West Africa is generally understood to compose the western-most part of sub-Saharan Africa. It is made up of 19 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cabo Verde, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. The region is characterized by high levels of geographic, cultural, and historic diversity that have both colonial and precolonial roots. This blog post will provide background on topics such as climate, politics, and economics in Western Africa, which is helpful when thinking about how West African food developed to what it is today.
The geography of West Africa is incredibly varied, and in many instances, two very different climates coexist within close proximity. Generally speaking, the climate progresses from being dry or semiarid in the northern parts of the region to being humid tropical rainforests in the southern parts, closer to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The northern part of Western Africa encompasses a transitional zone known as the Sahel. The Sahel stretches across the continent from east to west and separates the Sahara Desert to the north and the savannahs to the south. In West Africa the Sahel goes through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. It is a large plateau with higher elevation than in the lower-lying coastal south.
The rainfall in West Africa also varies considerably between the north and the south. The southern and more coastal parts of the region receive about 50 inches of rainfall each year, while the northern, more arid parts receive only about 10 inches. This contrast in rainfall results in stark differences in the types of vegetation that grow in each region. The northern parts of the Sahel contain very little in the way of plant life, with a few small trees and scrub vegetation. In the areas just south of the Sahel, the vegetation is composed of grassland and a few taller trees. In the areas near the coasts that see the most rain, there are a number of equatorial rainforests. These rainforests contain a large amount of biodiversity and are found within 150 miles of the ocean. Both the northern and the southern areas of West Africa have two primary seasons; a rainy season and a dry season. These seasons vary in length and intensity based on the distance location from the equator. Longer and wetter rainy seasons are more prevalent closer to the equator with shorter and drier rainy seasons occurring further from the equator. In recent decades, seasonal rains have at times been unreliable, thus causing drought and famine. Geographic factors and climate variation have a significant impact on the kinds of food that can be grown in West Africa. Some parts of the region, especially those closer to the cost or in river basins, make for fertile land to grow a variety of grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Other parts of West Africa such as the northern Sahel have climates where only a few drought-resistant crops such as peas, millet, and sorghum can grow. People who live in this region rely on imported foods to live year-round. As commodity prices have risen, food security is greatly threatened. For more information on West African climate, check out https://eros.usgs.gov/westafrica/node/157
West Africa has a long and complex history that dates back about 10,000 years. Organized society in West Africa can be traced as far back as 1500 BC. Founded in 300 AD, the Empire of Ghana rose to prominence, becoming the first major state to take shape. By the 8th century, the Empire of Ghana had risen to power via its control of the Trans-Saharan trade routes and vast amounts of gold composites. The empire was thwarted in the 11th century by Muslim traders, and by the 13th century, the region was controlled almost entirely by the Mali Empire. Over the next several centuries, empires such as the Empire of Songhai, the Kingdom of Kongo, the Empire of Jolof, and the Almoravids would rise and fall, each one controlling substantial parts of West Africa before their decline.
By the 13th century, West Africa’s wealth and gold had drawn the attention of many European monarchs. This coincided with the fall of West Africa’s great empires. Prince Henry of Portugal was the first one to aggressively pursue West African exploration by way of sea. Portugal spent the latter half of the 13th century exploring the coast and building trading posts. Over the next two centuries, the French, British, and Dutch would join them. European expedition into West Africa did not come easy, as Europeans were met with resistance by natives, and their influence was contained to the coasts. After King Leopold’s aggressive claiming of the Congo, there was a mad dash for West Africa. The region was split up between the British, French, Germans, Portuguese, and Spanish.
Originally, the colonizers sought to exploit the gem and gold trade in West Africa, but colonial interests evolved to include slaver labor and to the production and trade of cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, nuts, and cotton. This pattern of agriculture, which is still evident today, has had a significant impact on West African food security, as fertile land is used to grow cash crops instead of food.
Each colonial power had its own style of rule. The French had a tight grip on its colonies in West Africa and tried to convert Africans to accept French culture through a process of assimilation. The British went for a less direct rule and delegated power to local leaders. Portugal and Spain were particularly brutal when it came to ruling their colonies, and Germany was forced to hand over its West African colonies following defeat in WWI. Calls for independence started well before WWII, but the first West African country to gain independence did not do so until 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from Britain. Within the next three years, most West African countries would become independent, with some countries leaving their colonizer on better terms than others. The last West African country to gain independence was Guinea-Bissau; the country had to wait until 1973 before Portugal begrudgingly granted them independence. Today, former French colonies tend to have closer ties with their colonizer than former non-French colonies (Guinea being the only exception). Like Africa as a whole, independent West Africa struggled with governance in the wake of independence. Unstable economies based on cash crops, weak and undeveloped political institutions, and internal conflict along ethnic and religious lines (large Christian-Muslim divide in many West African countries) led to numerous coups and civil wars. External forces that through money and resources into violent conflict in West Africa during the Cold War, made this era particularly bloody. The fact that West Africa has failed to establish an integrated economy has only increased the possibility of internal conflict. For more detailed information on West Africa’s history and conflict check out https://www.lonelyplanet.com/west-africa/background/history/a/nar/facae734-6770-4bcf-8115-cd0c82879f6b/1333574 or https://www.e-ir.info/2013/03/15/conflicts-in-west-african-states/
West Africa’s diverse land, history, and culture are all important things to consider when studying the regions culinary culture and struggles with food security. Each West African plate has a story to tell about the region’s climate, colonization, religion, and culture. A thorough understanding of the region’s background allows us to see food as a story.