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Mahangu (Pearl Millet)

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) or mahangu as it is locally known, is the most widely grown millet variety globally and Namibia’s most important staple food. It is the world’s sixth most important crop. It is especially important in the semiarid tropics of Asia and Africa where the crop is preferred due to a short growing season, high productivity and tolerance to dry, high-temperature conditions.

Types of Millet

Millet is not a single grain, but a collective name for a variety of different small-seed grains from several different genera of the grass family Poaceae. Four varieties make up the bulk of the world’s production. These are pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), foxtail millet (Setaria italica), proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) and finger millet (Eleusine coracana). The iconic East African crop teff, (Eragrostis tef) is a close relative.

Origins

Millet was domesticated in the western part of the Sahel region of West Africa dating back some 3,500 years. From here the crop spread to India where it’s cultivation dates back 2,300 years. Finger millet originated in East Africa and found its way to India by 1,800 BCE. Today India is the world’s largest producer of pearl millet.

Pearl millet is well-adapted to the semiarid, impoverished, less fertile agriculture regions of Africa and is more reliable than any other crops under these conditions. The crops also respond well to irrigation and soil supplements. In Namibia, farmers use both long and short-cycle mahangu varieties.

Hybrid varieties are bred to improve disease resistance and increase yield productivity. One hybrid variety that is used locally is “Okashana 1”. This variety was developed in India from a natural-growing variety from Burkina Faso, and doubled yields. Okashana 1 is now also used in other African countries.

Cultivation

Mahangu fields are raised patches of land that are tilled by hand or by using draught animals such as oxen. In some areas, the Government of Namibia offers subsidised services to households. These include tractors for ploughing, draft animal ploughing, walking tractors, seeds and fertiliser. Traditionally the fields were fertilised using animal dung and ash.

Mahangu
Ploughing to plant mahangu

In north-central Namibia, mahangu is intercropped with sorghum with which it is mixed to form the ingredients of several traditional fermented beverages. Further intercropping is done with cowpea and Bambara groundnuts.

Harvesting

Mahangu is harvested by hand and takes place around May or June depending on the rainfall pattern and variety of pearl millet sown. It is mainly women who tend to the harvest. The head of the millet is cut from the stem using a sharp knife. The heads are placed in large harvesting baskets and taken away for further drying.

The mahangu heads are sundried, often on a raised wooden platform near the field. These platforms are guarded to minimise losses to grain-eating animals and birds. Drying mahangu on a raised platform instead of say, drying it on the threshing floor, has major advantages. It improves aeration and minimises contamination, keeps rodents at bay and allows for the quicker re-drying of crops in the advent of end-of-season rain showers.

Farmers select some of the best looking heads of mahangu for next year’s seed. These are kept separate from the eating crop and remain as is on the heads.

Threshing the Mahangu

Once the heads of pearl millet are dry enough, they are threshed to remove the grains from the heads. Threshing generally starts in June but depends on when the rain stops and length of drying time required. It furthermore depends on whether additional labour or mechanised threshing is available.

Mahangu
Mahangu kernels after thrashing

The traditional way of threshing is done by using wooden sticks to beat the mahangu heads on the ground. The thinner back-end of the heavy pestle used for pounding mahangu seeds is also used as a threshing tool. The mahangu heads are pounded directly onto the threshing floor which may be made from compounded, hardened termite clay. Sometimes a tarpaulin is used a threshing floor.

Another more modern and more controversial way of threshing mahangu is by means of a tractor. The heads are placed on the ground and a tractor is used to run over them. The weight of the tractor separates the grains from heads. Lighter tractors and deflated tires are used to avoid breaking the grains.

The threshed grain is winnowed to remove the chaff. Winnowing is carried out with special flat baskets, and on occasion with but also with other types of containers such as plastic dishes and galvanised basins. Women are responsible for most of the threshing and winnowing. Sometimes extra labour is hired to help speed up the processing. Mahangu is only stored as grains after threshing is done.

Both methods of threshing introduce sand particles into the grain. It is nearly impossible to remove the grid which means that remains present in the final flour. As a result of this grit, the porridge cooked from traditionally processed mahangu is often swallowed without much chewing.

Storing

Large grain baskets woven from mopane twine and sealed with mud are used to store processed grains. These baskets (called omaanda or eeshisha) are placed on wooden poles and covered with grass roofs to protect the harvest from rodents, insects and rain.

Grain stores vary in size, holding anything from 250 kilograms to over 3 tonnes of grain. Insect infestations are a great threat to grain reserves. The rice moth (Corcyra cephalonica) is the most common pest. Farmers can lose between 10 and 30 percent of their harvest if the grains are stored for between one and three years.

Processing Mahangu

Mahangu is processed in two stages. First, the grains are dehulled. This separates the bran from the endosperm. During the second stage, the dehulled grains are pounded into flour. Both stages are done by manually using a wooden pestle and mortar.

Mahangu
Pounding mahangu

Millet contains nutritional inhibitors, that has to be reduced before it is fit for consumption. Tannins give the grain a bitter taste and reduce its digestibility. This makes the grain less attractive to birds whilst the crops are still in the fields, and thus helps to reduce pre-harvest losses. Millet also contains phytic acid that has anti-nutritional effects on minerals and affects the digestibility of proteins and starch. It is reduced significantly by dehulling.

Fermentation further reduces the tannin-induced bitter taste. Traditionally the gains are malted and fermented by soaking it in lukewarm water for 24 to 48 hours. During this time, enzyme activity increases and fermentation occurs. As a result, lactic acid is produced and the pH level drops. The millet not only tastes better, but it’s nutritional contents are also now more accessible.

Culinary applications

Millet is eaten the world over. It is thus part of very different national cuisines such as Russian, German and Chinese. Before rice became the dominant crop in Asia, millet was the staple. Both sweet and savoury options are popular. Sweet dishes often include honey or syrup and fruit. Savoury versions are eaten with stews and sauces.

Given that millet is gluten-free, it is not suited as an ingredient for bread-making, unless it is combined with additional gluten-containing flour, or additional gluten is added. Where millet is used in bread, it takes the form of flatbread such as rotis from parts of India (combining sorghum and millet) or the injera bread from Ethiopia (made with teff). It is also a common ingredient in seeded bread.

Mahangu Flour
Pearl millet or mahangu flour for sale, Oshakati Market

Oshifima (Porridge)

The flour is cooked in water to make a stiff porridge, oshifima or oshithima. This is undoubtedly the most important food in the north-central parts of Namibia. It is eaten with a variety of dishes such as chicken, meat, wild spinach, beans, mopane worms or fish and is scooped up using the right hand. Etete is a thin porridge prepared the same way as the stiff porridge but with much less flour.

Different versions of the porridge dish include olumbololo which is uncooked millet flour mixed with sour milk and onona which is boiled dehulled grains.

Oshikwiila (Owambo bread)

Mahango flour is mixed with water, sugar and salt ad moulded into large disks. These are either pan-fried like pancakes or roasted on hot embers or put in plastic bags and then boiled in water. The bread is unleavened.

A popular fermented beverage, oshikundu (or ontaku), is also made from the mahangu flour. The stalks of the plants are used to feed cattle or to construct thatch roofs.

Traditional Beverages

Mahangu is often combined with sorghum to make a number of alcoholic and non-alcoholic traditional beverages. Unlike sorghum which is used as a malted flour, mahangu is not malted for beverage-making.

Oshikundu (or Ontaku) is a non-alcoholic fermented drink made from malted red sorghum flour, mahangu bran and mahangu flour. Oshikundu is a very important part of the traditional diet for both adults and children.

Omalovu (beer) is made from malted red sorghum and mahangu flour. Tombo is brewed from brown sugar and red malted sorghum and epwaka from mahangu bran and brown sugar. These alcoholic beverages are brewed for special occasions or for selling in local bars known as Cuca shops.

 

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