UNDER THE noonday sun, Alimatu Alidu uses a stone to grind tomato, red pepper, and small crayfish into a red paste. Drops of sweat collect on her forehead, just below her black headscarf. She adds the paste along with other ingredients into a cooking pot balanced upon a make-shift stove, consisting of two uneven rocks with a small fire burning between them. Once her mixture is sufficiently heated, she adds the final element: boiled cowpea beans. Known as poor people’s meat, these faded yellow legumes with a big black dot along the curve are ubiquitous throughout West Africa, including here in Ghana.
The legume is a favorite among farmers and laborers, who consume it before work and don’t feel hungry until sundown.
Other days, Alidu prepares cowpea fritters, or koose, whipping ground cowpea and water into a batter, adding spices, then frying individually-rolled balls to be served for breakfast. She can make five different dishes from cowpea beans, which grow inside green pods up to 12 inches long.
Soon the spicy dish known as red-red is fully cooked and ready for Alidu’s 16-person family, which includes herself, her husband, their six children, and her husband’s second wife and their seven children. Together, they live in thatch huts that surround this open-air kitchen in the northern village of Zinindo.
Cowpea is a staple in Ghana and other parts of West Africa, where it is believed to have first been domesticated. The legume is a favorite among farmers and laborers, who consume it in the morning before leaving for work and don’t feel hungry until sundown. At her doctor’s request, Alidu increased her own consumption when she was pregnant, and she used the ground seeds to wean her children. Cowpea is a mainstay of school lunches in Ghana. And because the crop can be harvested within two months of sowing, it fills the “hunger gap” for poor families between May and August when other crops, such as maize, are still young in the field. And cowpea tolerates droughts, which are increasing across sub-Saharan Africa. Every woman in Zinindo keeps some cowpea in her home, says Alidu.