Indigenous salt disappears from dining tables

By Juma Kwayera

Nairobi, Kenya: The next time you are told someone has ‘eaten a lot of salt’ bear in mind it is an inference to the benefits of indigenous salts to healthy living.

The indigenous salts are disappearing from traditional African kitchens as refined commercial ones, with inherent health risks, take over.

Prof Ward Mavura of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, who has researched extensively on the plant-based indigenous salts for their cultural, nutritional and commercial value, says the indigenous knowledge used in the making of the salts risks being lost as refined spices with high sodium content replace them.

“The salt (mfume) has low sodium content, but has more potassium. The salt derived from the reeds is recommended for hypertensive people. The indigenous salt made in Kenya and Uganda – generally by people who live in the Lake Victoria basin – is better than refined low sodium salts (lona),” says Prof Mavura, who heads JKUAT’s Arusha Campus in Tanzania.

Even more ominous is the realisation that the ecosystems in which the grass species from which the salts are extracted in most parts of western Kenya are facing extinction as demand for land for commercial agriculture and settlement rises.

Human encroachment on wetlands does not just affect river regimes; it is a setback to indigenous knowledge transmission, which is kept alive through hands-on experience.

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Destruction

Known as munyu-mfume or esalu among the Luhyia, kat kamsingli among the Luo or omusaala in Luganda, the salts, which are derived from special reeds that grow in wetlands or lagoons have virtually lost their cultural value among indigenous communities that believed that eating the salt enabled one to live longer, hence the saying kula chumvi nyingi (eat a lot of salt), metaphorical for ‘live longer.’

Mama Kamilita Achieng’, who makes and sells munyu mfume (the traditional salt), says indigenous knowledge used to manufacture the salt is no longer passed to the younger generation.  More so, Ms Achieng’ says, the ecosystems in which the reeds for making the salts grow are giving way to sugar cane, which dominates commercial farming in western Kenya. Her concerns underline the impact on the environmental destruction on local culture.

She says the best indigenous salts are made from omuverenyi (typha latifolia), mukongolo (brachystegia bussei) and muse. These are rare indigenous plants that are fast disappearing.

 Of the three species, typha latifolia, (Cattails or Reedmace Bulrush)  which thrives on the swamps of River Sio, River Nzoia, River Lusumu and River Yala, is the commonest ingredient.

Nutritionists regard potassium, the third most abundant mineral in human body, as the “health insurer” of a human body. Notes gleaned from online publications indicate that besides the mineral being an electrolyte, it is important in keeping the heart, brain, kidney, muscle tissues and other important organs of human body in perfect functioning condition.

Deficiency

Salt deficiency precipitates fatigue, muscles weaknesses, inactive reflexes, abnormal heartbeat, heart palpitations, anaemia and severe headaches. It is this qualities that enabled people who ate the salt to live longer and healthy lives.

Biochemist John Ouma, a lecturer at the Egerton University, attributes the rise in incidents of high blood pressure and hypertension in western Kenya to diminished consumption of indigenous salt.

“The composition of indigenous salts has natural balance of nutrients beneficial to the body. Refined industrial sugar tends to optimise a particular component, in this case sodium chloride, by getting rid of other salts.

 In the case of indigenous salts, the absorption rate is gradual as opposed to refined salts where the uptake is rapid, setting off faster heart palpitations,” says Prof Ouma.

The expert’s explanation sheds light on local cultural perceptions that the salt is used to relieve convulsions in a bewitched person. Culturally, mfume was consumed during get-togethers after a day’s work, as it was perceived as a symbol of unity or to get rid of ill will. Little did consumers know of the nutritional and health value of the ingredients of the salts.

Achieng’ says mfume is used to treat boils, which are believed to be transmitted by people with evil spirits. “There is more to the salt than food spice or smoked meat and fish tenderiser. Some people use it for religious or superstitious reasons. They believe it protects them against witchcraft. However, the beliefs are gradually being discarded as people start to realise and understand the nutritional value of the salts,” Achieng’, who supplies the salt in Busia and Kakamega towns, explains.

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Salt JKUAT mfume Tanzania