A path through the champ
'Champ' in French means 'field.' When the Togolese use the word champ, they are talking about the strips of land where they grow food. The Maritime region of Togo where I live is just heading into the midst of the rainy season, and I often find the road into town much less crowded than before because most of the village is out working the earth. Some of their champs line the road. Others are far, far away. The high population density in my area means that any space that is not taken up by living or business becomes a champ. For miles around, the vast majority of the once-upon-a-time brush is divided up into squares and cultivated.
I have been working with friends in the champ to better understand the lives of the farmers I hope to help. While my background and experience are far different, my hope is that scraping at dirt with a hoe under the hot sun will give me insights into how to better promote development initiatives that fit into the Togolese lifestyle. It also gets me out of the house, is good exercise, and builds character.
The champs of 3 friends in particular have stood out to me:
A short woman with a wide smile lives in a mud house on the other side of the paved road from me. One day I offered to go out to work in the champ with her, expecting to go off somewhere into the African brush. Instead, we went to a field right beside the paved road between our houses. This champ is wedged between the wall of a family compound and the potholed road that cargo trucks take to and from the cement factory further north. On the far side, pieces of cinder block are mixed into the soil with the corn and cassava. Next to the road, the crops grow slightly better because of all the trash thrown from bush taxi windows into the champ.
I woke up with the sun and headed over to her house. She laughed when I took the basin off her head and put it on mine to carry it to the champ. We walked together back towards my house and then took the slight detour off the path into the rows of crops. Land in my area is measured in 'lots' and hectares – four lots make up a hectare. Laborers are paid by the number of lines of crops they tend to, and they are paid more for longer lines.
In addition to corn and cassava, the woman also planted peanuts in this field. Unfortunately, there is a weed that looks very similar to a small peanut plant. To a villager, the difference is black and white. To me, it was like close shades of gray. I began to start down my first row when the woman cried 'Azi!' at me, meaning peanut in the local Ewe dialect. I realized that in my enthusiasm I had chopped off several peanut plants. I resolved to pay more attention but as the day wore on and I began to sweat more, I decapitated more peanut plants. She set me eventually to the task of hoeing the rows with no peanuts and I was much happier.
I began to notice after observing the woman the tricks she used to spot peanuts. Seeds were planted at approximately equal distances from each other so that the position of one could be used to determine the approximate distance of another when moving up a row. Next, after she had estimated where the next plant would be she pulled up the biggest weeds first until she spotted the peanut plant. Even then many of the plants were still tiny, and her long experience growing peanuts made them stand out much more to her. I had never even seen a peanut plant before I came to Togo.
The sun climbed high in the sky. I was sweating on the short walk to get to the champ, and by 10 in the morning the peanuts were hard to spot through the dried sweat fogging my glasses. Despite my putting many peanuts to rest, my friend showed up afterward at my door with bowls of corn paste and sauce which I ate under the mango tree while she joked with my host mother.
Yawovi is one of my best friends in village. I have worked alongside him in the champ through all parts of the growing season: scraping off the field before the rains come, poking holes and planting seeds in them, weeding around plants with a hoe as they grow bigger, harvesting fruit, and finally conserving or selling them. Yawovi's champ is further off the paved road than the previous champ, a five minute walk along a path away from village. The path winds between many other fields that all seem the same. However, on closer look it is obvious that every farmer is in a different stage of work. We are now in the month of May and while some fields have corn almost ready to harvest in others it is just sprouting. Some farmers have planted different combinations of corn, cassava, and / or peanuts in the field. Some fields contain only rows of crops, while others are punctuated by palm and coconut trees.
Yawovi has an incurable wound of gout on his foot which makes the champ work tough. Like other men, he usually has a few shots of sodabi, the local palm liquor, to get him fired up before we go out to work in the field. The land he works lies next to a giant baobab tree. He has his own champ, but the land he works is rented. Renting land is a normal practice throughout my village. While systems of land tenure with champs being passed down through generations do exist, family land has been divided up so many times between many sons and daughters that they can not grow enough to support themselves and their growing numbers of kids. This means that the poorest farmers grow crops on rented land. Profits for subsistence farmers are tiny, and paying rent puts more of a burden on villagers like my friend Yawovi.
In addition, renting land also takes away any individual incentive to improve soil quality. Agroforestry, cover cropping, and other field management techniques take more than a season to yield benefits, so if a person is only renting a lot for this year they want to get as much out of it as possible before paying up. Luckily, there is a technique that makes crops shoot up magically toward the sky and bear bigger fruit: chemical fertilizer. To apply chemical fertilizer, farmers poke a small hole next to the base of the plant, pour in a capful of fertilizer, and close it up. Corn right now is huge in fields where the farmers were able to afford and apply 'l'engrais chimique,' but in the other fields the corn looks wilted, waiting for its lifeline. But chemical fertilizer degrades the soil. Cultivating a champ year after year saps nutrients out of the soil so that it eventually becomes impossible to grow anything without the fertilizer.
After working and sweating with Yawovi, I try to imagine the time of his great grand parents. He has told me that there was a time when crops planted in the soil would produce decent harvests without any other assistance than the constant work of the farmer. When farmers had enough land that they could leave part of it fallow. But with the exploding population and the increased pressure to produce food that time is far passed.
On a Saturday a couple weeks ago I biked the 12 kilometers out to another friend's champ to work. His champ, also rented, is out towards a village northeast of mine called Atitogon. As I pedaled behind his oldest son in the cool early morning, the path got rougher and bumpier and the weeds crept closer to the bike tires. We arrived, set our bikes under a mango tree, and I watched as he threw up rocks into the tree to make riper mangoes rain down. When his father arrived we walked over to the rows and got to working.
In Champ 1, I could hear music blaring out from shop speakers as I tried to make peace with the peanuts. Out in a champ this far in the brush, the only sound was the wind in my ears. We worked until noon without hardly stopping. I felt like a clown trying to scrape the weeds around the barely discernible corn plants on the ground, many of which had not yet even sprouted. After a couple hours my back was burning and I had likely made a massacre of more corn plants than paying me for the rows I had done would ever be worth.
I finally arched my back and looked up to see that my friend's son had made it through two rows to my one. He made weeding look like an art, smoothly guiding the hoe around even the seeds that had not sprouted yet and shifting the cassava branches between the rows from side to side. Looking at him, I saw that he would alternately put his elbow on his knee to release the strain on his back. Positioned thus he would reach across the other side of the row with the hoe and effectively extend his reach to scrape more area. Years of practice had also given him the feel to scrape only the top of the soil to avoid uprooting the deeper planted corn seeds and conserve energy. On top of this, he was ripped and strong like all the other teenagers in the area.
In this last champ, the land is still fertile enough and far away from extensive human disturbance to produce with out fertilizer. But my friend is still going to put some in the soil this year to make the plants grow even better. He reasons that rain this year has been unpredictable. While farmers can not tell when water will fall from the sky, they can rely on the surety that the white powder mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium that comes in a giant white sack with a scientific label will make their crops grow better. For the moment.