It’s a very humid and hot Saturday morning when we set out from Kenema, heading south to a village called Bongor in southeast Sierra Leone.
This is prime cocoa- and coffee-growing land. Just about every family in every village can lay claim (in an informal way, because there is no such thing as formal land title here) to a small “tree-crop” plantation, or agroforest.
These agroforests are generally a few acres that farmers plant and manage. They are full of economically important trees that add a lot of value to the farms and complement income from cocoa and coffee.
A local agricultural extension officer and I are hoping to meet up with some members of a women’s farming group and learn what crops they grow and how well they’re doing from them. A man from a local group called the “Agroforestry Farmers Association” has informed the community we are coming, as is custom when strangers are planning a visit to any village. Our visit is supposed to be innocuous and low-key.
When the vehicle pulls into Bongor, it looks as if there is a giant party going on. It turns out it’s to welcome us.
The “Court Barray” — the village meetinghouse with a tin roof and spacious open-air interior — is jammed with women and children. They rush out to greet us, dancing and singing and corralling us into the Court Barray.
So much for innocuous and low-key.
They’ve prepared for our visit by assembling an incredible array of produce and products that they cultivate or collect or make in Bongor. It’s all on display on the concrete floor in front of them.
It’s a showcase of the ingenuity and productivity of the women’s farming group they call “Madiho”, which means “Perseverance”.
There are 40 members, but only one is male. Because none of the women knows how to read or write, they brought a man on board to keep their paperwork in order.
One person working alone cannot be successful
They tell us that they work together on the farms because “one person working alone cannot be successful”. As a group, they tackle the work on their farms, in the tree-crop plantations and in the swamps where they cultivate rice. Then each member is able to feed her own family and there is additional produce to sell.
With the higher prices being paid for organic cocoa and coffee in the area, they have already deposited over US $1,000 in their account from selling the beans that they collect mostly from the ground, after men have done the main harvest. That’s a healthy amount in a country where 70% of the population live on less than US$ 1 a day.
Their farms are complex and biodiverse, treasure troves of genetic resources. They produce a plethora of nutritious and valuable products and this morning, they are determined to boast about the bounty to their visitors.
With their enthusiastic assistance, I attempt an inventory.
From what they call the “backyard” and “upland” gardens and fields, and bolilands (areas that flood each year):
- seeds from egusi melons (Citrullus colocynthis), nutritious and wonderful in soup, also
delicious roasted and salted, much like pumpkin seeds
- water yams, large woody-looking tubers with white flesh, which can be boiled and eaten in pieces, or boiled and pounded into fufu
- Chinese yams, smaller (almost miniature) yams that fit in the palm of the hand, prepared the same as water yams
- wild yams, small and neat like a potato, prepared the same way
- bush yams, giant things that look like deformed elephant feet, which grow wild in tree-crop plantations and the bush fallows and the forest, delicious when just boiled and broken into chunks of white tender flesh
- broad (flat) beans of various shades of grey and brown (looking a lot like lovely ocean-
polished pebbles), which are boiled for an hour or so and put into sauces
- cowpeas, nutritious black-eyed peas, are also nitrogen-fixing plants suited for intercropping
- konsoe bean, a small round bean; the leaves of the plant are used to treat measles and chickenpox
- pumpkins, giant hard-shelled gourds with a delicious orange flesh that makes a great addition to any sauce
- bananas (of many varieties) and plantains
- sesame, or bene, which can be fermented and pounded to produce ogiri, delicious in sauces, or mixed with sugar or honey to make bene cake, used also in high-protein weaning mixes for infants
- leafy greens for sauces (plasas), from cassava, sweet potatoes and a host of other plants, both wild and cultivated
- palm oil, rich and red, locally processed from palm fruit on “wild” local palm trees (which also produce poyo or palm wine, but this is a Muslim village so they don’t harvest it)
- dried cassava chips, from the cassava tubers
- rice, local “country” varieties
- millet (several varieties)
- tola nuts, from an increasingly rare forest tree (Beilshmielda mania), which are pounded
to powder and used as a flavourful sauce thickener
- breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), which can be cut up and boiled or fried, very much like yam or potato
- “Jimmy scent”, a bulb resembling something between ginger and an onion, with a natural menthol and gingery scent that is rubbed on the skin to keep it healthy and smelling nice, the way one would use baby powder
- kola nuts (Cola nitida) harvested also from tall trees in the cocoa/coffee tree-crop plantations, with medicinal and spiritual value, exported widely in the region as they are used for all special ceremonies and chewed as a mild stimulant and pain reliever
- soaps, both “black” soap that includes charred cocoa pods and herbs mixed with palm kernel oil, and plain soap in balls or long blocks, made with palm kernel oil and caustic soda
- cloth from locally grown, woven and dyed cotton
- gourd decorated with beads to make a musical instrument
- fishing nets, hand-made from local fibres collected in the tree-crop plantations and forests
- baskets, made from local grasses
- house construction materials – branches from the raffia palm for the framing for the mud walls, poles from the forest for the roof frame for the thatch (also raffia palm), fibre used to lash these collected also from vines in the tree-crop plantations, and the forest
- fresh fish from the nearby river
The bounty would have been even greater at other times of year, the women tell us, and they list some of the other things they produce in and around their farms in a year:
- diverse fresh vegetables, both indigenous and exotics ones
- pink monkey apple (Anisophyllea laurina), a tender and delicious fruit
- bitter kola nuts (Garcinia kola)
- exotic fruits such as mango, orange, limes, pineapples, papaya, guava, star fruit, jackfruit
- “sour tumbler” or tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
- plums (janama, which is sour, and “chock chock” that varies between sweet and sour), and other fruit known as “sweet sharp” and “sour sharp” and a very small and red and sweet fruit known as kafree
- sugarcane, which is chewed raw
- tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus) that look like peanuts and can be eaten raw, dried, roasted, or grated for use as baking flour, fish baits, or even a substitute for cow’s milk. It is high in carbohydrates (mono- and di-), fibre, and oil (especially oleic acid) and also a good source of protein, minerals (calcium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous), and vitamins C and E.
- alligator pepper, also known as “grains of paradise”
- “black tumbler” or velvet tamarind (Dialium guineense), a small fruit with red pulp with a sweet-sour, astringent flavour similar to but sweeter than baobab. This can be soaked in water to make a delicious beverage called “mokeh” by some in Sierra Leone. Leaves can also be used in soups. The bark and leaves are used as medicines to treat several diseases and the wood is also high quality.
- hewei or “spice” (Xylopia aethiopica), a valuable tree widely distributed in forest areas of the continent from Senegal in West Africa and to Sudan in Eastern Africa, and down to Angola in southern Africa. Its fruit, when dried, resembles a pod of black pepper. Incredibly, almost every part of the plant is used in traditional medicine for treating skin infections, candidiasis, dyspepsia, cough and fever. Studies have noted that antimicrobial activity of the essential oil from the plant’s dried and fresh fruit, leaf, stem and root barks. It’s even been shown to be an effective mosquito repellent, to have a wide range of biological activities including insecticidal, anti-tumour, anti-asthmatic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hypotensive and coronary effects. In Sierra Leone its pods are used in ginger beer, its wood is greatly appreciated in construction and it is harvested for export to neighbouring countries as well, where it is used in sauces.
Poverty in the midst of plenty
I keep reminding myself that this is in Sierra Leone, officially one of the world’s poorest countries, ranking close to the bottom on the United Nations Human Development Index. The country is still struggling to rebuild after its long civil war (and now also from the Ebola crisis that struck in 2014, a year after my visit to Bongor).
The women of Bongor, as elsewhere in rural Sierra Leone, recognize that by all modern yardsticks
used to measure human and economic development, they are poor.
The work they do around their homes and on farms is very hard indeed. They live in small mud homes without plumbing, running water or electricity, not even a solar panel with a bulb to light the night. They say they would like to have money to replace the thatch on their homes with metal roofing sheets. Only one in their group has a cell phone, but she has no money for credit and would have to climb a hill outside the village to find service. And of course they do not have access to good schools and to health facilities and they have only one well to serve an entire community.
But, as urban dwellers have pointed out to me in the capital Freetown, where there are schools, health facilities, some electricity and running water, they all cost money and many people simply can’t afford them. Populations in cities may live near a market piled high with diverse nutritious foods like the ones on display in Bongor, and not be able to afford more than one meal of plain rice and watery sauce a day.
Jusu Kamara knows that all too well. Displaced from his farm and community in eastern Sierra Leone
during the long civil war, he has been living in Freetown ever since. He’s not tasted a banana since he fled his village during the war, more than fifteen years earlier. The meagre income he makes breaking rocks into gravel day after day is not enough to cover luxuries like bananas and other nutritious foods that he could eat to his heart’s content in his village.
In rural communities such as Bongor, there may not be a lot of cash around, but at least there is no shortage of fresh food and fruit, which is pretty much free for the plucking around the village. Except for the cocoa, coffee, some of the palm oil they process and some of the garden produce that they sell to middlemen and in local markets, most of what they grow and produce is not even assigned a monetary value.
And this in turn, inspires a whole host of questions.
Is it possible to assign a monetary value to the things they do have in rural communities – food self-sufficiency, independence, community cohesion and security, the peace of mind that comes from living in a place without violent crime, prostitution, social ills such as drug abuse and youth gangs?
How does one assess the true costs of the poverty of dependence when you have to buy everything you need . . . and don’t have the income to do so?
And what value can be ascribed to the dietary wealth the rural people produce in their gardens and fields and tree-crop plantations? A study done by a German-funded agricultural development project in eastern Sierra Leone showed that more than half the real value (monetary and non-monetary) of the diverse little plantations comes not from the cocoa and coffee that are cash crops, but from the “by-products” that the women collect from them — food plants, medicines, wood and grasses for basket-making.
A recent study of diets in 197 nations around the world showed that Sierra Leone has one of the world’s most healthy diets.
This seems more than a little surprising, given the focus of several big development agencies and projects that trumpet their work to solve food insecurity and malnutrition in Sierra Leone, often with imported food aid and neoliberal ideologies involving value chains, global markets and agribusiness that involve fewer crops and far more purchased inputs – hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
They, like the country’s Minister of Agriculture, tend to denigrate agro-ecological family farming practised by the majority as “subsistence”, missing the sustenance that it provides.
“…how does one assess the true costs of the poverty of dependence when you have to buy everything you need . . . and don’t have the income to do so?”
Rather than trying to build on local farm and food systems and increasing the abundance of nutritious foods and condiments produced in villages like Bongor, they seem anxious to eradicate them and supplant them with “modern” industrial farms feeding global markets with a handful of commodity crops.
If there were long overdue recognition of the immense nutritional wealth in rural West African communities such as Bongor, perhaps there would also be more impetus to promote the nutritious and biodiverse wealth of the farms, fallows, tree-crop plantations and forests, and more support for local people’s efforts to capitalize on their own local riches.
And that would mean less pressure from development agencies and funders, pushing their agendas to promote a handful of commodity crops and others that are genetically bred or engineered for patenting (and selling), and unsustainable industrial agriculture and dependency that channel profits upwards towards the super rich, leaving the poverty and environmental destruction for the farmers.