Those of you who have been reading my blog regularly may remember me talking in August about Site Three, the farming area near my office where the departmental staff provided the labour for thinning out the maize and spreading fertiliser on the groundnut plants earlier in the season. I have not been down there since that day although I have heard reports about how the maize is doing, and two weeks ago it was decided that we should harvest the crop. As before, this involved a summons to all our extension staff who act as farmer advisors at village level, and also their line managers and the rest of the staff at Yundum Agricultural Station for two days work party on Friday and Saturday. I arrived at the field about 9am to find work had already begun, my name was added to the attendance list, and I was given a sack to fill.
Maize is grown in the UK for a fodder crop as silage, but in my home area at least the climate is not warm enough for the cobs to ripen so I had never seen a ripe crop and didn’t know whether we picked the cobs by hand or needed a knife to remove them from the plant, and took a pocket knife just in case. In the event it was simply a matter of plucking the ripe cobs from the plant and dropping them in the bag before carrying it to be tipped into a small farm trailer that would take the harvest to the drying floor.
That morning there were about 45 of us working away in a large group, often in pairs, or sometimes more, in which case one would carry the bag while the others picked. At regular intervals there were cries of “Botto, Botto, Botto”, as someone called for an empty sack, and the talk never ceased. Gambians are very chatty although as most of it was in Mandinka I only understood parts, but it seemed the usual mixture of ribbing your co-workers and catching up with the news, so the work proceeded apace until about 2pm when the men adjourned for prayers while I sat under a tree with a cold drink and enjoyed the company of some delightful ladies! We had been supplied with cold drinks earlier in the field – from time to time a bucket of water with huge blocks of ice appeared, and some of the ladies had been busy mixing powdered fruit flavoured drinks which they brought round in tubs with plastic beakers to dip in.
It appeared we were expecting a visit by the GRTV (Gambian Radio and Television) to film our harvest – all good publicity for the Department, but in the event they were busy covering the arrival of the Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan who was visiting the Gambia, so by mid afternoon when “lunch” arrived there was still no opportunity for my TV debut. We had been working hard and everyone was getting tired so it was with relief we saw the arrival of the chuck wagon – a pickup loaded with huge quantities of steamed rice and the associated vegetables and fish (ladyfish today which seems to have more flesh and less bones than some of the other local varieties). As usual it was eating from communal bowls – a large plastic plate about 12″ across is piled with rice and the vegetables and fish are placed on top. You sit round it with your friends on the floor eating with your fingers (a skill I have yet to master, usually ending with food all over my face as I struggle to knead the mixture into a ball with my right hand and then place it from the palm into my mouth without leaving any on the surrounding area!) The idea is that you each eat from the segment of the bowl in front of you but as I am still treated as a guest, the Gambian ladies have a habit of pushing the tastiest morsels onto my side and I am expected to eat the lot. One young lady was very insistent on passing me small pieces of fish despite my protestations until eventually I had to cry “Bari na!” (Enough/too much).
A short break followed before we began again, slowly working our way across the field. It was obvious that we could not finish the 7.5hectares in one day but we wanted to do what we could and were still waiting for the film crew which arrived about 5pm. This brought a fresh burst of activity and some of the ladies began singing as they worked for the benefit of the cameras. Filmed interviews with the Director and the Farm Manager signalled the end of work for the day and we then went across to the groundnut field where staff were filmed getting out of the vehicles – apparently to be shown as arriving to begin the groundnut harvest. More filming of interviews followed and finally we loaded up again and went down to the store yard for pictures of the cobs being tipped and some laid out to dry on the concrete.
The following day was much the same as the first one although without the film crew, and with less staff available as a number of them were attending a farmer training. However, despite the smaller team (about 30 today) we finally reached the end, completing the field about 5pm, just as our Director returned from the farmer training to give us encouragement and see how we were getting on. Good timing!