Salt: A historically treasured commodity of ancient Africa

Stephen Nartey March 06, 2023
Salt - the timeless mineral binding traditions in Africa/Photo credit: Flickr

It was one of the most treasured commodities in ancient times. In some cultures, its presence was the glue that bound the very soul of some societies together and preserved the peace that existed among clans in parts of Africa. Though the means of getting salt today is not as laborious as it was in ancient times, its relevance in ancient history cannot be swept away by the winds of time.

Legend has it that in the pre-colonial era of Africa, the youth walked long distances to trade off commodities such as kernels and mats, and later used the proceeds to buy salt. To signify its importance, traditional rulers in some villages took on extra roles as custodians of the salt used by their people; storing the salt in locally made containers and sharing it in measured proportions when needed. This expounds the significance of salt in ancient times and highlights its necessity to life. Ancient communities with salty springs perceived the water from such brooks as a blessing from the Almighty Creator.

Today, salt may not be as scarce as it was in ancient times, but irrespective of the age or era, it remains a commodity almost every household cannot do without. Many centuries ago, it stood out as an essential component in food preparation, initiation rites, treatment of the sick, and cultural ceremonies in places like Cameroon. Some authors, including Daniel Potts, explained how salt helped some communities to develop a civilized life. In the Mande community of West Africa, salt was the emblem of social stability and sustainability, continuity in lineage, and harmony among males and females, according to Kah Henry Kam.

Invariably, the consumption of salt served different purposes for diverse communities. In some villages where vegetables were rich in potassium but low in sodium, the people relied on salt to make up for the shortfall in nutrients. Among the Chewa people, salt was used to nourish taste buds and to also protect the people against a disease known as mdulo. The symptoms of this disease include swollen faces, wrists, and ankles. It was believed among the people that a man could suffer from mdulo if his wife engaged in an illicit affair.

Salt was therefore an antidote for adultery in the Chewa community. In the case of men, those who collected salt from the mines were not expected to have any sexual contact until it was tasted to avoid contracting the disease. The importance of salt, therefore, goes beyond its consumption, and extends as a tool in regulating the moral compass of some African communities.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 6, 2023

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