Rice Paddy Fields


Three days ago, my moms and I were hacking away at the earth in the faroo and when they started singing.  Faroo time usually coincides with gossip-hour and singing about different things, but this day one of my moms started up a song about everyone’s husbands.

Bent over at the hips, hamstrings and shoulders aching, sweat trickling steadily along my forehead and nose, I matched the whacks of my hoe to the rhythm of their song.

About a minute in, my mom stops singing and looks at me: “What’s Hugh’s last name again?”

Hugh? Who Hugh?… OOOOH! Hugh Jackman, my husband of course.  “Jackman,” (which gets pronounced Ackman by them) I replied.

“Waaaaaaaaaaaoh Ackman buno fele…” and they were off singing about Hugh for me.

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As I was flitting around my village last year, talking to every person I could about what they needed and wanted me to do during my two years as a Mandink in Fodé Bayo, one of the most common responses I got from the women in my village was to help them with the rice paddies (called a farroo in mandinka).  Specifically, they needed help with water retention in the farroo.  “Jiyoo man sii faroo-to.” they kept telling me over and over.  “The water doesn’t sit in the Farroo.”

This left me with a bit of a down feeling when I was reading over my survey results that evening.  The longing for aid in my womens’ faces as they asked me help them grow their most-needed crop flowed across my mind as I laid in bed that night.  I was nervous.  Faroos – rice paddies – these were things I knew nothing about.  Beyond that, I was a health volunteer, not an agriculture volunteer – I hadn’t even received training beyond basic seed beds and pepiniere construction.

From my first day in Fodé Bayo through today, my mothers have been the most influential people in my service and biggest supports to my ideas.  But beyond that, they are the only people in my village that are close to really knowing me.  Knowing me to the point where when I sit around the dinner fire, watching them cook that evening’s sauce and pounding onions as my menial help, they can tell within a glance at my face if I’m in a good mood or not – if I’m upset or missing the states or feeling lonely.

No one else in my village can see me the way my village moms can, and the one thing they want my help with more than anything else, I know absolutely nothing about.

I know, I know, I’m getting a bit melodramatic.  I have access to the interwebs, and libraries and tons of sources of knowledge about rice paddies and their cultivation… I really have nothing to complain about as far as ignorance goes, I know.  The thing that gets me though is the specific location of my village and our faroo there; rice paddy research and perfection has happened all over Asia, in Mali, and around India, but in the Sahel?  Not so much.  What if, after all of my research and discussion with those who know better than myself, I try some new techniques in my village’s faroo and they don’t work?  Or worse -they cause a lower yield than the previous year?

Last year around harvest time I wrote a blog post about what rice means to villages in my area; how much it means to spend three back-breaking months working on one field that will grow food that will hopefully be enough to feed you until the next harvest, but rarely ever is.

Ok, I’ll settle down.

One of my village moms leading the way to our faroo. The tools shes carrying are the hand-hoes that we use to till the land.

What I am doing this year, is working with two of my sisters on our own little field in the faroo.  There, we will construct burms, or small barriers made of weeds, dirt, and other organic materials found in and around the faroo.  Once constructed,  these will act as small walls, causing water to stay in among the little burm patches in our rice field, instead of flowing away other lower-lying areas.

This sounds simple, I know, but you must consider the sand of the Sahel before throwing too many judgements my way.  The earth here turns into rock between rainy seasons.  Sure, you many be able to scratch away a few areas of top-dust, (top-dust, not soil), but once you try to hack deeper than 2 inches, you must grab a pick and whack away at the earth as if you were mining in a cave.  Really – the earth here is that dry and strong. Knowing this, it is then easy to understand how the first rains simply roll over the top layers of the ground, only settling to  seep in the areas of low-lying land once they can flow no further.  In creating burms, we will hopefully keep this water that would previously roll on by, in our own little patch of land so  that our rice crop is more plentiful than last year.  Simple, I know, but it’s just step one.

One of my village women hacks away at her future faroo - the tilled land behind her is a resutl of six hours of labor.

Burm construction has yet to begin this year, as we are in the tilling-stage of the land.  If you want to imagine this back-breaking work, than picture this: the sun is only 98 degrees but the humidity is at 99%.  Four acres of land stretch out before you, hardened from nine months of cold and dry weather, waiting to be broken up so that you may attempt to get anything to grow from the land. All you have to plow this land is a simple hand-hoe – a wooden stick about a food long with a wide, flat metal piece shoved into the top end.  Bending over fully from your hims, you swing your primordial tool high above your shoulders and crash it down into the hard earth. Chip. Chip. Chip.  Flakes of black and red earth flick up in your face, as your single blow reaches only three inches deep – not deep enough for you to actually plant anything.  Deep breath, swing high, WHAM, the hoe strikes the earth again.  Five inches.  Pausing, you glance up at the three other women working on their own five-foot wide areas at the same pace as yourself.  In twenty minutes, you will have all moved only ten feet forward.  Good progress, but as you gaze out over the acre of land you must plow, it seems but a wisp of earth in a massive terrain of labor.

That is what I’ve been doing with my moms the past few weeks. If the rains begin to cooperate, we will seed soon.  Thankfully, among seeding, weeding, and harvesting, nothing carries as much pure labor as hoing the land does, but I’ve never seeded before, so I may be speaking too soon.  I keep you updated.  Hopefully burms and a higher rice yeild will fit somewhere in all of this.

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Well area before rainy season
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Well area post rainy season

The other morning, I ventured into the high grasses of Fodé Bayo’s farroo (rice paddy/field) with one of my village moms to help her harvest rice.  Armed with two small knives, a bowl and a bucket, we made our way to the farroo.  Being before 10am, the sun wasn’t as heavy as it had been the day before, nonetheless as we walked through wandering village goats and cows and between 7ft stalks of corn, sweat started trickling down my back and hairline.  Pausing at the well before we hit the rice fields,  I was amazed at how different my village looked since April when I arrived. What once was dusty field with grass that grew to our ankles, was now an oasis of foliage, vines, insects and birds.

Wary of snakes and spider webs, I wandered through our seasonal jungle while my mom did some quick laundry at the well.  Being so far from the road, soap is a rare commodity in our village, but Diara (village mom #1) managed to beat  out any dirt from her skirts.  Her skirts swung high above her head, then smacked down on the lingering crumbles of cement around the edge of the well.  After laying the clothes out to dry on some of the sturdier weeds, we continued onto her plot of the farroo.

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Diara by her first harvest

“The rice is not good this year,” Diara told me as we walked.  “The water did not sit in the farroo well and the rice that grew is not always good. Look,” she said, grabbing a nearby plant.  The top of the rice stalk where the actual rice should have grown was nothing but parched, brown shells, empty of any food for us to collect.  It seemed as if the dead rice stalks were taunting us; from afar, the dead plant held the appearance of a rice plant ready to be harvested.  After four months of labor: endless hours of preparation, days of seeding, weeks of weeding, it was clear how much of that work had been in vain.  Rubbing the crusty, empty shells between my fingers I cringed at the thought: this is the food we’re supposed to survive off of all year.  Looking up, I saw Diara watching me from a few feet away.  “Come Ñamoo. My spot is over here.”

Diara’s portion of the farroo sprawled beneath one of the wide and tangled trees that seem to grow all over Senegal.  Throwing her bowl and bucket down,  Diara bent over double and began cutting the tops of the rice stalks. Watching her technique, I settled into a rhythm with her. Knife blade in right hand, pinch upper part of the stalk between blade and finger, pull up quickly, move rice to left hand, repeat. We pulled and cut until the bowl was full of rice to be shelled and pounded, then began filling the bucket.

As I moved through the hip-level stalks of rice, I was acutely aware of where I was stepping; a few stalks had fallen over in the rainy season’s

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Diara cutting rice

wind storms, so the ground was littered with rice to be harvested.  Bending over to pick up a few grains, I could not stop thinking about the fact that the food I was collecting was to sustain us through the next rainy season.  Continuing along, I came across more stalks with empty shells. “Ugh,” I thought. “I wish I knew how to do something about this!”

“Ñamoo, your hand is hot! You’re cutting rice so quickly,” Diara said, throwing her handful of rice into our bucket.  “No, no, I am not fast. My hand is cold.  You cut rice season to season and I have cut only one.  My hand is cold,” I replied.  This is our way of teasing each other.  Pointing out the obvious in the opposite is how I like to think of it.  The game continued. “Diatta!” Diara screamed.  (Diatta is the last name of the chief’s wife who was harvesting nearby.) “Diatta! Ñamoo’s hand is hot. She is cutting rice so quickly, come look.”  I could just make out Diatta’s blue headscarf as her head popped up, looking in our direction. “Really?!” she yelled.  “No, no, don’t come, I am slow.” I hollered back.  And so on.  Cutting rice for hours in the African sun can get tedious, and we all take to amusing ourselves with teasing banter shouted across the fields.

As lunch time drew closer, Diara announced that our bucket and bowl were full enough. Balancing the bowl on my head, and placing to bucket on hers, we trekked back towards the well to retrieve her laundry.  My stomach growled

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Bucket full of rice, collecting laundry

at the thought of our lunch bowls.  Wandering ahead, the tops of Fodé

Bayo’s huts began to come into view over the towering ears of corn.  Some rice in the bowl shifted as I hit some uneven ground.  Normally, I would take these walks as an opportunity to practice balancing things on my head without having to hold on, but the contents being what they were, I kept on hand perched on the edge of the metal rim as we walked towards home.