Narratives of cultural landscapes
Geographical explorers provided geodesic locations of landscape features that had earlier been reported by other travelers. For example, James A. Grant62 reports on Stanley’s verification of Speke’s discoveries to locate geographical features using the coordinates provided by Speke. Because the report mentions specific land features, its accuracy can be confirmed by comparing it with what was reported earlier by Speke. We can retrieve a greater deal of information from the reports on cultural landscapes, includ- ing details of land with farming potential.
We will use an example here from the report of Dr. Livingstone63 who describes the farming systems of communities. In the country bordering the Ruvuma River, in present-day Tanzania, he reports: ‘We now came along through a country comparatively free of wood.’ Other descriptions of landscapes showed evidence of human activities such as smelting of metals and crop cultivation. He continues: ‘The rest of the country, where not cultivated, is covered with grass the seed stalks about knee deep.’ Along the routes were also ‘enclaves of cultivation’ where the communities cultivated crops.64 On the Zambezi expedition, Livingstone6’ described the land’s agricultural potential. He writes: ‘The soil formed by the disintegration of igneous rocks is amazingly fertile, and the people are all fond of agriculture. I have seen maize of nearly the same size of grain as that sold by the Americans.’ In another case, he describes an ingenious method for maintaining soil fertility:
All the people are engaged at present in making mounds six or eight feet square, ... from two to three feet height. The sods in places not before hoed are separated from the soil beneath and collected into flattened heaps, the grass uppermost; when dried, fire is applied and slow combustion goes on; most of the products of the burning being retained in the ground, much of the soil incinerated. The final preparation if effected by the men digging up the subsoil round the mound, passing each hoe full into the left hand, where it pulverizes, and then thrown onto the heap. It is thus virgin soil on top of the ashes and burned ground of the original heap, very clear of weeds. At present many mounds have beans and maize about four inches deep.... These are watered by hand and calabash, and kept growing till the rains set in, when early crop is secured.
In his reconstruction of the history of pre-colonial farming systems in the region of Lake Nyasa (present-day Lake Malawi), Juhani Koponen66 describes how the Matengo people developed a sophisticated indigenous farming system called the ‘pit system.’
A whole hillside appeared to have been dug full of pits. On closet- inspection this was ... but a skillful combination of horizontal contour ridges with diagonal up and down ridges composed of a mixture of grass and earth. Nothing was planted in the pit area, but weeds and grass from the ridges were thrown into it to form a compost. In the following year the process was reversed: what had been a pit now became a ridge. This prevented erosion even on the steepest slopes and could be continued for years before a fallow was needed.
The texts remark on the fertility of the soils and farming methods. Some of the travelers’ notes are discussed here. About soil fertility on the east coast, Joseph Thomson6' observes: ‘The soil is extremely fertile, and well cultivated; it yields all the varied products of the East Coast and supports a large population of well-to-do natives of mixed Wazaramo and Waswahili.’ The different cultivation methods made a significant impression on travelers. The methods used for the rich crops grown by various African communities were described as complex and sustainable. There was evidence of soil-water conservation, rotation of crops and maintenance of soil fertility. Where the soil fertility was low, compost pitting was common, and legumes and grains were cultivated in rotation to maintain soil fertility in ways comparable to contemporary practices.6*
Rev. Dr Laws69 describes soil fertility on the western side of Lake Nysa (Lake Malawi), supported by evidence of good crop harvest by local communities. He reports good pasture conditions around settlements, where people kept sheep and goats in large numbers. He also notes that the people of the area lacked fuel, which forced them to dig out the roots of dried maize plants for cooking and lighting. He confirms that trees were scarce in the area. Was this natural or evidence of human overexploitation? Let us consider the evidence. First, Laws indicates that human settlements were large consisting of small villages. Second, the villages were densely clustered on hillslopes and had granaries where food was stored. The two facts indicate that people had been living in the area for the long term. Farming appeared to be a well-established economic enterprise. However, the evidence that the villages were settled on hillslopes suggests other possible interpretations. Did the higher ground offer security, or did people live there for health reasons, to avoid mosquitoes in the lower lands during the wet seasons? One would suppose that the hills were better wooded than the grassy plain where crops were cultivated. If trees were scarce, as Laws stated, what happened to the vegetation on the hillsides? We can only speculate about what possibly happened. Apart from Dr Laws, other travelers did not remark on the scarcity of trees and/or a lack of fuel.
What we read from other reports is that the East African region was highly varied in vegetation cover—from open grasslands to dense forest, each described in relation to patterns of human settlements. From the diversity of crops grown, one would deduce the fertility of the soil, on which the European observers often remarked. We also notice from many of the reports that communities managed different types of livestock— varying between sheep, goats and cattle.'°
Except where occurrences of warfare were reported, the human settlements were generally described as nucleated or scattered. In places that were heavily vegetated by woody cover, villages were found in open clearings, which were also sites of crop cultivation. Usually, large herds of cattle were observed in open grassy plains but not in the thickly wooded areas.71 The reports, illustrated by photographs or sketch drawings, depict agreeable environmental conditions.'2
The oral history of the African communities told about the environment as it had been. In her book Imaging Serengeti, Bender Shetler'5 describes the pre-colonial environment of the Serengeti ecosystem, remarking that the Serengeti was landscapes of memory, which among others featured the social and political imaging of societies that had long been removed. Similarly, Yusufu Lawi'4 reports how from oral history one can build a picture of what sustained the pre-colonial environment of Africa. He shows how human decisions and actions transformed natural landscapes and made them more appealing to human habitation.
Other reports presented evidence of political conflicts and showed the general distribution of the population. In his letter from the Albert Nyanza, the southern side of the Victoria Nyanza covering Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), Henry Morton Stanley'’ describes the vegetation changes using three significant indicators. First, the landscape he crossed was a grassy valley with scattered Acacia trees. The second indicator was that the season of the year was dry. Third, he describes an environment where tribal warfare had affected settlement patterns. On the evidence of abandoned settlements, he conjectures that the area was thickly populated before disruption by the war. The evidence of tribal warfare is sufficient explanation for the abandonment.
The missionary and traveler, W.P. Johnson,'6 reports his experience in the same region east of Lake Nyasa from where Morton Stanley had reported earlier. He indicates that settlements were located on hilltops for defensive purposes. From an ecological perspective, the environment was described as ‘very rich in its wide grassy glades.’ The burnt-out and abandoned settlements were evidence of tribal warfare. Invading groups such as the Ngoni who originated from southern Africa appear to have had the greatest impact on southern and southwestern and East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century." Alfred Sharpe'8 reported passing through land occupied by the Ngoni and mentions that the regions that bordered them had been depopulated. In these areas, regular burning of the grass left the area open for crop cultivation. The travelers arrived during a rainy season when rain was ‘incessant.’ The travelers were struck by the ‘rolling downs, covered with grasses.’ This symbolized the English countryside with which the travelers were familiar. The presence of cattle implied that the environment was free from the tsetse fly.
In the Ankole plateau in central Africa, travelers reported open ‘grassy downs’ with large herds of long-horned Hima cattle. Toward the Bunyoro, the villagers were cultivators. The climate was described as healthy and the soil fertile for crop growing. The land was generally covered by forests.'9 This region was crisscrossed by European travelers, who described a land with large populations of wildlife. Its beauty and fertility were the subject of much discussion among the explorers.80 Grass burning was common. In the main, burning was intentional and carried out during the dry season to ‘cure’ old grass growth and control pests such as ticks and the tsetse fly. Most grass species in East Africa are stimulated by periodic fires. In depop- ulated areas, the reverse occurs: the bush cover increases and the tsetse returns.81 This was the case during the last two decades of the nineteenth century when East Africa experienced major political and economic shocks that sent the pastoral and agro-pastoral economies to the edge of collapse.