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Seeing mielie in milpa – a territory that intergrows

Milpa can be seen as part of the resistance of the landscape against the monocultural maize fields that fuel neoliberal profit-driven farming.

Published November 7, 2022 | 8 minutes read

Maize, corn, mielies, food we grew up eating from our morning cereals, our daily snacks to our evening meals. An additive used in most processed foods, even our industrial breads are more maize than wheat these days. Maize feeds chickens and cows in massive lots, a factory fibre for factory feeding schemes, even if the animals may not digest the kernals so well. Maize moves beyond food as it is used in biofuel and various other industrial applications. Maize seed has long been captured by industry, commoditised through genetic modification, Plant Breeders patents and held in rigorous test sites behind high fences and deep security, criminalising the use of the seed outside of the domain of its intellectual property. This commodification inherited through colonial conformity, destroying the relationships brought about from centuries of commonage.

Maize has become so much a part of our fabric, of our origin stories, our recipes and our memories that many cannot even remember a time when maize was not here on our continent, maize having Africanised its roots and becoming synonymous with every meal, like rice used to be or before that, millet or sorghum. Maize is the prize crop and often receives the prime real estate with higher allocations of water and the best soils than the other grains in the mixed fields. It soon became understood that maize was indigenous to Africa, even with its high maintenance needs and always needing extra support and resources.

Maize was born and grew up with thousands of years of familial development with people in Mesoamerica, not Africa.  Centuries of breeding and selecting cobs and seeds to perpetuate seed stock for infinite years in the future.  Tracing back into the past, the closest ancestors maize is recognised to have are the wild teosintes, their thin, short ears are closer to what we recognise as grass as opposed to the plump and swollen cobs of maize or sweetcorn we are so accustomed to, yet many seed libraries carry both varieties, ensuring the wild teosinte is never far away to continue crossing natural adaptation and evolution into the bred strains we are so accustomed to. Teosinte growth is wild, bushy, voluptuous, their flower thin and not as pronounced as their foliage. Maize, however, stands tall and erect, focusing energies on producing seed as opposed to lush leaves and green growth. Perhaps the leafiness alluded to potential liquor hidden in juices of stem and leaf, needing people and invisible yeasts to conjure great alchemy.

Taking out the kernels of the word teosinte, we see teo is rooted from the Nahuatl word for god, teotl, and cintli as ‘dried ear of maize’, teocintl which then morphed into teosinte some centuries and colonisations later. Teosinte is also known in some places as abuelo, grandfather, a grandfather grass that continues to pass on boundless descendents. This ancient grassy maize has been continuously cultivated and has many faces; flint corn, maize corn from central america, sweet corn from the north, popcorn from further south. Short and thin, square and flat, raindrop round, some hooked, all maize in all iterations.  Colours ranging from white, red, black, blue, yellow, orange and in Peru as if someone has taken a toothbrush and flicked purple paint on lilac kernels. Mesoamerica is the home of maize and the heart of the Zea family. We know borders are illusory, to say one type of maize originates from one country can be misleading, but as a family, Zea resides in a great distribution, all cousins, some distant, some close.

In Mexico, maize is the people and the people are maize, maize is consumed at every meal in many ways.

In Mexico, maize is the people and the people are maize, maize is consumed at every meal in many ways. From cool and sweet atole, an almost milky hot drink which is delicious with oats drunk especially for breakfast, or champurrado which is similar but with chocolate, elotes or esquites with their spices or condiments, tamales with maize as pastry wrapped in corn husk, to maize as bread like tortillas or quesidillas, and fermented into tesgüino as sacred beer further north. Maize is eaten throughout the day, every day for centuries, the ultimate staple food. Maize is the people and the people are maize.

An especially delicious delicacy is huitlacoche, a fungus that inhabits some maize and engorges the kernels transforming their colours completely, morphing them into something that looks almost animalia. The fungus takes on a gray hue and when cooked and darkens as if the maize was cooked with ash. This is a pivotal moment in the relationship of maize and people, in industrially grown maize this would be seen as a huge loss, huitlacoche is sprayed and controlled, defeated, destroyed, denied.  In Mexico it is sought after as a speciality but this did not transfer with the seeds as they left their ancestral homes. This kernal of knowledge becomes a ghost clinging to the plant but always being denied when it shows its gnarled nature in the cob. Corn smut is how it’s known in english, smut bears layers of meaning to be filthy, obscene, shameful, frowned down upon, kept hidden, mostly suppressed and it is a condition that is monitored like a hawk, a war to be set upon the fungus, fungicides and biopoisons at the ready – the ghost is never allowed to possess but must remain an ever haunting possibility.

It could be that maize was imported into Africa in the 16th Century through Portuguese colonial movement but this is not certain and it could have come earlier perhaps by Arab travellers. Maize was quickly adopted and spread throughout southern Africa, with broad linguistic heritage but only the seed itself was shared, or at least the only part of the story that remained, the ghosts persist and linger. You see, maize comes with an integral culture in Mesoamerica, it is only because of maize that the creation of humanity was successful, maize is the people and the people are maize. Maize is not in singular guided by a singular god or even binary as masculine or feminine (as its botanical understanding would lead you to believe). Maize is grown in the milpa, never alone, never without beans and pumpkin or squash or chayote or avocado or sweet potato.

The milpa is a way of being with the land, of encouraging nutrition of soil and people.

Milpa is the field of maize so ubiquitous in mesoamerica and became known as the Three Sisters, namely maize, squash and beans all able to intergrow, maize as dappling of shade and upright growth for climbing beans or other plants, the squash covering the ground and all plants working with each other. Maize is hungry, it quickly depletes the soil if left to its own devices in monoculture and will not succeed past a few generations, the beans and squash ensure constant replenishment, not just nutritionally but within their agroecological environment, the insects, micro-climate, invisible microbia or waters. The milpa is a way of being with the land, of encouraging nutrition of soil and people.

The milpa is thus the extension of maize, or perhaps seen not as separate, it is not male, it is not female, it is both mother and daughter, father and son, child and guardian, entwined in body, spirit and identity. Milpa is sovereignty, without milpa there is no future and no past. Milpa is part of the resistance of the landscape, the seed has been taken care of for thousands of years and defending the seed is about defending the territory.

The closer you travel to the the illusory line that separates the United States from Mexico, the more contaminated maize is by the monotony of monoculture and genetic modification. Also, the less you see the milpas. And here on the continent it is the same, this dichotomy of ultra diveristy and milpas, compared to vast industrial monocultures of genetically modified fields, millions invested and whose influence can be seen filtering into even the smallest of villages.

Could it be because of vast uptake of agriculture as seen by the agro-industrial complex and the rapid movement of the Green Revolution in Africa that we don’t often see the milpa in the fields that dot this land?

Could it be because of vast uptake of agriculture as seen by the agro-industrial complex and the rapid movement of the Green Revolution in Africa that we don’t often see the milpa in the fields that dot this land? I began to ask farmers from urban centres to rural landscapes about where they inherited the passion to farm, and without much prodding they would share stories of their grandmothers who used to plant these plants together, mostly grandmothers, sometimes grandfathers. These same children who grew up to be farmers in the cities with maize rotating in the fields but not grown amongst other seed.

And locally, here in Africa the recipes that fall from these cobs hardly see the most vital process that renders the maize more digestible, more delicious and with the potential for even more recipes. Nixtamalisation is the process of cooking the kernels in alkaline solution, usually using kalk (slaked lime) or ash which softens the kernels to be easier digested and more nutritionally available. Nixtamal brings recipe possibilities such as pozole, a stew or soup using whole nixtamalised kernels called hominy, but mostly nixtamal allows a glutenesque pliability that makes masa which is the dough used to make tortilla.

In South Africa we suffer a similar maize to the “gringo maize”, maize without milpa, maize without nixtamal, maize without huitlacoche, maize without story from across the Atlantic, maize who is not allowed to grow different to his sister, maize forced into conformity, uniformity, concocted in laboratories and vast tracts of sterile land. This way of maize became a bastardisation of where maize originates and now is the most common form of maize available. Genetic modification of maize is perhaps the height of corporate control, above the state and above government. It is added to most foods processed in its many forms through the agro-industrial complex as thickeners, additives, bulkers, flavourants and so on. So even if you are not eating maize, it is within the foods that come pre-packaged and often cannot be avoided. Thus a country like South Africa, similar to many southern African countries, consumes maize as a staple too even if you are not eating maize from the cob. Stories of origin often weave their way through us through myth and legend, the inherited stories told through the generations, the story of maize in Africa is no different. So yes, perhaps it traveled with the colonisers, perhaps it travelled with travellers, perhaps it is true that an African variety of Zea mays existed closer to the north and began to be cultivated, and perhaps this was closer to wheat than what we see as maize – but these stories have been mostly diluted.

Maize arrived before the Dutch colonised the Cape and was cultivated freely, already with name mielie most likely from the Portuguese milho, travelling through from the east via Mozambique. From milho to mielie, mielie is a creole word that has endured. It seems impossible that maize arrived incognito, of course it came with story, maize is people. And perhaps it arrived with nixtamal as it is a process that existed here too, perhaps it did arrive in milpa but as a mixture of seeds. Maybe this practice was killed during the genocides that were carried out during colonisation, ensuring epistemicide.

Neoliberal policies have come at great sacrifice to many peasant farmers, recognised custodians of land and sea, where local systems of economy were devastated as multinationals and larger corporates were able to control the trade of maize and other crops.

Maize is the ultimate Mexican food of resistance, the campaign saying, sin maíz no hay país literally means “without maize, there is no country”, the country symbolising the people of the land who continuously work for months to ensure there is nutritious food grown and defended from nutritious lands, using methods that are not written down or documented but something that is so entrenched within the community.  Mexico, like South Africa, has suffered greatly at the introduction of neoliberal policies that govern the government’s and trade within and out of the lands nd both countries continue with hundreds of years of resistance. These neoliberal policies have come at great sacrifice to many peasant farmers, recognised custodians of land and sea, where local systems of economy were devastated as multinationals and larger corporates were able to control the trade of maize and other crops.

This change also happened at the seed level where maize became conformed to fit industrialised methods of farming, highly mechanised with seeds only able to grow with additional chemical input like herbicides, fertilisers, fungicide on huge tracts of stolen land. Generally these seeds are ultra hybridised and genetically modified to be able to survive herbicide.

This seed was forced to trade out its inherent nutrition in order to become conformed in this way. Speaking to thousands of years of traditional breeding means seeds bred to adapt to hyperlocal conditions, seeds grown with specific recipes in mind, seeds cultivated for feeding families meals that satiate for hours. Stories of maize drinks drunk in the field while harvesting that is enough to keep tummies full for the day. This is not the story we hear in South Africa, the maize bought and consumed does not have the nutritional bioavailability it once had. Hunger has worsened and has become a common struggle, where even those who are obese experience hunger and malnutrition.

Maize is the people and the people are maize, this is not just true in Mexico but has global repercussions and implications. Seeing it from an African perspective grants us new commonality with the land from which maize originates, the land and her people. Reclaiming maize from conformity, homogeneity and industry to be freely adapting like it calls to be, is a reclaiming of knowledge and ways of being, working from the seed and land to begin connecting nutrition, family, narratives, grounding for solidarity and enough fertile ground for new seeds of hope. In times of climate crises there is much to be said for commonality across the oceans and borders where maize becomes a connection to solidify our solutions and sovereignty.

Issue 02 - Territories of Transition cover image