The Garden Toothbrush

How a traditional vegetable is helping bring healthy smiles to displaced families in northern Nigeria

8 May 2017, Maiduguri - African eggplant lives up to its name: as it grows it bears white, oval-shaped fruits that look just like eggs before they ripen and turn green.

It is one of the vegetables grown by farmers displaced by Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria who are participating in an FAO project to kick-start local food production. Here, this traditional vegetable is known as gorongo and it is an important social ingredient as well as a nutritious one.

The raw fruit of the gorongo is often chewed by women to clean their teeth.  The fruit is also eaten as part of marriage and naming ceremonies.

Supporting displaced families

Violence related to Boko Haram has spilled across the Lake Chad Basin and is affecting Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger - with devastating effects on food security and livelihoods. Some 7.1 million people are now severely food insecure across the four countries, and an estimated 2.5 million people are displaced.  

In north-eastern Nigeria, near the Borno State capital Maiduguri, FAO is supporting displaced families to grow their own food so they can avoid slipping into long-term dependency on food aid. FAO's work is funded by Belgium, the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, the European Commission's European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), Ireland, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland.

Farming women say they are cultivating dignity

On a recent visit to an FAO-supported dry season vegetable production site, FAO's Director-General José Graziano da Silva met a group of women working together in a field growing gorongo among other crops. FAO provided seeds for vegetables such as cabbage, while the women were able to source the gorongo seeds themselves.

The women are survivors of Boko Haram attacks on their villages, and are the sole providers for their families.  
One of the women explained that using the gorongo to clean her teeth was a way to restore a sense of dignity and to bring healthy smiles to her and her friends.

It is also a promising sign that the women are no longer in extreme crisis mode and that they are hopeful of regaining their self-reliance. 

is a useful plant for small-scale farmers because it bears fruit continuously and can produce an abundant yield even from a small plot.

Thanks to their own hard work and the support of the project, the women have been able to grow a surplus of vegetables that they can sell to earn cash to cover their needs beyond food such as health care and education for their children.

A taste of home

The African eggplant originates from Central Africa, and has spread to other countries, particularly in West Africa. Other local names for the vegetable include gauta, yalon bello, igbagba and nakati. It belongs to the Solanum family and is related to eggplant, tomato and potato.

The fruit can be eaten raw, boiled, steamed, pickled, or in stews and the leaves are often used in soups. To make a stew, the eggplant is boiled then mashed, then added to a pan with oil, onion, cooked beans and chilli flakes.

Apart from oral hygiene, the plant is used in traditional medicine to treat throat infections by heating and then chewing the leaves. The juice of boiled roots is used to treat hookworm, while the crushed leaves are said to be useful for gastric complaints.

Long-term plan

FAO has developed a long-term strategy for the Lake Chad region that puts emphasis on supporting refugees, internally displaced families and host communities to resume their agriculture-based livelihoods. 

The vegetables grown by the women at the farm near Maiduguri are one small part of the plan to restore peace and pave the way to recovery.

Photo: ©FAO/Pius Utomi Ekpei
FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva with a group of women who are participating in a vegetable-growing project in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria.