Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Solving the Conundrum of Poorly Planted Fields

"A visitor is a guest for two days. On the third day give him or her a hoe."

-Swahili proverb

For a long time I’d been trying to solve what I termed to myself the “Conundrum of Poorly Planted Fields.” When in Mozambique working with CLUSA, I wondered why nearly all soybean fields had been planted by farmers just scattering the seed, leading to poorer yields. Economically speaking, the poorer you are, the more willing you’ll be to trade time for money. Thus, wouldn’t these farmers, who have much more time than money, make every effort to plant correctly to maximize yields? Seeing the poorly planted fields, the only logical answer was, they’re lazy. But I didn’t believe them to be lazy. Hence the conundrum.

The simple answer is that there’s a certain point where the amount/difficulty of work outweighs the additional financial benefit. Though I thought this to possibly be the case, I never really believed it until I did the work on the farm myself. I suppose I was holding them to a higher standard than myself. This became evident when I got to try my hand at their work:

  • Checking and setting traps: on a couple of mornings we went around checking both water and ground traps for any catches. This required us to trek through the woods and wade through the swamps to find Togbah’s hidden traps. A few crabs were all we came up with during the two weeks, which we ate shells and all.
  • Weeding the bitter ball crop: this was absolutely back-breaking labor. What I initially thought would take me a half day ended up requiring two days. I had the help of a few of village kids, about whom I inquired why they were not in school. No real reason. (Bitter ball is a tiny eggplant with a self-explanatory taste.)
  • Building a rice kitchen: when families harvest, they have to store it to eat it later – most people don’t commercialize, since the quantities usually aren’t that enormous and trying to fetch a good price when the markets are flooded is pointless. So, a stilted structure made entirely from wood, vines, and palms is constructed to protect the rice from rain. This required Togbah and me to collect and form together a wood structure entirely with without nails. Huge market opportunity for nails here, I’m thinking.
  • Brushing: to brush means, essentially, to clear brush. On the face of it, chopping away at grass is no problem, until you realize that there are thorny vines and sawgrass that rip away at your hands (or my hands…theirs were hard as rocks). By the end of it, gripping a cutlass with hands covered in razor thin cuts was less than enjoyable.

But by far, the most intensive – primarily since we didn’t finish the rice kitchen – was making the charcoal. During the building process, the rain started to pour, and the rest of family retreated inside. What took us an entire day to build, the charcoal pit – a pile of wood, dirt, grass, and palm – was lit to slowly burn over the course of two days.

Once the burning started, our work wasn’t over. You have to closely monitor it all times so that it “doesn’t spoil”, in Togbah’s words. This meant that he, Game, and I had to sleep in the kitchen – an all-thatch structure about 7 feet x 5 feet – to check the coal every few hours and watch for “rogues” (Liberian English) trying to steal the rice, which I’ll talk about later. The bugs living in the thatch bed combined with the rain dripping through the ceiling cracks didn’t make for a pleasant sleep.

It wasn’t until that night, in the middle of my dinner of dry rice, that I found out it was Liberia’s Thanksgiving Day. The contrast to the American Thanksgiving experience and even the urban Liberian’s Thanksgiving experience is striking. As I settled into bed, we could actually hear blasting African pop music from the nearby city. Togbah said to me, “And you see how they are enjoying?”…”Do you think, if I was having money, I would be sleeping like this?”

Ironically, on a day that should be for acknowledging what you have, the poor are reminded of what they are without. It doesn’t seem, for most of them, it’s for lack of effort.

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