Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hauling Grass Posted by Picasa

More Grass

I'm probably not allowed to post that picture. I found it at Travel Blog and here's the link for this photo and a few more about bicycles in Africa. I'm afraid my idea of "fair use" may be more expansive than it actually is. I've been impressed by how much blogging stimulates learning. Something I'm still learning about is what I'm allowed to do. Depending on your perspective watching the process is either interesting or tedious; the great thing is how easy it is to simply close the window when things become tedious.

I realise that yesterday's post title didn't tell much about its real content. As I've mentioned about writing this blog that I collect links that I imagine are somehow connected and then try to write a post where I can squeeze as many as I can into it. The subject yesterday was ways that culture can be connected. I was impressed by how two Kansas farmers, interested in finding new more profitable crops to grow, became interested in Teff through connecting their African American heritage to an African crop.

Cereals are an important food source the world over. Some of you may have already read or be familiar with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. A quick glance at the Amazon reviews shows criticism of the book, much of it with a rightist flavor. Nevertheless, I found the discussion of the development of human civilizations from a perspective of natural history quite revealing. The economies fueled by the cereals: oats, wheat, and barley, spread across an East-West axis. But these crops were unsuited for growing in tropical climes.

Africa is very ancient geologically and the soils are not particularly fertile. In additon rainfall is low. Through much of the African continent grasses are predominate. Among the introduced crops to Africa the New World corn or maize crop has been very important. That's been a mixed blessing, because on one hand the crop has feed a growing population, but on the other require more annual rainfall to flourish than is often available. Reducing Africa's dependence on corn as a staple crop by growing more suitable crops is a project many are working on. But the food we eat and the ways that we gather to eat are part and parcel of our cultural identity. So changes in what we grow and what we eat must take culture into account.

That's why I thought the story about how the Kansas farmers became interested in Teff so significant. Today at All Africa (Self-Help) Bazaar is a wonderful post about The Full Belly Project. There is so much that's so right about The Full Belly Project and Oscar Blayton's piece at All African Bazaar is worth reading. Related to the Kansas farmers cultural connection with Teff, one of the driving forces behine The Full Belly Project, Jock Brandis made a cultural connection with George Washington Carver while in Mali.

Peanut plants are not grasses, so again I'm off on a tangent. In any case Brandis in Mali saw people growing cotton while not having enough to eat, and he though "peanuts." Looking into the situation in Mali he discovered in order save energy people solar-dried the peanuts before roasting. The raw shells are tough so what was needed was a machine to shell the peanuts. Brandis knows that simple machines are best and invented the Peanut/Groundnut Sheller. That machine has become the central focus of The Full Belly Project. Because of the cultural connections to Carver and also peanut growing in North Carolina they've been very successful in garnering support.

In my bookmarks I have a folder labled "Industrial Hemp." I know that marijuana is widely available in much of Africa as it is here, and that it's illegal most everywhere. Hemp is a very interesting plant in that it can be grown as a valuable fiber crop, or grown as a valuable oil seed crop. Alas the legal and cultural prohibitions surrounding growing it seem insurmountable.

So many of the links in that folder have nothing to do with hemp but another fiber crop called Kenaf. Kenaf isn't a grass either but sort of a giant hollyhock and relative of cotton native to Africa. Kenaf is an enormously productive fiber plant, its attributes I could extol at length, but I'll spare you. What I want to point out is that it's being grown for papermaking--mostly cardboard--and as a subsititute crop for tobacco growers in the U.S. While the crop grows well in the southern U.S. and already there is a developed industial market for the fiber, the plant doesn't have enough warm days to ripen the seeds here. Aha! I thought, we need seeds and African can produce them.

I don't know what to do with thoughts like that. Another bunch of links in my Industrial Hemp folder have to do with Vetiver a warm season bunch grass that Robert Rodale talks about in his book Save Three Lives. A very good smelling essential oil can be distilled from the roots, but perhaps the greatest value for this plant in Africa is for use in water-retention farming methods.

The rule of thumb here in the States is "Farmers are Republicans." It's easy to see why farmers might be conservative, after all you don't want to risk not having something to eat. Africa does need a "Green Revolution" to feed its burgeoning population, but it's clear the petro-chemical based revolution which occured in the West after World War II is the wrong model for Africa.

It's so important for people all over the world who are interested in helping be culturally sensitive; something that with my own foot-in-mouth disease too often I'm not. It's not easy, it won't do just to promise that I'll try harder--and it's not just me. What's necessary is real dialog, finding ways to genuinely connect. That's why more African bloggers are important.

One of Ethan Z's dispatches from the Les Blogs Conference today speaks to the ways and reasons many are trying to prevent blogs and other forms of many-to-many communications. And surely many in African governments are keen to jump on that bandwagon of prevention.

I have confidence that together people all over the globe can weave together strong fabric with threads from many cultures.

Update: The links to travelblog.org don't seem to be working tonight, but I'm pretty sure they're correct, so I'll leave them hoping they'll be restored to functionality soom.

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