To most of the world, rice connotes Asia and the vast agriculture of Far Eastern river deltas. Indeed, humanity's second major crop is from Asia, and 90 percent of it—the main source of calories for 2.7 billion people—is grown there.
But rice is also African. A different species has been cultivated in West Africa for at least 1,500 years. Some West African countries have, sinceancient times, been just as rice-oriented as any Asian one. For all that, however, almost no one else has ever heard of their species.1
Asia's rice is so advanced, so productive, and so well known that its rustic relative has been relegated to obscurity even in Africa itself. Today, most of the rice cultivated in Africa is of the Asian species. In fact, the "great red rice of the hook of the Niger"is declining so rapidly in importance and area that in most locations it lingers only as a weed in fields of its foreign relative. Soon it may be gone.
This should not be allowed to happen. The rice of Africa (Oryza glaberrima) has a long and noteworthy history. It was selected and established in West Africa centuries before any organized expeditions could have introduced its Asian cousin (Oryzasativa). It probably arose in the flood basin of the central Niger and prehistoric Africans carried it westward to Senegal, southward to the Guinea coast, and eastward as far as Lake Chad. In these new homes, diligent people developed it further.
Like their counterparts in the Far East, Africa's ancient rice farmers selected a remarkable range of cultivars suited to many types of habitats. Theyproduced "floating" varieties (for growing in deep
Rice growers in Sierra Leone harvesting their crop. For millennia. farmers in this area have grown African rice. Possibly it was slaves from here who introduced rice growing to the United States. For a century or more. the colony and state of South Carolina was a main rice grower. Whether African rice reached there along with the Asian species is notknown. However, given the West African attachment to it, it seems likely. (M. Steber)
For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, "floating" versions of African rice have been cultivated beside the Niger River, especially here between Timbuktu and Gao. Farmers along this 600-km stretch count on the Niger to overflow its banks and flood the lowlands where they've sowed their seeds. The rice plantscan survive in rising floodwater up to several meters deep. When drought reduced the Niger's flow in the 1970s, the full crop could not be planted and a million lives were put at risk. (J. Gallais. courtesy Flammarion et cie, Paris)
water), weakly and strongly photoperiod-sensitive types (for growing in different latitudes and seasons), swamp and upland cultivars (for growing under irrigated andrainfed conditions, respectively), and early and late-maturing types. And, for all of these, they selected forms with various seed characteristics.
Although modern efforts to expand rice production in Africa have largely ignored this indigenous heritage, African rice is still cultivated in West Africa—especially in remote districts. There, until recently, much of it was reserved as a special luxuryfood for chiefs and religious rituals. Today, however, farms that grow substantial stands of African rice are few. The area of most intense cultivation is the "floating fields" on the Sokoto fadamas (floodplains) of Nigeria and the Niger River's inland delta in Mali. However, the crop is also widely, if thinly, spread in Sierra Leone (see box, page 28) and neighboring areas, as well as in thehills that straddle the Ghana-Togo border.
From one point of view, there seem to be good reasons for abandoning this food of the forebears. In most locations farmers prefer the foreign rice because it yields better and scatters less of its seed on the ground. Millers prefer it because its grain is less brittle and therefore easier to mill. Shippers prefer it as well. For them, African rice is...