01 August 2006

Yahyah's Farm

Each morning is a routine that I have slowly gotten accustomed to. The early morning call to prayer and roosters sound off at around 4am. This usually gets me out of my regular sleep, but looking at the time, and thinking about the still-distant sun, I remain in bed and fall asleep again. Around 5am the activity in my compound begins to stir. My neice runs to buy some fermented maize porridge and sugar from the street, my mother starts the fire to prepare the morning water, and my siblings prepare for another day of school lessons. Around 5.3oam the porridge is served, on certain days with a portion of sugar bread. This is usually the point at which I am outside, showered, and ready for the day. Any longer and my porridge begins to settle into a thick, unconsumable slop. I sit in the compound trying to pound back the porridge as quickly as my nephews. It might just be me, but a steaming-hot, well-spiced, fermented maize drink doesn't go down so well early in the morning. I do get it down each day, however, and as the spices and my stomach begin their daily morning battle, I get out my notebook and jot down the events of the previous day. After some lounging and relaxing, it is now 6.3oam. A gentleman by the name of Yahyah pulls up to the compound on his bicycle.

Yahyah is a close family friend, and a farmer. Each morning he approaches the compound, greets the family, then states with a grin: "Obruni, today we go farm?" Most days I have excuses lined up, such as work, or travel... but one day, on Wednesday, June 28th, 2006, to be exact, I decided to stop making excuses, and experience the day in the life of a rural Ghanaian farmer. The MoFA JFs have been lucky enough to spend a whole week on rural farms to understand the work that goes into agriculture. Jealous of this opportunity, perhaps, I agreed to Yahyah's challenge of travelling to his farm, which he proclaimed on a daily basis to be '50 miles away'.

I grab my kahula, a few sachet waters, a pair of boots and my bike, and we head out for a day that I will never forget.

The first leg of the journey is not long, we travel for just 20 minutes before we reach a small shop by the side of the road. We greet the shopkeeper, walk behind through the door of a families compound. Inside is a chaotic scene; large metallic bowls filled with fermented maize dough, or banku line the compound. "The best banku in Ghana", Yaya promises me as we sit and eat. If the morning porridge wasn't enough, a second serving of fermented maize should be a great start to a hard day. I singe my fingerprints off as I tuck my hand into the scolding banku, and then into the simmering soup, which makes the banku seem cool in comparison. I awkwardly heave the mix into my mouth and look at my pulsating red fingers. Then I go back for more. After a hearty 7am breakfast of banku, groundnut soup, and cow, we head off again.

The hilly areas of West Gonja rise gradually up until they reach the escarpment, which carves across Ghana to Gombaga. The valleys and surroundings provide tremendous scenery, and vegetation is in full as we are into the rains. We traverse hill after hill for hours at a time, and I easily pound through the little water I have brought with me (just 2L). Around 10am, we reach a juncture in the road, and Yaya indicates to me that we are to leave the road. Exhausted, I only hope that the farm is not far away.

For several more kms, we head down a path which is barely suitable for our bicycles. Yaya leads the way and snaps back thorny branches and vines into my face, constantly knocking off my kahula, and leaving me cursing with words I can only hope he doesn't understand. We continue for some time, finally reaching a small clearing, at which point we are to venture the rest of the way on foot. We take a small bush trail through the overgrown grass and tall shea nut trees, and suddenly spring upon a patch of land that he proudly announces to me as his farm. In this 'clearing' of the surrounding bush sit rather unorganized mounds of dirt. From each mound sprouts a large bush or vine. Yahyah explains to me that the bushes, with their signature leaves, are cassava plants, and digs down into the mound to reveal a single cassava root, still rather small, and slender in comparison to its harvest-ready counterpart. the vines are yam plants, and sprawl up sticks inserted in the ground or nearby trees to collect the sun.

Tired from the journey, we both head to his hut to take a quick rest. About an hour later, we emerge from the hut, and I am immediately handed a cutlass, or very very large machete. He directs me forward and follows me down a path which leads through the mounds of dirt. We walk past Yahyah's first acre of cassava and enter a thickly vegetated patch of land. The ground is not visible below my waiste, but I know we are still standing on farmland because I constantly trip on the very mounds on which the cassava plants are seeded. We walk some distance before Yahyah calls out to two gentlemen, Mussa, and Ali, whom Yahyah has hired to help clear the land we are standing on of it's weeds. Yahyah has let this area grow fallow for quite some time, and it is time to clear it and plant some yams in the dirt mounds. The two men emerge from the bush with arms full of yams.

After further inspection of the farm, which reveals some damage to yam mounds by grass-cutters, we get to work beginning to clear away the weeds and vines that have overgrown the area. It is back-breaking work. The commute to the farm was an ordeal in itself, having taken anywhere from three to five hours. In the exhaustion and dehydration of the trip, I had lost track of time. With machete in hand I hack at the base of the small bushes and weeds which have grown, and then with a firm grip grab the remaining stump in the ground and shake out the remaining roots. The weeded plants remain where they lay, as they provide essential moisture and nutrients for the growing cassava. We clear a tiny area before Yaya announces that we have finished weeding for the day. Upset, but at the same time relieved, I slowly stand and stretch my back and stick my machete in a nearby dirt mound. Yahyah has hired Mussa and Ali to clear the rest of the farm. The process will take three days, and Yahyah will have to pay the gentlemen ยข200 000 for their work.

After just half an hour of weeding, we walk a bit further to discover a field of sweet yams. The vines are very long on these plants, and they sprawl across the ground in the channels between the mounds. Occassionally, I stumble across a watermelon, which Yahyah has dispersed throughout his crop. The channels between mounds allow for the perfect drainage for watermelon growth, which oddly enough, requires very little water.

As we walk acre after acre, I see the fruitful efforts of years of hard work. Slowly, Yahyah has expanded his crop to the surrounding bush. Land is quite plentiful in West Gonja, the largest district in the Northern Region. The relative fertility of the soil in comparison to areas further north makes it an attractive opportunity for farmers who have been less succesful elsewhere. After an hour of exploring the farm, I see the satisfaction Yahyah expresses in standing amongst his crop. These efforts will pay off if the rains are good when it is time to harvest later in the summer. His cassava roots can sit anywhere from six months to two years between harvests. Letting the root grow larger can fetch a better price at market, but makes the plant more susceptible to the various diseases and weather effects which can quickly destroy a crop.

Yahyah is not the only farmer down this long road from the village. He introduces me to Al-Jafa, a neighboring farmer whose property is as diverse and expansive as Yahyah's. Al-Jafa is not a day under 65, yet four days a week he hops on his bike from Damongo for the four hour trek to this remote farming community. Al-Jafa walks me through his perfectly planted acre of groundnuts, and we continue through the bush for sometime until we come across a wide expanse of maize. Maize is highly susceptible to droughts, and if the rains do not improve, he will risk losing a lot of his crop. Luckily enough, like most farmers in this area, he has an assortment of cassava, yams, groundnuts, bambaram beans, soy, and other various products which will ensure that he can sustain his family if one or more crops is to fail.

We visit the few remaining farms in the area, and after a makeshift repair to ensure my bike makes it back to Damongo, we are on our way down the hilly red-mud roads of West Gonja. I return home five hours later and nearly collapse on the ground of the courtyard. Luckily my nephew is standing near me and brings a bench over just in time. How farmers like Al-Jafi and Yahyah have the energy to travel to their farms several times a week is beyond me.

My best estimates put the round-trip distance at 40-50kms, the majority of which is extremely hilly, sandy terrain. A commute which these men make on a regular basis but one that I can only endure a few times for the remainder of the placement.


Anonymous Trevor said...

You're a trooper Kyle! But as impressive as you are, these Ghanaian farmers are even more so. The enthusiasm that Yahyah had for his farm is awesome!

Keep up the good work, can't wait to hear all your stories when you get home.

Take Care,


08 August, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kyle, I work with your father and he told me to take a look at your recent farming adventure. I think it exhausted your dad as much as you by just reading it.
I have enjoyed your blog and the adventure must seem surreal at times, especially the farmers commute, it makes the 401 seem like a joy.
Best wishes
Peter M

08 August, 2006  
Anonymous denny said...

Yahyah is probobly the greatest name ever, at least how it would sound in English.

Im glad to hear you made it farming, soak up as many aspects of Ghanaian life as you can...

Take care pal,

10 August, 2006  

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