Sunday, October 08, 2006

Pulling my weight (in weeds)

“Yes, tomorrow we’ll farm,” Nicholas says to me. He’s the farmer with whom I’m staying in the village of Manga, about two hours away from Tamale. I’ve been badgering Nicholas for two days now, trying to get him to let me lend a hand on his farm.

Nicholas is roughly 60 years old, a short man with a gap-toothed grin that reveals his sly intellect. As his guest, he doesn’t want to encourage me to work. Furthermore, I’m white – I’ve clearly come from a different land, a land where its inhabitants don’t know how to manually wield a small hoe to do hours of labour. He’s right, of course, but I still want to try.

Nicholas announces that he has to leave the house with his wife, but will be back shortly. Suspicious, I ask him where he’s going. He hesitates before answering.

“We’re going to the pepper farm. I’m going to weed and my wife is going to harvest them.”

I ask again to come along, and finally my persistence pays off. Nicholas laughs and agrees to let me tag along.

We walk to his pepper farm, roughly 15 minutes from his house. People stare unabashedly and without pause at the outsider who’s carrying a hoe on his shoulder – not a regular occurrence here.

This chilli pepper plot is small – perhaps a tenth of a hectare – and the peppers are starting to turn red on the vine. It’s our job today to weed in between the rows of plants, clearly away shrubbery and other plants that are growing.

Nicholas explains that this is important to allow airflow through the rows of pepper plants, as well as to expose them to sunshine. The other plants could also sap the soil’s nutrients, reducing the chilli pepper plants’ yields.

We get to work, hoes in hand.

The bulk of a farmer’s work in the field is done bent over at a ninety degree angle, slashing away at weeds, sowing seeds, or harvesting. It’s a difficult and tiring position to stand in, as I discover after about ten minutes of scraping across the soil with the hoe, pulling away any non-pepper greenery.

“You should take a rest,” Nicholas says to me. But, perhaps inflamed by the chilli pepper-infused air, my pride rockets and I stubbornly shake my head. Nicholas shrugs, and continues on with his work.

My hands begin to ache as the sun, periodically bursting forth from behind cloud cover, pelts me with its radiation from above.

An hour passes, and Nicholas again suggests I take a break. My face set in grim determination, I force a polite but firm “no thank you” from my parched throat.

Another hour later and I’m exhausted. I worry that my body will forever be locked into this right-angle position, my hands cemented into a mould of the hoe handle and my liquids depleted from the sweat that’s drenched my t-shirt.

I decide to take a break.

Nicholas carries on, and I feel shame. As I walk toward the shade of a nearby mango tree, Nicholas looks up at me.

“Luke!” he says, “I didn’t know you could farm!”

I’m redeemed. A man who’s spent his life at this labour, who at the age of 60 is clearly stronger, more agile and has greater stamina than I do, has acknowledged my effort. I feel like the student who’s been given a nod of approval from the master teacher.

Nicholas continues his weeding, and I look on, admiring a man whose strength and determination have helped him carve out a life here in this remote community in northern Ghana.




Pictures: 1) blistered hands; 2) an old man in Manga; 3) Nicholas and me. Posted by Picasa

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Man, I love peppers. Weeding is great too. I spent a summer weeding in Upper Canada for the national government. Sounds like we took more breaks than you though.

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