Alligator pepper is a spice obtained from the pods of Aframomum melegueta (and some closely related plants in the same genus), a member of the ginger family. The plants reach a maximum height of a couple of meters and have narrow, elongated, bamboo-like leaves. The flowers, reminiscent of pink lilies, produce oval capsules containing a variable number of seeds surrounded by a white and gelatinous pulp. These grains are reddish to purple or nearly black. In the language of the Mende (one of the two most numerous ethnic groups of Sierra Leone), these grains are called porni gijei or kijei nyeinyei.
The men and young people of the villages collect the pods, while the women dedicate themselves to the removal of the seeds from the pulp. The seeds are then placed on leaves and left to dry in the open air. Once dried they are tightly wrapped inside the leaves and sold at local markets or taken home. The product is very rich in essential oils and the smell is reminiscent of ginger, but also cardamom. It is, thus, often used as a substitute for these in food preparation. It is also used to flavor stews and often a few grains are added to a traditional drink made from kola nut that is offered to guests. Among the elderly, the grains and pods are used as remedies in traditional medicine due to their antibiotic and antibacterial properties. This spice also has a strong symbolic and traditional value: When a man takes a wife, he must plant the seed in the ground around the house, accompanied by his semui, the the brother or sister of the bride. According to popular belief, planting the seed alone would lead to death. During harvesting the pod is stored and processed with extreme care, so as to prevent any seeds from falling to the ground. Although this plant is widespread in the tropical belt of West Africa, the area in which it grows in Sierra Leone, near the Rainforest Gorge, is at great risk: In the last 10 years the country has lost a significant percentage (17%) of its forest habitat, including the primary forest. The main causes of this deforestation are intensive agriculture and illegal mining. Beyond that, in rural communities one of the biggest concerns relates to the loss of knowledge of forest products among new generations, as young people often migrate to the city.