By Tego Wolasa
The historical hate-love relationship between Burji and Teff
Also known as Williams love grass or annual bunch grass, Teff is believed to have been domesticated by the Abyssinians between 3000 and 6000 years ago.
Teff flour is mainly used for preparing fermented flatbread indigenously known as Injera. But can also be used for making waffles, cookies, porridge, and crackers. Teff grass is also a useful animal feed.
Teff is believed to have been brought to the Burji country during the abyssiniasation of the south. When Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia was coronated in November 1889, he started subjugating the regions in the south, reaching the Burji Country around 1895.
There are two accounts on how Teff was introduced to the Burji. First is that Meneliks men brought it with them. The second account attribute Teff in Burji to Dayna Achule Hirbo, who was said to have brought it from Hagere Selam in Northern Ethiopia.
Interestingly, the Burji initially refused to embrace the Teff because it was associated with the imperial invaders from the north. It was given colloquial name ‘gash’ (master/sir).
And who would blame them for refusing to embrace Teff? The Burji, who were previously independent people, were reduced to gabbars/tenants on their land and were required to pay irbo (a quarter of their produce) to the Melkegna.
Melkegnas are appointees of the government whose role was to ensure tax collection and were also incharge of disciplining the local population. The melkegnas were instrumental in forcing the Burji to pay annual land tax to the regime.
Men worked as farmhands and porters while women were required to do household chores in the house of the Melkegnas. Being a Porter entailed transporting good on foot from Burji to areas as far as Hagre Selam, the administrative center of Sidamo province, and Addis Ababa.
The Burji eventually embraced Teff Teff in the early 1940s because of two main reasons. First is that Teff is easy to grow and manage. It is a highly adaptable grain that grows in environmental conditions ranging from near-drought conditions to water-saturated soils, as well as degraded soils.
The second reason for the adoption of Teff because of the exponential demand for grain from nearby towns. Back then, the Burji already had significant market places. The market at Burji Kilicho was especially crucial because of strategic closeness to Borana and Guji areas.
With the acceptance of Teff also came a new farming system. Plough-oxen agriculture started becoming commonplace in Burji in the 1940s. Before that, most of the subsistence farming entailed the use of a hoe.
Teff production got a boost with Proclamation No. 71 of 1975 by the Derg regime. The proclamation paved the way for the formation of cooperatives in the Burji District.
With the creation of cooperatives, it meant that the local population was able to own the land, and secondly, the cooperative enabled them to have access to farm inputs.
In addition to the cooperatives, the Derg regime enforced mender misreta (villagization). Villagisation entailed pushing the Burji population from the hills and to the plain lands which were suitable for farming and settlement.
By the year 1980, Burji, then under Arero awraja (province), was one of the leading suppliers of Teff in the province. And By 1990, the Burji district had officially become Tirf Amrach Woreda (surplus producing district).
Being a surplus producing district means that they had enough food for local consumption and is now feeding the rest of Ethiopia.
Besides the above government initiatives, the Burji already had a haile system where they collectively and alternatively helped each other work on the vast teff plantations. Burji district was known for producing the “Gumaiyde white Teff‘.”
The Burji excelled in farming because their land was not very spacious and suitable for practising pastoralism. Besides, they are surrounded by rival tribes such as the populous Guji, who pose the danger of driving off with their livestock during conflicts. Agriculture thus became the safest bet.
The Burji, who had immigrated to other Ethiopian towns such as Yabelo, Mega, and Idi Lola, continued to be the lead farmers in their respective towns.
Those that migrated to Kenya were not left behind. They became so important in agriculture and feeding the colonial Kenya that Marsabit is said to have been named after a Burji Farmer by the name Marsa.
According to Mr. F.C. Gamble, Burji led agriculture had already taken root in Marsabit by 1918. However, Moyale was the first to become entirely food sufficient.
The Moyale success prompted the then DC Mr. H. B Sharpe to ask for a helping hand from Moyale. By 1920s gave Burji farms around an area which became present-day Karatina. The subsequent success in farming helped stop the importation of food from Meru.
The Burji were purely farmers with occasional labor services to the colonial masters in Marsabit until the 1950s when they were allowed to own and run businesses.
Today, The Burji hardly practice farming because of perpetual insecurity. However, they have managed to make a name for themselves by becoming one of the most adaptive and successful entrepreneurs of Northern Kenya.
BENEFITS OF TEFF
So why has Eragrostis tef as known scientifically gained so much prominence globally? Among the beneficial nutritional values of the Teff are high manganese, protein, calcium, and iron content.
Teff has five times more fiber than wheat and can naturally balance hormones, boosts immunity, stimulates digestion, and is high in resistant starch. Resistant starch is a newly-discovered type of dietary fiber that can benefit blood sugar management, weight control, and colon health.
Teff flour is also gluten-free. A thing which has increased its popularity globally and especially to the health-conscious and athletic fraternity.
The grain comes in colors of red, brown, or white. There is no nutritional difference between colors. There is, however, a slight difference in the taste where the brown and red are earthy, rich, and robust, whereas white is milder with a chestnut flavor.
The rising popularity had forced the Ethiopian government to place an intermittent ban on its export for fear of depletion. Today Teff is catering for two-third of nutritional needs in Ethiopia.
Today, 90% of all the Teff produced globally comes from Ethiopia with Kenya, India, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and the USA contribution the remaining 10%.
The presence of Teff in Kenya can perhaps be purely attributed to the Burji community.
Have an injeraful time. Won’t you?