Saturday, March 14, 2009

An Agricultural Life

Hey all,

The dry season is fading into the rainy season, slowly, here in Brong-Ahofa. The rain pounds out a hell of a rhythm on the tin ceiling of my home, but the morning after the storm-when the dry, cracked ground has transformed into loose, black soil-is magic. The storms themselves are pretty magical as well, Africa does not mess around when it comes to lightning. You get proper lightning here, giant arcs of incandescent light like nothing I've ever seen before.

I wanted to let everyone know first of all that over the last month I've been able to clear some personal hurdles and my service in Ghana has become a lot more enjoyable. It's still hard, don't get me wrong, and I don't think about the whole two-year timeframe very much, it's too big to mentally swallow, but things are better than they've been. That's a combination of the projects beginning to take shape, learning more and integrating better into my Ghanaian home, and also really starting to love this part of Ghana. It's like anything else, sometimes it can be easier to care for a small, familiar region instead of a big, slightly abstract thing like a state or a country. I like Ghana, don't get me wrong, but I love Brong-Ahofa. It's beautiful, and it's beautiful in different ways in different places, from the huge rock faces outside of Techiman to the cashew and teak plantations in my, northwestern part of B-A.

I've said before that B-A is a largely agricultural region. Most of the people here are farmers, and even those with some other job tend to have farms that they work on the weekends. Since I have a growing interest in agriculture, farming has been the thing that allows me to talk to people, enter into their lives, learn from their experience, and share, in a small way, some things I've learned from Peace Corps. My formal Peace Corps projects are rolling, and I promise to write more about them in detail next time, but progress is slow, and you've got to find your own way to be here, your own work to do, every day, that lets you just be in this community long enough for those little bits of progress-a conversation with someone knowledgeable, a connection, discovering an interest in a particular project, etc.-sort of coalesce around you. It's not that it's passive, you have to very actively pursue these wisps of progress and sort of snatch them out of the air, but you've got to be there to catch them. And since this process is taking place on a long timeline, what are you going to do so that people know you, know who you are, and that you in some small way know them?

Different volunteers find different answers to that question. Some of my colleagues are working in clinics, others in schools, others doing a mixture of things. My answer has been to join in my community's agricultural life, to practice what we learned in Peace Corps training and more importantly learn from my Ghanaian hosts and my Ghanaian friends. I like that it makes Peace Corps more of an exchange. Yeah, I'm here to "help" but they're teaching me how to farm. Some days I go with friends to their farmland, and learn how to dig last year's yams out of the mounds with the hoe, how to tie next year's seed yams to bamboo racks so they won't be spoiled by moisture and insects lying on the ground, and how to use a machete to clear woody brush from fallow land in preparation for the coming season.

At my house I've fenced a small garden area where my compost pile is humming away producing black soil, and seed beds with three hundred leucaena tree seedlings are quietly growing under shade in preparation for transplantation sometime in April. More on that next time. I've got sturdy cassia siamea growing in bags to plant around my house for shade, although they won't reach sufficient height until long after I'm gone. Since most of the land around my house is unusable thanks to a rampaging herd of uncooperative sheep that destroy everything, I've also got some thorny acacia nilotica trees coming up beautifully, take that you ravenous bastards. I've also got some broad leafed albizia lebbek and delicate acacia mangium growing, for no better reason than that they're beautiful saplings and I want to see what they look like as they mature. I'm clearing the rest of the land in the garden area for vegetable seedlings once the rain comes in earnest at the end of March.

I also have a farm, albeit a very small one, out in the bush some distance from my house, as well as from the sheep. It's a beautiful place, under the shadow of a huge old mango tree that is heavy with fruit. The farmers tell me they'll ripen in mid-April, and I'm going to eat myself sick on them. This I have planned. Right now we're just clearing the brush from my small plot, in preparation for burning it to kill the weeds and some kind of small nematode worm that I'm told is resident in the soil. My friend Julius is farming a plot to one side, and my counterpart's son on another, and I'm going to learn from them how to plant the yams that are the staple crop of Brong-Ahofa, as well as some green vegetables and hot peppers to diversify my diet a little bit.

Alongside learning the basics of this agricultural work, I've also been traveling more within the region, visiting my Peace Corps neighbors to learn about their projects, get technical help, and attend a couple administrative meetings. It's good, there are very few volunteers in Brong-Ahofa, I don't have the most remote site in Ghana, but am among the most remote in terms of distance from cities and isolation from other volunteers. That said, there is a social network of people here, some of whom are from my training group and others who are new friends. Meeting them, seeing their communities, and becoming more familiar with the regional centers of Sunyanni and Techiman has made me more appreciative of this area.

OK, next time: details on what the hell I'm actually doing here, project wise. We are planting a new kind of fast-growing tree that has potential as a cash crop and as a source of balanced nutrition, pulling together a mushroom growing cooperative, and potentially getting some PC funding to help establish a computer center for the schools in Asiri and surrounding towns. It's cool. The people here are cool, the place is cool, the work is cool. It's still difficult as hell but right now things are going all right. Oh yeah, and I figured out the postal system, so send me your postal address and I'll write you a letter! Got a lot of time in the evenings while watching the lightning storms to write.


Anonymous said...

Hey Sam! Did you get our package? Our address is:
93 McGrath Pond Rd.
Oakland ME 04963

We'd love to get a letter from you! I'm so glad to hear that you're doing well and settling in.

We think of you every day! Be well and keep in touch.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sam,
I love reading your entries. It sounds like you're really becoming quite the farmer - maybe you can help me plant a decent garden one of these days. I've had no luck the 2 times I've tried since we've been in our house. Anyway, I'm glad to know you're settling in & are feeling the give & take that comes with being a part of the community.
Love you,
Aunt Debbie

raistlyn said...

Hey Sam,
Its catelin Lindsay. Your mom told me you were in Ghana. Been following your blog. Your living my dream man and once I finish my BA I plan on following you, joining Peace Corps and teaching kids. Drop me a line email is:

Anonymous said...

Hi Sam--it's mom, dad, and Hannah and we loved your post. We are in Ft Stockton in prep for going into Big Bend tomorrow. The land her is wide open mesas and scrub trees and we saw the biggest wind farm on our way. I now believe that the SW can solve some of our energy issues--there's plenty of open space for the windmills here! We will get some postcards and send you pictures of the landscape. Mom et al