The just concluded 12th annual Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) summit saw among other things, several leaders, such as President Kagame participate in the ‘Beans Challenge’ where they drew the world map using beans.
Beans hold a special place on the Rwandan menu, where about a million households in the country grow them.
Several reports indicate Rwanda as the highest global consumer of beans per capita, and it would be surprising if Rwandans weren’t recognised for eating them given how popular they are.
Figures from Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) indicate that beans are the main staple food in the country, providing households with 32 percent of required calories and 65 percent of protein across the country.
A vendor of fresh beans at Kimironko market in Gasabo District. Craish Bahizi
Helgi Library reports that an average Rwandan eats at least 34 kilogrammes of beans per year, making Rwandans the highest per capita consumers of beans in the world. Rwanda ranks seventh in total consumption globally.
Well, all public schools in the country serve beans everyday throughout the year, for lunch and supper and for every dish such as rice, kawunga (maize bread), and Ugali (cassava bread).
Some households do the same, and in urban centres, most labourers also enjoy chapatti with beans as the main meal of the day.
Interestingly, beans have always been the staple food for Rwandans even before colonial times. They are part of a group of ‘imbuto nkuru‘ (main traditional crops) which were grown hundreds of years ago, in the early days of the Rwanda kingdom.
Other crops in the group include pumpkins, sorghum, millet and isogi, a kind of green vegetable that was popular in acient Rwanda.
However, although beans have always been a constant feature on the Rwandan menu, their growth got even better during the 33-year reign of the fighter King Kigeli II Nyamuheshera, who ruled from 1576 until his death in 1609.
Nyamuheshera was known as an expansionist and great fighter who launched different military expeditions among which he returned from with different better varieties of beans.
Military expeditions were meant for expansion, new varieties of crops and sometimes slaves, something Rwandans referred to as ‘gushaka imbuto n’amaboko’ (looking for seeds and arms).
In an interview with The New Times, Jean Pierre Kanyandekwe and Gaudiose Kanyange, researchers and analysts of Rwandan history and values said the major types of beans grown at the time were Ibiharo and Ibishiramujinya.
Kanyandekwe added that Rwandans strictly imitate what their ancestors did, which is part of why beans remain highly important in present-day communities.
“If someone has eaten a millet or sorghum cake, beans and green vegetables, they have eaten a balanced meal. Sometimes they would add a cup of milk. Children who ate this type of food did not have malnutrition, so it is possible that this perception was shared by the older Rwandan community,” Kanyandekwe said.
This is what was eaten by Rwandans for a long time. Sorghum and millet were dried and kept for months to even cover for the dry months when no one was cultivating. They were grinded to make cake, and were mostly eaten with beans and green vegetables, mostly isogi.
But beans didn’t become popular just like that, they earned it. Kanyange explained that apart from being served in many different ways, they were also very easy to grow.
She explained that Rwandans started eating the bean plant right from when it germinates until harvest and several months after storage.
The famous traditional delicacy called umushogoro are basically bean leaves and when the plant flowered and grew legumes, it was an opportunity to eat imiteja (French beans), which were also enjoyed by the community which fancied green vegetables.
Before the general harvest too, Rwandans eat ibitonore, which are fresh beans that don’t even take as much time to cook as dry beans. People peel the bean shell off with the use of hands before cooking.
When the harvest came, they ate ‘imiragara’- beans which fell off before threshing, ‘imihure’- threshed beans, and ‘ibigugu’- beans which had been in storage for a long time.
Apart from eating the plant throughout the year, dry beans were also eaten in different ways. Sometimes they were mashed and called Inombe, or boiled together with other dishes such as cassava and pumpkins, a style that was called Kugereka.
Kanyange also explained that another special dish called Igihembe, where bean skins are removed by soaking dry beans in water and gently peeling them off before boiling them, was also preferred.
“They also grew beans at large because they were easy to grow. People could grow other crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, and maize together with beans. They were also easy to store for a long period, which would come as a rescue when there was a shortage,” Kanyange explained.
She added that growing beans was an almost ritual too, given that men would till the land, sometimes helped by their wives, but planting seeds was solely done by women.
Also, beans were classified depending on what time of the year they were planted. Ibikungira were planted in September, which was the first month on Rwanda’s pre-colonial annual calendar. But sometimes they were also planted in October in case it didn’t rain the month before.
Ibijagasha were beans planted in February.
“They were eaten by the wealthiest and the poorest. Beans were for everyone,” Kanyange said.
Bean cultivation has been ever evolving, even better between 1985 and 2012 when more than 90 bean varieties were released in Rwanda in a partnership between RAB and different international organizations such as PABRA, and International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
19 more varieties were launched by RAB in 2021, strengthening bean cultivation even further and improving livelihoods of the citizens.
The most common varieties, named by the farmers themselves depending on circumstances include Coltan, Mutiki, Carolina, Bagara umbise, and Ububenga.