Growing up on the farm, in the rural area, provides a unique life experience. You learn many life skills and lessons. It can be exciting but there are times that it can be challenging as well. “I didn't think much of these rural experiences at the time, but I have begun to appreciate them lately in my work and life. Anytime I step on the farm, I become like a child again”
I live in Kumasi, Ghana and I work with a social enterprise that serves the needs of smallholder farmers to turn them into successful entrepreneurs. I like the city for its greenery and moderate cost of living. Kumasi is a big city with about 1.17m inhabitants and I have lived here for almost 9 years. But this is not where I grew up. When I meet people and tell them that I grew up on a farm, in a rural area, they hardly believed me. This happened so much that I stopped talking about it. But recently, my conversations with some colleagues about my childhood made me realize that I had a lot to share about my experiences growing up on the farm. This is the reason why I went down memory lane and put together this piece as a way of sharing my experiences.
Family business and the need for education
My dad was a cocoa farmer. My mom was a trader and cocoa farmer as well. She bought maize, oranges, plantain and avocados from several farmers in neighbouring villages and sent the produce to a big market at Mankesim in the Central region to be sold. I have five siblings and I am the sixth (2 brothers and 3 sisters). Right from birth until I was seven years old, I lived with my parents in the village. Afterwards, my parents had to send me to the city to stay with an aunt. My immediate elder sister, who was 2 years older than me, had already been staying with the same aunt for about a year. Sending me away at this age was one of the hardest decisions my parents made. My mom kept doubting her decision until the very last night before she took me away to the city but this was necessary for me to start schooling and to get proper education. Whenever she visited us in the city and we had to say goodbye, there were many tears.
School holidays and farming: where does the food come from?
While schooling in the city, I returned to the village during every vacation, either short or long, to spend time with my parents. This was a happy moment because my other siblings, living and schooling in different towns with other family, also returned to the village for the vacation. During the school holidays we assisted on the farm. Cocoa farming was my dad’s main business but we grew almost all the other food crops that we consumed at home. So at a young age, I knew very well where our food came from. We planted crops such as maize, yam, cocoyam, plantain and vegetables. These provided us with the food we needed all year round. Occasionally, we cultivated rice. We also raised goats, sheep, turkey and chicken. Fruit trees such as mangoes, oranges and avocados were spread all over the cocoa farm. When the fruits were in season, then you never become hungry when you go work on the cocoa farm because there would be plenty of fruits to eat. Since we grew almost all that we consumed, the main items I remember my mom purchased from the market, on her usual trading trips, was salt, bread, dried fish and meat pie.
Learning to earn and save: a step-by-step guide
I learned how to earn money and save in order to buy what I wanted. I did this by growing plantain in our backyard garden. For the plantain to grow well and yield good bunches, it required a good soil rich in nutrients. So I was taught to add animal droppings and decayed plant leaves into the soil as organic manure to improve its nutrients. When the plantain matured, I harvested and my mom would sell on one of her several trading trips to the market at Mankesim. My siblings and I also went to the bush in search of black pepper (Piper guineense) for sale. It is a vine that grows by climbing on tree branches and smaller stems. It could only be found growing in the wild and it was difficult to find but then we knew it was a pricy spice and so worth the search. The spice itself is derived from the dried fruit. So after harvesting the fruits, we dried it in the hot sun for about two weeks. Afterwards we measured the quantity with a standard tin or bowl and then it was sold at the market by my mom. With my savings I bought additional clothes or shoes for Christmas.
The homestead, canoeing and fishing: I smell water from here
Our village was a small one and I think it will be best described as a homestead. There were five separate families residing in there. So I can only count five separate buildings. It is located in the Central region of Ghana. The near towns were Assin Kushea and Assin Ahyiresu Donkorkrom which were 5.3km and 3.2km from the village, respectively. These towns were only reachable through walking. The village was situated near a river called the Prah River. The distance from the village to the river was just about 70meters. At age eight, I could already ride a canoe on the river. The canoe was a small dug out boat with no motor on it. My dad carved it out of the trunk of hardwood. The carving was an art. It required a lot of skill and precision. I accompanied my dad and my elder brothers to fish in the river. Of course, I was always excited to be the one riding the canoe. I so liked canoeing that, my dad and other adults would try to sneak away most of the time when they were going to the riverside because they feared I would follow them in case I noticed them going there. Fishing required experience, good equipment, planning and patience. The equipment we used were fishing nets, specially woven basket and occasionally a long line with several hooks on it. Fishing required patience in the sense that we set the traps in the water in the evening and then went back to next day to check on the traps if we were successful with a catch. The common catch we made were tilapia, prawns and catfish. I liked going to the river and enjoyed being at the waterfront. After everyday’s work on the farm, we had plenty of time to do what we wanted. We either went hunting or we went swimming. This was the most fun part of the day.
Board games and storytelling: what has it got to do with the wisdom pot?
In the evenings, after dinner, we played board games. The common games we played included ludo, cards and oware. On other nights, we sat in a circle around a warm fire and told stories, the popular Ananse stories (stories that portray the spider, Ananse, as a witty or cunning character as it could get). These story telling moments expanded our imagination and it was also a way for adults, including our parents, to pass on important life lessons to the children in the form of storytelling. The stories were colourful and varied from drama to tragedy to comedy. I’m sure most Ghanaians will be able to remember at least, one Ananse story or tell you their favourite one. Ananse story that explains a phenomenon and teaches kids to share and not to be selfish goes like this:
Once upon a time, Ananse became concerned about all the wisdom there was in the world. So he gathered all of it into a pot and covered it. Already he was clever in order to do this. He didn’t find it safe to keep the pot of wisdom in his room so he decided to go hide it on the tallest tree in the forest so that he will become the wisest person on earth. On his way to the forest, his son, Ntikuma, noticed him so, followed his dad secretly to see what he was up to. Ananse found the tallest tree in the forest and he begun to climb it. The pot was big and heavy so he tied it in front of him while climbing but this became difficult and more difficult as he climbed because the pot was in his way. Ntikuma, watching from a distance and seeing his dad struggle, started to laugh at the sight of Ananse. He shouted “dad, why don’t you tie the pot behind you? It will be easier to climb”. Upon hearing this, Ananse paused. He quickly realized that he had failed in his attempt to gather all the wisdom in the world so he became annoyed with himself. He untied the pot and let it slip. As it smashed on the ground, the wisdom spread as it was carried with the wind and that is why there is a bit of it everywhere in the world.
Christmas trees and treats
My favourite occasion was Christmas. Christmas was such a special occasion in the village. On every 24th December, Christmas Eve, we made our Christmas tree. The tree was made from palm fronds. The leaves were woven together and the top parts were connected to form an arch. It was then decorated with fresh and colourful flowers. The tree was placed at the main entrance to the village. So anybody who came to the village walked through the arch before entering the village. On the Christmas day we wore our beautiful clothes and ate nice food prepared by my mom. At the time rice was a delicacy and was prepared during special occasions including Christmas. Kids move in groups from one village to another visiting several villages in to collect Christmas presents. Presents varied from money to food and drinks. Oh, and the Piccadilly biscuits. This was awesome because there were enough cookies for every kid who visited the village. At least, everybody gets a handful of Picadillies!
Rural novelty: distillation and saponification
Life in the village can be industrious. We didn’t have to buy soap in the village since we made our own. I learned how to make soap, from cocoa husks and palm oil, at an early age. I would later come to learn about this in school, in science class, as a process called saponification. Through my dad, I also learned how to brew our local alcoholic gin made from palm wine, which I later learned in school was through a process called distillation. The brewing of alcohol was just another source of income for my dad. Surprisingly, he did not drink. He had a way of testing the quality of the gin without even having to taste it.
Information and communication technology in agriculture (ICT4Ag)
I didn't think much of these rural experiences at the time, but I have begun to appreciate them lately in my work and life. As a frontline staff of a social enterprise working in Ghana, my work brings me to the rural areas almost every week to interact with farmers. The proliferation of mobile phones and their use in agriculture is vastly changing the way farmers communicate and access information and other beneficial services. With innovative services running on mobile phones, my dad could have received weather forecast everyday for him to plan his daily farm activities or seasonal forecast to know when and what staple crops to plant. Similarly, he could also have sought for best farm management practices advice whenever he had challenges on the farm without necessarily traveling long distances to seek the same information. Mobile Money is another great innovation. It is an electronic wallet service that allows users to send and receive money using their mobile phones. Easy and fast transaction, huh!! With its access extending to many places in rural areas, people won’t have to travel far distances in order to conduct financial transactions. But how do we ensure that such important mobile services reach the people, especially the farmers in the rural areas, who need it most? I believe that tested and proven innovations will need support to scale in order to make it accessible and affordable to most farmers in rural settings whose incomes tend to be small and seasonal. This should be combined with more awareness creation and training of the users to improve their capacity to utilize these services. Such innovations and other locally adapted information and communication technologies (ICTs) would be important to attracting the youth into agriculture, improving agriculture productivity, decision-making and reducing youth unemployment.
Farm life, in rural Ghana, was exciting but there were times that it was challenging as well. Access to a health facility, a school and transportation were difficult. One of the moments I disliked most was when I felt sick. Actually, this was the moment I received the most attention or care but I still didn’t like it because I knew very well that the nearest hospital was at Assin Kushea, 5.3km walking distance away from the village. When I felt sick, my mom would walk with me there to get medical treatment. After seeing the doctor, we had to walk back to the village. This was exhausting. Similarly, when I started schooling in the village at 6yrs, I had to walk 3.2km to reach the school and walk back the same distance after school. Transportation was a challenge. There were no motorable roads to the village so no cars could access the community. Hence, walking long distances was the only option to reach a hospital or a school. This was the reason why my parents had to send me to city at an early age in order to get the best of education.
What is your story?
Well, if I look back, it appears I had a rich childhood. I ate fresh food and fruits every day; I had a river in the backyard as a swimming and fishing pool; I had a lot of playing time in nature and also learned many valuable life skills and lessons. Also, I believe there are many novel ideas in the rural areas that need to be documented and shared. Growing up on a farm or in a village has its advantages and challenges but it is certainly a unique experience. And I think that is reason why anytime I step on the farm, I become like a child again! Hopefully this piece gives you some insight into what it is really like to grow up on farm or in a rural area. I know I am not alone. There may be many of us with rural roots. Probably many of whom have left the farm but certainly do remember their experiences. What is your story? Perhaps your rural experience, life learning skills and lessons contributed to who you have become today. If this resonates with you and you share similar or other unique experiences, I would love to hear your story. Your story might be an inspiration for the youth as we work together to make agriculture more attractive and also contribute to rural development.
Patrick Sakyi (@sakyipatrick) is a bright young man with lots of vision and commitment to smallholder farmers in Ghana. He works as a monitoring & evaluation associate with Farmerline, a social enterprise which builds innovative data collection platforms & mobile applications to improve information access for smallholder farmers in Ghana and other African countries. He has written this fascinating article about his boyhood farming and rural experience in Ghana and looking to the future for smallholder farmers there. Patrick describes himself as a global citizen and is enthusiastic about ICT4D & ICT4Ag (firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com)