From ‘Kufru’ to Moringa

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Plantain seller. Photo by Lina Marcela Lasso Silva

HAVANA TIMES — The recent call by Fidel Castro for people to eat moringa plants was the buffoonish version of a past tragedy. It’s as if with his ramblings he’s refusing to depart from this world without leaving us irrefutable evidence of his obstinate will to hang on.

Obviously the issue of the moringa plant, like many other natural foods, is important in a world whose resources are becoming exhausted and its population growing. What’s pathetic though is that a country is required to serve as the stage for the senile contrivances of a person who is now telling Cubans to become herbivores without bothering to ask them if they want to.

It is repulsive, and yet with that said, it’s still less onerous than when Fidel Castro made the decisions about everything.

I’m saying this because if this had happened a dozen years ago, acres of land brimming with agricultural produce would have been plowed under to make way for this “magic bush,” students would have been deployed en masse to cheerfully plant moringa and wild mulberries.

TV chef Nitza Villapol (who was alive then) would have prepared a salad with the product, the minister of Labor would have inaugurated provincial workshops on how to spin silk from the plant, and finally talk-show host Reinaldo Taladrid would have eaten a plate of moringa on the “Mesa Redonda” news program, which was indeed already in existence back then.

Perhaps one day some economic historian will calculate how much the ignorant and voluntarist schemes of the Cuban leadership have cost us – particularly Fidel Castro’s.

Maybe then we will know how much we have had to pay in wasted time over our lives, how much in squandered resources and how many unfulfilled hopes and fanciful speculations have come from a man who thought of himself as standing above his species, not to mention the hordes that followed him unconditionally.

Cowboy in the Valley of Viñales, Pinar del Rio. Photo: Liset Cruz

That is probably when we’ll perceive the extent of damage caused by the “Cordon de la Habana” (the Havana coffee corridor), by the special plans for the extermination of cattle in the search for a superior breed, by the environmental destruction of the Che Guevara Brigade, and by the schools in the countryside program, the constantly watered “microjet bananas,” ecologically damaging causeways to cays, the “defensive” tunnels under Havana, the Energy Revolution and so many other initiatives that became uncontested and unquestioned policy.

I remember one of those mini-occurrences: the massive planting of a vegetable for feeding cattle, one that was supposedly rich in protein and calories, and whose name sounded something like “kufru.”

I was a teenager back then when my peers and I were mobilized to join a “special unit” in a “mission for the commander-in-chief.”

At that time I imagined myself in the heat of battle alongside Che Guevara in the jungles of Bolivia. However, when I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere (someplace in western Cuba) I found myself stuck there with hundreds of other young men pulling up tubers.

A supervisor, who oversaw us all the time, explained the historical significance of the mission being directed by the commander-in-chief, who appeared there one afternoon with an impressive entourage.

Some of us were reassigned to planting newly plowed fields with “kufru,” while others were redirected to weeding tracts that had been already been sown with the novel crop.

They were dreadful days, since added to the usual discomforts was work that involved crawling along vast rows sowed with the little plants that were already buried under all types of weeds that had to be pulled out with our bare hands.

The only pleasant memory is that of a girl who worked beside me — or who I always tried to be beside — who with a missionary’s passion tried to convert me to the Baptist faith that she professed. And I went along so as to contemplate her unforgettable green eyes.

Two months later we completed our mission and never again did I hear a word about that wonderful vegetable – what was worse, nor did I ever learn about the owner of those green eyes.

Canasi. Photo by Agnese Sanvito

But some time later I ran into our old supervisor in an orange grove in Jaguey Grande, where I asked about the “kufru.” Languid due to circumstances, he explained that the plan hadn’t progressed because the cows refused to eat the pods. “It seems it was too bitter for them,” he said. And the cows, he must have thought, weren’t revolutionaries.

This is why when I read the twittered “Reflections” of Fidel Castro concerning moringa plants and silk worms, I thought about “kufru,” the green-eyed Baptist girl, and other details of those days that I can now hardly remember.

I’m glad that the country is now moving in other directions, and that the only consequences have been a couple of articles in the Granma newspaper praising moringa and El Comandante, in addition to a lecture on the “Mesa Redonda” by Taladrid, who it seems — like Fidel — aspires to immortality.

Still, even in the middle of all the troubles that aren’t worth going into right now, I think it’s preferable to support Taladrid praising Hindu culture, el comandante and his moringa than being sent to western Pinar del Rio Province to plant it.

I’ll let you…“draw your own conclusion.”

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation from the original published in Spanish by


21 thoughts on “From ‘Kufru’ to Moringa

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  • Obviously Fidel has made some “repulsive” comments many times before, but his adoption of moringa oleifera is a sound decision that’s backed by literally hundreds of scientific studies. He’s not very far out ahead on this, however. Many countries in Africa and South East Asia (particularly the Philippines & Nigeria) have already made huge investments in the cultivation of Moringa to fight malnutrition.

    When you said:

    I’m saying this because if this had happened a dozen years ago, acres of land brimming with agricultural produce would have been plowed under to make way for this “magic bush,” students would have been deployed en masse to cheerfully plant moringa and wild mulberries.

    TV chef Nitza Villapol (who was alive then) would have prepared a salad with the product,

    I thought “Wow, that would be great!” I understand you didn’t like the previous attempt with Kufru, but that doesn’t automatically make this a bad decision either.

  • My impression is, there are few if any Fidelistas left in Cuba. I certainly didn’t encounter any there and none can be found in the pages of Havana Times. The only ‘ista’ sentiment I saw was for Jose Marti. It was everywhere. I wished we had a hero so deserving of our respect. Once, biking to market, I passed by a house whose owner had erected a bust of Marti in the front yard that was not there when I previously went by. There was a small vase with wilting red roses at its base.

    On the way back, outside the market a young woman was selling bouquets of red roses for one CUC each and I purchased a bunch. Back at the house the owner, an older man, no doubt a youth at the time of the Revolution, was working in the front yard. I approached, handed him the roses and said, “Para José Martí”. He cried out and threw his arms around me. For a brief moment I had a hero and someone to share my hero worship with.

    I have reservations about the Cuban government but Havana Times writers express them for me quite well. I am concerned, however, that in their frustration, Cubans will lose their perspective on what they have and compromise it. There are forces out there, and I see you, dear ‘Moses’ as being one of them, that works hard at encouraging Cubans to lose that perspective. I feel a strong need to counteract those forces.

    You acknowledge that the Cuban government has achieved universal education, health care and literacy, calling it “noble”. It is more human than noble – that word implies they are niceties, not necessities. You write about the “suffering” of the Cuban people. How can it be weighed against the horrors caused by a lack of health care?

    A Cuban I talked to at a car rental agency told me, “we are told we need health care and education first and the rest afterwards.” One would have to be blind to see the rest is slow, or not coming, and I hear and read that health care and education are slipping. The reasons for frustration are obvious yet it would be extremely foolish to throw away what the rest of the world can only hope to achieve – to acquire technological junk that winds up on the garbage pile in a short period of time.

    I asked myself whilst in Cuba, being a person who values his freedom of expression, whether I would be willing to give it up in exchange for what I saw that Cubans have. More than affordable health care and education, which Canadians to a degree have, although the forces of ‘free enterprise’ are constantly laying it under siege, working to destroy the affordable aspect, what was incredibly appealing was the lack of BS (what comes out the back end of male cattle) that I encountered in Cuba.

    In place of the myriad “infomercials” that assault you at every waking moment wherever you go, there was only one source – the government. Perhaps those who haven’t experienced capitalism in action won’t know how incredibly relaxing it is to escape the constant bombardment of BS from both the business community and all of the political parties. It’s the best argument I’ve encountered so far for a single party system! BS from only one source!

    Back to the question, would I give up freedom of expression to have this? I’m certainly happy with the freedom of expression I see on Havana Times. What more freedom do you want? No government gives you freedom to threaten its existence. Is that what you are attempting to do?

  • In the same sense that you seem to admire Fidel, my answer is “none of the above”. I have never suffered from the “cult of personality” syndrome that seems to afflict Fidelistas. While I supported the initial candidacy of Obama based upon his campaign promises, my continued support is a result of his election being the lesser of evils. I do not ascribe an all-knowing, all-seeing power to Obama as many Fidelistas appear to give to Fidel. He is just a man. Fidel’s accomplishments, albeit largely beneficial to the Cuban people have come at too high a price of freedom. Universal education, health care and literacy, while noble need not come at the cost of suppressing opposition. Where is the “battle of ideas” if the opposing ideas are not free to be expressed? You have turned a blind eye to the suffering that despot and his minions have caused the Cuban people and continue to cause in order to support his utopian ideals. Lawrence W, Cubans are not free to disagree, the way you and I are doing at this moment. How can you ignore that?

  • Yes, I am a fan of Fidel based on his accomplishments and relatively minor shortcomings. Every leader has feet of clay. Or more accurately, every human being has feet of clay. I’m an egalitarian. I don’t get carried away with hero worship. Native Americans have a principle I strongly believe in – “no one stands above you or below you”.

    I am told Hitler was a vegetarian, loved his dogs and his rule was responsible for the Volkswagen – hardly enough to compensate for the horrors he committed. Fidel fervently believes in the Revolution, has protected Cuba from the horrors of American imperialism, has not benefited inordinately financially from his lengthy term – no billions in Swiss banks as far as we know – and is no where near to committing the crimes Hitler did.

    May I ask, who are you a fan of – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, the Bushes, Clinton, Obama, others?

  • Overseas folks have eaten a great deal of health items for hundreds of years that westerners are just now discovering. Wiki of course was referring to western discovery of Moringa. Fidel is definitely out in front on this. Bravo Fidel! Watch the video from the link ‘John Goodrich’ posted and we can discuss if you can pull yourself away from the infomercials.

    I diidn’t write you were a fan, only pointed out you wrote you have watched them day and night. I’ve met only a few fans – addicts who can’t stop buying. The point is, commercials are insidious, you can’t help but see them. One of the wonderful things about being in Cuba, you can escape them there!

    You are right, the only infomercials in Cuba are from government. But it’s better you are propagandised by an institution that is in charge of looking after you rather than ones whose purpose is to sell you want they want to sell, never mind if it’s good for you. That’s why you and most folks don’t like infomercials, it sells junk and spends millions making sure you won’t be able to entirely ignore the propaganda.

  • Clearly you are a “Fidelista”. Hitler had his fans too.

  • My Vietnamese neighbor would beg to differ with Wikipedia. His family cooked with Moringa more than 40 years ago and his grandparents before that he believes. I do admit that I watch too much TV, especially ESPN. But I am neither a fan of those infomercials as accused nor the ongoing 53 year-old infomercial promulgated in Cuba to sell a government that is a near complete failure.

  • Actually, the Moringa plant was just discovered in 2005 according to Wikipedia. And many plants that HAVE been around for ages, like soy, have recently been discovered in the west for its importance in nutrition. Haroldo might be excused by not having easy access to the Internet but for someone in the US, there is little excuse for ignorance of this sort.

    Watching infomercials day and night on cable TV would account for it, however, a good example of what happens in capitalist countries that bombard you with commercials wherever you turn, saturating every corner of your brain with garbage information. The process is called ‘desensitization’ – to useful information that does improve your life. There is another term that applies – ‘dumbing down’, accounting for much of the delusional thinking that goes on in the US.

  • Given some of the Revolution’s past flubs, it would be prudent to initiate scientifically controlled demonstration projects first, before going “whole hog” into backing such panaceas on a national level. Of course it is important for Cuba to become as self-sufficient in foodstuffs as possible, but it is probably best to build upon what already exists, improving that, rather than embracing some exotic solution. It should be noted that such a policy of food self-sufficiency is prudent. Look what is happening in Mexico and other Third World countries. Cheap imports of American corn has impoverished their farmers (causing many to become illegal immigrants to to the U.S. But now that the U.S. “breadbasket” is suffering prolonged and unpresidented droughts which promise, unlike the 1930’s, to turn this area permanently into a semi-arid desert, the cheap prices of corn and wheat will be a thing of the pass. Once the price on these heretofor inexpensive commodities rise dramatically–and they will–this will create world wide instability, especially in the Third World. (Mexico’s dilema is shared far-and-wide, by such nations as the Phillipines, Egypt, etc. where in the past, through speculation, the price of basic food commodities has skyrocketed, and now, through increased scarcity, they will likewise soar.
    That said, some Cubans I have observed seem reluctant to experimenting with, change and expanding their diets, even with some of the new veggies being introduced at the agropecuario markets. Then again this resistance mirrors the same phenomenon up here, where it seems related to class and education background.

  • The vitriol contained in this piece is extraordinary, referring to what Fidel has written as “buffoonish”, “senile contrivances”, “ramblings”, “repulsive”. I initially thought it was the usual contempt teenagers show for their elders, those who have the wisdom of experience that youth cannot possibly comprehend due to the lack of theirs. But, we are told, the writer was a teenager a dozen years ago, leaving him with no immediate excuse except ignorance. Other comments have pointed out the writer’s shortcomings in the knowledge department.

    Fidel was the longest serving head of state. Now he is an elder statesman. Everyone makes mistakes and when you are leader of a country, your mistakes loom larger than when you just lose out on getting to know an attractive green-eyed girl, for example. When you compare Fidel’s knowledge and wisdom with that of any other world leader, alive or dead, it cannot but take your breath away. I’m reading an in-depth book by an academic about Fidel’s involvement in biotechnology in order to establish an industry in Cuba. The non-political author was amazed at Fidel’s ability to grasp the science necessary to understand the issues. What other political leader could have done that?

    I always look forward to reading Fidel’s reflections in English language Granma and am continuously amazed at the world view he displays – not just a political world view but a planetary world view – how we as a human race are an endangered species unless we come to terms with disavowing nuclear weapons and embracing ways to come to terms with global warming.

    It seems some people reach their third decade on this planet and still lack appreciation for others’ knowledge and wisdom. Haroldo, you have much to learn.

  • Throughout the US there is always at least one cable channel which features infomercials of the next latest wonder-drug or super-food. Sometimes even during the day but always at night these promotions profess to have discovered the latest 100% natural, 100% safe scientifiically-tested blah, blah, blah. Fidel may have just discovered it but the Moringa has been around as a food supplement for ages. Here in the ‘States I watch this dribble for about a whole 15 seconds and then I switch the channel. The problem in Cuba is that they have been stuck on the same channel for 53 years.

  • Being a generally agreeable person, I’d like to agree with both Haroldo and John on this issue. When I first learned of moringa, because of Fidel’s “Reflections,” I did a little research, starting with Wikipedia and moving on from there. It is truly a remarkable plant and many countries are benefitting from its multiple uses. I’m sure it could be wonderfully beneficial, if grown in Cuba. I’d certainly be curious to try some moringa soup!

    However, given the checkered success, shall we say, of other agricultural experiments, I think Haroldo is right to be skeptical. Undoubtedly, a large-scale (translate as expensive) public education program on the benefits of moringa would have to be implemented before most Cubans would embrace a new “miracle.” And, if I recall correctly, I read a few comments that suggested consumption would be an acquired taste for some palates.

    Lots of ideas are good in theory!

  • As a Cuban, and having lived in China for over a decade, I can attest to the results of their respective leadership’s unbriddled economical experiments: both populations ended up much worse off than before after the respective attempted “trials” came to disastrous ends. It happened in China in the 50’s, with the Great Leap Forward and the Four Pests Campaign.; and in Cuba in the 60s with the Revolutionary Offensive and the Ten Million Tons of Sugar Harvest. Where willpower defied Nature and common sense, the masses paid the price. As simple as that.

  • Cuba is still besieged by enemy forces. The idea behind it is to take the island by starvation in 50, 100 or 200 years. Some live with dignity coping with hardship. Some can’t take it anymore and would rather eat enemy’s handouts. Hard to blame either. But Cubans are are the most admirable people in this world – they give so much suffering incredible hardship and still stand tall. Obviously “communism ” is a survival mode of nation under distress. Far from perfect but at least insures last stand of the oppressed. Breaks heart to see it …

  • As Mary Hopkins used to croon, c. 1967, “Those were the days, my friend//We thought they’d never end//We’d sing and dance for ever and a day//We’d fight and never loose//We’d lead the life we’d choose.//For we were young and sure to have our [or Fidel’s] way. ..lalalala, etc.” Around the time you were busy pulling weeds and planting Kufru, in Pinar del Rio, 100 km+/- to the east I was busy, near Aguacate, cutting cane (during the “Zafra de Los Diez Millones” ). (I seem to remember planting coffee trees in the Cordon de La Habana one Saturday, too.). Your experiences with the green-eyed girl certainly brings back memories. During a mid-day break I went to mail a letter to my honey back home in the States. As I entered the post-office, I stumbled upon a couple on the floor (of the otherwise unstaffed) tent “in flagrante iugulo,” and beat a hasty retreat! Whatever happened to all those F-1 cows Fidel was cross-breeding back then? Did they ever produce generations of super-cows? I think we’ve probably produced better results with our own subsequent genetic experiments. If not the “New Socialist Man (and Woman),” at least our offspring don’t seem to be as naive as we were!

  • An excerpt from Wikipedia which would tend to support Fidel’s thinking :

    The moringa tree is grown mainly in semiarid, tropical, and subtropical areas, corresponding in the United States to USDA hardiness zones 9 and 10. While it grows best in dry, sandy soil, it tolerates poor soil, including coastal areas. It is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree that is native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India.
    Cultivation in Hawai’i, for commercial distribution in the United States, is in its early stages.[5]
    “India is the largest producer of moringa, with an annual production of 1.1 to 1.3 million tonnes of tender fruits from an area of 380 km². Among the states, Andhra Pradesh leads in both area and production (156.65 km²) followed by Karnataka (102.8 km²) and Tamil Nadu (74.08 km²). In other states, it occupies an area of 46.13 km². Tamil Nadu is the pioneering state in·so·much as it has varied genotypes from diversified geographical areas and introductions from Sri Lanka.”[6]
    Moringa is grown in home gardens and as living fences in Thailand, where it is commonly sold in local markets.[7] In the Philippines, it is commonly grown for its leaves, which are used in soup.[8] Moringa is also actively cultivated by the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, a center for vegetable research with a mission to reduce poverty and malnutrition in developing countries through improved production and consumption of vegetables.
    It is also widely cultivated in Africa, Cambodia, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Central and South America, and Sri Lanka.

    Alfonso, Did you do even the minimum of research on this tree and valuable food source before you posted your anti-Fidel rant ?

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