THE one familiar attribute of the Dogon people of Mali is their abundant granaries that are nestled against mountain cliffs.
This is an important indicator that these people who are thought to have come from the Nile Valley is that they were agriculturalists who cultivated crops and stored millet grain in clay granaries whose roofs were made from timber and grass.
The Dogon are famed for their knowledge of astronomy and identified and held rituals in commemoration of a cosmic star that they were aware of long before telescopes from the Western world had identified it.
This reminds me of a pioneering children’s museum that I visited in Harare not so long ago. At the time of my visit the curators were putting up an exhibit depicting Egyptian history. There was the pyramid and the tomb of one famous Egyptian ruler, a Pharaoh. The curator informed me that the exhibit was to remain a centre piece for quite a while. In the meantime, they would then move on to curate the history of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. The museum is owned by Dr Allen Chiura and his wife.
What immediately came to my mind was for them to capture some common cultural and ideological elements between the two histories and heritage structures. This, I thought to myself, would bring out links between ancient Egypt and the Zimbabwe tradition. In Egypt they did not have natural mountains, so they created artificial ones in the form of colossal pyramids. In both cases stone masonry was an important technology that the builders possessed. The two peoples held the same perceptions regarding death. Death was not the end of life, but an important marker of the transition from ephemeral material life to eternal life in the spiritual realm. Spirits, after being separated from the bodies that housed them, set off on a journey to the stars where they had come from in the first place.
Stone pyramids were burial places for the divine rulers who wanted their physical bodies to be intered in rock which expresses the idea of solidity and continuity. The same was true of Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe. The two architetectural and heritage sites doubled up as residences of the divine rulers and burial places, madzimbahwe, for the same rulers when they passed on. Burials at Mapungubwe, for example, yielded several gold beads, chuma, and gold-plated artifacts such as a royal sceptre, a wooden bowl, or scalp cap and a rhinoceros. Similarly, Egyptians deposited precious funerary items, a cultural practice informed and governed by similar cosmological views and perceptions.
We could also point out that the heritage structures were located near rivers. In Egypt the river was the Nile, with the pyramids being located on the western side. The setting sun was symbolic of the end of earthly life and was viewed as the opposite of sunrise, which symbolises the beginning of life. Looking at Great Zimbabwe which is located next to the Mutirikwi River, one can’t help seeing some similarity in cosmology-induced location. The Khami Monument outside Bulawayo is similarly located next to the Khami River and more importantly on the western side. Only the naïve would choose to ignore these glaring similarities.
The link between the earth plane and the heavens is apparent: as above, so below is the Law of Analogy applicable in both instances. Be that as it may, we still need to take cognisance of the fact that the tradition of pyramid building started south of Egypt, actually in Ethiopia and the Sudan. It then spread to Egypt where the art was improved upon. The Egyptian pyramids were both bigger and more elegant in finesse. This happens to be the case in Zimbabwe. The older Mapungubwe Monument is dwarfed by Great Zimbabwe which is a later construction. The later Khami Monument is even finer in architectural design than Great Zimbabwe. The people who built Great Zimbabwe left the Ethiopia-Sudan area and struck southward towards the Great Lakes region and entered Tanganyika. We can only surmise that they were coming from the same area which was the source of Egyptian civilization. The said people were good in astronomy, astrology, alchemy, fine art and metallurgy.
What becomes abundantly clear is that Africans have retrogressed over centuries. Be that as it may, there is evidence of their more advanced knowledge, pertaining in particular to science. This takes us to the subject that we are dealing with today, food storage and the underlying applied science at work. Grain needed storage in structures that precluded the ravages of insects, notably weevils and white ants. At the same time, moisture had to be excluded as it could cause grain to either germinate or spoil beyond the point where it was safe for consumption.
Grain preservation started before harvesting. Compared to contemporary grain handling practices, crops were left to stand in the fields far much longer. This was a double- barrelled strategy. In the first instance, grain was allowed to dry, thus losing moisture beyond the level where it posed a threat to the grain; through germination and spoiling. Secondly, delayed harvesting till after frost resulted in the grain becoming physically tougher and resistant to the ravages of some insects. These were however, preliminary preservation measures which were complemented by other more drastic ones.
Let us begin with grain preserving measures among the Ndebele people before looking at strategies of other people and, in the process, identify common principles. The Ndebele people stored their grain in grass grain bins, izilulu. Grass, we may point out, was worked on by women, just like clay and cow dung were. Some grass variety called intungwa was used. The choice of this particular grass was based on the fact that it could bend, unlike uqunga grass which breaks when bent.
Recently, we at Amagugu International Heritage Centre (AIHC) were paid a visit by Mr and Mrs Dungeni who visited when Tennyson Hlabangana Secondary School learners called at the cultural facility within the Matobo World Heritage Site. Mrs Musa Dungeni informed us how she, her sister and mother (uMaKhumalo kaMbehane) worked jointly to plait, ukweluka, a huge grass grain bin. It was so big it could take 21 bags (of six buckets each) of grain. Research in the 1990s at KoBulawayo (ENyokeni, Old Bulawayo) revealed clusters of stone slabs driven into the ground. These stone cairns, about 40 centimetres above ground level, supported individual grain bins.
During a visit to Chief Solomon Sivalo Mahlangu’s place in the company of Dr Irene Ndiweni, we were shown remnants of wooden platforms on which nestled grass grain bins. We were told the grass grain bins did not have a roof, ithuli, over them.
Small mouths of these grass grain bins were sealed to prevent rain water getting inside. Plaiting of the grass grain baskets left spaces within the grass structure which trapped air. Rain water would not enter the grass grain bins on account of the trapped air which served as some kind of sealant.
Water flowing on the ground was excluded by making wooden platforms which helped the grain bins to stand above ground level. Ash was sprinkled at the bottom of the upright pillars. We shall deal with the role of ash later. At KoBulawayo, the grain bins were supported by stone slabs driven into the ground — and making a circular structure that supported the circular grass grain bins. The stones raised the grass grain bins above ground level so that ground moisture and flowing rain water were excluded. Once again, ash was deposited around the stone slabs to discourage white ants from getting to the grass grain bins and ravaging them.