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Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse December 21st, 2014 by

Just like Anneti Bagyenyi, one of the leaders of a local women’s group in Kabale, in southwestern Uganda, many farmers struggle to control birds at crucial times of the cropping season. For the farmers growing climbing beans, the most troublesome are called mshure in the local Rufumbira language. These long-tailed mouse-birds like to eat the leaves of young seedlings as well as the flowers of the climbing beans, as such destroying entire fields.

Apart from using scarecrows and old cassette tapes that make a disturbing sound to the birds when the wind plays with it (likely the music on the tape itself was less disturbing at the time it was played out loud in the village), farmers came up with a simple, yet effective way. To prevent groups of birds from finishing a farmers’ entire field, all farmers of the community plant their bean crop within a period of two weeks so that the birds have abundant food. The birds can’t eat all of the beans at once, so most of the crop survives. This example shows how farmers can manage risks at the community level if individual control of a particular problem is difficult or impossible.

But still, farmers only reap the benefits from their own fields, not from their neighbours’ fields, so everyone is free to experiment with other control measures on their own land.

“When planting their very first bean seed in the field, some farmers add some dried tobacco leaves to the planting hole and they tell the bean: “May my entire field become as bitter as tobacco, so the birds won’t eat it.” Magical solutions like this often help people to deal with difficult problems, especially pests. When farmers are using magic, it means that they are lacking a technical solution for a real problem. Researchers who pay attention may recognize in farmers’ incantations and prayers a research demand.

“Does it work?” asks Anthony, the local extension guy.

“Of course it does,” says an old farmer who had entered the small village shop where we were having our interview with Anneti, curious about the foreigner who had appeared in their village on a Sunday afternoon.

Over the years, whenever I have a chance to talk to farmers, I get the impression that birds are a curse to farming. But not all birds are a burden, some can even be a blessing, as Anthony points out half an hour later when we walk through the village and pointing to a different species of bird.

“Look at that white bird. As a child, when we helped plough the field we would always look behind our backs to see if those white birds had appeared. If they had, our parents would say that the field was blessed.”

I thought about it a little more in the car that night, and realized that what farmers were saying was that a healthy soil was the basis for a healthy crop and a good yield. You would only see those birds if your soil was rich in living creatures that were brought to the surface with the ploughing.

Often farmers get confused when newly exposed to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, thinking that the way they have been farming so far was old-fashioned. When asking questions about their local practices they are quick at bringing up the “modern”, chemical solutions (even when in hindsight few may actually use them). But even in a first interview, if you can show farmers that you respect their own experiments and local practices, they will often share their ideas about birds and beans and tobacco.

Village movies in Malawi December 14th, 2014 by

Young people in rural Malawi are getting into the digital age with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the world, but without all the same equipment. In Malawi many people are using their cell phones as television sets.

Each small town, and even some of the villages, now has a computer person, called a “DJ” who has a PC, assembled in-country from imported parts. The DJ is usually a teenager or a 20-something who uses freeware to convert videos into a format that phone memory cards can read. Farmers drop into the DJ’s small shop (called a “burning center”) and request Hollywood action flicks, or Nigerian or Indian movies. The films dubbed into Chichewa are a big hit, whether they follow the original story line or ad lib a new one. There are even Malawian movies made by artists like DJ Sau (Only you, a 90 minute love story), and standup comedy in Chichewa by Mr. Jokes and others. Malawian gospel music videos are quite popular. Very few of the DJs have internet. But they visit each other and swap material.

The customers take their cellphone home and watch the movies in the evenings with their families, on the screen of the phone. If the room is very dark, several people can actually watch a movie on a screen the size of a match box. If the village lacks electricity, folks can have their phones charged while in town (at a shop that offers phone charging for a small fee).

Few if any of the farmers have smart phones; they are simply watching films and music on regular, inexpensive hand-sets.

Kids in northern countries make short video clips and share them via the social media. The rural Malawians have their own dense network, largely disconnected from the internet. Some of the DJs make music videos and films with inexpensive cameras and swap their movies with each other. The films then circulate around to the other villagers, who watch them at home.

Many of the DJs give themselves names like Super DJ Andy T Man, who lives on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, on the way to Lake Chilwa. Andy has made several music videos for a prosperous farm family, the Chigulumwas, who suspected that a neighbor was envious of their success, and wanted to harm them with magic charms. (This should ring a bell with ethnographers).

The song was composed and sung by Francis Masiye, of Phalombe Town. Masiye praises Mr. Chigulumwa, who grows good rice and sells it in the market. The video has shots of people hoeing a field, and the farmer paying them. The handsome couple and their teenage son dance on camera. The song says “I take care of my workers, and I work hard. And you are jealous of me and you use charms to try to hurt me.”

The aim of the song is to convince the jealous neighbor to stop trying to use magic against the Chigulumwa family. Everyone in the village has now seen the video and hopefully the jealous one got the message.

Digital technology is not just the straight and narrow path to globalized hell. It is also a way for rural cultures to express themselves, fire their imaginations, and communicate among themselves.

Acknowledgement. Many thanks to Ronald Kondwani Udedi, ICT specialist at the Polytechnic, University of Malawi for his insights, Chichewa-English translation and for having the creativity to notice the DJs, and the warmth to let them tell their stories.

When stakes are at stake December 7th, 2014 by

Fred, the driver, keeps on changing gears as we wind our way up and down the hills of southwestern Uganda. The landscape is stunning and when we reach Kisoro just before sunset I realize we are just 10 kilometers from the border with DR Congo and Rwanda. The last orange light gives our eyes a last treat, a view of one of the majestic volcanoes with its head in the clouds. We are now nearly 2000 meters above sea level and the weather is cool. The rich volcanic soils have made this part of the country a major bean and potato growing area, supplying not only the people in the capital city, Kampala, but also in the neighbouring countries.

With land having become a scarce commodity, it is frightening to see how even the steepest slopes are under cultivation. And farmers have shifted en masse from growing bush beans to growing climbing beans. Five kilogram of bush bean seed gives farmers a harvest of about 100 kilograms, but the same amount of climbing bean seed easily yields 250 kilograms. The abundant leaves of climbing beans and the nitrogen they fix also helps to keep the soil fertile. No wonder that farmers have welcomed with open arms the climbing beans that CIAT and NARO introduced. (In 1984, the first improved climbing bean varieties from CIAT were officially released and promoted in Rwanda and then gradually into neighbouring countries).

But unlike bush beans, the climbing beans require stakes, which in a highly deforested part of the country are hard to come by and expensive. And as necessity is the mother of invention, it came as no surprise that farmers have developed a range of solutions.

Some farmers started planting eucalyptus trees on the tops of the hills. Others keep native trees such as Vernonia in their garden and regularly cut 2 or 3 meter-long branches from them, to use themselves or sell to their neighbours. The most popular local tree also provides fodder and medicine, among other things. As we visit various women’s groups to prepare for a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos, Felisten Nwemkuye from the Nyarrubuye women’s grain producers’ group in Kisoro tells us that they can keep their sticks for up to four years:

“After we harvest the beans, we bundle the stakes and turn them upside down so that the parts that were in the soil face upwards and can dry in the sun and get hard again. We also put them upright on some higher ground on some rocks so that when it rains the water easily runs off and the wood does not rot.”

“As stakes are so expensive won’t other people steal them if you leave them in the field?” asks Isaac Mugaga from NARO. He has been working with growers of climbing beans for over a decade.

“No, everyone in the community respects each other and in case stakes are stolen the thief is caught and brought to the local court. He will then be forced to repay the stakes,” replies Felisten.

People are sent to court for stealing stakes and for cutting branches of trees without permission. That is how serious people take their stakes.

The next day we visit the dynamic women’s group of Rwaramba. Here farmers rotate their bean with maize. But instead of harvesting the entire maize plant, they just harvest the cobs and leave the maize stalks standing. When farmers plant their climbing beans the following season, these stalks serve as stakes. As we continue visiting other villages, we learn that some farmers grow elephant grass on the terraced steep slopes of the mountains. They feed its leaves to their cattle, and keep the strongest stalks for staking.

Managing natural resources is an art and farmers, once more, have impressed me with their creativity.

These are just some of the examples that we learned about and which will be featured in a new series of farmer training videos that we will make with CIAT in early 2015.

NARO is the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda. CIAT is the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Free range turkey November 30th, 2014 by

Folks in the USA have just finished their long, Thanksgiving weekend, which is all about turkey, most of which come wrapped in plastic, and frozen as hard as the Plymouth Rock. So this may be a good time to think about alternatives.

We hear a lot about free range chickens, or keeping hens at home, but it is also possible to keep turkeys. One of the pleasures of visiting highland Guatemala is seeing the native turkeys strolling around the village lanes and strutting on the porch.

The native Mayan languages have words for turkeys, like akach in Kekchí, attesting to the bird’s antiquity in the highlands. Even in Spanish, the Guatemalans have word of their own for turkey. While the rest of the Spanish-speaking world calls the turkey pavo, here it is chompipe.

So here are some tips on free range turkey, from Guatemala, the land that loves them the most.

When the female is in heat, the males follow her, until they mate. Then she lays one egg a day. When she has eight or ten she sits on them, in a nest in a box, in the chicken coop or in the house, otherwise the turkey will go to the woods and lay her eggs, where the dogs will probably eat them.

When the turkey is about to lay her eggs, she starts looking for a place to lay them, so folks make her a nice nest out of dry grass, in a dark place. Some people eat the first few eggs the turkey lays, because the first eggs get old, and may not hatch anyway. What a great way to eat your losses.

The turkey is a little wilder than the hen, and fussier. They brood for 29 days. When the turkey has been sitting on the eggs for a week, many people put six hen’s eggs in the nest. These baby chicks are called mozos (hired hands) or ayudantes (helpers) because they teach the turkey chicks how to eat. The Guatemalans say that the little mozos are better at identifying what’s food sooner than the turkey chicks. (Any comments from readers on this would be appreciated).

The turkey chicks will eat store-bought feed, but most people can’t afford that. The chicks will eat maize grain that is broken a bit and boiled. But after the chicks are six weeks old they will eat raw maize, and they eat that all their life.

Free range turkeys reduce costs. The household buys simple veterinary drugs when the turkeys get sick, but otherwise invest little cash in the flock. Giving the birds a roost and a handful or two of maize every day teaches the birds to stay near home. Unlike industrial turkeys, free range ones are not given hormones, antibiotics or even cheap, processed feeds.

Turkeys are avid scavengers. Their diet includes grasses, grains and a menu of creatures such as snails, earthworms, termites and other small insects. Free range turkeys will also sift through kitchen waste, essentially feeding itself for free while recycling some of the farmers’ trash and pests.

Wherever the family farm exists (and there are quite a lot of them) they provide food that is fresh, not frozen, based on local customs, knowledge and practices. These systems are not “inefficient” as some economists like to sniff from the sidelines. Family farmers rely (at least in part) on local resources, saving costs, minimizing risks, and growing the best food.

Adapted from:

Bentley, Jeffery W. & Keith L. Andrews 2011 Los Dos Saberes: La Sinergia Entre los Saberes Científicos y Locales: Un Diálogo entre Técnicos Agropecuarios y Productores para Mejorar la Extensión e Investigación en Guatemala.  Guatemala D.F.: IICA (Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura) & CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). 212 pp. Download the book in Spanish.

Give rice a chance November 23rd, 2014 by

After an interview with farmers it’s important to get off one’s butt and go see what they’ve been talking about. There is always something to see, even if the crop has been harvested.

I was in Tampetou, Northern Benin last year with Florent Okry. When we got there, the chief (chef du village) was away at a cotton buying session, a mile or two away. His family rang him on his cell phone and he rode his bike home to meet with us.

Other people soon arrived and quietly took seats under the shade tree in the chief’s compound.