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Community harvest


Musicians spur on the harvesters.

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Beating fonio to release the grain.

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January 8, 2010
-Lillian Haas Nicolson

ORODARA, Burkina Faso — We heard the melodic balaphone from several kilometres away.  The traditional wooden xylophone led us to a worksite where a line of 15 young men flayed a huge pile of dried grasses with long, thin sticks. They were beating fonio, a traditional staple grain, in time to the music and in competition with each other.  Straw and fonio seeds clung to their sweat-covered skin. 

During regular intervals different people from the crowd approached the musicians, stopping the music to offer praise or good-natured insults to one of the “beaters” or threshers in order to heighten the competition. Then the speech-maker would toss a coin to the musicians and the competition continued, keeping time with the requested song. Work and play, dance and song mingled together to accomplish the task at hand.

Fonio is grown in a narrow belt across Burkina Faso. It is smaller than grass seed but more nutritious than other grains; a handful can feed a family. During harvest, a large area of meadow is cleared and swept and pounded. The thigh-high fonio grass is cut with machetes and piled in this cleared area. The grass is then beaten until the seeds fall to the ground, separating them from the stalk. The stalks are shaken to release any remaining seed and then and piled on the side of the grain field. Finally, the seed is swept off the ground and packed in sacks.

Unfortunately, corn has largely replaced fonio as a staple food because it is less labour intensive and it produces more sacks of grain per hectare than other grains. But in order to produce such yields, corn requires vast amounts of expensive and hard-to-find fertilizer which must be applied at the appropriate time. Otherwise, the harvest will be smaller than the volume of seed planted.

Sadly, although fonio does not need fertilizer and is more drought-resistant than corn, it is planted only as insurance against starvation in case other grains fail.

In a traditional fonio beating, everyone plays a role. Young men cut and beat the plants .Old men turn the cut stalks to expose the seed on the bottom and haul away the straw, while women cook a huge meal for everyone and then, after the meal, cheer the beaters to work harder. Even children take part, playing in the straw and watching how a fonio harvest unfolds in anticipation of the day when they are old enough to help with the harvest.

To my North American mind it would seem economically sound and easier to harvest with a threshing machine. Less seed would be lost, the grain would be cleaner and one family could harvest it on their own. Perhaps having a machine would encourage farmers to cultivate more of this nutritious, delicious cereal.

On the other hand, using a threshing machine would destroy the community spirit accompanying harvest, as people would no longer need each other.  And who would choose the roar of an engine over the music and laughter of a community harvest?

Lillian (Haas) Nicolson and her husband Norm Nicolson are Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Mennonite Mission Network workers engaging in language and literacy ministries in Burkina Faso.