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African roots of current African-American gardens

African villageWestmacott perused accounts and photos of western Africa from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, searching for similarities between historical African gardens and current African-American gardens in the rural South.  Western Africa is a diverse area, ranging from rainforest to subtropical desert, and the agricultural heritage of west Africans is similarly diverse.  Some people were nomadic herders, others had grain-based diets much like our own, while still others practiced what Westmacott called "vegeculture" but which I would call forest gardening --- edible trees, roots, vines, and grains all mashed together into one space.

West Africans who grew what we now consider traditional gardens typically clustered their houses into fenced compounds.  They grazed any livestock they might happen to have outside during the day, but took the animals in at night.  Crops were grown outside the village compound in intensively tilled and manured land, while trees with edible fruits (like bananas, coconuts, and mangos) were planted within the village for shade.

As you can probably guess from my previous lunchtime series on Chinese and Central American traditional gardening practices, I was intrigued by this look into traditional African agriculture.  But very few of the African practices seemed to carry over to the United States.  Shade trees are ubiquitous in African-American yards in the South, but the trees are not edibles, and there is no sign of forest gardening.
Swept yard
The one aspect of the southern gardens that Westmacott felt confident tracing back to Africa was the swept yard.  Although inexpensive motorized lawnmowers are now pushing swept yards into history, many of the old timey African-American families in Westmacott's study stuck to the traditional bare earth yard.  The families spent time every day hoeing weeds out of the yard, then sweeping every bit of trash and debris out of the living space.  The result was an area where children could play and adults could easily sit and talk, without danger of snakes or ticks.  The practice can be clearly traced back to Africa, not only because Africans still keep up swept yards, but also because bare earth yards just don't work in more temperate climates.  In areas without long dry seasons a swept yard will turn to mud and become impassable for a large portion of the year.  I guess we won't be making a swept earth yard here!

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This post is part of our African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Beg to differ with you (or your book), but yards in South Carolina are full of pecan trees. My yard also has apples, peaches, figs, cherries, blue and black berries, grapes. Yard fruit and nut trees are quite common, in my experience.
Comment by Errol Tue May 11 16:44:42 2010
I wish I hadn't returned the book to the library --- it actually specifically talked about pecan trees, but I'm going to have to rely on my memory here, which is dicey. There were some yards with pecans as shade trees (and some other fruit trees, but they were being managed as fruit trees, not as shade trees that produce fruit.) But the nuts generally weren't collected from the pecans, if I remember right, and the trees tended to be quite old. Newer shade trees were generally fast growing species like maples that don't produce fruit. So the author concluded that fruit and shade seemed to be considered two separate tree functions, unlike the forest garden type African village compounds where trees were specifically planted for both shade and fruit. Does that make sense?
Comment by anna Tue May 11 18:07:39 2010

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