This week, OneVillage Partners’ intern Alissa explores the backbone of Pujehun: Agriculture.
A few days ago, my fellow intern and I visited Sao Allieu’s farm (Aaron’s host father, a big, strong man with dark skin and an aura of strength and charisma). Sao took us down a narrow bush path, through swamps, grasses and ant lines.
First, Sao showed us some rice fields. Each field contained a tent with roofs made of thatch that they call their farmhouses, where they can rest, clean and cook. In some of the fields the green, grass-like stalk of the rice had already begun to grow. In others, men and boys were clearing the fields using machetes, and in others still women were weeding, spending all day bent over to the ground with tools in their hands. Many of the women had young babies and children tied on their back with cloth to add to their burden, but they were all cheerful when we stopped by and very nice. We were also able to see a woman de-husk the rice, pounding the rice (henya or henja in Mende depending on who is speaking) and then throwing it into the air and catching it with a basket to separate out the husks (they call the basket fele in Mende).
Sao then took us through a palm tree grove, which can be found all throughout the bush. He explained that the tall trees are the ones that grew naturally, whereas the short, stockier ones are those that were planted by humans. He said that the seeds have slightly different tastes. In the palm trees, men were sitting high up, cutting down the palm oil seeds. To do this they use a sling-like instrument (called a bali in Mende), that they wrap around the tree and then shimmy up. With nothing to catch them, it is both very dangerous and very impressive. Sao gave us some unprocessed seeds to try. They have a soft shell that you can bite into, which causes oil to release into your mouth as you bite into its stringy core. Sao said when they had harvested enough of the seeds they would process them, turning them into palm oil.
He also took us past ground nut (peanut) fields, maize (corn) fields, pepper bushes (Pujehun means “where pepper grows too much” in Mende) and a cocoa tree grove (which they harvest from in October-December). Sao also showed us yams (which are huge and look and taste like potatoes) and gave us one for dinner that night. We had the yam and a chicken for dinner, which was a bit expensive but tasted so good after days of fish as our only protein and rice as our only starch.
Sao also cut a pineapple for us. They grow everywhere in the bush, you just have to cut them off the plant (they then replant them by burying the head of the pineapple). They are super sweet and very good, my favorite thing here so far (here they aren’t sour at all, basically just a source of sugar that is also refreshing). Actually, all the fruit here is tasty. The mangos, bananas and pineapple are much more flavorful and sweet than anything you can get in the U.S. Mango and banana are in season right now and are absolutely amazing. The best part is that we often get fruit, especially pineapple as a gift from the villagers, which is very nice of them. The wonderful thing about the food here is that you know it is always fresh, whether it is the pineapple or the starch, slightly sweet cassava root. Another favorite of mine is the peanut butter (which they call groundnut here), which is smooth (I prefer that over chunky), organic and extremely tasty (people pay big bucks for this stuff in the states!).
A day ago Sao again took us to his farm to see the palm oil processed on a large scale. Sao first unloaded two steel drum barrels of palm seeds (tuwei in Mende), which had been boiled the day before, into a large tub made of stone and concrete built into the ground. He said if processed right, two drums produce about 10 gallons of oil (filling two 5 gallon containers). Then another man arrived and began mashing the seeds into pulp with his feet. He did this using a particular technique. Balancing on two long sticks, he used his toes to pull the seeds together and his heels to crush them, with quick and powerful strikes. He moved in a backwards run/walk to do this, balancing on the sticks. “In the west you have machines to do this,” said Sao. “Here we are the machines.”
The crushed seeds let off a sweet, lush, distinct smell. With one man working, the mashing took over two hours. Then the men left and the women and children arrived. They clogged up the drain with stones, used palm oil pulp and mud and then filled up the tub with water (I helped in the water bucket chain). When it was filled, a woman got in and began straining the pulp, as well as shifting out the seeds that hadn’t been smashed (using a basket) to be smashed separately and added in (so every drop of oil possible is collected). As she did this an orange/foam layer collected on top of the green water (this unprocessed oil is called gborteh in Mende, which is pronounced like bor-te). The women carefully extracted this top layer and then boiled it to remove the impurities, creating the red palm oil (gulae in Mende). This was an all day extraction process. While the women did this, the kids played in the sandy dirt, drawing pictures and making sandcastles, which was comforting to see.
That is just a taste of the bush experiences I’ve been having here. These people work incredibly hard for long hours in the African heat, with many of the men not returning till after 7:00 in the evening. I’m often exhausted just watching them, doubly so whenever I try to help out. I am always surprised when they come back from farm and still have the energy to cook and talk and stay up anytime past 8:00. Their daily strength (both physical and mental), resilience, and commitment to their work and their family are truly inspiring.
Till next time,