Village Life: Agriculture

Life revolves around agriculture in Kamega, a village of subsistence farmers. Farming gives shape to daily rhythms and yearly patterns.

Agriculture, in turn, revolves around the weather and climate of northern Ghana. There are two seasons in Kamega: a rainy season from June to October and a dry season from November to May. Farming takes place during the rainy season when there is enough water to support crops. Fields lie dormant during the dry season because most farmers lack access to water and irrigation technologies. Only a few individuals have small plots irrigated by a dam where they grow vegetables like tomatoes and onions during the dry season. For everybody else, the dry season is an idle time. There is no work in the village, and many men travel to the south of the country or to neighboring West African countries in search of temporary work to support their family.

In recent years, farmers have struggled with erratic rainfall during the rainy season. Because of limited access to water and irrigation technologies, unpredictable rainfall and drought can devastate entire fields of crops. If a farmer sows his/her field and rain does not fall, then the crops might not germinate. Droughts in the middle of the rainy season stunt plant growth and reduce yields. Poor yields translate into hunger and extremely constricted incomes.

Because agriculture has always involved risks, farmers have developed strategies to minimize crop loss and poor yields. One strategy is staggered planting. Farmers plant different varieties of staple crops, which include millet, corn, rice, peanuts and beans. Some varieties are planted early, and others are planted later. If drought strikes and kills the early varieties, there is still a chance that the later varieties will survive, or vice versa. Other strategies involve water conservation. For example, ploughing contours and piling rocks against the slope of the field slows the passage of rainwater and prevents soil erosion. Planting or maintaining trees in the field provides shade, which prevents water loss from evaporation. Mulching weeds and plant material leftover from the harvest improves soil fertility and water retention.

Although every member of the family participates in agriculture, “farmer” tends to refer to the men of the village because they own or borrow the land. The land in Kamega is still linked to and accounted for by the families of the “original” settlers in the area. Land is passed patrilineally from father to son, and people are able to trace the inheritance of a plot. Secure, inherited landholdings are located around the compound house. They are called compound farms and are often sown with millet and corn. If someone chooses not to farm or live in Kamega, then the land is used or occupied by another male relation. Some feel strongly that they farm and continue to farm their father’s land.

Land is not for sale, and the only way people access plots outside their family land is through informal agreements and exchanges (usually temporary) with neighboring elders and chiefs. If they have not yet inherited land, men will approach elder community members (males) or chiefs (also males) to ask permission to borrow land, oftentimes unused land in the bush (land that has not been settled or cleared). Men will negotiate the temporary, usury rights of a plot, usually in exchange for a portion of the harvest. Fields in the bush are called distant farms. They are temporary, insecure landholdings that are often sown with corn, rice and beans.

Gender usually determines who does what work in the agricultural season. Men are responsible for clearing the land. They cut down trees in the field and prepare the soil for planting, manually hoeing or ploughing with oxen or a tractor. I received mixed information about who is responsible for planting, but I believe that both women and men sow the fields. After the crops germinate, men are responsible for weeding the fields, a task accomplished with a small hoe made from a whittled tree branch and a wide, metal blade. The harvest is a communal affair, but even the various tasks involved are gendered. Men carry out work that requires the use of a hoe or cutlass–uprooting legumes with a hoe or cutting down stalks of millet. Then, women collect, carry and process the harvest. They transform the initial products into their edible forms by shelling, pounding, grinding, sorting and drying. In certain cases like rice, groups of men pound the grains with tree branches to separate grain from chaff.

While a family ploughs, plants and weeds at their own ease, they race against time to finish the harvest. Around mid-October and November, everyone works from morning to night as they scramble to finish harvesting. During this time, the rains have stopped, and livestock is let loose to graze on what sparse vegetation remains. If you are not quick, livestock will graze on and destroy your crops. When family labor is insufficient to complete the harvest in a timely manner, labor parties of family and friends are organized. In exchange for help, the farmer repays them with tea in the mid-morning and lunch in the afternoon.

Many men would like to take all the credit for farming, but this is incredibly misleading. Farming involves incredible amounts of difficult manual labor, and the work is shared by the family and community. Widowed women and their children are forced to do all of the labor themselves. Additionally, some adolescents (male and female) grow crops on small plots that they sell for spending money and school fees. These teens will do a majority of the labor themselves.

I can’t imagine Kamega as anything other than a rural village of small farmers. However, all across the country, Ghanaians are discussing the future of farming. With growing urban populations and rising education levels, some worry that the youth will abandon agriculture in favor of other pursuits.

During my brief stay, I only got a glimpse of the possibilities and limitations that young people face. Some members of the Apiim family aspire to work and live in “town.” After seeing how their parents and relatives struggle, they are attracted by the salary of a “government job,” by the proximity to markets, by the electricity in town. However, they also want to maintain their agricultural roots by returning to the village during vacations and by farming during their free time. These futures are not mutually exclusive, and just as in the past, people will continue to shift between rural and urban.

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A Ferry Tale

Do you know the feeling of arriving 5 minutes late only to realize that in this small window of time you completely missed your opportunity? The exam room has been locked; the bus has departed; the ticket has been sold. You are left cursing yourself and searching for anybody or anything to blame.

This is almost that story.

For the past three and a half months, I have been travelling in Uganda. Most of my time has been spent with famïlies living in villages outside of Kabale, a town in the SW corner of the country. Recently, however, I have been “touring,” enjoying the various sights that Uganda has to offer. Uganda boasts ten national parks, and safaris to these parks are quite popular with tourists, despite the high price tag.

Being frugal and foolish, I resolved to travel to Murchison Falls National Park independently, without a group or a tour company. After consulting several friends, I found a tent to rent that would allow me to cut costs by staying in a campsite, and I hitched a ride into the park with the employees of Paraa Safari Lodge. Don’t be deceived–these were not casually settled arrangements, but plans reached after frantic phone calls, long waits, and trips all across Masindi town.

After getting off at the park gate, I congratulated myself for executing the first part of my plan. Entrance and accommodation settled, I expected the rest to magically follow suit. Before I left, my newfound local tour guide friend Mustafa ensured me that once I got into the park I would meet other travellers who would graciously welcome an additional person into their game drive or their ride out of the park. For those unfamiliar with Uganda’s national parks, public transport rarely passes through the parks, and most activities in the park require a vehicle to view the wildlife, especially in parks that host potentially dangerous animals like water buffalos, hippopotamus, and lions.

When I reached the campsite and began to inquire about joining a group of travellers, my plan deteriorated. The campsite was full of a huge group organized by a hostel in Kampala. Not only was the group full, but several days prior, I had turned down an offer to join the group at a discounted price. I had just paid for admission into the park for 24 hours, and I had no way of seeing anything in the park. Devastated but proud, I determined to wake up early with the hope of finding a group taking the 7am ferry to the north side of the park where most of the animals can be found.

Unlike most schedules in Uganda, the ferry crossing is surprisingly punctual, too punctual in fact. As I approached the bank of the Nile River several minutes past 7 am, the ferry had already transported the vehicles across. This was especially disappointing because the best time to go on a game drive is in the morning or evening.

I proceeded with Plan C. I booked a seat on a morning boat trip to Murchison Falls. On the trip, we saw groups of hippopotamus lounging in the Nile, crocodiles sunbathing along the banks, kingfishers diving for the morning’s catch, elephants and waterbuck stopping for a drink. It was incredible, but still I needed to go on a game drive to see the animals in the park.

The boat trip ended as cars were loading on to the 11 am ferry. I hopped off the boat, darted to the ferry, and just as I was about to address the tourists on the ferry, the ferry began to cross. It was painful to watch the ferry slowly inch away from the bank. I started to turn away, but someone on the ferry called out to me. It was Mustafa. By some lucky turn of fate, a group of travellers organized a game drive with Mustafa that morning. He tried calling me, but there was no signal in the park. Mustafa shouted for the ferry to go back. When it neared the bank, I ran onto the ferry and triumphantly leapt into Mustafa’s arms. I can’t remember the last time I felt so exhilarated and relieved. We rejoiced the whole way across the Nile–hugging, singing, dancing. We looked ridiculous.

I was frugal and foolish, but also incredibly lucky. Had the boat ride ended later, had Mustafa’s group crossed on the 9 am ferry like they intended, had I arrived seconds later, I would have missed everything. Having time on your side is a powerful feeling, knowing that you caught the last seconds of a great opportunity. The game drive and the ride out of the park felt more exciting because of it. I also appreciated the simple resolution to my incomplete safari plans that were bound to end in a disappointing, expensive mess. Long story short, I have been travelling from one moment to the next, and I don’t advise travelling to Murchison Falls National Park independently.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of my belated posts about Ghana and for new posts about Uganda.