2015 harvest, mini food forest and final welding project…

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In this post I’ll show some pictures from the 2015 harvest and explain a couple of small projects completed as my service came to a close.

“Post harvest” is a term I was unfamiliar with but gained a healthy respect for while in Gambia. The post harvest in Gambia typically included multiple dryings, threshings, winnowings, poundings, and cleanings before finally cooking. The Gambians were masters at this post-harvest work and we often awoke to the sound of women pounding grain as the sun rose, a constant “thud, thud, thud.” Although I was familiar with the post harvest process from the 2014 farm season the difficult process still humbled me and gave me great respect for the people that provide themselves food without modern machinery.

I learned a lot during my last rainy season. The food forest was a big project and I was happy to see it off to a great start, with lots of planning and hard work matched by a strong rainy season. Most of our 25 big trees survived and we put over 10 tons of organic material on the 1/3 acre plot. As I transitioned out of my service the farm was left to my counterparts and the next volunteer to maintain or let nature take its course. I tightened up the protective fence as best I could and then raced to finish up last minute projects: a mini foodforest/polyculture in my compound and a final welding experiment to help with weeding.

Here are the pictures.

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This Baobab tree responds to the rains by putting on lots of new leaves. People often came to our garden harvest these leaves for food. I once saw a 60 year old woman climb over 5 meters to the leaves to harvest them with her knife.

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A view of the garden during rainy season, very green. Our bushy sunflower plants were growing strong and providing fodder for bees. Also notice the 2 water reservoirs we installed in the garden, which significantly cut down the hours it took to water our garden beds. 

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Pumpkins grow great during the rains and are ready for eating or sold to processors of vegetable oil. Each year my friend and counterpart Modou rents this land behind the mosque to grow his pumpkins.

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Our 2015 harvest of millet. These will dry in this storage room then processed to remove the seed from the stalk and then finally the husk from the kernel.

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After a long day harvesting in the rice fields the women return to the compound. Its a moment at the end of a hard days work and they’re usually greeted by  welcoming cheers of “Good work!” I loved going to talk with my host mothers to congratulate them and talk about rice and how the fields were looking this year.

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Throwing down the heavy bundles of rice.

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The rice husks behind the rice milling machine pile up tall during harvest as more people bring rice for milling. The rice mill inside removes the hard husks from the edible kernel; a labor intensive process often done by hand. The families that live near a rice milling machine and can afford to pay for the service can save themselves hours of work.

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After picked from the field and transported home, these black eyed peas are left to dry in the hot sun. They are later shelled and stored.

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We had grown a small plot of “findo” in our fields this year and now it was ready for harvest. We grew findo over the entire land last year; it’s a small grass that produces a very small but nutritious edible seed, a somewhat fancier grain once reserved for chiefs or special occasions. After we cut the grass, dried it and threshed the seed from the stalks the findo looks like this. The next step is to further thresh, pound and winnow the grain.

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I cleaned up the findo by rubbing it between my hands; this would further separate the findo from other weed seeds, sticks and dirt.

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The findo seed is very small and still has the husk on it at this point. The edible kernel of findo is actually white, covered by a brownish/red husk.

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Here is the threshed and winnowed findo ready to be pounded. To winnow findo you simply pour it from one bucket into another while the wind was blowing. This action would separate the heavier seed from the lighter chaff: the seeds fall down into the bucket while the chaff is blown away by the wind. Care must be taken so you don’t lose any of your seed to strong gusts of wind that can blow the seed away from the bucket and into the dirt. At the stage shown above only the husk and the edible portion of the findo remain. It’s ready to be pounded. 

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Since findo is such a small seed the machines required to mill it are not common. Further, not many people grow findo as compared to rice so it may not be economical to invest in a small grain milling machine. For those reasons findo is most often pounded by hand using a mortar and pestle. The work of pounding grain is slow and monotonous but there’s no other option. Pounding is a culture in Gambia and while I pounded the findo many people cheered for me or stopped by to help me pound. At times 3 women, each with their own pestle, would pound grain. My host family took the time to teach me how to pound and help out. Often we’d have 4 people around the mortar, each of us pounding the findo 50 times while passing the pestle around. The rice bags shown in the picture were placed near the mortar to catch any seed that flew out.

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After hours of pounding and winnowing the husks away in the wind the findo looks like this. Now the majority of the work is done and its ready to be cleaned and eaten or stored for later use.

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I had told my friend that when I finished pounding the findo I would bring her some so we could eat lunch together. She also offered to show me how to clean it. She washed and rinsed the findo using a large calabash, 5 times in all, to make sure there was no dirt or sand left with the findo. She assured me that I wouldn’t taste even one grain of sand during lunch and she kept her word!

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After washing the findo several times you can see how clean and white it becomes.

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Cleaned findo ready to be taken home and cooked. So that’s the end of the findo process. It was a long road from prepping the field, to sowing seed, to harvest and all the post-harvest work but it was all worth it and we ended up with great food and stories when all was said and done.

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With the findo pounded and ready to go, I had much time to spend with family and do other small projects. One of those was a small food forest in front of my house. This gave me a chance to make something permanent in my compound and teach people about compost and polyculture. In this small space we had planted sweet potato, black eyed peas, bananas and two nitrogen fixing species (leaucaena and sesbania bispinosa).

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Any green waste I could get my hands on I took. Since Gambians sweep every morning my family members supplied me with those leaves whenever I wanted. We also tossed old watermelon rinds, mangos and rice in there. I found an old banana tree in the street and added that too.

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I taught the kids of the compound about compost and how things would break down to improve the soil over time. Mostly they had fun throwing any kind of seeds and twigs in there.

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A final layer of mango leaves goes down. These leaves were in a pile ready to be burned but I taught the person that they can be used to build the soil up instead.

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The project of the mini food forest in front of my house was basically free but did take a couple dollars to buy screen to keep the goats out.

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After reading a manual on how to grow rice efficiently I set out on building a within row weeder. Weeding the farms by hand is one of the most labor intense jobs during the rainy season. It takes hours, must be repeated 2-3 times during the season and is done with various sized hand hoes. I felt obligated to experiment with another way to weed and hurried to finish this project before I left. The above picture shows the beginning of the building process. The plan was to mount the wheel to the frame and then attach many rebar spikes to the wheel. 

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After 2 or so hours of hacksaw work we had our 75 rebar “spikes” and were ready to start welding them onto the wheel. The guys at the shop all pitched in to help me and make sure the project went smoothly, even letting me weld on a few spikes myself.   

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Almost finished with the rows. 

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The finished weeder! Well actually this is version 1.0; we rolled this to the farm and then decided that it needed more spikes if it was going to effectively kill weeds in one pass. So we rolled it back to the metal shop and doubled the amount of spikes, putting a new row of 5 spikes between each of the original rows. It meant more time with the hacksaw and vice but it was worth it to make it right. We used a lot of rebar to make this thing. In total, after doubling the rows we ended up using 16.8m of rebar, 55ft! The good thing was that the weeder was getting heavier and would be more likely to smash and kill the weeds.

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Here is the completed weeder as Modou tests it out. You should of seen the looks we got as we rolled this thing down the main street in town; it was clanking so loudly on the concrete that people would stop conversations and just stare. At one point a group of children started following us, putting sticks and anything they could find into the spikes. Thankfully all the welds held tight and it destroyed all the children’s sticks with ease. This was definitely one of the strangest and most enjoyable projects I’d done. However, we’ll have to wait until next rainy season to really test if it effectively kills weeds! I wont be around but I hope its the start of something good for my friends there.

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As the 2015 farming season comes to a close I’m left with a lot of time to reflect on my service and if my original intentions for volunteering were met, shifted or redefined. I thought a lot about the nature of helping and how best to do that. I think helping is mostly about timing: knowing when and how much to help with some grace, heck, with some style or wit even! Just helping, what a subject for discussion. Stay tuned and thanks for following along.

 

 

 

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