Travel Africa: Get barefooted ready for rice farming in Madagascar

I love basmati and jasmine rice. What is there not to love of the delicious aroma that feels the kitchen when it’s cooked or the sweetness of its grains even when eaten with out any accompaniment.  I am definitely a rice girl, it’s something that has made its way on our family table for decades.  So I am a little picky when it comes to my favourite grain.  It has to smell good, be whole not crushed and most importantly clean with no traces of stones.  When I go out to shop for rice I spend my time picking the right grain for the chosen recipe, I can be really fussy about rice! Not any more! While volunteering in a Madagascan village I had the opportunity of working in a rice field something that has changed my attitude in the appreciation of the grain of my life, rice.

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Digging out the stubbles
Sunny afternoon, I walk to the edge of the rice paddy, remove my plastic bata shoes and step into the field. My feet feel cold as they get into contact with the mushy wet clay soil. I pick up the long handled spade (a traditional and essential farming tool) and try to shove it into the soil with the aim of digging out the old rice stubble.

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The next thing I notice Ismael, a 15 year old boy with a charming personality from the village smiling while trying to suppress his giggles. “Like this, like this, Fa-ri-da” he demonstrate how to use the spade to dig an outline of a circle around the stubbles then insert the spade on the edge of one of the arcs and shovel the soil from the bottom uprooting all the roots. He does it so effortlessly and with great precision. I try to immitate his actions but every time I dig in, my spade doesn’t go deep enough. Ismael observes me with great concern and then walks upto me “Fa-ri-da, look! Like this, do one” he tries to explain with his limited English vocabulary. “Do one, like this, like this!” I give it another try and I see Ismael getting excited “good, good, now two, okay?” I follow the lead of my young teacher and I work up to uprooting 7 rice stubbles but there is hudreds more to go. The experiended rice farmers are doing about 15 stubbles in one go. I put the spade into the soil and lean on it. I can feel my abs getting soar and a slight pain on my back as I faintly pant for air. Ismael looks at me with a grin on his face “tired?” I smile back as I try to sound energetic “No, not tired!” Yes, that was a bit of a lie to save face as I was just about to drop the spade and walk to the edge of the paddy terrace for a rest. I released the spade handle and unfolded my hands and noticed little blisters below my fingers. Oh boy! I didn’t notice how hard the spade had been rubbing on my palms.

Building the terrace
On the next day, the work seemed simple. All we had to do was pick up all the dug out soil and create a wall around the paddy. “Pretty easy day,” I trumphly thought to myself. I started lifting small blocks of soil and filling up the paddy terraces. In about 20 minutes and I was covered in sweat. I looked besides me and I noticed Nina (a woman I was working with) carrying a block of soil almost three times the size of what I had on my hands! “How does she do it?” I push myself to do a bit more and one hour later I call it quits as I walk away from the field with muddy feet and hands leaving the villagers to continue with their work.

Removing the husks
Once the rice has been harvested and dried it is put in a large mortar made of stone and then pounded with a long wooden pestel with a metal end to remove the husk.

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“Fa-ri-da like Malagasy” the women in the village showered me with praises as I finally redeemed myself in my perfectly fine pounding skills.  Here was something that I was doing well although not easy by any means.

Having experienced working in the rice fields I feel that one ought not to complain about the quality of rice until they can out perform the rice growers at the field work. When travelling to Madagascar trying your hands working on a rice field is worth it.

How to experience rice cultivation

You will have to mingle with the locals in rice growing villages. The villages around Mahitsy have some of the most beautiful rice fields I have seen in Madagascar.

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