|Traditional Food Plants of Kenya (National Museum of Kenya, 1999, 288 p.)|
syn: P. typhoides (Burm.) Stapf and Hubbard, P. americanum (L.) Leeke, P. echinurus Stapf & Hubbard, P. malacochaete Stapf & Hubbard, P. spicatum (L.) Koem
Embu: mwere English: bulrush millet, pearl millet, spiked millet Kamba: mwee Kambe: muwele Kikuyu: mwere Mbeere: mwere Meru: mwere Swahili: uwele, mawele (plural), mwele, miwele (plural) Tharaka: mwere Turkana: erau
Description: Tall grass, usually 1.5-2.5 m (some varieties up to 5 m) cultivated for its grain. Stems often branched and in many cases several arising from the rootstock. LEAVES: Slightly hairy, long and narrow. FLOWERS: Head cylindrical, up to 20 cm long (some cultivars up to 50 cm) greenish white at first (due to styles), turning dirty yellow-brown (due to anthers) then grey as grain matures. Large amounts of pollen produced. FRUITS: Grains 1.5-2.5 mm long, greenish grey, oval and may be conspicuous or, as in some varieties, hidden by long bristles.
Ecology: Cultivated in the drier parts of Kenya and especially the Tharaka region of Tharaka-Nithi District, Mbeere and also in Mwingi where it may be a staple food. Occasionally seen in parts of Coast Province, Makueni, Machakos, Embu, Mbeere and Kirinyaga Districts. Recently introduced in Turkana District. Also grown in the drier parts of Uganda and Tanzania and many other parts of Africa. A very drought-resistant crop of the low semi-arid regions, below 1,500 m. Does well on sandy soils but can also be grown on heavy clay soils. Can even produce a crop on infertile soils. Rainfall: 400-800 mm. Best suited to Zones IV and V.
Uses: FOOD: The grain is ground into flour which is used in the preparation of uji or ugali (Giriama, Duruma, Digo, Kamba, Embu, Tharaka). Among the Kamba the flour may be mixed with fermented milk and eaten on its own (kinaa) or fermented in a gourd to a form of porridge (isandi). More recently the grain is also prepared like rice to make dishes similar to pilau and the flour for a type of chapatti. Boiled like rice in Turkana but not popular.
MEDICINAL: Grain flour in water said to be excellent for diarrhoea.
OTHER: The stalks are used as mulch and are said to improve the soil for other crops like maize. They are not good fodder. Grain is used as bird food, hence the use of the name bird millet in some shops.
COMMERCIAL: Flour and grain sold in markets in central and coastal parts of Kenya when in season. Grain and flour sold in Nairobi supermarkets.
Management: May be sown by broadcasting or in lines then covered with a little soil. Traditionally several grains are dropped at intervals of about 30 cm. Crop lines can be at intervals of 0.5-0.7 m. Bulrush millet may be intercropped with maize but in different lines. Maize thinly scattered among the millet also gives good results.
Harvesting: Traditionally the heads are cut, spread to dry out, threshed and winnowed. The grain may store almost indefinitely when well kept. Before using it, it is further pounded to remove the husks. Among the Kamba, Mbeere and Tharaka, millet is stored in large (up to 2 m3) containers (kiinga, Kamba) made from twigs and grass stalks (such as this millet). The container is smeared all over with cow dung to keep insects away. In such a store the millet can last for more than ten years. The grain is normally used during hard times.
Remarks: The cultivation and consumption of bulrush millet in Kenya (and the rest of Africa) has declined over the years. This has been attributed mainly to the tedious preparation methods involved, and lack of labour, especially for keeping away birds from the crop now that most children attend school. Surveys have shown that many farmers would be willing to return to this crop only if the bird problem could be addressed. Some argue that if everybody in the growing areas could plant the crop they would share the burden and growing it would be less risky. As the millet needs little moisture and matures fast, one is almost assured of harvesting a crop even at times of severe drought. It would, therefore, be better than maize in the drier areas.
Another millet worth mentioning is Setaria italica (English: foxtail or Italian millet, Kikuyu, Mbeere, Meru, Embu: mukobi). A traditional grain of the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru it is presumed to be native to East Asia where it has been grown for thousands of years. Now it is cultivated in both the Old and New Worlds. Culms may reach a height of 1.5 m. Due to its early-maturing nature, it is suitable for growing in the short rainy season.