Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Models for Governance in the Rice Fields of Liberia

The primary work I came to do at the village – and by “work” I mean that I owned the dead-weight title for the duration of my stay – was rice harvesting. It was harvest time and so much labor was needed.

From a high-level perspective, the way it works is that for every day you work on someone else’s farm, they owe you a day on your farm. So you end up with about 15 or so people, whose farms you’ve already worked on previous days, assembling at your farm on one planned day to knock out most or all the field. It’s much more efficient than going on your own because you have a couple young men collecting the cut rice from behind the line of attack (see last picture), and I can attest there’s strength in numbers. (In this first picture I'm getting ready to haul the rice back to the farm kitchen in typical style - on top of your head with cutlass under your arm.)

The first day was a grand failure, as everyone showed up to Togbah’s farm, but soon after left when they realized Togbah had not prepared the ties (vines) to bind the cut rice. In following days, as I joined the team and went to other fields, I never saw anyone’s field unprepared and thus realized the blatant lack of preparation by Togbah.

But eventually it was our turn again, and Game and Esther, as is custom, prepared a big midday meal for everyone, which the workers devour in quantities I’ve never before seen. The meal is much needed because it’s tough work. Ten solid hours under the blistering sun, hunched over the rice, day after day, is difficult when you don’t have any climate-controlled refuge to return to or any Western amenities. The irony is that to cut the rice almost everyone uses the same paring knife bearing the brand name “Enjoy Living” on the handle.

As we cut, we would do rhythmic chants to propel the work along. It was usually one person leading, and then everyone chanting a complimentary phrase, with me somewhere in the background trying to sound like I was saying the right thing. Seeing as how Liberia was founded by freed American slaves, I couldn’t help but consider the unsettling possibility that I was singing along with them songs that were once sang on my country’s southern soil.

But what is most intriguing about the harvest itself is the developed leadership structure and well-defined schedule of fines for those who don’t follow the rice harvesting rules. I talked with the friendly Superintendant James Flomo about this. His position is supported by a Secretary and Solider, and as the leader, he is in charge of organizing the group and recording fines. A line leader with a whistle indicates when the group should move to a new section of the field.

The fines are rather strict – 5 Liberian dollars for talking during a song, 20 dollars for leaving rice behind you, 10 dollars for leaving the area without telling anyone. All the money goes in a pot, primarily used to help the family pay for the food and purchase palm wine that is consumed throughout the day. I took a few swigs but being the nice guy that I am, I saved the rest for them.

In a country where corruption and leadership is so poor that the president dissolved her entire cabinet save one minister, next to neighboring leaders who alter election results to their liking, this village governance is impressive to me. Why can’t policy makers take a hint from the leadership and discipline from their constituents in the village? To be certain, there is much less power at stake in the village, but my experience in the rice fields makes it seem that the raw capacity is there.

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