This will be the last post regarding my attempt to farm a staple crop here in Gambia: findo. Please see earlier ‘To Make a Farm’ posts if you’d like to see more background on the story. This post reviews the development of my idea to farm in Gambia from the beginning; from learning about grain, selecting a crop to grow, testing it, growing findo, harvesting, threshing and pounding. I haven’t eaten my findo yet but i’m sure that’ll be the easy part.
So, let’s wrap it up and I’ll show you how the story began, changed along the way and finished with a big insight of a farms hidden function.
I had little idea of what food actually was when I arrived in Gambia, much less how it was grown and processed. In my training village of Kiang Kaiaf I saw rice for the first time. My host-grandmother Talla was back from the fields and was ready to start pounding the rice to remove the husks. It was surprising to see where rice came from when I’ve always bought it in a bag from the grocery store.
I had known I was going to ‘farm’ in the Gambia, although i’m still hesitant to use that term for describing what I’ve done. I feel the terms “farm” and “farmer” are thrown around a little bit too easily these days for various reasons; I prefer to keep it reserved and a bit sacred, as the inspiring farmers I’ve met tend to do the same. So, I needed to pick a crop. I was handed a copy of a book called “Lost Crops of Africa” and found the crop ‘findo’ within the pages. Soon after, I obtained the seeds and started a couple test beds in the garden to see what findo was, how it grew, etc. I had only read that findo was ‘lost’ because of its difficulty post harvest.
Having been satisfied with the garden beds I decided that we would grow findo for my first rainy season. The land was not a problem as the school i’m volunteering at has over 100 acres. However, protection from animals was the real issue. We selected a 1/3 acre plot behind the garden and started to cut neem tree branches down to build a fence. Neem is basically an invasive tree here so nobody was upset about us cutting it down. Plus, the neem is resistant to termites so our fence would last.
We dug holes in the dry ground with machetes to place the posts in. I was able to dig 25-35 a day. We dug 253 in total. This work was difficult and my hands were shaking and numb at the end of each day. I kept thinking about the U.S. where I could drive to home depot and buy those green t-posts with the red post hole pounder. Those were the days!
We basically split into two teams – My counterparts would cut branches and walk them to the farm; I would dig holes and….dig more holes. Here you can see the findo farm starting to take shape.
After 2-3 weeks of constant work the fence was done. We nailed more branches horizontally to prevent smaller animals from entering. We finished it in time for the rains to come.
Next we plowed the land with our schools donkey.
Findo seed was a bit difficult to find but I managed to get it from two places – a Mandinka village near the middle of the country and my old training village of Kiang Kaiaf. The findo seed, and crop overall, are not common because difficulty to harvest, thresh, pound and clean it. Still, I was really excited to try it out – here a ‘lost crop of africa’ was in my hand and ready to go into the ground.
We sowed several kg of seed in our 1/3 acre plot and raked it into the ground. We waited a little bit late in the rainy season to sow, hoping that rains would come within the next 2-3 days. In actuality it took about a week to rain. I learned that “sowing day” is a tricky thing to pick out with lots of theories about when the best time is. For example: “After the 3rd true rain, you should sow your peanuts.”
The rains came and everything changed to green. Our findo had germinated and the animals were kept out by the fence.
After 3 months we decided to harvest the findo. We had weeded a couple times, removing the large weeds, but it was still full of weeds. My counterparts said that normally findo would ‘out compete’ weeds but since the rainy season was weak, with only 1-2 rains per week, that the weeds got a head start. With stronger more consistent rain the findo may have outgrown them.
We cut the findo with knives and sickles. Then we tied it in bundles and left it to dry. Harvesting the findo was interesting as you can barely see the seed and you feel that you’re just cutting a bunch of grass and weeds.
We then spread out the findo to dry. Drying the grain makes it easier to thresh – removing the grain from the grass etc.
With the findo dry we started to smash it with our feet and hands. We crushed it any way possible and used a sifter to remove the bigger parts of the grass and sticks. Slowly the grain fell on the plastic tarps – it was a great sound to hear, like soft rain. It was the moment my counterparts and I shared a look and said “there’s food here!” I could barely believe it 🙂
The findo was taken back to my house. Now that we had threshed it I now needed to pound it to remove the inedible husk. This was said to be very difficult and I had no idea how long it would take. My host family was proud of me for growing my own grain – they called me a farmer and my host mother said i’m a strong son – still, without fail they all warned me “findo is difficult!” With this on my mind and tired from all the work I let the grain sit in my house for 3 months. A part of me didn’t even want to start pounding it.
I finally began pounding the findo. I was looking at it everyday and thinking “that’s going to be a crazy amount of work.” I didn’t even have that much but I wasn’t used to pounding and didn’t want to go out and be the center of attention with 10 people watching me. Still, one day after being in the garden I started. I took the mortar and pestle out and went for it. The picture below is after pounding it once.
You can see the white grain starting to separate from the brown husks and dirt.
I pounded it again and was making small progress. Each time I would see a little bit more of the white grain. Between pounding it I would winnow it by pouring it back and forth between two buckets. The heavier seed would fall into the buck and the lighter dirt and husks would fly away. This was difficult as well and many times a strong wind would come and blow a bunch of findo right into the dirt! The ants and chickens were well fed, as findo has over 1000% more iron than white rice. No more anemia?
As I continued to pound it the findo took on a smoother look. The hard angular husks were being removed and the smooth round kernel remained. I believe it’s called a kernel but I’m not actually sure. All I know is that people kept walking pass me and said “Hey!! Findo is difficult. You are brave!” They would also pray for me as I pounded :), saying things like “May Allah make this job pass quickly!” I was with them on that! Pounding was monotonous and my hands were blistered.
Another round of pounding. You can see the findo is really coming out now. The good thing about pounding and being in a family here is that everybody wants to help you. Most times the little girls would help and we would practice counting: them counting to 25 in English and me counting to 25 in Mandinka. A few times my host moms (I have 3) would come help and they were the masters! They pounded so much more efficiently than me! I knew they’d done it their whole life. Their style was precise and heavy handed; they hit dead center in the mortar every time, very little grain shot out onto the ground and the husks came off quickly. Plus, they would show off and clap their hands in between strikes. It was a moment that I felt really proud of them and humbled: there was some kind of ancestral kinetic wisdom there, like a cultural heirloom. I was happy to see it and felt bonded with them over the preparation of food.
The findo is now looking very white. I would show the family the findo after every pounding session to get their opinion. Most nights they would say “its not clean” or “its not done, findo is difficult.” When I showed them this day they said “Hey! Mohammad can pound! Just one more time and it’ll be ready!”
Findo in the bucket and ready. I”ll put the photo from above here as well so you can see the amount of findo I brought home from the garden as compared to the volume I’ve got after pounding. The interesting thing I was thinking the whole time, and you’re probably getting this by now, is that this is so much work for what seems like very little food!
You can see the mortar and pestle covered in the white powder. Overall I think I pounded the findo 6-7 times, about an hour each time. Between pounding I would also winnow it. I ended up with about 14 lbs of findo at the end of the process. It was a relief to be done. I wanted to share it with people and ‘share the abundance’ as farmers on big island had taught me. There wasn’t a lot of abundance to share though! 🙂
Now I am looking at my ‘findo farm’ again and wondering what to grow on it. Everything but the strongest weeds has died, drying out over the last 7 months of heat and no rain. The fence remains but needs maintenance as some animals have broken it, as well as villagers chopping it down for firewood. I have a plan for this rainy season and hope to share that in a future blog.
Growing and producing my own grain was a eye-opening experience for me. It’s really helped me see the process of food production and how difficult it can be. Additionally, it’s allowed me to have a lot of compassion and admiration for those who grow their own food. I kept thinking “I would be starving if I had to grow my own food!” I’m just not that good at it yet.
When I think about all the time and effort needed to create the food i’m sure it wasn’t efficient; specifically, I used many more calories of energy to produce the food than what I got back. I worked with several others and we had to clear the land, chop the trees for fence posts, build the fence, sow the seed, harvest, thresh the grain from the stalks and pound it repeatedly. This all took nearly 1 year from start to finish as I started building the fence this time last year and just finished with the findo a couple weeks ago.
So, there’s a lot of parts of the story that didn’t go well per say.There could be lots of criticisms and advice on different procedures, fertilizers, farming practices, crop selection etc. Think about it from the standpoint of bigger, better, faster production and ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong.’ My ‘farm’ could very well be considered a total failure. I used 10-100 times the amount of calories to produce an obscure grain that people don’t like to cook, there was tons of weeds in the field, the land was infertile, my labor was scattered and unorganized, and the yields were extremely low!
So, why do I feel like I’ve accomplished so much!? Why do I feel so connected with the land, food and people? Why am I smiling and recognizing how valuable my work was? I think because I’ve learned that the value of the farm, perhaps my whole service, lies in the process.
To a large extent I’m from a history that focuses values through questions like “well, what do you have to show for it?” and “what did you get? how much!?” “Can you put it on your resume or CV? That’ll help you get x, y or z.” It’s something I’ve had to watch and keep in check – what I’ve learned is valuable – as that type of talk can be extremely restrictive in this context. You can’t really judge others on what they’ve got and achieved here because to some extent we’re all at the bottom of the barrel, everybody has nothing more or less, and it’s a relief because it makes us equal so we can go and talk and connect!
Achievement and comparison based questioning dissolves compassion for yourself, which is the last thing we PCVs need in a novel place. That is something I’m learning as I go, but it’s hard not to ‘measure’ yourself when your from the land of salaries, GPA’s and square feet. We, or I specifically, want to know how I’m doing here and nobody here will really tell you :). It shakes up your ego, crumbles your identity and you get desperate, even comparing yourself to other volunteers or self-righteously saying you’re smarter or better than the people around you. For maybe the first time in your life, you are left with a ‘self’ that’s just you, not a self as compared to others. It can be a real awakening. It’s worth repeating: it can be a real awakening! It’s been a real awakening for me. Especially if you’ve defined who you are in respect to others your whole life. The good part: through the dissolving you get to say ‘hi’ to your self :), someone, something, perhaps some spirit or soul who’s been waiting for you to notice all along.
So, to bring it back around I’m basically saying that I learned a lot through the process of making a farm. I thought I was here to farm crops for their own sake; to produce a lot of food for people. However, what I ultimately realized is that i’m farming because it’s an activity that puts me in a cooperative relationship with nature, people and my own physical and spiritual health. Sure, I have 14 lbs of organic, locally grown findo in my house; that IS cool and something to be proud of and share. Best though, I have a “yield” from the farm that far exceeds the tangible product. For that, I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and appreciative of what the farm “produced.”
Thank you for reading,