Over the last few weeks I have heard “Site Three” mentioned a lot in office conversations and at first didn’t know where or what it was, but had the opportunity to find out first hand this week. From the office talk it sounded as if Site Three was important because the name cropped up quite frequently and Department of Agriculture staff were obviously spending some time planning work there, and two of the new John Deere tractors which have recently arrived from India were also sent there to work. Last Friday it was announced that all regional staff were to go to Site Three the following Tuesday and Wednesday “to work for the President”, although as we had torrential rain all day on Monday it was deemed too wet and we didn’t start until Wednesday.
On Wednesday when I arrived at the office there were already several of our VLADP’s (Village Level Agricultural Development Promoters) in the yard having travelled in from their postings further afield, and by about ten o’clock (judging by the silence outside) it seemed they had all gone and I thought I had been left alone to man the office with just the three secretaries for company. About eleven however a pickup returned to collect me and two of the senior agricultural officers who were also still on site and we jumped into the back along with several others and set off down the dual carriageway towards Banjul.
Site Three is an area of land just near the airport and not far from our offices, which belongs (I think) to the state but although I believe it is a kind of state farm, it rather sounds as though not much farming has been done there in the immediate past, and in the absence of fences, the local inhabitants have been encroaching on the land. Apparently this has come to the notice of President Jammeh who declared he wanted to see it green, and as nobody questions the President there was an immediate flurry of activity as our departmental staff set about cultivations and planting of about 50 acres with maize and groundnuts. These crops had now emerged and on the first day our job was thinning out the maize plants which had been sown with a fairly basic mechanical planter and as a result were at varying spacings, and often had multiple plants growing on the same stand. I was told that the optimum spacing was about 20cm apart in the rows and instructed to thin out any intermediate plants, remove the weak ones, and leave no more than two strong plants to a stand. The day was hot and I was glad of my hat although many of my fellow workers were bare headed and we proceeded slowly up and down the field bent double, heads down, bottoms up, rather like ducks! I was also glad of the water bottle I had taken with me although nobody else seemed to have bothered and the work carried on steadily like this until about two o’clock when we could hear the loudspeakers from a mosque in the nearby village calling the faithful to prayer. This was obviously time for a break when most just sat down on the ground although several of the more devout completed their ritual washing, and turning towards what I assume was the direction of Mecca began their prayers and prostrations in the field.
I had eaten my sandwich on the move but nobody else seemed to have eaten or drunk anything until a pickup arrived about three o’clock carrying huge steaming bowls of rice which was divided up into communal bowls and topped with the usual fish and vegetables….ah, benacin! The staff were beginning to slow down, apart from the tractor driver and his colleagues who were harrowing between rows. The new harrows had not been bought to suit the row widths but by removing several of the tines it was possible to make them nearly fit although at times they also knocked out the maize plants too, but apparently it was a quicker and cheaper method than hand hoeing (the field was about 20 acres). Five o’clock came, then six, and my back was aching, but it wasn’t until nearly seven that we were told we had done enough and could go home. The following day was a public holiday (Feast of the Assumption) but we were still working and were told to assemble at the office by nine.
A cold shower refreshed and renewed me when I got home but by morning I was very sore – my thigh muscles were stiff from the constant bending, although we had been told Thursday would be an easier day than Wednesday so I hoped this would be true. The task was spreading fertiliser on the groundnut field……by hand. A pickup arrived with some bags of compound fertiliser (Chinese 15:15:15:4:40 if you really want to know. I think the 4:40 referred to Sulphur and Boron) and this was tipped out into whatever receptacles were to hand. I recognised a number of plastic mop buckets from the offices, and there were also plastic carrier bags and, as the sacks were emptied, they too were rolled down and used. In most cases two people each picked up opposite sides of the bag or bucket and walked slowly up the field sprinkling the fertiliser as they went. There seemed to be little method in the procedure and as the fertiliser was all stockpiled at one end of the field, when the spreaders ran out near the opposite end, the carriers had to walk full length of the field to refill. I suggested several times that perhaps it would be a good idea to take some bags to the far end so that when empty the spreaders could refill at whichever was nearest, but although several agreed it was a good idea, nothing was done – it seemed to be one of those jobs that has always been done this way, so will not change! Also when the bag was refilled, the spreaders did not necessarily start again at the same place they had left off, so it was a marvel to think how regular the distribution might be.
After a while the Director managed to marshal his troops by setting them off equal distances apart and they looked a bit more methodical, so work proceeded apace until the fertiliser was exhausted and a pickup had to be sent for a few more bags to finish the field. The Director then said we would go back to see what was happening in the maize field where we had been working the previous day (the tractors were still cultivating between rows) and we thought this was the end of our work, but when we arrived he announced that we had some more thinning to do as he wasn’t satisfied with the work in some places, so we set off once more bent double up the field with my thighs protesting at every step. I thought my fellow workers would be used to this sort of labour, but they too were tiring and after a while there was much muttering in the ranks (but only when the Director was out of earshot!) about how it was too hot, people were tired, it was a public holiday and we should be relaxing with our families etc, and when we got to the far end of a long field we all collapsed under the shade of a few bushes for a good grumble. Then after a few minutes it seemed as if decision had been made as we set briskly off back down the field and I thought the shop stewards were about to tell management that the workforce were walking out. In the event however any mutiny had subsided by the time we got back to the far end, or was nipped in the bud by the arrival of cold water and more tubs of steaming rice, so we sat down to feed once more.
This was not the end however, and after a brief rest we were sent down to the other end of the field to go over another section again and also to uncover any plants that had been buried by harrowing. It didn’t take long, and finally, about 5pm we all jumped back into the vehicles for a short ride back to the office; the VLADP’s began to head back out to their postings up country and I did a little desk work until it was time to leave for home.
I’m writing this three days later, and my thigh muscles are still quite stiff!