15 December 2008

Life is Rice; Rice is Life

Most all of you know by now that rice is a cultural obsession here in Madagascar and that it is eaten by the heaping plateful at every meal. When I am invited to someone’s house, what acts as more of an indicator of how Gasy I have become than my level of fluency in the language is the amount of rice that I eat (“Well, he’s kind of dumb but at least he knows how to eat rice,” I can hear my hosts thinking). It occurred to me, however, that perhaps not all of you fully grasp what it means to eat rice so frequently here. Of course, you know that it’s not buying a big bag at Costco (or reusing your own at the bulk bins of the Co-op), popping it into the rice cooker, and sitting down to meal. But how involved a process is it? I’ll spare you the technical details, which us environment volunteers love so much, on this journey from field to table, but I hope you will nonetheless get a sense of why rice is more than a meal here, why its a way of life.
First stop: tanim-bary, or rice paddy. In the Central Valley of California we have huge paddies - expansive, flat, mechanised operations, complete with aerial pest control – that contribute a large amount to world rice stores. Needless to say, that is a model not readily adopted here in Madagascar. Aside from not having the capital to purchase the inputs (tractors, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.), the topography is too rugged to permit such large-scale operations. There are a couple of areas, like near Lac Aloatra, the so-called bread basket of Madagascar, where tractors are in use, but by and large, what feeds people here are small-scale, organic, labour-intensive, family ‘farms’.
We have all seen pictures of Burma and Thailand with the beautifully terraced hill slopes, neatly distributing water through all the level fields. That is pretty incredible technology and speaks to the power of cultural heritage to pass along and perfect an agricultural technique over thousands of years. We have paddies like those here, too, passed down from that same cultural heritage and thought to have been brought with the last wave of Indo-Polynesian settlers maybe 500 years ago. Their descendants, the Betsileo, live on the plateau and are known for their rice culture. They build terraces every bit as impressive as the Burmese. But many of the tribes, such as those near me in the South East, don’t possess this inherited knowledge and use different techniques. The people in my region have traditionally lived in relation to the forest. Aside from harvesting many products from the forest, they practice slash and burn agriculture. After clearing a tract of forest, they grow rice and manioc on the hillsides using the stored nutrients for a year or two, until they are depleted, and then repeating the process with a new tract. But now that the forest is nearly gone and slash and burn is illegal, they are having to learn how to build paddies and manage the land more sustainably. It is hard work, and rice is now grown mostly in valley bottoms here- not yet on hillside terraces.
The stages of rice’s journey that take place in the tanim-bary will be recognizable to anyone who has spent some time on a farm. First, before rice even enters the story, the paddies need to be prepared. Here, that means men and cattle will be out tromping in the pudding like mud, mixing in manure, and flattening whatever weeds grew in the off season, until man and beast are equally unrecognisable under their sun-baked, grey plaster coats. It takes a few days and if there aren’t cattle, the work is all done by hand.
Then for the next couple weeks women will be transplanting seedlings, one by one, throughout the valleys. They are bent over for hours and their work is punctuated by the sounds of conversation and laughter (at least every time that I walk by or help out). I find it to be a really pleasant activity, but were I to do it for as long as they, I am sure that I would awaken moaning from a sore back.
After the planting comes the weeding of course - a couple times over the next month until the plants are big enough to shade the competition. The men use tools if they have them and the women use their hands. Rice takes about three months to grow so the next two months will then be turned to other tasks.
My favourite part of the process is harvest, not solely because I get to indulge in the pleasure of playing with sharp things. The men work in a line, spread out shoulder to shoulder, cutting swaths with their razor sharp sickles, as the women follow behind bundling the severed stalks with a stray piece of straw. A morning spent harvesting is an incredibly rewarding experience. It is the climax of a story that we have been telling repeatedly for the last 12,000 years (not to mention the, what, 2 million? year old roots of playing with sharp things). A fair comparison is made in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, when he describes the exultation Levin feels while participating in the wheat harvest.
I think most North Americans, including myself, have a hard time picturing what happens to the rice next, up until we see it on the shelf at the grocery store. Maybe it travelled across the world; but even if you live in California and are lucky enough to eat Lundberg’s organic basmati grown along the I5 it’s no less mystifying where that rice has travelled and what machines, factories and warehouses it has visited along the way to transform a petulant stalk of seed heads into those pearly white maggots in a bag. You’ll have to turn to other sources to solve that mystery. I do know, on the other hand, what happens every step of the way from the fields surrounding my town here in Madagascar to my plate. It may be laborious, but it is intelligible.
Once it is taken from the field, and before being dried in the sun, the rice needs to be threshed. In my area, the women take a bundle of rice on a straw mat or tarp and knead it with their feet. The loose grains fall from the matted stalks, which when removed, leave a golden pile of unhulled rice. You can imagine how much time it takes to thresh a whole hectare worth of rice in this manner, which is how much one family can reasonably handle, provided they are lucky enough to have rights to that much land.
I don’t know where the origins of the word ‘thresh,’ as I neglected to pack a good dictionary in my suitcase, but after participating in the use of another threshing technique I’m sure it must be related to the word thrash. In out training village on the plateau, a big rock or oil drum is laid out, again on a mat or cleared area, and a big bundle of stalks is taken in each hand and beat against the object repeatedly until all the grains have flown loose, showering the area with loose rice. If any of you enjoy beating a punching bag when you are stressed, you should try this. Another great thing is that the whole family gets to participate.
After threshing, some poor girl gets suckered into watching rice dry on woven mats laid out in the sun for a couple days, fending off the voracious chickens, ducks, pigs, and whatever else attempts to gorge itself on the oh so tempting bounty. If it is for family consumption it will get stored in this state in large gunny sacks until needed. But if bound for market, it will need to be hulled. In wealthy areas it is taken to a hulling machine, but for most families (wives) this means pounding it in a giant mortar and pestle, sometimes in a rhythmic refrain with one or two other women.
If you are be or another ‘city’ dweller, this is when you get to buy the rice. In my market there is a row of people from the country, all sitting with their baskets of rice and one of the ubiquitous kapaoka, or tin can measuring devices. All the rice is the same price but there will be different varieties and varying states of unhulledness and bug-filledness (very technical terms) and it is your job as a shopper to find the good stuff.
Before cooking, it still must be winnowed and washed. For many families, this process is repeated before every meal. After being picked through for unhulled grains, bugs and stones, it is tossed in a sahafa to remove any light bits of hull that are left. It now looks like what you are used to eating, except that it is of a varying shade of red, a characteristic of our special Malagasy varieties.
It remains paradoxical to me that for how much effort goes into the cultivation and preparation of this culturally defining foodstuff, there is next to zero effort in the actual cooking. Attention all good Persians: read no further – what follows may horrify you. In the absence of temperature control, the idea seems to be to get the flames as hot as possible, toss rice into a pot full of water, cover, and wait. Sometimes its too dry, usually its soggy and mushy, and always the rice on the sides and bottom are burnt. Turning this into a virtue, we re-boil water in the pot and drink this as a tea. Being that most Malagasy seem to drink nothing else, this has become the national drink. In fact, it is important enough that technologies introduced to help reduce fuel wood consumption (like solar cookers) have failed here because while they cook the rice just fine, they don’t get hot enough to burn the rice.
The Malagasy obviously take pride in their rice culture and know more about the varieties and subtleties of the farming practices than us volunteers can ever hope to learn, even though we are busy teaching them new techniques (S.R.I. is cultivation process that has spread throughout the rice growing world. It has yet to catch on here, even though, ironically enough, it was originally developed in this country). Nevertheless, that pride has infected us volunteers, too. There was one volunteer who, while doing business in the capital for a few days, bought a bag of clean rice at the Malagasy Wal-mart because he was tired of winnowing it. When we saw what he bought it took a little while to register in our brains, but then we all burst out laughing at the novelty of it. Now if you see me in a couple years standing petrified in front of those bulk food bins, you’ll have some idea what might be going through my mind.