Thursday, May 27, 2010
Just as Canadian farmers are heading out to their corn fields to check for seed germination and emerging weeds, here in Malawi bags and buckets of kernels are being carried to the maize mills dotted throughout this area. There it is ground into the maize flour which serves as the staple starch eaten every day for every meal in most families. Morning porridge is pala; for lunch and supper there is nsima eaten with veggies and meats.
I find myself constantly comparing the Malawi maize production industry to that of Canada. There are some similarities: working in the hot, full sunshine; worries about weeds and fertilization, theft and adequate rainfall. Two main differences are that here the acres of maize are hand-tended, and that it is pretty much all grown for human consumption. Along the roadsides, in small patchwork fields growing up the mountains, and beside every home, hut or village is a garden with cultivated maize.
Labour intensive tilling, planting, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting happen from November to May using sweat and muscle techniques. Daily sweat is contributed by all family members with the women most visible. The fields are dotted with bent-over bodies, bright in their chitenjes (wrap around skirts) and mostly barefoot. There are likely twice as many people working as we can see due to crop height (some plants are well over eight feet tall), and the shadows made by the unrelenting sun. Children not in school accompany their mothers and grandparents to the field.
This is a country where hand tools are the norm for tilling, for hilling the rows, and for planting, seed by seed, row by row, and field by field. The maize is under-seeded with crops of sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin, cucumbers and sugar cane, more visible now that the maize is off and also being harvested. It is almost the winter season as is apparent by the heavy jackets and scarves worn in the cool mornings and evenings. There are trees growing in the fields too, and ant hills but I have yet to see a tractor. There was one beautiful, well-matched team of oxen pulling a ½ ton cart of produce out of a village, accompanied by two boys whom I thought looked so proud and happy to have such a cool task.
About the second week of March we noticed the harvest beginning; cobs of maize were hand picked, thrown toward the end of the row to be gathered later into bags or wheelbarrows and more hours and days and weeks of work followed in the effort of transporting the harvest by vehicle, minibus, on top of heads, in wheelbarrows, and by bicycle, from the garden to the home where the kernels are hand-picked from the cob. Some folks barbeque the corn and eat the kernels directly from the cob. (Interesting item: plastic bags are used as a fire starter for the coal barbeques and the spent cobs are also burned.) Along the road, in yards, on porches are squares of white now – corn laid out on mats, sheets, chitenjes – with someone sitting (always on the ground) at the edge of the harvest as it dries, to guard against rain, free range chickens, goats, cows, thieves, wind. Maize products are the family’s food for as long as it lasts. I have seen corn drying on the top of thatched roofs too.
Sweet potatoes have been replanted where the maize has been taken off, though with winter setting in now (Mid-May) there might be no rain until the spring in September or later.
After drying in the sun the maize is shaken in flat wicker baskets, to be cleaned of dust and chaff (fines), then bagged to be stored or carried (yes, carried by whatever means possible AGAIN) to the noisy maize mills which run steadily unless shut down by a power outage. At the mill, maize is ground into flour and weighed. Another option is to sell a portion of the crop in May and buy it back later as needed. This means not having to store the unwieldy large bags in a home often already lacking in sufficient living area, as well as providing immediate cash for school tuition, sugar, clothing and more.
The local shop is buying maize to store in a pesticide-treated area. A hen rests on the bags piled in the corner – a natural for this country where maize is the staple starch crop and chicken is the main meat. We see fowl everywhere. They peck about in the gardens and grass. They are in transit on bikes, in bags, in boxes or baskets carried atop heads. Chicken heads jut out the round holes; hens are tied by twos and threes to bicycle handlebars. The best meat to order in a restaurant is chicken (in my opinion). This is no reflection on the quality or taste of the local popular chambo fish found on most menus – just my personal particular choice. Back to the chicken; there is chicken snackie, chicken wings, chicken pieces, chicken pizza (pronounced like pisa as in leaning tower of …) roast chicken, quarter chicken, whole chicken, fried chicken, served with 4 different bottled peri peri sauces, all being sufficiently hot to satisfy those who crave heat. Correction: peri peri is excessively hot.
Maize is the staple crop here, brought into fashion by the colonials and it grows happily in the Malawi heat. Other crops grown in Malawi include ground nuts; potatoes; tomatoes; mustard spinach; and more. Sugar cane grows in miles of irrigated fields in the south of Malawi and tobacco also has a large place in the agricultural export economy here. Free range goats, chickens and cattle share the paths and roads with everyone else. There is an abundance of fruit trees: bananas, mangoes, avocado pear, paw paw (papaya) among others. With an employment rate of just 10% growing one’s own food is a necessity and the whole nation is involved.