Maize Harvest

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.

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Ready to start?

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Off we go

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I was thrilled to see this chameleon blending into the maize stalks

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.

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Time for a break

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……..and a cold drink

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….or just a sit down!

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Then back to work

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.

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Traditional dress and western style mix happily together

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).

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A rest after lunch

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Removing the outer leaves from the cobs

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 drying floor

The drying floor

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!

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Site Three

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.

Thinning maize plants

Thinning maize plants

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New equipment

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Two lovely ladies ready to go home. It amazed me how they arrived each morning dressed smartly as if for a day out, spent the day in their work clothes, and then after a hard day in the field went home again looking fresh and ready for a night out. I never found out when or where they changed!

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.

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The Professor organising operations

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Spreading fertiliser Gambia style – all by hand over 20 acres

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A well earned rest

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!

Transferred!

Since I last wrote about work I have been moved from the Department of Agriculture Headquarters at Bakau and am now working out of town near the airport. I was called to the office of the Deputy Director General about ten days ago and informed that I was being posted to the Department of Agriculture regional offices at Yundum to be based there under the direction of Mr Ousman Jammeh, Head of the West Coast Region where I’m told there is “plenty of work”! My new duties began almost immediately as the rest of the day was spent with my new boss attending a meeting of stakeholders in the West African Agricultural Productivity Programme (WAAPP) whose main purpose was to present an interim progress report to representatives of the World Bank and the Spanish Government (major funding providers) on how their funding had been spent so far, and what the planned activities of the programme in the Gambia were for 2013.

I was introduced to quite a number of new faces, mostly from the Department of Agriculture and NARI (the National Agricultural Research Institute) and will no doubt be meeting some of them again during the course of the coming weeks, and I  then spent an interesting afternoon learning a little about WAAPP and the relationships between the various organisations involved, principally the World Bank, DOA, NARI, and the National Environment Agency.

The following Monday was my first day at the new office and I spent most of my time attending meetings with the Director and some of the senior Agricultural Officers. The first meeting was with representatives of a local village group to discuss support by the Department for a new horticultural project. It appears that the project has been instigated by a “new” village group, but that now that it looks as if they will receive DOA backing, two other established village groups want to become involved. The discussion seemed to centre around the provision of land for the project, and how to maintain the support of all and ensure the various groups work together without one group being dominant, although the Department would prefer to work through an existing group which already has a formal constitution and management structure, bank accounts etc, rather than a newly set up group with no measurable business record. A meeting is now due to be held with the village elders for further discussions on how to proceed.

The second meeting with about 25 local farmers, mostly women, was conducted in two languages – Wolof and Mandinka, and when anyone spoke it was immediately repeated in the other language for the benefit of those who might not understand it first time. My knowledge of Wolof is very limited and my Mandinka virtually non existent but I think I managed to get the gist of the meeting although much of the detail escaped me. It did help that I knew the agenda in advance! The meeting was in preparation for the official handover next Saturday of a new butchery at Kotu which has been supported by the DOA, and was a final planning meeting to discuss the guest list, and make sure all parties knew their responsibilities on the day – who was in charge of getting tents and chairs, who was to do the catering and for how many, how many tee shirts should be ordered etc. I will have to make sure I have a smart shirt and trousers to wear as it’s an important event and will be attended by Mr Solomon Owens (the Minister of Agriculture), the Mayor, the Paramount Chief, the Imam, local councillors, and various other honoured guests, so there will be prayers, quite a number of speeches by the dignitaries, (with musical interludes), and of course the obligatory Gambian hospitality! It promises to be a “good do” as we say at home, but I expect I’ll have to walk back to my lodgings afterwards – a brisk hour and a quarter along the beach – to burn off some calories!