Groundnut Harvesting and Cattle Management
Life with a Mandinka Family in The Gambia - West Africa


The day started with an exploratory walk into the  surrounding bush .. which, when you are walking through it, does not look too dense. However, I well remember getting totally lost on my first ever visit, when I decided

to go for a short walk. Despite a normally good sense of direction, after winding my way through the smallish thorn bushes for about twenty minutes, I suddenly realised that I had absolutely no idea which way was back. With no water to drink on a boiling hot day, I was luckily rescued by a couple of Fula lads. Remarkable, as neither of us could understand each other and I could not remember Mohammed's family name or the name of the village the farm was in !! Thanks again lads.

Although Mohammed had visited his family regularly over the years since he had left the farming home to live and work in Serrekunda, it had been a long time since he had walked outside its boundaries to rediscover the areas which he had known so well as a child growing up on the farm.

Following well-worn tracks through the bush, we eventually came to the River Gambia and looked down on the glorious sight of Fula herdsmen, ferrying a herd of around 150 cattle and calves across

the river. During the Winter months of the dry season, young male members of the nomadic Fula tribe walk hundreds of miles across the countries of West Africa, herding their cattle and looking for fresh grazing pastures. Not only was it an amazing sight, it was also a very noisy one. The method was to ferry a few calves over in a boat first and then rely on the horrendous noise they made calling for their mothers, to encourage the adult cows to swim in the correct direction, tied to the sides of the boat with ropes around their necks It seemed to be working very well, if not slowly .. with 6 or so adults taken across at a time .. and presented some marvellous photo opportunities.

 As we left the Fula herdsmen to finish off ferrying the rest of the herd

across the river, I asked them where they were going to next ? They told me they were heading towards The Casamance .. which was far away. Their journey would take them approximately a month !

We carried on along the path, seeing a variety of trees .. bare-branched Baobabs silhouetted against the superb blue sky and other's .. having no leaves, but covered in white blossom. The shell of a building caught my eye and Mohammed explained that before Basse had become the major business centre of the region, the area we were walking through had been an important trading post settlement, set up and run by early Gambian, European and Lebanese traders. The building we were looking at had been the home and shop of one of these traders and .. according to an inscribed stone we found nearby .. people had been trading there until at least 1923. The flat stone floors and foundations of very much earlier buildings could also be seen, built into the top of the riverbank .. evidently many hundreds of years old .. but now just sparse remnants of earlier civilisations, almost lost beneath a covering of sand. I have yet to find any documentary evidence about this, but I will.

Heading away from the river in the direction of the farm, we discovered a large shallow lake, covered with a variety of flowering aquatic plants and flocks of white Egrets. Ever ready to get as close as possible, despite Mohammed's concerns that there were probably snakes hiding in the undergrowth .. I snapped a few pictures of the birds, who seemed quite unconcerned at my approach.

As we were watching the Egrets, a small herd of cattle walked out from under the trees and into the water for a drink .. closely followed by their Fula herdsmen, who rounded them up and brought them towards us.  Some other young Fulas arrived .. with a herd of calves belonging to the water-drinking adults .. and the two herds joined up. We followed them along the path and emerged into an open area of cultivation where many of Mohammed's family were busy harvesting groundnuts.

Although I have travelled widely in West Africa and seen fields of groundnuts ( peanuts )  growing,
I had never actually seen them being harvested. This was a whole new experience and showed just why most African farming families have many children. In the absence of very expensive machinery, everything is done by hand .. and the more hands you have the better !

 In the botanical sense, the groundnut or peanut ( Arachis hypogaea ) is actually a legume ( fruit pod ) and not a true nut. After pollination, the fruit develops into a legume 1 to 2 inches ( 3 to 7 cm ) long, containing
1 to 4 seeds, which forces its way underground to mature. It gained Western popularity when it came to the United States from Africa. Native to South America, it was imported into Africa from Brazil by the Portuguese around 1800 and is one of The Gambia's major cash crops.
Click the picture above for a pictorial explanation of how groundnuts are harvested by hand in many parts of West Africa .. before eventually becoming roasted and salted snacks, ground into peanut butter or refined into oil .. for sale all over the world. I joined in with separating the nuts from the stalks using the special sticks and was evidently quite successful at it. Amongst a lot of laughter .. promotion to honorary groundnut harvester was conferred !! Yes, it was great fun learning the way, but I was fully aware of the constant daily hard work that is necessary for this family to survive.

Something which has occurred to me whilst writing this account is that not only do these farming methods go back centuries .. they can be closely compared with early Neolithic times. Excluding the comparative modernity of this crop and the use of plastic buckets and the iron plough ( not very long ago they were made from wood ) consider this: The land is ploughed using animal power, harvesting is done by hand, the separation of the seeds from the plants ( which we call threshing )
is done with wooden sticks. Separating good from bad ( which we call winnowing ) uses the natural power of the wind and the ladies separate some of the nuts ( decortication ) from the pods by hand.
Because stone  suitable for making into millstones is not available in these areas, groundnuts, couscous, rice and maize are still ground by hand in large wooden pestles and mortars .. and then cooked on wood or charcoal fires. Amazing how little has changed over many thousands of years !!

Leaving them to their work, we walked back over the fields .. now bare as all the crops had been harvested .. passing by the family's horses sheltering from the sun under one of a variety of statuesque trees.
The farm compound was busy as usual, with food preparation and evening feeding of the donkeys and other animals that were kept in at night for security. Many of the children, having heard of my 'prowess' at groundnut harvesting, were laughing and dancing around .. arms flailing and legs kicking .. imitating the movements involved with using the sticks to beat the stalks.

Shouting in Mandinka; 'Toubabo this' and 'Toubabo that' .. which I had to put a stop to. "Now come on you lot, my name is David or Dawda ( the equivalent in Mandinka ) not Toubabo ! Toubabo is for strangers, I hope I am your friend." And so it became from then onwards .. with the older children teaching and reminding the younger ones to call and refer to me as Dawda. Of course, learning the 30 or so names of the children and attributing the right name to the right child, was not as easy !!

With excited talk amongst the girls and ladies of a big happening supposedly taking place in the farmyard on the next evening .. our proposed three day visit was turning out to be too short. So, with a minimum amount of persuasion from them, we accepted their kind invitation and agreed to stay one day longer. I had no real idea of what was being planned, but talk of a visiting Kankuran, drums, dancing and a big party was buzzing in the compound. Too good to miss, despite the risks of being close to a Kankuran .. a fearsome ceremonial guardian I had heard about in The Casamance !

That evening .. my camera was well used in taking some family photos.
The difficulties of finding everyone and organising them to be in one place .. dressed in their preferred clothing, sitting still and smiling .. were somewhat akin to rounding up a school playground full of scattered children. Eventually we managed some colourful pictures for the family album .. but many of the family were missing, so they will have to be included in the group photos on my next visit.

Photos taken, we chatted the night away accompanied by the click, click, click of adult decorticating.
Huh ? Yes, that is what I said !! A decorticator is a machine which separates the nuts from the

An industrial decorticator

groundnut shells. Wholesalers and processing factories have these machines but in the evenings, the ladies would sit chatting for hours, whilst smashing the ends of groundnut shells .. held between forefinger and thumb .. on the concrete floor, to release the nuts that they would use later in cooking the family meals.
Something which I tried hard to do and failed miserably .. either the nuts I chose were too hard or .. more likely .. my fingers were just not strong enough !

My time that evening was divided between the nut-clicking adults inside the large lounge, Mohammed's mother and her sisters sitting outside their line-house in the starlight, with a group
of teenagers in their rooms discussing the differences between their lives and my own .. and with the younger children, keen to practise their English and even more keen to teach me Mandinka.

In the course of a conversation with the adults .. mischievously and with a wink to Mohammed ..
I commented on how hard all the ladies worked from dawn till dusk and suggested that it might be a good idea for the ladies to have a day off, once a month. All the men could take over the cooking and other domestic duties and give their womenfolk a much deserved rest. My suggestion produced looks of horror and a stunned silence from the menfolk and a few giggles from the ladies. In view of thousands of years of their traditions, I thought it best not to pursue the subject any further !!

It was a tiring but happy and educational evening and I slept very well that night .. despite once waking up to see a mouse sitting on my shoulder !! Such is farming life amongst these friends.