According to legend, the domestication of watermelons is closely associated with the origins of Timbuktu. The cultivation of watermelon in the desert regions of Mali is very important. The local watermelons, like others cultivated in West Africa, belong to a different typology than those known and cultivated in Europe. The fruit’s pulp is firmer and its color ranges from cream white to orange.
There are many different varieties cultivated, all of which serve different food purposes. Some are cultivated for their pulp (such as the kankani) and others for their seeds. Today, the kankani blanc and kankani rouge – which are differentiated by the color of their pulp (white and red) – are used as dessert due to the sweetness and softness of their pulp.
A third variety exists, called birkinda, which does not have an important food role for humans. It grows spontaneously, and it is known to negatively influence the quality of the kankani, possibly cross breeding. It is kept in the field just the same because it has an important role in feeding animals.
The watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) is an annual species that grows on the ground. The main local mode of cultivation uses homemade compost, and the seeds are planted together with millet and sorghum, especially in arid zones. The fields are commonly surrounded by a barrier of cut acacia branches, which block the entrance of animals that could ruin the harvest. Seed selection is entrusted to the farmers, and often to women, who know how to distinguish the varieties of watermelon and their uses (seeds or pulp). When it is time to sow, the farmers still plant a mixture of seeds.
The sowing season coincides with the start of the rains (July), though farmers living near waterways can sow until the end of September. When the water recedes, fertile lands appear. The kankani watermelon is harvested before it is completely mature. The pulp is consumed fresh or even grilled or boiled and consumed as a snack.