Ivory Coast—the land of plantation crops (including Cocoa)!

If you interest yourself with curiosity and getting better at general knowledge, you have probably read or heard about Ivory Coast and in that same line about Cocoa crop. Yes, that thing that is used to make what has been described as something that does not disappoint and is one of the very  few products that has generous amounts of both fat and sugars or something that can actually increase your chances of getting a Nobel prize—chocolate. If you have been to any store to buy chocolate, there is a 30% chance that the chocolate you bought has cacao from Ivory Coast, or 2/3rds chance that it came from West Africa. Ivory Coast alone produces more than 1.4 million tons of Cocoa every year, followed by Ghana, Cameroon and other West African countries. As a whole, this region (West Africa) accounts for more than 2/3rds of the global Cocoa output.

But having taken a long trip around Ivory Coast over two days, I have realized we need to know Ivory Coast for more that just Cocoa. This is a land of plantations—crops that can grow for more than 5 years. In early February, my friend from Benin (Rachidi), and the driver (Bleau) drove from Bouake through Yamoussoukro (the ugly A in the picture below) to Gagnoa. From Gagnoa, on the same day after talking to women’s groups who are parboiling rice, we continued to Man (this is a the name of the town, and not the sex of some ghost) and did more discussions with women’s groups who parboil rice. Never heard of parboiled rice? Check to navigate my blog you will find a post about it. After interviews in Man, we drove all the way back to Bouake.

A marathon drive from Bouake, to Gagnoa, Man and back to Bouake over two days

I discovered that not only is Cocoa famous here, but also coffee, cashew nuts (more about this later), palm trees, plantains/bananas, and rubber tree. As you drive through the countryside, you are met with not just trees, but thick forests of cashew nuts (leading producer and exporter in Africa), plantains and cocoa intercropped plantations, and rubber trees of perfect standing.

plantain and cocoa coconut
Plantain and cocoa intercropped field Coconut field

I love seeing these pictures. These site-sque images of the African farmer doing their best to feed not only themselves, but even the world in this case even though the political economy erodes their efforts, give hope of the future. Rural development to get these farmers out of poverty will not be achieved without an accompanying development and serious improvement in infrastructure. The roads that I used in this marathon are not the most ideal. Development is concentrated in the political cities of Yamoussoukro and Abidjan.

Driving along, I admired these plantations and my curiosity got the better of me. Cashews are a new crop in Zambia being tried out in one province, so I had never seen them, and I had no idea they are big trees and actually have a fruit and a nut on top (that fruitnut, let’s call it that, looks funny). So, I asked my friend and the driver to stop so I could investigate this tree, I strayed into some dangerous experiment. I love to understand things, how they and why they look like they do. I stopped and collected one cashew fruit, firstly I was told the fruit is edible, so I opened it and drank the juice. It tasted just ok but nothing to make the taste buds dance or send signals to remember a similar fruit. After, I wanted to eat the nut…you know, the way we can just open the shell and eat a peanut inside. But seeing that the shell of cashew was not opening with my hands, I went for the next best thing to open something hard—my teeth. I tried to open the nut on top of the fruit until the driver saw me and told me not to, but rather use something like a stone to crush it. Luckily, there was a boy nearby with a machete and I used that to crack open the nut. But by this time, my mouth was already feeling ‘funny’, I could not exactly describe the feeling. I just looked at the nut and threw it.

cashew tree cashew fruit
Cashew tree in the field with ripe fruit..the red dots you see Ripe cashew fruit with the  nut on top…

Back to the car, I washed my hands, gaggled and rinsed my mouth. But there was no improvement. The funny feeling now turned into a burning sensation. I definitely knew I had burnt myself with that cashew I tried to open with my teeth. We drove for another 2 hours or so and stopped to have dinner, hoping, in my case, that the food will wash the feeling away. But even after dinner, the burning on my tongue and lips continued. This did not stop all the way, even 3 days after arriving, though now it was no longer the burning but more f numbness on the tongue…that feeling you have if you accidentally sipped a hot cup of tea or coffee.

Like any modern person, I turned to uncle Google to know if I was in grave danger and my life expectancy was gonna fall below the average. Turns out am not the only stupid boy out in the the farmers’ fields trying to open cashew nuts with my teeth. Cashew nuts do not only have a plain shell outside but before the nut, there is a brownish layer of gel that surrounds them. Apparently, this layer has some poison (urushiol) that is also the same or similar to poison oak or poison ivy and is very acidic (the reason for my burning sensation).

Back to the cashew fruit, I was warned before eating it that I don’t need to take milk for the next 24 hours, as that would mix with the cashew fruit juice in my stomach and make poison. Apparently, this myth is common here and other cashew nut growing countries. I call it a myth because uncle Google seemed to suggest that it is not true. It is however plausible given how mixing a cashew fruit and milk reacts to produce a substance that is dark in colour and looks like some death concoction from the 15th century made by a lover for a straying partner.

All in all, DO NOT TRY TO OPEN CASHEWNUT SHELLS with your teeth. About eating cashew fruit and drinking milk, let me know if you try it!

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