Nourishing a nation:Millet’s cultural value

Millet is one of our oldest staple foods. Research has shown it to be the first domesticated cereal grain. Though difficult to know its exact origin, it’s widely accepted that millet was domesticated and cultivated simultaneously in Asia and Africa over 7,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. Later it spread throughout the world as a staple food.
Winnowing millet after it is sun dried removes chaff before grinding.
Winnowing millet after it is sun dried removes chaff before grinding.

Millet is one of our oldest staple foods. Research has shown it to be the first domesticated cereal grain. Though difficult to know its exact origin, it’s widely accepted that millet was domesticated and cultivated simultaneously in Asia and Africa over 7,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. Later it spread throughout the world as a staple food.

In Rwanda, millet is widely consumed by many. It sustains a big percentage of Rwanda’s population. The crop was grown in the middle ages, using the then rudimentary farm tools, which were wedge like stone tools like hand axes, cleavers, scrapers and knives of varying sizes.

These tools were fashioned skillfully to cultivate food. 
Simon Mahuku is a 95 year-old, retired soldier who lives with his son in Sake sector in Ngoma district, Eastern Province. He said that millet is a very important food that gives people the strength required in life.

“Those days, we depended entirely on sorghum and millet. We of course ate meat from the cows we reared or animals we hunted. I was a great hunter myself,” Mahuku said.

Millet still constitutes a bigger part of the common foods found in Rwanda. In the neighbouring countries, sorghum and millet were replaced by maize a couple of years ago.

However, in Rwanda the story is different because millet continues to be a significantly cherished food crop.

Millet is the source of porridge, popular for breakfast in Rwanda. It is considered a healthy food, especially for children and breast-feeding mothers, since it is easy to digest.

It is a good drink and acts as an energy boost for the day. For this reason, in the Kinyarwanda culture, when a mother gives birth, millet flour is the best gift she gets from relatives and friends.

This is common especially in the rural areas where  the Rwandan culture is deep rooted. 

According to Beatrice Mukagatare, a middle aged mother of four: “millet flour is given to a mother who has just given birth, and this becomes her main food. Millet porridge sweetened with sugar increases breast milk content and helps a mother to properly breastfeed.”

It is also used as baby food for weaning children who are entirely fed on porridge mixed with milk and sugar.
Millet as a crop grows very fast and thrives well in all climatic conditions.

It is easy to store and farmers find it user friendly as compared to many other crops. It stays longer during storage and is often stocked as a reserve food in case of famine.

Millet brew
The preparation of alcoholic beverages from millet is done at household level in many Rwandan communities. Even though ripe bananas are widely used in the production of local brew, the most notable is the locally made millet alcoholic drink called ‘ikigage’.

Jeanne Mukamusoni, 40, a resident of Sake sector, in Ngoma district brews ikigage for her extended family at least thrice a month. Mukamusoni describes the ordeal of making the local brew.

“The millet is sorted and soaked in water overnight. It is then drained and incubated at room temperature until germination begins to occur. The germinated millet seeds are sun dried before they are ground to make coarse flour by using a grinding stone.”

“The flour is then mixed with water and simmered just below boiling temperature to form a porridge that will later develop into the ikigage,” she further explained.

Today, besides being a daily beverage in rural areas, ikigage is still an important brew in the Rwandan culture especially for wedding ceremonies. It quenches thirst any time of the day, since it is less alcoholic compared to other beers.

Juliet Uwamariya, 55, is a local brewer who lives with her family of eight. She said that non alcoholic ikigage is the family’s cold drink.

There are different types of Ikigaje; some have a very high alcoholic content whereas others are non alcoholic.
“Whoever is thirsty, goes straight to the jerrycan and pours enough to quench their thirst,” she said.

“In villages we do not have money to buy sodas or beers. Ikigage is our alternative drink that we take while we work,” Uwamariya explained.

Millet thus contributes a lot to the day to day lives of people as it is also of great significance to their cultural norms. 

Above all it is recommended by nutritionists.

According to Dr. Leonard Musime, of the University Central Hospital of Kigali (CHUK), “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods that are low in fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.”

mugitoni@yahoo.com

 

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