Wild Foods — Blessing or Burden?

Caroline Gullick recently completed an MSc project looking at different aspects of wild foods. The field research was conducted amongst the Dinka (Monjeng) Tribe of Northern Bahr el Ghazal in southern Sudan.

Women returning from collecting water lily seeds and roots (Nymphea Sp.)

For the purposes of the research wild foods were defined as 'naturally growing plants' (although the author recognised that some of these plants have become domesticated). The research focused on the contribution of these foods to food security and the nutritional needs of women and children, and a number of preconceptions regarding wild foods. A key output of the research was a database on wild foods which is available from the Food Economy Analysis Unit at the World Food Programme offices in Nairobi and Lockichockio. The database has information on; the wild plants available in four areas of Southern Sudan (vernacular and the scientific names), seasonal availability, consumption patterns, nutrient content, economic value, extent of domestication and a break down of which household members collect and consume the foods. Photographs are also available. Research is ongoing and the existing database is due to be merged with another database compiled by Brigitta Grosshinsky which covers other areas of Southern Sudan. During her field research the author also tested a number of assumptions about wild foods. Her findings below relate to the Dinka in southern Sudan.

Children preparing greens to accompany the staple for the evening meal. Akija (Gynandropis Gynandra) and Amera (Portulaca Anadrifida) both of which are rich in calcium and iron.

Wild food gathering - an exhausting task?

For the most part, gathering and preparing wild foods is an every day activity for many households. The collection of wild foods is mainly carried out by women and children. It does not necessarily involve expending a great deal of extra energy. Many foods are collected along the wayside whilst going about other chores while wild leafy greens can be found growing (and are encouraged to grow) in the cultivated areas around the home. Collection of wild foods at a greater distance from the homestead will be undertaken by women who will go in groups over a period of days leaving their children in the care of a relative. These trips can become something of a social event for women, particularly for those who live on the more remote homesteads and have little time for visiting friends and relatives. Gathering some wild foods can be labour intensive, e.g. digging for wild tubers and for grain from termite stores, but people may choose to collect these foods even in normal years for the sake of dietary variety. Wild plant production only involves labour at the time of harvesting and may fit in well with other activities. In the case of grass grains for instance, which start to ripen at a time when agricultural work is at a minimum, prior to the main crop harvest, there is little conflict of labour priorities. The collection of wild food may become burdensome when these foods become the major part of the diet, e.g. during periods of food scarcity and famine, especially when the foods need to be foraged for at great distances from the home.
The role of children in wild food collection should also be considered. Whilst out on their errands they will often forage for these foods. During this time they learn about the different wild foods and their availability which can stand them in good stead during food deficit periods. Also, as growing children need food regularly throughout the day, wild foods can provide snacks between their main meals.

Rak kernels (Butrospermum Paradoxum) Extensively used for oil production and an important income generator for women

Are wild foods labour intensive to prepare?

Of the 150 wild foods consumed in Northern Bahr el Ghazal only 15% could be considered to be labour intensive to prepare. Furthermore, these are predominantly grass grains and tubers whose preparation takes no longer than cultivated grains or tubers.

Do wild foods taste bad?

The Dinka do not think so. For example, everyone asked asserted that the ëakuadhaí grass tasted better than sorghum or maize. Likewise many of the wild vegetables seem to be preferred to their cultivated counterparts. A testament to this is that even during times of non-food shortage many of these plants are regularly included by all socio-economic groups in daily meals in order to enhance variety and taste.

A selection of wild foods found in Luo Areas

Bad taste is often confused with bland taste. For example, in the case of water lily seed further investigation established that it was not so much that it tasted bad but rather that it just didn't taste. Once it was mixed with fish and ëayaakí (Corchorus sp.) it then tasted delicious and was more than acceptable! Some foods are actually favoured for their bitter taste such as ëakiyaí (Gynandropis gynandra). There are of course plants, which taste unpleasant which are eaten only in extreme emergency situations, or taken medicinally, but these tend to be relatively few.

Are wild foods nutritious?

Digging for tubers

The nutritional analysis of wild plant foods from all over Africa has shown them to be very nutritious and not inferior to domesticated varieties.

Wild grains, seeds and kernels provide significant amounts of calories, protein and oil. Their calorific value is frequently greater than that of the cultivated varieties. The results of analysis of the grass grains are impressive with a range of 310 - 391 kcals per 100 gms which compares favourably with sorghum and maize - 355 and 363 kcals/100gms respectively

Fruits, leaves and tubers, particularly those consumed raw, all contain vitamin C. For example, baobab fruits and 'Ziziphus contain 360mg./100g and 1000mg./100g of vitamin C whilst an orange only contains approximately 57 mg./ 100g. When people become ill in southern Sudan it is a common practice to increase consumption of wild fruits or wild fruit juices such as 'cuei' (Tamarindus indica), 'lang' (Ziziphus sp.) or 'tuuk' (Borrasus aethiopicum) which are believed to help recovery.

Many wild leaves are rich in iron and have a higher content than the cultivated varieties. e.g. Gynandropis gynandra. Tamarindus indica has an iron content of up to 6.2mg per 100g. Potassium levels tend to be high in all leafy vegetables and fruits.

Collecting leafy greens

Information from food economy assessments carried out over the last eighteen months by the World Food Programme indicate that the percentage caloric contribution of Indigenous Wild Food Plants (IWFPs) in the total annual diet varies from 15% - 60%.

Wild foods also enhance palatability. The popular use of leaves with a mucilaginous sap which gives the food a slimy texture is a recognised way of easing ingestion of accompanying foods. The improvements of texture and taste from wild foods are of particular importance to children, who are often unable to consume the quantity of the bulky staple foods needed to meet their nutritional requirements.

Have wild foods any economic value and can they be shared or exchanged in the way other foods can?

The perception of the economic importance of wild foods appears to be gender specific. For women, these foods are an important source of income with the small amounts of cash that they earn being used to buy important non-food items such as soap. For example, during the field work it was found that the cost of 6.5 kgs of 'Balanites aegyptiaca' was 20,000LS which compares with 30,000LS for a year and a half old bull. Income generating activities for men tend to be focused on livestock and cash crops, though some will also sell wild foods but usually only if other options are very limited. Most women interviewed during the field research claimed to have sold wild foods at sometime. One reason which may lead people to believe that there is not much trade in wild foods is that these foods are not usually sold in a prominent place in the market but on the periphery with a significant amount of barter trade being undertaken at village level.

Children using long poles to knock figs from the tree

Does wild food consumption carry a social stigma?

Generally, it does in southern Sudan where male guests will be given sorghum because it is considered more prestigious while wild foods, and any other less prestigious foods, would be eaten by the women and the children of the household in a separate place. Allocating best food to a guest is common to most cultures but does not mean that other household foods are nutritionally inferior or that they are not liked. There are some wild foods, which have a high prestige value, such as the wild grass grains and rice which are particularly favoured and will be given to the most important guests at ceremonies. Also, some wild foods are used to make relishes that give flavour and texture to other foods and are acceptable for male guests, e.g. cuei Tamarindus indica, dhiot Nauclea latifolia, lung Portulaca oleracea, akiya Gynandropis gynandra'. Female guests will however tend to eat whatever the rest of the household eats.

Within the family men will be given the most prestigious foods first. Even in 1997, which was a year of food scarcity in Bahr el Ghazal, the stigma concerning consumption of wild foods still prevailed and the best food in the house was given first to the man, then the children and lastly to the women. In general, it is less culturally acceptable for a man to eat wild foods as this would be perceived as an indication of poverty and low social status.

Collecting water lily seed

'Thou' kernels being used as a savoury food

Dried fruit 'Dhiot' (Nandea Latifonda) made into cakes and sold in the market

Women Collecting 'dhiek dhietz' leaves (Pterocarpus Lucerus). The leaves have a mucilagineous sap which gives the food a slimy texture, a recognised way of easing ingestion of accompanying foods.

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Reference this page

Caroline Gullick (1999). Wild Foods — Blessing or Burden?. Field Exchange 6, February 1999. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/6/wild