To make a farm: planting findo for Gambia’s rainy season

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I had not heard of fonio (called findo or findi here in Gambia) until I arrived here in Gambia. We actually ate it as one of our first meals during training, probably the 2nd or 3rd day in country. I later read about it in the book Lost Crops of Africa: Grains. It was a so-called ‘forgotten about crop of Africa’ seemingly because it’s difficulty to harvest and process after you grow it. Turns out it’s been grown by West Africans for thousands of years but is misunderstood by many and naively referred to as “hungry rice.” It’s actually considered a special food here, as well as in other countries, where it’s reserved for chiefs and important events and ceremonies. Nutritionally, it’s a great alternative to white rice, with more protein, fiber, thiamin and iron. I was intrigued and wanted to try growing findo as my first rainy season crop. I wanted to grow something unique, wanted to see how difficult it was to harvest and just wanted to eat more findo as well. This is arguably the first real “farming” activity I did from the ground up. I’m not done yet currently, but the findo is 3 feet tall now and we’re getting ready to harvest. Here’s how it started.

The first step was to find a spot to grow findo. This sounds easy with so much land around, the difficult part would be to clear and fence the land. We would need a fence to keep pigs, sheep, goats and cows out of the field. I learned a lot about local fence building and often thought of how lucky I was back in the U.S. to be able to drive to a hardware store and grab a post-hole digger, T-posts, post driver and rolls of chain link or barbed wire.

The first step is to get your upright fence posts. Luckily my counterpart Momodou is really good at climbing and using a machete. The cows were happy as well, helping us clean up the branches. We used neem trees for the fence – there were 100’s on the school property and the termites won’t eat them because their bitter tasting. I also thought about the amount of resources and energy put into the fence vs. the amount we would get out of the investment. Financially and calorically I’m not sure what the outcome is but it was good to really think about how energy transforms and moves throughout the different processes of farming. Should we have sold the wood we cut down for firewood? Will we harvest enough findo to make a profit for our time? How do you value the increased nutrition in our food bowls as a result of adding findo we grew? All these are good questions afforded to me by making this small farm.

findo 1

We started digging holes for the uprights first, spacing them tight for strength and to keep animals out. I soon realized how many holes and how much wood we would need to completely fence in my imagined 30 x 40 meter plot. Luckily we used the back of the garden as one wall, so we only needed 3 sides of fencing. Still, it was a huge amount of work to complete amongst our small farm crew.

findo 2

Slowly we finished the first wall. It’s rumored that old Fula men always carry a bag of some kind with them. Here, you can see the evidence of that hanging on the fence.

findo 3

Headed east with the fence. I was going to heed the pre-existing path there but I wanted the field to be bigger and more square shaped so we built over the road. No problem though, villagers soon made a new path with daily walks and donkey cart trips. Check out the PCV bike and a local bike side by side.

findo 4

My life was all about digging holes for 2 weeks. I could finish somewhere between 15-20 in the morning and then 10-15 in the evening before my hands were numb and arms were dead. I would get to the farm around 7 a.m. eat some bread, play Incubus on my speakers and go to work with the machete before it got too hot. Here I’m headed north in the final stretch.

findo 4a

We kept cutting neem tree posts and working our way around the corner. In total, we dug holes for and placed 258 uprights. Looking back, it seems crazy to try make a fence and plant findo here. I’m glad we started though, anything is possible here if you take it step by step.

findo 5

After all the uprights were in place we were only about half way done. Next up, putting the smaller horizontal pieces on the fence. We brought the donkey over to spend time in the field and get used to being there, as it would soon plow the land: the first work it would do in the last 8 months. Every day we joked that the donkey’s break would soon end.

findo 6

Most of the fence is completed and a gate is made for us to come in and out of.

findo 7

Making an experiment of our findo field. We decided to try 3 conditions: biochar (i.e., carbonized rice husks), oyster shell powder (i.e. lime), and a control space with no amendments. My hope for the biochar is that it would help conserve moisture during the inconsistent early rains, whereas the lime would help raise the ph of our acidic soil. Thanks to my friend Jon for the ideas about trying oyster shell.

findo 8

This picture came out really great! We’ve got our big African mahoghany tree in the background, covering our beehives. Then we’ve got the donkey finally working, doing a great job plowing the field! We fed our donkey lots of hay for the days leading up to plowing so it would be strong. Still, it does take a little extra motivation for it to keep the pace – you can guess where that stick in the air is going. You can also see the lime powder here on the left.

findo 9

Here’s the star of the show: findo seed. You can see how small it is and imagine how it would be difficult to de-husk, clean and cook. Thanks to Saikou and Alyssa for helping me find the seed, which came from a couple corners of Gambia.

findo 10

Once plowed, the findo is easily spread by throwing it. This is really fun to do. Thanks to Alyssa again for helping us on this day. And check out Ka’s sweet blue outfit and hat! I love Gambia because people don’t think twice about working in outfits like this J.

findo 11

After broadcasting the seed, the field is raked to help cover the seed and break up big chunks of soil. The field also started to attract canine friends, which were nice to have around as they played and spent time with us.

findo 12

I had learned a little bit of culture while visiting another farmer in Jenoi. He taught me that some people bury hot, sour or salty items in the ground as a way to protect the land from people who would talk down to or curse their farm. It’s said that if they speak poorly of the farm or wish it to fail the buried items will sting their mouth. When I told my counterpart this and that I wanted to do something similar for the findo farm he also recommended that I bury some old shoes, giving the reason that old shoes have stepped on a lot of things but never been stepped upon themselves so their good luck. I went and bought the food items (garlic, hot peppers and rock salt) from the market and my counterpart met me the next morning with some old slippers. I’m lucky that my counterpart supports all of my ideas related to farming. I am also grateful that I’ve been introduced to a deeper story about farming while spending time on Big Island. I hope to continue what I’ve learned and come up with some of my own traditions and stories. I will surely keep this one, as well as starting the seasons farm work on a Tuesday like I’ve been told by another Gambian farmer.

findo 13

I dug one last hole in the center of the field and put everything in, taking a moment to breathe and appreciate the experience. Up to this point I’d wanted to learn about and participate in local farming culture and folklore and this was my first big step in doing so here in the Gambia. Thank you goes to Saikou and Momodou for sharing their stories with me.

findo 14

And that’s it! Fence is done and we just needed rain so the findo seeds could germinate.

findo 15

Will update with most recent pictures in a future blog posts. Feel free to ask questions or comment and thank you for reading and participating with my service. Peace, -stephen

5 thoughts on “To make a farm: planting findo for Gambia’s rainy season

  1. Faama

    Nice work grasshopper ………….. check out winnowing tools on the web sometime for new ideas on how to better harvest your grain. Back in Kinde Michigan we used an old threshing machine on the farm that was belt driven by an early Ford tractor. It was about 30 feet long and 12 feet high and the elders pitch forked sheaves of fresh cut wheat and/or oats into the beast. It was a true monster machine with it’s wheels and belts whirling around and crunching the stalks and spitting out the chaff and I can still see it in my minds eye. Well you have you have a donkey and that’s a good start so go with God and Aloha to now …. Peace, Faama!

    • Thanks Dad :), yeah i need to figure out winnowing, we kinda get stumped here when there’s no wind, but waving a piece of corrugate roofing up and down seemed to work ok last time. That machine sounds great! Love hearing about old machinery, so pirmitive and most often dangerous. If you have any pics of that farm, i’d like to see them, or maybe take a visit when i’m back. thank you, and much aloha to you 🙂

      • Faama

        Aloha …….. Just google Threshing machine picture and U will C 100s of pics of them good luck with the corrugated roof ……….. kinda heavy! Try door screen on a wooden frame for better aeration through the screen like panning gold.

  2. Ok, thanks – yeah i like the screen tray idea! Now, we’re done cutting the findo and are letting it dry. Will update in a future blog, post harvest is where the real work start it seems

  3. Nice blog about “Care Packages, et al as it was fun to read about all the people who still like Yoou — OU, HU! Maybe you need a copy of the Jungle Book too? I’ll see if your old one is still around!

    Peace in the PC ………. DAD & Kathy

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