Friday, November 21, 2008

A Humble Attempt at Putting Hand to Hoe

Nikki is very much an agricultural community, its economy, culture, family structures, and many of other areas of life deeply rooted in realities of working the land. Towards the beginning of this agricultural season (which runs from about May to October), I was presented with the opportunity to use a ¼ hectare (250 sq. meters) of land to cultivate as I pleased. I didn’t know the least thing about farming, but nevertheless snatched up the opportunity to do some experimental farming, in partnership w/ a friend in Nikki.

I and my friend decided to sow our quarter hectare with soy and peanuts, which in these parts are staple crops. At the same time one might say that here these belong to the minor league of local agricultural products: compared to other crops (like the fertilizer-intensive corn and cotton or time-consuming yams and rice), peanuts and soy demand relatively little capital and time.

The cultivation process took on four basic stages: 1) The weeding and preparation of the soil in 50-meter long rows; 2) the planting of the seeds, 3) Two different weedings, and 4) the harvest, in which the plants were simply pulled out of the ground.

Beyond the cultivation this there was the post harvest processing (which I’m still working on) to include getting the plants back from the fields, drying them, separating the beans/nuts from their plant, pulling them out of their husk, and further preparation depending on the crop. I will probably roast my peanuts, and maybe make peanut butter out of some, which involves its own respective processes. The soy will probably have ground into a powder, which can then be used as a protein-rich ingredient to whatever dish strikes your palette.

For all our work, even if we had tried to sell the goods from our ¼ hectare, we wouldn’t have brought in much: at current prices: our soy probably would have earned about $10 (remember the goats enjoyed the first fruits) and our peanuts maybe $50-60.

I should note for the record that there were most certainly some rookie mistakes committed. For example, we sowed a bit too late into the rainy season, which didn’t afford the peanut plants enough time to develop as fully as they could have. We could have made more efficient use of our land, and I probably paid folks a bit too much when we sought an extra hand in the fields. The most frustrating setback was finding one afternoon that some local goats had eaten a very healthy proportion of our soy plants, which had been left out to dry in the sun. I hate these beasts.

Despite these setbacks—and in part b/c of them—my attempt at putting hand to hoe gave me a valuable glimpse into the culture that all other aspects of life in Nikki revolve around. Your average farming family keeps as much of the crop as they will consume in the next year (which sometimes meets or surpasses what was actually grown), and sells the rest, often immediately, but preferably later in the year when prices go up.

I was surprised to find that the seeds, methods, and equipment, here are incredibly simple. For example, most farmers use only locally grown seeds, cannot afford fertilizer or insecticide, and complete every step of the farming process using nothing but a hoe. Integral to this observation was the realization of how incredibly how time-consuming agricultural activity is here—from preparation of the land to processing of the crops.

Yet agricultural production is not necessarily or easily profitable. This is especially so for those many farmers who have little capital at the beginning of the rainy season (for things like improved seeds, fertilizer, or the hiring of cattle to plow the land), and whose take-home at the end of the season are at the mercy of a number of uncontrollable forces: ruthless world commodity prices, the whims of the weather (this year in rained TOO much in Nikki), and the exploitations of middle-men traders and other market inefficiencies.
Photos: 1) Our 1/4 hectare after about a month, peanut plant in the foreground. 2) The field at harvest time, our friend Mathias helping us w/ the harvesting. Hard to see but the taller plants running paralell to the smaller peanuts are soy. 3) Post harvest processing. The goobers themselves sit in the 3 sacs.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Africa's Election

This election year wasn’t the first that I’ve spent overseas—in 1992 my family was living in Japan when Clinton was voted into office. But this year was the first time I’ve voted abroad (although in the end write-in ballots don’t count unless there’s a tie) and it’s the first time my voting milieu has been non-Americans.

Honestly, there were many some moments that I felt less of a loyal American citizen than my Beninese neighbors. When, for example, they would feed me updates on the election campaign (when I for example had grown tired of fighting shortwave radio fuzz). Or on the evening of November 4th when many pulled all-nighters to watch the results come in while I slept soundly.
Granted, staying current this year hasb been a bit tricky: I have no television, and my comprehension of French news broadcasts shuts down pretty early in the evening.

But I was quite surprised at how fervently my town, Benin, and the rest of Africa followed the elections. Of course, it was with just as much fervency that Africa embraced America’s new president. This realization was settled by the many felicitations that I received; by the news footage I saw of Kenyan’s dancing; and by the BBC radio call-ins I heard enthusiastically supporting a “son of Africa” in the White House.

I was actually taken by surprise by how powerful a thing it was for many Africans, a product of several factors: Obama's skin color, his direct biographical roots to Kenya, and the newness of his political ethos. I think that for the Beninese this last factor (which Obama and supporters has chosen to sum in the word "change") might have carried special weight: Benin's popular president Yayi Boni has also self-stylized his politics in one word: changement.

An American leaving abroad couldn't help but be moved by how emotive and engaged Africans were over the U.S. elections. Of course, much of this was due to the symbolism of it all. For all their interest, most Africans (along w/ Americans) know little how Obama's presidency will practically affect their lives, especially in the areas of trade and U.S. Aid policy.