Nigerian fruits: Why are the days gone?


The gaze of the old, it is said, is focused on the past, the young on the future. It is because of these perspectives that the old is sometimes unable to appreciate the future. I seem to remember that when I was young there was a greater variety of fruits, foodstuff then than we have at the moment. We seem to be forever hunting for and gathering fruits and food most of which we no longer have. Most fruits are tree crops and grew wild, except in the European quarters where mangoes, guavas, limes, lemons, oranges, African apples – a pink bell-shaped fruit – which we plucked.

The European quarters and even some African quarters were littered with fruits which we never understood why the Europeans allowed them to ripe on the trees and fall on the ground to remain unpicked. We picked these fruits at our own peril because in nearly all cases we were chased by dogs which also did not eat the fruits. As soon as we left the compound safely we stopped, picked up stones to throw at the foolish barking non-fruit eating dogs.

Most fruits were tree crops – pears, avocado and the African pear – Ube or the African plum – agbalumo, oranges, bananas, plantains, bread fruit, sour-sup, African cucumber, garden egg, pawpaw, and so on. In each town, Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Lagos, Kaduna, there were government agriculture farms where species of pineapples, pawpaw, mangoes, and others were planted: these fruits were smaller in size, and could easily be plucked by small boys and girls like us.

The African plum – agbalumo – we described as African chewing gum because there was a core of it which you could chew like a chewing gum. In the forest we had berries which we used as sugar to drink garri or corn flour pap, because the fruit made everything you ate sweet for quite a while. Seasonally, we had plenty of guinea fowl, especially millions of guinea fowl eggs which flooded the South from the North. We played games with boiled guinea fowl eggs to see who had the strongest egg shell. We swore that we could determine the strength of the shell by listening to the sound while hitting it against our teeth. We had snails – both large and small, crabs, mudskippers, small fishing nets and hooks and baskets for fishing. We had variety of snails also, the smaller ones we used as Ikoto.

The varieties of bananas were baffling – kparanta, Akure/Ibadan, bawera, Cameroon banana, etc. okra, pumpkins, egg plants, etc. Our mothers had an inexhaustible recipe to turn any of these products to food – moinmoin, masa, etc. At school, we had nature study, school farms, teacher’s farms, physical education, games – bald tennis ball was the greatest gift of a small boy. There was another ball known as African ball made of rubber bound together as best as possible. The bounce of this ball was as unpredictable as the bounce of a rugby ball. Even so, we had unbelievable fun. At school we also had to spend one day a week in a nearby Government Trade Centre (GTC) to study metal, wood work and technical drawing.

Our geography lessons told us about these incredible groundnut pyramids, the growing of sorghum and millets and canary seeds, yams and cassava, corn and cotton, goats, sheep, etc. We had cotton which we exported but there were millions of women who were spinning cotton balls into threads and selling these to weavers who made traditional African fabrics. We also had hyde and skins for export (although now we have found leather to be a food delicacy we call Ponmo)! Our cotton was of a good quality and formed the bases of the textile manufacturing enterprise in which we were third after India and Indonesia.

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Throughout Nigeria we had women who sold fresh milk and cheese, various homemade delicacies and sweets from milk and sugarcane. We had sugar refineries and various kinds of African husbandry and veterinary research centres. The universities’ faculties of agriculture did research into all our animals and cross-bred many breeds – the hope being, as in most countries, developing a species which produced good meat and enough milk.

Down in the South, there was a kind of cow that was prized higher than the cows that came from the North especially for traditional functions such as marriages, chieftaincy installations, etc. These cows were slightly shorter than the long horn cows from the North and had little or no horns. There were plenty of them in Orlu, Ihiala, Agbor, Asaba, Umuahia, Obulu Uku, many parts of Edo and Delta. Ceremonies that demanded the gift of cows specified these types of cows. They are still in great demand all over the South although I learnt that they originated also from the North.

In these days of uncontrollable violence from farmers and cattle herders, perhaps a breeding of native cows might remove the cause for these increasing bitter clashes. Why do we not have farmers who actually herd goats and sheep as a business and not wait for the annual slaughter of rams for these animals? When these agricultural products were being produced, all kinds of research institutions broke out – Palm Oil Research, Cocoa Research, etc. The lesson we learnt from all these research institutes – now well over 25 – is that their contribution to our development has been either minimal or Zilch.

This is what now frightens me about the stupidity of all these special universities – Petroleum, Maritime (soon there will be Desertification University). What is a Maritime University or a Petroleum University except another spending centre that cannot be explained? Why not a normal university with the faculty of petroleum engineering, maritime engineering, etc?

The whole of the current government’s economic recovery plan is based on borrowing large sums of money, growing the agricultural productive sector, massive investment in infrastructure, thus growing export facilities with which to pay for these large borrowings. There is nothing in the programme that does not believe that the foundation to fight the recession is not rooted in the belief of uninterrupted revenue from oil at US $55 dollars per barrel at a production rate of two and a half million barrels a day.

Let’s assume that the agriculture sector of this plan works a treat, where are the produce inspectors? Have they been trained and will they be trained to grade our products?

Where are the packaging enterprises?

In agriculture how ready are we?

Agbalumo the African plum could be developed into chewing gum, with development of various flavours. Animal husbandry should be encouraged
Goats: chicken – many large chicken farms have folded up – Mitchell Farms, Ashamu Farms even OBJ farms are gradually going to seed. Plants Research gains are not translated into viable economic processes and products. Training inspectors are not available for cocoa, palm produce, cereals – corn, sorghum, rice, etc. Packaging, especially fruits for export, does not exist. Can we not emulate Kenya and flowers, Uganda and plantains? Fresh milk, butter used to be easily available in Nigeria. Why not so anymore?

Theft is a major problem: we must teach morality and our people to refrain from stealing plants, food etc. Nigerians have to understand that the government property they steal is actually theirs. They are stealing from themselves.
Dr. Cole is former Nigeria Ambassador to Brazil