Aid and International Development

BY Joan Baxter

July 14, 2017

(This article is the second of two adapted excerpts from Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa, available in print and Kindle edition at Amazon.ca and as an e-pub from Amazon.com and Kobo, and in print from Nimbus.)

Seven Grains of Paradise-Proof4.oct 25At the beginning of the 1960s, when many African countries were becoming independent nations, freeing themselves one after another from the colonial powers, the continent was more than able to feed itself. Until 1970, it was even exporting food, more than a million tonnes a year.

Today, after more than half a century of foreign development assistance and food aid, as well as decades of economic development doctrines from the World Bank Group, International Monetary Fund, foreign “donors,” and most recently, billionaire philanthropists, the continent imports a quarter of its food.

This lands us right in the middle of the kitchen staring into the eyes of the big elephant of a question that is sitting there: Why has Africa become synonymous in many people’s minds with malnutrition, famine and hunger, and not feted for nutritious foods, diverse farms and wonderful cuisines? Continue reading Challenging some myths about Africa’s food, food security and farming

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BY Joan Baxter

July 12, 2017

(This article is the first of two adapted excerpts from the book, Seven Grains of Paradise – A Culinary Journey in Africa, available in print and Kindle edition at Amazon.ca, as an e-pub globally from Amazon.com and Kobo, and in print in Canada from Nimbus.)

Seven Grains of Paradise-Proof4.oct 25Type “Why is Africa” into Google and these are the top four phrases with which it fills in the blank: “so backward,” “such a mess,” “so poor,” and “so underdeveloped.” Change the query to “Why can’t Africa,” and Google finishes that question with: “grow food.”

Depressing stuff, but it’s not Google’s fault that such negative stereotypes abound. They go back many decades, if not centuries, and obviously still persist to shape online searches. And they’re as misleading and wrong now as they’ve always been.

First, Africa is an immense and diverse continent, which is no more “backward” (whatever that really means) or more of a “mess” than many other parts of the world. Many African countries may be monetarily poor, but the continent is enormously rich in culture and resources, and parts of it are catching up, if not surpassing, other more “developed” countries, depending, of course, what exactly we mean by development.

And as for the notion that Africa can’t grow food, that’s so far off the mark that it’s hard to know where to start to debunk it. But I’ll try. In 2015, a landmark study that examined diets in 187 countries around the world in 1990 and again in 2010 found that nine of the ten healthiest were in West African nations. Continue reading Celebrating Africa’s food and farmers

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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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Displaying the bounty of family farms in Bongor, Sierra Leone. Photo: J. Baxter

By Joan Baxter

It’s a very humid and hot Saturday morning when we set out from Kenema, heading south to a village called Bongor in southeast Sierra Leone.

This is prime cocoa- and coffee-growing land. Just about every family in every village can lay claim (in an informal way, because there is no such thing as formal land title here) to a small “tree-crop” plantation, or agroforest.

These agroforests are generally a few acres that farmers plant and manage. They are full of economically important trees that add a lot of value to the farms and complement income from cocoa and coffee.

A local agricultural extension officer and I are hoping to meet up with some members of a women’s farming group and learn what crops they grow and how well they’re doing from them. A man from a local group called the “Agroforestry Farmers Association” has informed the community we are coming, as is custom when strangers are planning a visit to any village. Our visit is supposed to be innocuous and low-key.

When the vehicle pulls into Bongor, it looks as if there is a giant party going on. It turns out it’s to welcome us.

The “Court Barray” — the village meetinghouse with a tin roof and spacious open-air interior — is jammed with women and children. They rush out to greet us, dancing and singing and corralling us into the Court Barray.

So much for innocuous and low-key. Continue reading Musing on the bounty in rural Sierra Leone

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BY Joan Baxter

It certainly flies in the face of an awful lot of stereotypes and headlines about hunger and malnutrition, but it turns out that Africa has much to teach the world about healthy eating.

A 2015 study published by The Lancet Global Health journal looked at the consumption of food (both healthy and unhealthy items) and nutrients in 187 countries in 1990 and then again in 2010. The aim was to determine which countries had the world’s healthiest diets.

It found that none of the healthiest ten diets is in a wealthy Western nation, nor are any in Asia. Most were found in Africa, which is so often portrayed as a continent of constant famine in need of foreign know-how and advice on how to eat and to grow food.

And yet, of the ten countries with the healthiest diets on earth, nine of them are African.

What’s more, the three countries with the very best diets are some the world’s poorest. Chad, ranked as having “very low human development”, 185th of 188 nations on the United Nations 2015 Human Development Index, has the world’s healthiest diet. After that come Sierra Leone and Mali, 181st and 179th on the same Index. Continue reading Looking for healthy eating? Go to Africa!

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BY Joan Baxter

Bill Gates hobnobs with elected leaders at COP21 in Paris. Copyright DW/ N. Pontes

Bill Gates hobnobs with elected leaders at COP21 in Paris. Copyright DW/ N. Pontes

In many places and among many people, he’s revered, a man whose charitable giving accords him selfless, almost saint-like status. But it’s not as if Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is actually shedding any of his vast wealth, no matter how much noise is made about his generosity.

This year, for the sixteeth time in just 21 years, Bill Gates tops the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. With 1,826 billionaires on that list in 2015, worth a total of US$ 7.05 trillion, it’s no small feat to be Number One.

Gates (unlike genuine saints) is very good at making money from money; according to Forbes in the past six years he has almost doubled his fortune and is now worth nearly $80 billion. That’s a good deal more than the Gross Domestic Product of 46 of the 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

This despite his reputation as the world’s number one giver-of-money and “philanthropist”, determined to “help thousands and millions” out of poverty. Continue reading Philanthrocapitalism – all the power that billions can buy

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BY: Joan Baxter

About 10 million people — opg-34-king-leopold-_403867s-267x300r more — perished in Belgian King Leopold’s Congo during the late 1800s and early 1900s.[i] In addition to the horrific human toll, another shocking thing about Leopold’s plundering of his huge African colony is that he managed to convince so many in Europe and the United States that his apparatus of exploitation and wealth collection was humanitarian and philanthropic, that his intention was to benefit the “natives”, help end the slave trade and bring “civilization”, and to further scientific endeavour.

Back then, there weren’t legions of communications and public relations specialists for hire to transform bad into good, to spin sin into virtue, and tailors who convinced naked emperors they were clad in robes of gold existed only in fairy tales. So the campaign of deception about Leopold’s actual intent in Africa probably started with the good king himself. He may genuinely have believed himself a noble fellow, and his right to conquer and pillage a chunk of Africa about 77 times the size of his own nation something that God granted his royal self.

Thankfully, times have changed.

Or have they? Continue reading King Leopold’s Ghost and the 21st century scramble for Africa’s farms and foods

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By:  Joan Baxter

 

resize-300x225Bob Geldof and Band Aid have done it again. They’ve re-recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, first performed by UK and Irish musicians 30 years ago to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The Band Aid 30 version has been tweaked to raise funds to fight Ebola.

Thankfully, the tweaking has excised the awful line that Bono sang back in 1984, “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Also gone is the ludicrous one bemoaning the lack of snow in Africa, which Sir Bob (he received a knighthood for his charitable work) and his co-writer Midge Ure curiously decided was a continent where “no rain nor rivers flow” and “nothing ever grows”. The inane question “Do they know it’s Christmas?” – asked about a continent full of very devout Christians who most certainly do, and many Muslims and non-Christians who may not care so much if it is, but also celebrate the holiday – has also been removed from the chorus.

But no matter how much tweaking they’ve done, there’s still an awful lot wrong with the Band Aid 30 song (just as there was with its previous versions). The new lyrics lump together hundreds of millions of people in more than a dozen West African countries into one basket of “doom” and “death” and “fear”, informing everyone in the region that they will have “no peace or joy this year”. Has no one told Geldof that Nigeria effectively controlled and eradicated Ebola? And that Ghana, like most countries in West Africa, has had no documented cases? Continue reading Bob Geldof, Band Aid and Do They Know Their Song May Be Harmful?

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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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2009-11-09-ROAD-to-KONO-Addax-village-001-300x225We were meeting under a thatch roof at the makeshift headquarters of Addax Bioenergy in northern Sierra Leone. Aminata Koroma, Social Liaison Officer for the company, was extolling for me the virtues of the project that was transforming great swaths of farmland, grassland and woodland around us into massive sugarcane plantations. Addax Bioenergy, part of the Addax & Oryx Group headed by Swiss billionaire Jean-Claude Gandur, had recently leased more than 50,000 hectares in the area, with the intention of processing the sugarcane to produce ethanol for export to Europe, where it would be used to fuel vehicles. Koroma was more than enthusiastic about the project, despite a good deal of local opposition among farming communities.

I was challenging her about the wisdom of transforming the diverse countryside, much of it used for farming, into monocultural plantations of sugarcane. She responded that there would be “environmental corridors”, and that they were going to have a “tree-planting day”.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

I countered that I had seen the bulldozers taking down valuable indigenous leguminous trees that did not lend themselves well to planting, such as the locust bean tree, or Parkia biglobosa. This tree is cherished through West and Central Africa because of its many medicinal properties, the sweet edible yellow powder that is harvested from its pods, and its seeds that are fermented and prepared to produce an extremely nutritious and tasty condiment that has long been a mainstay in local cuisines. In Sierra Leone it’s known as kenda.

“Nobody’s planting those trees, the ones that produce kenda,” I said to Koroma. “They grow naturally, they’re not cultivated.”

“Why are you thinking about producing kenda?” she retorted. “ I mean, we call it the poorest man’s food. There is even a song that says, ‘kenda and dry rice, na poor man’s choice’.” She said that the only people in Sierra Leone who ate kenda were people who could not afford the modern alternative, the chemical-ridden Maggi cubes from Nestlé. For her, traditional foods such as kenda had no place in a modern diet. She seemed to think my defence of the condiment and the diverse local farms that produced traditional crops meant I was backward. Against progress and development. Continue reading Poor man’s food? Saving Africa’s foods, ferments and farms from the “saviours”

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