What does land mean?

The first question I was asked when I reached Moshi, Tanzania, the homeland of the Chagga community who reside in the banana and coffee filled foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, was:

“How do you all peel your bananas?”

Tanzanian Chagga people’s banana and coffee plantations

I was stumped. Maybe if I was from somewhere in the southern region of the Western Ghats I could have a possible answer to this question, yet I think that banana eating has never been taken as seriously in India as it is at similar latitudes on the other side of the ocean. The Chaggas have myriad varieties of bananas that they roast, grill, mash or fry and there’s no bigger a treat than a great banana stew.

Tanzanian Chagga banana stew

By the time I left Tanzania, I had learned the Chagga technique of banana peeling which involves making two deep slits longitudinally, careful so that it is not so deep as to stab the banana and then to remove the peel as easily as one slips off their nightgown. The other communities of Tanzania may use a knife to peel the entire banana, as if they were peeling a carrot, and this is found hilarious by the Chaggas even though it does leave your hands with less black sticky stains than otherwise.

From Tanzania I also carried home a cob of maize. Corn, commonly cooked up as a fluffy dish, known by different names in each place (ugali in Tanzania and Kenya, sadza in Zimbabwe, pap in South Africa) is the staple food over here, along with millets. However, what I was carrying was a special piece of corn; it was red while the majority of the corn harvested in the field had been yellow and white. This cob popped up as a reminder that once the seeds planted had been of an even more diverse range of colours and flavours.

Tanzanian red maize and South African imphepho that I carried home

In every street and public building, and even some households, hangs the photo of Mwalimu, Kiswahili for teacher, or Julius Nyerere. Nyerere, who began his career as a school teacher later emerged as one of the biggest leaders of the freedom struggle in Tanzania, later the first President, a keen member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Tito, Nasser, Sukarno and Nkrumah, aligning with the ultimate leader also as both were Pan-Africanists.

In Tanzania, Nyerere led the post-colonial years with a land reform that was famously called ujamaa which translated as villagization. A common person would tell you in a different way than a scholar, that there were many flaws with ujaama. Yet the essence of a country that has witnessed a land reform is different from one that has not. Of course capitalism and its onslaught on land continues to destroy the fabric of rural society, yet there is still something distinct of a place where the historic people and majority of the lands have ownership: be it communal or private, traditional or formal of their lands.

In Moshi, Tanzania, a visit to a homestead in the foothills, where albeit many challenges, there is water running throughout the year, coffee to grind, drink and maybe sell, bananas to cook in different ways, avocadoes to devour, tubers to dig up, fruits, legumes and vegetables of all types. On the flatlands there is corn, although before the onslaught of Monsanto-Cargill there were many more varieties, and millets. Due to Structural Adjustments and other such harmful steps by subsequent governments, there are many issues facing food sovereignty in Tanzania. Yet still, an average household eats from their own land, has continued their historic connection to their people and place, and has relative dignity.

Right after this, I visited South Africa, where 80% of lands are owned by the minority whites, and a land reform has never occurred, yet hopefully is in the making.

Black township in small town South Africa

Over here large white owned farms, with possibly black workers, or large white owned game reserves and national parks dominate. Some recent analysts have tried to point out that we need to reanalyse the situation as the largest ownership is not just White monopoly private capital, but also the State which is Public and black dominated. Yet, if we understand that historically the blacks were handed over State control only to continue to be puppets of the White monopoly capital, this analysis stays put.

The whites decided that they could mine and extract resources from South African lands and make themselves rich, moving blacks from their historic homelands to townships around the mines or rural areas to work on farms which were not owned by them nor were they their historic places. To sever a community of their homeland is the largest crime committable, yet it was ruthlessly carried out in South Africa, and many legislations under the Native Laws acts were made in later years to brutalize human free movement and interaction even more.

South African Amaxhosa people’s traditional maize beer called umqomboti

Nowadays in a South African home in the township, one could eat pap or maize meal porrige every day possibly cooked with a beef or chicken soup cube for flavouring. One could go hungry by month end, as the unemployment rates of blacks has been kept high, the costs of alcohol or drugs kept low to create a mis-inherited culture of crime.

At the same time, amidst supermarket culture, where blacks buy from Shoprite supermarket of bulk foods and whites buy from PicknPay of small portions and ethnic foods, there struggles but continues to be a culture of celebrating the land, as this lives on in the cycles of the people. The amaXhosa people make a maize beer called umqomboti, drunk at traditional ceremonies in a circle and shared with young and old, and many forms of making bread as well as cooking maize meal with greens, beans and even sour milk.

If one looks at the isiXhosa language, one sees that the months of the year are named after the seasons of the land and patterns of the stars. The year begins in EyeSilimela or the month where the Pleiades or Seven sister stars are clearly visible. This is followed by eyeKhala or July which is called so as the aloes (amakhala) are flowering, EyeMsintsi (month of the coast coral tree), EyeDwarha (month of the yellow daisies) and the calendar continues to flower continues until the peak of the summer season in December called EyoMnga or the month of the acacia thorn tree. EyeMqungu or January is when the Tambuki grass, used to thatch roofs and renew life, begins to show itself. And EyoMdumba or February is the month of the swelling grain. By April, the cold season is beginning, and uThshaz’iimpunzi is the month of the withering pumpkins. May and June are names after star formations EyeCanzibe after the second brightest star Canopus and EyeSilimela after the Pleiaides or the seven sisters.

Preparation for slaughtering cows in South Africa ( an amaxhosa people’s ritual)

Therefore, no one, especially not an outsider like myself, daresay that the black peoples of South Africa have nothing. Despite this unjust onslaught of double colonialism, an apartheid state and a continuing racist White monopoly system, each community has a deep knowledge and an displaced yet far from dormant and deep connection to their land. Yet the unjustness of the “land question”, simmers on creating at times a much undignified life.

The leaders of South Africa, the ANC failing to be worthy of that title as they deceive the people of this very question, while the Pan-Africanists such as Robert Sobukwe prove their leadership by addressing just this question. Young and old people who continue to carry forth this ideology, are fighting for the land, where izwe lethu or the land is ours is a common greeting. Yet there is a sense of urgency, as the elder generations of many communities are dying away and with them goes a very vital memory and knowledge that only comes from those who lived the life of working with the land.

As I left South Africa, I added to the Tanzanian maize in my bag a plant called impepho. Impepho, a wild shrub that grows in various parts in the jungle of the Eastern Cape region, has always been special to communities, especially amaXhosa people and has been used over time in different ceremonies where one wishes to communicate with ancestors. Although the white walls still unrightfully occupy the majority of lands, impepho breaks all fences and spreads in abundance like a wildfire.



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Aditi Pinto Written by:

One Comment

  1. Hartman de Souza
    October 17, 2017

    Lovely article Aditi! Time we found out the value of land as an important cultural marker. And except for one jarring glitch: Banana in it raw form is cooked throughout the country;. In Goa to give just one instance, when they have to fast, Hindus disguise an almost ripe slice of banana to taste like a slice of fish….

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