Friday, July 23, 2010

Pa Sam at his farmhouse near Vaama Nongowa - 1969

© by Chad Finer

PA SAM: a farmer in the tiny village of Vaama in Nongowa Chiefdom – he was a shrewd and hard working man who grew upland rice on the hills around his village. In Vaama there were about ten houses. The village was situated near the River Moa and about 4 or 5 miles from where we lived. It was reachable only by bush trails. Pa Sam was a well-respected man both due to his hard work but also his outspoken leadership. When times were tough he was generous seeing to it that others had rice to get them through. Although he welcomed help, much of his farm work was done alone. I did give him a minor degree of help out on his upland farm and remember how very impressed I came away after that experience. My hand was blistered from the brushing, and I was exhausted from the heat and humidity of the day…of course I had the luxury of going back to my work in Kenema. For Pa Sam this was what he did every day. I remember that day being somewhat overcast so we didn’t get the full sun to exhaust us – but whether we were brushing or scratching the rice seed into the soil – it was backbreaking work. At midday – Pa Sam got out his climbing apparatus and climbed a nearby palm tree to fill several “bulies” with palm wine to quench our thirst. For lunch we enjoyed whatever I had packed (probably peanut butter and jelly for me) and the palm wine. Palm wine had a yeasty taste to it – and required time to get used to. However – on a hot and humid day – when you had worked hard – it was perfect. If you drank too much you would get intoxicated since the wine had a moderate alcohol content. This photo of Pa Sam was taken at his farm lean-to (they called it a farmhouse). Mende farmers used the slash-and-burn method to clear their land. For the most part, in those days they did not like working in swamps to grow swamp rice and they did not like the taste of swamp rice. I can confirm that their upland rice had a much better taste. The uniqueness of the swamp rice is that you could get two growing seasons in compared to the uplnd rice which took at leat 6 months to mature. Each year a new area would be brushed, cleared, burned, then planted. This farming method was not good for the soil – but the brown rice that was grown had a terrific almost meaty taste to it. Farms were cleared early in the year, and planting was accomplished. When the rains came rice easily grew on the uplands. At the end of the rains the rice would be harvested by hand. It was rice that was the staple in Mendeland. A number of sauces might be added, palm oil gave it more flavor and an orange color, and then the hot pepper gave it an additional flavor. For us westerners the pepper took some time to get used to but after a while I got to really tolerate the pepper well and enjoyed what it added. Our so-called “English chop” began to taste quite bland – almost tasteless to me.

This photo of Pa Sam is my very favorite. Somehow I was able to get him to sit for me at his farm after a very hard day of work. This farm lean-to was a place in the rice uplands to get out of the sun – it was where a rice meal would be cooked at the end of the day. If it rained – it was a place to stay dry. Many times Pa Sam’s wife, Massa, would come out with him and help with the work – which might include cooking a rice meal. As night approached they would pack up the few belongings and head back to their village. In the picture Pa Sam has his usual serious expression. He is wearing a somewhat well-used and ragged tie-dyed shirt that he might wear on walking to the farm from Vaama but which he certainly took off while working on the farm – his umbrella and his unusual overcoat are in the background.I remember the beret that he usually wore to be red in color. Many rural Mende men wore berets. During the rain season weather was deemed cold and certainly damp by the Mende and so this must have been the reason for the overcoat being nearby. A small hand broom is seen against one of the supports – this broom was used to keep the cooking area and the lean-to floor clean. There is also a sling on the support that Pa Sam sits on - this sling, when filled with a few stones would be used to drive the birds from eating the rice seed. In the background (on the right) the rice can be seen with seed – this indicates to me that I took this photo near the end of the rain season (perhaps October or November 1969) at a time just prior to when the rice was to be harvested. For Pa Sam to pose for a picture was unusual – he was so workman-like with little time for such frivolity. However – for some reason he agreed to pose for the picture which became my very favorite portrait of all that I took during my years in Sierra Leone.I do have a series on him climbing a palm tree to get palm wine - I will post the series soon.

1 comment:

Casey said...

I found your blog while searching for blogs about Sierra Leone, where a friend of mine is among the Peace Corps group that went there in June. It's great! Your photos are beautiful and it's insprired me to do something similar with my own photos from Peace Corps (Turmenistan 2005-07). What better way to talk about experiences and memories of people and events during service than through photos. Thanks for the inspiration and the fantastic blog.