It’s a lean time of the year. This fact is not readily apparent to the eye, as the rainy season has set in and the landscape is lush as can be. But ‘rice’ is scarce. Harvest doesn’t typically happen until after the rains have gone, so the real abundance of food manifests itself during the dry season… beginning in November. Groundnuts (peanuts) grow in the dry season, as do potatoes and cassava. Mangoes, pineapples and others come to fruit with the beginning of the rains in May, but a meal is not considered a meal without rice… and rice is scarce.
An older man, who was hitching a ride with us part of the way back from Foria today, tentatively threw out the question… “I don’t mean to ask something foolish…” (this, by the way, is Aaron’s translation from Kuranko) “but is it true that some people, maybe from other places, can go without eating rice for more than twelve days and not die?” We replied with an explanation of how different starches (corn, cassava, potato, etc.) have become the main food in different parts of the world. All these things are present here, but to a Sierra Leonian, rice is the pinnacle food, and they cannot imagine life without it. As I’ve said, food is not even called a meal without it. Aaron unconsciously has adopted this way of thinking about food. He’ll often say to me, “Kumba / Munkapri / Isatu has brought ‘rice’” Initially, I’d think ‘rice’ hmm… ok… and only come later to realize that ‘rice’ meant chicken and plantains seasoned in a delicious sauce to go over the top of rice… or groundnut stew, or potato leaf with rice.
Some of Aaron’s friends helped assist reporters from the BBC on a trip up the Loma mountains last year. On the way up, the reporters pulled out ingredients for a chi chi dish of oatmeal… raisins, nuts, coconut, other dried fruit included… which elicited the appraisal “Bon dom boleh” (or ‘Baboon’s Food!’) from the Kuronko / Sierra Leonians of the group. The variety of food that we so highly prize in our supermarkets is not a priority here… the pinnacle of food has been found, and it is rice. Pity is extended to those who have not yet discovered it… my spaghetti is assessed to be ‘worms’ by those who see it.
So yesterday I found myself calf deep in the muck of Marah & Isatu's swamp rice farm. The project of the day was transplanting seedling rice into much larger beds, where they would be spaced far enough apart to be able to grow to maturity. A ‘company’ (or work crew) had been hired to help for the day, as this is a big project. This company was a collective of 18 secondary school girls who banded together and took turns working on each other’s family’s farms. When the family farms are not in need, the girls would hire out their company to work for another farm… for which they would each get about 1000 Leones (about $0.35) compensation. Different companies command different wages and almost all of the farmers (men, women, and children) are part of one. Yesterday was quite heavy work (by my standards) but I’ve come to understand the planting is about the ‘kindest’ of the big projects. Cutting and clearing a farm is considered the most difficult, especially if early rains set in and it is impossible to burn the farm properly in preparation. This can transform the preparation of a farm from days of work to weeks… and a ‘company’ of adult men is definitely needed.
For girls who spend much time on the farm, it was amazing how fiercely they could argue on the proper methodology of planting. To keep things lively, teams (within the company) compete for speed while planting, and this too generated much heated discussion, as it was ensured that plots were divided evenly.
Just more than half of the rice farming is still done in upland areas, though ‘swamp rice’ was introduced in the 1960’s. Upland rice can only be farmed from the same area once every 15 years because of the toll it takes on the land, so people must clear new areas each year. Swamps, on the other hand, are farmable year after year, especially if other crops (like groundnuts) are rotated in during the dry season to keep the land healthy.
Though it seems evident that forest cutting is not sustainable, some desired varieties of rice only grow in the upland areas, and further, many of the best sites for swamp rice have a more or less permanent ‘claim’ on them. People do realize that the cutting of the forest is having an impact on the clarity, quality, and regular supply of water… but it seems that they can’t yet see an alternative.
Well, this has gotten to be a lengthy email, so… I’ll send it and get to ‘bush devils’ next time. The backs of my legs are aching something fierce from my miniscule foray into the life and work of a rice farmer… a whole new market for exercise videos out here… yoga for rice farmers…