Index of Articles

 

Books by Barbara Bamberger Scott

   

 

 

 

 

 

Are you interested in MYTH and LEGEND?  Then you might find one of these Homestead.org articles handy:

An Early History of Rock by Karen Hanson

Weather Lore and Superstitions by Sherrie Taylor

The Origin of Corn by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

The Origin of the Robin, by Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

 

 

Kalahari Desert

 

Stop! Don't Feed That Pigweed to the Pigs!

by Barbara Bamberger Scott

I had to go to Africa to discover pigweed.  But -- once smitten, never forgotten.  I was smitten with the country, the people, and the tiny green plants that gave me my first “aha” moment about the connection between agriculture and human culture.  

It was our first assignment overseas.  We were sent to Botswana by British Quakers to assist a rural village near the capital city to initiate small-scale agricultural projects appropriate to desert conditions.  We had received some rather remarkable training in small-scale biodynamic agriculture at a Rudolf-Steiner-based adult learning center in England (see Can You Double Dig It, Ruth Stout, the No-Dig Dutchess, Farmers of Forty Centuries, and Buddhist Economics at www.Homestead.org for more about my adventures with bio-dynamics).   

I did my homework: Botswana’s predominant population is the Batswana (one person is a Motswana and the language is Setswana).  The Batswana are noted for their tolerance; they were so neighborly they helped the British invaders transport cannon and other materiel into the country so they could be taken over as the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland.  Batswana women make beautiful baskets.  The country is widely considered one of the most comfortable for visitors – no wars, stable government, pleasant climate. 

When I was there in the early 1980s the effects of modernity were only visible in the capital city.  Beyond that, where we were assigned, was the vast Kalahari Desert.  To understand the degree to which development was needed, one had only to observe that times of famine were accepted as the norm, blindness from malnutrition was common, and the village clinic generally stocked nothing more than rudimentary first aid supplies except when a doctor might, or might not, visit on no known schedule. 

Our first dwelling there was a 3-room block structure with polished mud floors, no running water, and no electricity.  There was a privy out back.  We moved in as soon as we could, anxious to begin our work.  We had the usual adventures associated with life in Africa.  I encountered a scorpion in the bathtub, and we found something that resembled a tarantula on the front stoop.  One night we heard a strange humming and clacking and looked out to see the windows of our hut covered with cicadas whose onslaught continued for about an hour and then just as suddenly, stopped.  By morning the bugs were all dead, their thousands of corpses littering the ground around the house.  

What kept us charged up from day to day was the apparent intense interest that everyone in the village had about us, and their willingness to do just about whatever we suggested.  We thought we were making great headway as we talked to the village nurse and even the chief about plans for big projects: a community garden, a chicken house, and a childcare center for pre-schoolers.  It was pretty exciting stuff for the times.  

But we were ignorant.  We had never lived in a desert, and it soon became obvious to us that we had no idea what to do to improve crop yields.  In fact we had no idea what crops would grow in the rocky sand in a place where moisture was so scarce that the same word – “pula” – means money, luck, and rain.  And the puzzling thing was that, even though there did appear to be some itty-bitty green leaves peeking out of the sand that spring, all the locals told us that they never, never ate any indigenous plants.  No, no, never!  The only crop they cultivated, the only food they grew, was mealies, aka corn, which fed the skinny cattle and provided to the people a mush of sorts appropriately called mealie meal, cooked a bit thicker than grits, eaten whenever food was eaten.  In fact, white corn meal was THE food.  Without it, we were solemnly assured, the Batswana would die. 

Before we went to Botswana, we had studiously prepared ourselves, and had determined that local people did eat some local food: they ate grubs, a gooey delicacy called mopane worms.  Without regret I can say I never saw, or ate, a mopane worm, though books about Botswana always mentioned them.  But for some reason, no one in our village had ever eaten one.  Nor had they ever eaten the pleasant-looking dark green plants that were becoming more and more noticeable with each passing day. 

Not long after our arrival in the village we were very fortunate to meet an old “Africa hand” named Vernon Gibberd – rather like Tarzan, this tall, handsome English scholar had “gone native” and lived with his family out in “the bush.”  Vernon was (and I believe still is) a noted expert in water collection for desert climates.  He is also a writer; most recently I have seen his reviews of the delightful Botswana mystery stories of Alec Campbell, another Englishman who became enchanted by the country.  But above all, Vernon was a sincere Quaker who was open to people and easily gained their trust.  He was a grab-bag of folk lore mixed with solid science.  It was he who informed us that no Motswana would ever admit to eating grubs or native plants, not because they didn’t, but because they had been shamed out of admitting it by white missionaries, just as they had been shamed and bullied into wearing pants and shirts and bustles and aprons. 

Inspired by this knowledge, we went back to our humble dwelling and began to prepare a bed for the little green plants, which, Vernon had informed us, were amaranth, a rejected but healthy food source and a well-kept secret all over the Third World.  In a week or so with careful husbandry we had an impressive garden.  Impressive because in a desert, we had nurtured something green.  Nature had put it there for us to ponder and we had arranged it in rows, with raised beds and what compost we could gather, and bathwater for a rain substitute.  We began to bring the village nurse around to look at our little green plants, and to ask her if the nurses would like to grow this health-giving vegetable alongside the clinic, a sadly neglected site with plenty of room for a garden.  Eventually it would grow alongside the new childcare center, too.  

What I remember best about that small crop of amaranth was its taste.  We cooked sprigs with our eggs each day for breakfast and we agreed it made our corpuscles sing.  The flavor was a cross between mustard greens and spinach, kind of chewy, not too slimy.  It seemed to have no difficulty being green.  

The other thing I remember is that even though supposedly no one ate it, everyone stole it.  This happened at the clinic garden as well.  Someone was taking that amaranth, and it wasn’t goats, even though they are nature’s garbage cans, because we put up goat fencing that could probably have been used effectively in trench warfare.  

I believed then that amaranth like many other greens is only edible when young.  Ours never had a chance to grow to a ripe old age, never to the point of developing the characteristic red sprays of grain (grown for decoration in the lazy North of the world). But the leaves are in fact still edible when full-grown, and are so prized in the Caribbean that the word for amaranth gumbo, callaloo, is synonymous with the entire cuisine, and with a culture of music, dance, and a sassy celebration of life.   

In Botswana, doubtless because of the dearth of water, and because no one valued it enough to apply waste-water to it as we did (and because, to be fair, only profligate Americans took baths luxurious enough to allow for any waste), amaranth was not a recognized crop.  It took us a long time to understand that our assertion that such a crop could be grown in a desert climate was the kind of mad fantasy that many outsiders are afflicted with when they come to a Third World country to “help” and “develop.”  The native people who had to live with drought and famine in long cycles over lifetimes had “developed” some pretty admirable techniques for dealing with those conditions.  We would come and go, as they well knew, and they would stay and survive. Vernon Gibberd also understood this, and that’s why he decided to live in Africa, in order to help Africa.  

Continued on page 2   >

 

 

submit to reddit

Index of Articles

 
Custom Search
Hit Counter