Down on the Farm: Picture Stories from an African Corn Harvest

The corn stalks are high;

The kernels are yellow.

Rainy season says bye;

Harvest time says hello.

This one’s for all the farmers out there. 

***
My time in Tanzania has coincided nicely with the growing season. I arrived about six weeks into the rainy season (late January). Seeds are placed into the earth soon after the rains start to fall. When I took my first walks around the village, the seeds had sprouted and were now bright green toddler crops.

Like in the U.S., corn is king in central Tanzania.

And like people, corn grows up so fast.

As the spring months came and passed, day by day by week, the stalks soon became taller than the people.

And taller than a home

Corn is like man. When it comes of age, hair grows from its ears.

Soon it was time to collect that which nature so generously provided.

The harvest moon was upon us.

Late April in southern hemisphere Tanzania means it’s time to reap what was sowed.

***

The morning of April 30th, I put on my jogging shoes to run down to the river and back. On my way down the rough road, though, my jog was interrupted by a group of young men loading a mountain of ears into the bed of a truck. I had been seeing these super-sized trucks driving by here and there and filled to the brim with what must have been thousands of cobs.

Call me a fan of fate (or lazy and looking for an excuse to not exercise), but curiosity with this frame of Tanzanian life took over, and I approached the gang. There were about eight young guys from 30-somethings up in the cab and bed of the truck arranging the cobs, down to a few adolescents loading up the haul.

I offered a couple “habari”s (Swahili for “what’s up?”) and smiles. Then without saying another word, I started for the pile of cobs, leaned over and grabbed a handful, and started throwing them into the truck. Figured I could help and exercise at the same time. I started loading in the way I thought would be best: placing several cobs under one arm with the opposite hand. But I often had one cob drop for everyone I added. Not getting too far, I looked at how some others were doing it and bundled 6-7 together in a little corn cob pyramid and hoisted them in crane fashion with my two hands over the tall, rear gate of the truck bed.

Hearing the word “picha” (picture) and “mzungu” (white person) about seven times each, I looked up to see that some of the guys stopped working and started snapping shots of me with their phones. Since they pictured me, I figured it was safe to do the same to them. Before we finished, I ran back to the school to grab my camera. Returning back down the hill ten minutes later, I saw the truck sooner than I hoped as it was already bouncing slowly along the bumpy uphill path toward me. 

“Shoot!” I said, having missed my chance to capture them during their work. They saw me standing alongside the road and stopped for their own greeting toward their mzungu corn cob carrying helper.

After snapping the shot, I walked to the back and hopped aboard.

On the way up the bumpy hill, I tried to communicate. One guy with an engorged hat and the right amount and right style of facial hair prompted me to ask him, “Rastafarian?”

“Yes” he indicated with a nodding smile.

I gave him a peace sign and he offered his own pleased reciprocation.

When we got to Magulilwa town center only a mile up the road, I was told this was the end of the line. So I hopped out, said goodbye, and took a few parting shots.

These guys had themselves a nice pile of corn, but I knew this was also just a foundation for the loads these trucks could boast. And just a day or two later, this one stopped right in front of my school.

***

After weeks of being stripped of what they worked all season to produce, the stalks transform as do the leaves in a Minnesota fall. All the green is drained, leaving behind the parched, pale-yellow remains.

What to do with all this?

Phase two of the harvest: collecting the stalks. This work has been conducted starting in July and leading up to the present day.

Once again, I was on my way to jog down to the river. This time it was July 25th, and I made it all the way to the T in the road, where beyond this point men and women were collecting the stalks into those teepee-looking piles. Again, I had my exercise interrupted for a workout of local culture and their daily labor.

There were three in this plot, a young woman and man and a middle-aged woman. The stalks already hacked and collected into piles, these three simply took these unwieldy piles into their arms and walked them to the ever-growing, shed-sized upright mounds.

I thought to get my hands dirty once more and started in. It’s honestly a pleasure to help as the locals invariably get a kick out of it. And it gives me an idea of what this life would be like. I have to extrapolate the effort as I didn’t stay for too long. In all, I helped collect maybe 15 piles. In the process, needle-like seeds peppered my clothing by poking into the fabric of my socks, shoelaces, and shorts.

It’s all just part of the life for these villagers.

Soon, the hacker man came by, needing to stay a step ahead of the collectors.

There was no daycare for the young woman. Turns out that the mound of blankets I had seen off to the edge of the field, tucked in near some bushes, had a baby in it.

At the end of my mini-shift, mom came over to see about her little boy.

Now that he was awake, she wrapped him to her back and went back to work. Being a mom doesn’t slow these women down.

The next day from my room, I looked out across the road from my window. A group of women labored away on their own corn stalk teepee.

***

Finally, these teepees are collected. I’m told they become cow food.

But first, there’s one last run-through to get every last ear. And just two days ago, August 22nd, I bumped into these guys doing just that.

So, I gave them a hand to lend to their ears.

***

I’ve now been here in Tanzania from sprout to finish.

It’s been a process little altered over the years. It’s how they live; it’s how they make a satisfying life.

It is their agri-culture.

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2 Responses to “Down on the Farm: Picture Stories from an African Corn Harvest”

  1. Matt Vinez says:

    Couldn’t help but notice the Cleveland Browns fan in the corn truck! Go Browns!

  2. Maggie Ferdig says:

    Beautiful pics! I love that you always jump in to help!

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