Two hands and a harvest

The past four weeks saw me bringing in the harvest, which turned out to be a solitary pastime. I took on the just-short-of-two acres of corn that we planted, and then went back to harvest about an acre of beans that had been intercropped with the corn on one side of our farm.

The sun shows itself and beats down in the afternoon, so most days I tried to get an early start. Neither of my neighbors on either side had started harvesting theirs, so some days passed where I didn’t leave our property and didn’t see a single other soul. The sound of rustling corn husks and the snap of cobs being broken from stalks filled my ears.

Our neighbor dog, Master, came over several days to keep me company, finding a shady spot in the field to snooze and watch me from. My flock of chickens patrolled the rows I already harvested, looking for earwigs and stray kernels that had popped off the ends of the cobs.

It seemed like a large task, but as I tackled it hour by hour and day by day, it didn’t seem so bad. Getting an early start to avoid the midday sun and taking frequent ginger tea breaks definitely helped make it more doable.

After about two and a half weeks, all the cobs were in, mounded on a blue tarp in one of our spare unfinished rooms. Then I started the task of shelling. I have a small aluminum hand sheller, with which I can shell about 10 to 15 kilos of corn in an hour – about 20 or 25 pounds. That’s enough to fill the basin I was shelling into; then I take a second basin and go outside to winnow the corn.

On a windy day, the distance between a woman’s hip and the ground is just the right distance to winnow. Pour the corn from one basin to another and the chaff and bits of cob that mixed in with the kernels will separate and fly off with the wind. The kernels rattle and hiss against each other.

Corn is heavy, corn is cool in your hand. Corn is what we harvested, and corn is what we will eat.

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Never-fail banana bread

The banana trees we planted will probably not start bearing fruit for about another year now, but luckily bananas are pretty inexpensive around here – I can buy three for about 10 cents. I always try to have some on hand for banana bread, one of my favorite snacks and breakfast foods.

I’ve tried different banana bread recipes but many call for a lot of sugar and oil, several eggs, and milk. Some of them turn out so sugary it’s really like dessert. Frankly I don’t want to feel like I’m eating cake for breakfast. I want to eat something that I don’t feel bad about having two pieces of. Or three.

I’ve adapted this banana bread recipe from one that was in our country’s Peace Corps cookbook. It is dairy-free, unless you want to substitute milk for some of the water, which would perhaps lend a richer taste to the bread. Water works just fine when I make it.

I’ve made this recipe many times and it always turns out well. If the bananas are very ripe, you might be able to get away with using less sugar. Use whatever spices and type of oil you like best. You could also try substituting whole wheat flour for part of the flour portion if you’d like to make it even healthier.

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Ingredients:

  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground spices (I use 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, and 1/2 teaspoon cloves or ginger – depending on what I have on hand)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons oil (I use sunflower oil)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 very ripe, average-sized bananas (more or less dependent on size)
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
  • 1 cup water
  • Chopped nuts and/ or chocolate chips (optional)

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Directions:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.
  • In a medium or large bowl, combine the oil and sugar. Add the bananas and mash well with a fork. Add the egg, vanilla, and water, and stir well.
  • Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir just until no flour is visible in the batter. Fold in chopped nuts or chocolate chips if desired.
  • Grease and flour a baking pan – I use about an 8″ round pan. You could use loaf pans if you want rectangular banana bread. Depending on the size of the pans you might need two.
  • Pour the batter into the pans, smoothing with a spoon or spatula so that the batter is relatively level in the pan.
  • Bake for about 45-50 minutes (less if the batter is divided), until a fork or toothpick comes out clean.
  • Cool in pan for about one-half to one hour, then remove and put on a rack to continue cooling. Cut, serve, and enjoy.

What are your favorite recipes that use bananas?

A thief twice rewarded, my lessons recorded

Four chickens stolen. Two months, three incidents, many exchanges of hands. Motorcycle motorcades, machetes being brandished. Two tribes, two religions, three languages, one village government. One bird recovered. The thief paid twice. Is this Tanzania or the wild west? Sometimes I wonder.

To make a long story short, our flock’s rooster was stolen on Tuesday and I found him being sold at the weekly market the next day. We figured out who the original thief was (the rooster had already been sold twice that day), but his family fiercely defended him, saying he had been at school and couldn’t have stolen and sold a chicken. The chicken dealer, who adamantly recognized the boy as the thief, began to doubt himself and called the case off. The thief’s family was paid, by the chicken dealer, for the disturbance and embarrassment that was caused them. We got our rooster back and three hens to replace the ones stolen last month, but it was hardly a satisfying ending.

It was a wild and exhausting day, but I think that the lessons I learned are more interesting than every little detail of how the day unfolded.

Lesson 1: your tribe is thicker than water. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 120 different tribes in Tanzania alone, each one with a unique language and culture. Omari and I moved to this area in April, which is predominantly Masai territory. Masai will stand up for one another until the bitter end.

Lesson 2: being visible and known helps, on the day you need help. As a white female in this town-outside-of-Town, I’m pretty recognizable (for better or worse). And in these few months since moving here, I have made friends and acquaintances whom I found I can count on if I need someone in a sticky situation. Omari had been away and unreachable by phone until several hours after I found my rooster, so having community members who knew me and helped me navigate the situation made all the difference.

Lesson 3: if someone helps you out, they expect to be repaid. Once everything got sorted out, with major thanks to our friend Elia, a Masai bodaboda driver (motorcycle that takes paying passengers), he started asking us, what about his dume? “Dume” means male animal – he was referring to cattle. In the Masai culture, if someone goes out of their way to help you out, you would probably give him a cow. Cows are wealth in the traditional Masai culture. That’s how you repay someone. He knows we don’t have any cows; in this case, dume is a euphemism for money.

Lesson 4: you’re never the only victim. It’s easy for me to think I’m targeted because as a white female in Tanzania I stick out like a sore thumb. But that day, when I found my stolen rooster and caused chaos at the market, it seemed like every other person I talked to told me they had had chickens stolen from them before – sometimes several dozen chickens all taken at once, and never found again. It’s unfortunate that so many have been victims of theft, but it also reminds me that being stolen from is pretty universal, and I’m not the only one it happens to.

Lesson 5: animals live in the present – why can’t we? When my rooster got back home, he flapped his wings, shook out his feathers, and went back to pecking corn bran and wooing his ladies. He made it look so easy, whereas there I was ruminating about the odds of the thief coming back and doing more damage than he did this time. But why worry about something that might never happen? I don’t think my rooster is losing sleep over it.

Five dollar compost bin

Every day, I pile kitchen scraps and farm waste in the same spot. But there is no pile. Each time I take the compost out to the compost heap, the chickens make short work of spreading it around, after which it dries out and doesn’t actually compost at all. As compost is a very important part of improving soil and gardening, I clearly had to address the situation sooner or later.

So today I addressed the situation. Most compost container designs are predominantly wooden or plastic, neither of which really work in my situation – wood is expensive and plastic deteriorates fast in this equatorial sun. Wire mesh seemed like a good option, so I based this compost container off of a design I saw in John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables.”

This container is great because it is cheap to make and it is easily movable, making turning a compost pile easy: once it fills, you can remove the wire, set it up again nearby, and turn the pile into the new location.

compost 2

What you need:

  • About 3 meters (or yards) of chicken wire or other metal mesh, with a width of 1 meter/ yard
  • 5 pieces of wood (1x2s would work well; I used log-type wood I had), length of 1 meter or yard (however wide the mesh is)
  • Small (2-inch) finishing-type nails; they should be easy to bend
  • 2 metal latches (the kind with the swinging hook and eye)
  • Hammer
  • Saw (if you need to cut the wood to size)

How to put it together:

  • Take each piece of wood and hammer several nails in a line down one side (the more the better, really; I probably didn’t use enough). Leave about an inch of each nail sticking out.
  • Start with one end of the wire mesh and line the nails of one piece of wood up to pass through the mesh. I then curled the mesh around the wood and passed the nails through again.

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compost 4

  • Bend the nails with your hammer and hammer them down flat. They should face both up and down, not all in the same direction, so the wire doesn’t slip out if the nails start to lift up.

compost 5

  • Lay the length of mesh flat and repeat the above steps on the other end. If the mesh has been rolled up, I put the wood on the inside of the curve, because the wood will be standing inside the circular structure once finished.
  • Eyeball where the halfway point and the quarters of the mesh are, and secure the pieces of wood on the inside of the mesh’s curve. Again, make the nails face in different directions, not all one way.
  • Join up the end pieces and screw in the eye screws for the latch. If the wood is hard, ding a starter hole with an extra nail to get the screw to go in.

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(Above: these are the hooks and eyes I ended up using because I couldn’t find the swinging-hook kind anywhere. The kind with the movable hook is ideal because it’s easier to open and close the container.)

  • Decide where you’re going to set up the compost pile (if you haven’t already!) Clear the area from weeds and dig up the soil a little with a hoe or shovel.

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(Above: where my old compost pile supposedly was. Don’t see it? Neither do I. Darn chickens.)

  • Set up the mesh container. It may be a little unsteady until it gets partially filled, like mine was. If this is a concern, you can brace the top with sticks or lengths of wood crosswise in the inside if you like.

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  • I stood inside the mesh circle and straightened out the mesh with my foot, that worked pretty well, as it had been folded.
  • Start filling your new compost container!

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Some tips for composting:

  • 1 cubic meter (or roughly 1 cubic yard) is the ideal size for a compost pile.  A pile smaller than that cannot generate enough heat to decompose properly; larger and it may get too hot, or there is not enough surface area for it to respire properly.
  • When adding anything that might attract flies, cover it with a layer of finished compost or garden soil that it is not exposed. This also helps to conserve moisture.
  • Your compost pile may get hot, but don’t count on it to kill insect pests, microbes that cause plant diseases, or noxious weeds (such as Bermuda grass or wild morning glories). For those kinds of wastes, you can burn them in a pit and then compost their ashes, which do have beneficial minerals and nutrients.

Some other things not to compost:

  • Leaves or cuttings from plants that have antimicrobial properties, such as eucalyptus or neem
  • Feces from carnivorous animals like dogs and cats
  • Meat and cooking oil (small amounts of oil or cooked meat is ok)
  • Glossy paper or chemically-treated wood

compost 10

That was pretty easy, wasn’t it?

What style of compost bin do you use? What techniques do you use for turning and finishing your compost?

Humbled by bread: this week’s lessons

I’ve made the same simple white loaf three times in the past week and still haven’t gotten it quite right. Perhaps it’s due to the cold weather, my impatience, my inexperience, or all three. So instead of sharing my secrets for how to bake a perfect loaf, I am humbled to share the lessons I’ve learned while making my rookie mistakes.

bread 2

Lesson #1: Warmth or sunshine is not enough for a yeast dough to rise. I put the dough in its covered basin and plunked it on my sunny, breezy afternoon porch. Now, if you read good breadmaking advice (which I did) and then follow it (which I didn’t), you will realize the importance of choosing a location that is both warm and draft-free. That batch felt those drafts and languished low and cold.

bread 3

Lesson #2: Don’t make bread when you’re rushed or impatient. On days I started baking in the late afternoon, I didn’t give the dough enough time as I rushed to get it in the oven before dark. If you don’t allow proper time for kneading, rising, and baking, the bread’s quality will suffer. After that mistake, I realized that if I’m bothering to make homemade bread at all, I might as well do it right and not rush.

Lesson #3: The loaf should sound beyond-all-doubt hollow. When you take that beautiful golden-brown loaf out of the oven, flip it over, and give it a thump, it should sound definitively hollow. If it doesn’t, put it back in, find something else to do for a few minutes, and come back to check again.

Despite my misadventures this week with low-sitting dough and trying to beat the clock, nothing beats cutting off a warm slice of fresh-baked bread and tasting that delicious crunchy crust. You just can’t get in a store.

What are your best breadmaking tips or advice?

Ugly, cheap, low-water-use produce: the bag garden

About a week ago, as I was collecting wild amaranth for my post on foraging, my eleven-year-old neighbor boy showed up. “You mean, you don’t have any matembele?” He asked me, when he saw what he thought was my desperation for greens to cook.

Matembele is a type of sweet potato that is grown here. It is grown exclusively for its leaves, which are narrower and tastier than those of sweet potatoes grown for tubers. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you some cuttings,” he told me. So a few days later, I had matembele cuttings, but no good place to grow them.

Container gardening is a great idea in theory, but the expense of pots and other containers may prove inconvenient, maybe even prohibitive, to some people who would benefit from having fresh vegetables growing in a small space. Here in Tanzania, buying big clay pots or large plastic containers to plant in would get pretty expensive, but nylon bags, which are commonly used for grain and legume storage, are pretty cheap – about 25 cents a bag.

During our pre-service training for Peace Corps, we were taught how to make bag gardens, which are a useful tool for improving household and child nutrition. Being watered with just a gallon or two of greywater per day from rinsing dishes or other household chores, bag gardens are ideal for growing greens and vegetables right outside your door, even in the dry season.

Here’s how to make one.

Things you need:

  • large nylon or burlap bag
  • gravel
  • garden soil, mixed with finished compost if available
  • a tube with about a 6″ diameter. A large tin can with both top and bottom removed works well.
  • bucket
  • shovel
  • small hand rake (optional)
  • knife/ utility knife
  • container-friendly vegetable seeds and/or cuttings
  • water (less than 10 gallons at the start should be enough)
  • 3 or 4 sticks or stakes to support the bag garden

Start out by deciding on a good site to build your bag garden, because once you fill the bag with soil, it will be very difficult to move again! I set mine up on the northwestern corner of our house, which gets very good sun. (We are in the southern hemisphere, so the north side is the sunny side.)

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Set the bag in its designated location and put a few inches’ worth of gravel in the bottom of the bag. Shake the bag so that this foundation is even and sturdy against the ground.

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Place the tin in the center of the bag, on the gravel foundation. Fill the tin with gravel, and fill the bag outside of the tin with garden soil/ compost. You are basically making a porous core of gravel at the center of the bag garden, for ease of watering and to help ensure the soil gets evenly moist.

Once the gravel in the tin and the soil in the bag are at the same level, lift the tin up, fill it with gravel, add soil in the bag, and repeat until the bag is filled. You can leave a few inches at the top to cuff/ turn down the bag to make the top sturdier.

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*Please don’t do what I did, which was to use a long plastic pipe as the core tube. I filled it with gravel, then the rest of the bag with soil, thinking I would be able to pull it out easily… well, I was wrong! After five or ten minutes of huffing and puffing and even wrapping a rubber strip around the tube to get a better grip, I finally hefted it out. So to avoid a struggle… just use a tin. I promise it’ll be easier!

Use sticks or stakes driven into the ground to support the finished bag garden. There are none in these pictures because mine is leaning against the house, but I will add two or three stakes to make sure it doesn’t fall forward.

After the bag is filled, water it through the gravel core in the center. It may take several gallons to get the soil evenly moist. I left mine overnight so that the water could absorb well before planting. (Okay, I planned to get the whole thing done in one evening, but the sun set and I still wasn’t done!)

Take a utility knife or razor and cut horizontal or slightly diagonal slits in the bag. Don’t make them too long or too close together, or you may have a blow-out situation. Plant a few seeds or cuttings in each slit. I planted the sweet potato cuttings as well as bush-type garden bean seeds in the sides, and broadcast spinach seeds on the top.

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You might call it the world’s ugliest container garden; I call it not having to buy greens during the dry season. We will see how this bag garden goes.

What are your favorite cheap containers to use for gardening? What techniques do you use to conserve and reuse water in the garden?

Laundry list: handwashing from start to finish

Run four loads of laundry through a washing machine and that’s about two or three weeks’ worth of water, for all our needs, for the two of us. 

We do not have running water. Being off-grid is not a choice at this point in time; the water line has not yet reached our property. When it does, trust me, I’ll be the first to break the ground for that trench. We currently have a 500-liter water tank, which is roughly 130 gallons. When it runs low, we have a guy bring more water for us, which costs 12,000 shillings – about $6. That’s 5 cents per gallon if you price it out.

Today, as I was procrastinating actually doing laundry, I looked up how much water a typical clothes-washing machine uses per load. A relatively efficient washer uses 30 gallons per load. My mind, which now thinks in increments of buckets, reeled: that’s six five-gallon buckets! For one load!

Since we have neither electricity nor running water, all our laundry is handwashed (as is probably 99% of all clothing in Tanzania). For about ten largish clothing items (pants, dresses, shirts, etc.), I use a total of less than five gallons. Maybe even three. Again, this is out of necessity, but in any case, at least now I know how to clean clothes with no electricity and minimal water. I think it’s a valuable skill.

All you need is a wash basin and a rinse bucket. Pour about a gallon, maybe two, of water in each. I typically use just bar laundry soap (an American brand would be Fels-Naptha), but if clothes are exceptionally dirty, I use detergent powder as well. The powder is harder on your hands, though. If using powder, put about a quarter cup in the basin and agitate the water so the suds appear. You’ll scrub clothes in this water, using the bar soap for stains and dirty sections.

The rinse bucket can be either plain water or water with a cup or so of white vinegar. Using vinegar makes your rinse water go much further, as the vinegar removes all the soap, keeping the rinse water from getting sudsy and slick and having to be dumped and replaced. It’s also great for removing sweat stains and deodorant residue from shirts.

After destroying my hands a couple times from washing jeans, I added a scrub brush to the operation. It comes in handy for heavy fabrics like denim and twill, which can hurt your skin when you’re washing them with your bare hands.

For each article of clothing, turn it inside out and put it in the wash basin. Scrub it against itself in your hands (or use the brush if it’s a sturdy fabric). Use the bar soap for especially dirty areas. Wring out, then rinse in the rinse bucket and wring again. Hang up on your laundry line (clothing still inside out to prevent fading from the sun) and move on to the next one.

Bleach I find is typically unnecessary if I’m line-drying clothing outside; the sun bleaches white fabrics naturally.

Take care with fabrics that may bleed color or shrink, and also with sweaters or other clothing that may get stretched or warped by wringing and line drying. 

So there you go. You might have to develop some handwashing muscles, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not such a bad chore for a beautiful sunny afternoon. And now you know you can keep your clothes clean – off the grid as well as on.