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Waiting for rats September 11th, 2016 by

People usually have a good reason for ignoring free advice.

So when Tumpale Pindani, my Malawian colleague, asked me “How long will it take before the people in Malawi accept conservation agriculture,” I could tell that it had already been a long slog, even though I couldn’t answer her question. After all, conservation agriculture has worthy aims, such as improving soil fertility and halting erosion. Conservation agriculture includes many practices, such as minimum tillage, cover crops, and straw mulch. Most of these are old practices, widely used somewhere in the world, although none are used on farms worldwide. Some farmers have competing goals, besides soil conservation.

alefa-kakawoTumpale and I were visiting a field in Malingunde, in Central Malawi where Alefa had harvested groundnuts and was about to plant maize. So Alefa was rotating crops, which is one component of conservation agriculture. Alefa asked us how she could improve soil fertility, and Tumpale recommended composted manure, another component. Alefa listened with interest.

On the way back to the car Tumpale stopped and asked me to look at a boy sitting on the ground in a dry field. Most of the ground was bare, except for some spots where the few remaining maize stalks had been piled up, ready to burn. “Do you know what he is doing?” Tumpale asked.

kid-in-bare-fieldIt didn’t look like he was doing anything, just sitting there, toying with a short-handled hoe.

“He’s waiting for rats,” Tumpale explained.

The dry season is driest right at the end. And that is when older children look for rat holes. The kids pile up maize stalks where the rats like to hide, and burn the stalks, creating a clear, wide open field of bare earth and ash. There is nowhere for a rodent to hide.

Then the boys dig up the rat holes, and when the rats run out, the boys club them with the hoe, and take their prey home to eat.

It’s not as terrible as it sounds. I’ve had rat three times this year so far, twice in Uganda and once in Nigeria. Rat is a treat, especially if grilled on an open fire.

One conservation agriculture practice is to leave crop stubble in the field, where it slowly decomposes, protecting and enriching the soil. It’s a sensible recommendation. But people aren’t following this suggestion, at least not in Malingunde. During the scorching dry season there is not much else for cattle to eat, so after harvesting the maize, people take the corn stalks home, and feed the leaves to their animals. Women burn the bare stalks as fuel, for cooking. In this part of Malawi crop residues are more valuable at home than in the field.

Stalks that are not gleaned during the dry season may eventually be burned to clear the ground for gourmet rat hunting. Conservation agriculture is marketed as a package, or a brand, but that doesn’t mean that all recommended practices will be adopted. Some will have to take second place to existing needs, like the search for tasty rats.

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