss of biodiversity and climate change) that have a stranglehold on Africa. The wealth of information about traditional foods in this book thus provides motivation for a paradigm shift to improve the lives of Africans; not to mention the health of our planet. A must-read for ‘foodies,’ Africa-lovers and development workers.” Professor Roger R.B. Leakey (DSc, PhD, BSc, FRGS), International Tree Foundation and author of Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture and Multifunctional Agriculture: Achieving Sustainable Development in Africa

“There are so many ways to use this book. It’s great to read in case you’re thinking of travelling to Africa…great to teach people who know nothing about Africa except that it has traumatic bouts with famine and hunger. It’s great preparation for people going to an African restaurant in their own city, be it in North America or Europe…great for being able to understand better and welcome properly newcomers to your country who’ve come from Africa. It’s great to read a writer who combines angst and self-deprecating humor and who has a real way with zany words. It’s great to have another angle on the enormous power of food to bring out what’s good and inspiring in people, and to come away from a book that deals with weighty matters in a weighty way that still leaves room for hope.” Wayne Roberts, author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building, former manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council; speaker and consultant on food and cities

 

 

 

 

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  By: Joan Baxter

(adapted from Chapter 5: Dust from our eyes: an unblinkered look at Africa, Wolsak & Wynn 2010, Fahamu Books 2011)

Author’s note: Thomas Sankara was one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head. For four years he ruled Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest and least-known countries. Its capital, Ouagadougou, is fodder in the West for quizzes and other trivial pursuits. Even when it makes headlines in global media, as it did in the dying days of October 2014 when the people of Burkina Faso brought down a president, many news readers cannot get their tongues around the unfamiliar name. To add some context for the recent events in Burkina Faso, I’ve decided to post this extract from a chapter of my book, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa, which provides some detail (collected when I was reporting from Burkina Faso for the BBC from 1986 until 1988) about the late and great Thomas Sankara, about the country he loved and died for and about the ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, the man that stole it all.

 

The land of upright men and women is born

"There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas."

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

From the start, Thomas Sankara made it clear that he was not going to be another corrupt, luxury-loving African president dancing to the tune of foreign masters. On the anniversary of his first year in power, on 4 August 1984, Sankara changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. This combined two indigenous languages to describe his small, landlocked country as the “land of upright men” or “land of people with integrity.” Continue reading Burying Africa’s hopes: remembering Thomas Sankara, the revolution and how Blaise Compaoré stole it all

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By: Joan Baxter

11 October 2014. Nairobi, Kenya. As the fatality statistics pile up and the gruesome awfulness of the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa unfolds, I’ve been seeking escape and solace from the grim present by spending time in the past, in the company of thousands and thousands of photos collected in the past eight years in Sierra Leone. They’re a tangible part of the immense wealth of the bank of memories that the people of “Swit Salone” – as it’s known affectionately in the country’s lingua franca, Krio – bequeathed me.

Many of thP1019115-300x225e memories that the photographs evoke involve Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues sharing their food, fun and laughter with me, the stranger in their land. The more I read about the ravages of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the more those wonderful memories come back to me, riding violent waves of nostalgia so powerful and deep that it aches like a migraine of the heart.

What is striking in the photos is the preponderance of high wattage smiles on peoples’ faces. People sharing, playing, working, partying and living – together. Loneliness is not a social ill people endemic to this part of the world. The shots capture village chiefs in consultations with their elders, groups of young men at work in their oil palm stands, family members ecstatically greeting each other – falling into each others’ arms – after long absences, groups of women weeding rice fields or parboiling rice or chopping green leaves for the wonderful sauces known as plassas, entire communities processing rich, red palm oil, groups of teenage girls selling hot peppers or peanuts, lean and exuberant footballers chasing after balls in the waves breaking on Freetown’s magnificent Lumley Beach. Continue reading Ebola: How an awful disease is shredding the social fabric in West Africa

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Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

Abdelkader Haidara inspects ancient manuscripts in his Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu

First published 18 December 2005, Toronto Star

Time has not been kind to this once-great centre of civilization, which in the early 1500s inspired the Spanish explorer Leo Africanus to paint a picture of a learned, cultured and peaceful place where books were the main industry, where one literally walked on “gold.” Lured by this promise of riches, European explorers tried for centuries to find Timbuktu. By the time the first ones finally arrived in the 1800s, they found a desolate desert outpost not all that different from the sand-swept town of today, with no evidence of all the fabled wealth. Hence, the Western myth about a never-never place with little to offer the world — a myth that is about to be exploded.

Today, treasures are being unearthed here that are radically changing the way the world views Timbuktu, Africa and her history. They’re called the “Timbuktu manuscripts” and they disprove the myth that Africa had no written history. While many thousands have been recovered, there are still hundreds of thousands of manuscripts hidden away in wells and mud-walled storerooms in northern Mali. Huge collections have been passed down in families over many centuries, kept out of sight for fear that European explorers, and then French colonists, would abscond with them.

“Before, all the manuscripts were kept in our homes,” says Abdelkader Haidara, who has inherited his family’s collection of 9,000 written works dating back to the 16th century. “Then, in 1993, I had an idea to open a private and modern library that would be open to everyone.” Thanks to funding from an American foundation, Haidara has been able to open his Mamma Haidara library and catalogue 3,000 of the manuscripts, some of which date back to the 1100s. None of this would have been possible had not Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard University’s African and African-American studies department, visited Haidara and realized the importance of preserving these documents.

“When Professor Gates came here and saw the storeroom full of these manuscripts written by African scholars centuries ago, he started to cry,” says Haidara. “He wept like a child, and when I asked him why, he said he had been taught at school that Africa had only oral culture and that he had been teaching the same thing at Harvard for years and now he knew all that was wrong.” Continue reading The treasures of Timbuktu

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