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One Cup of Rice

November 3, 2013

Malagasy people have one of the world’s most voracious appetites for rice. There is a saying here, “Rice is Life”. And it is so very true. Rice is a staple of my diet, as it is for all of my neighbors here, and the planting season for rice dictates the pace of life from day to day. When comparing relative costs of goods between here and the US, I rely on cups of rice as a common denominator. Purchasing Power Parity holds no water compared to talking about how many cups of rice a beer in the States is worth versus in Madagascar, and it is much easier to explain with my limited foreign language skills.

It is amazing to me the amount of work that goes into one cup of rice. Ampondralava is fairly middle class, in that there are plenty of oxen to help till the fields and machines to thresh the rice, instead of women having to complete this task by hand. The most remarkable thing about this rice culture is that each stage in the farming process has its own specific verb, and rice at different ages is described in terms of different stages of pregnancy. When rice gives birth it’s harvest time!

Currently, as it is the beginning of the rainy season, most of my town is waiting to start a busy planting time. I often wonder what the cost of rice would be in the U.S. if our system was as labor intensive as Madagascar’s. Everyone in Ampondralava farms rice; teachers, the mayor, even people who live in other towns come in to town to help with harvest and planting times. Because it is such an important part of day to day life I want to share rice cultivation, so here is a timeline to help outline the major stages of rice planting:

1-      Prep the nursery bed- this involves irrigating a field, or if rain fed waiting for enough rain for mud, then taking a cow or a lot of people and slushing through the field until it is all the same consistency, imagine good brownie batter

Prep the rice field- this often involves rebuilding walls of the field to keep water on the paddy, mixing in manure, weeding, and muddying the field

2-      Sow the seeds- this part isn’t particularly interesting, the seeds are sown in the nursery bed then

3-      Transplant seedlings- first the seedlings are put into bundles then they are transported to the large rice field where women and younger girls transplant the seedlings

4-      Weeding and waiting- this is the “easy” part- weeding is tough, but doesn’t occur too frequently- meanwhile people will visit their fields to check on how their rice is maturing. When it’s ready to harvest is when things really get moving

5-      Cutting rice- once rice has birthed it’s grains it’s time to cut the stalks and lay them in bundles in the field to dry

6-      Gathering rice-then rice is gathered into larger bundles. It is then put through its first threshing, often with the aid of oxen and large sticks that beat the grains from the stalks

7-      Drying rice- this happens several different times, the first time the fresh grains are left in the field to dry, they are then brought into town where the rice is dried again right before it is threshed for cooking.

8-      Sifting or cleaning rice- this removes all larger vegetable matter like weed seeds, larger pieces of grass, rocks etc. Often times the elder women are in charge of this stage. There are two parts to this process. The first is letting the wind remove the lighter husks and grass by shaking rice of woven mats. The second involves a sifter and hand picking of remaining weed seeds, rocks, and other non-rice items. Once sufficiently clean the rice is

9-      Threshed- Ampondralava is lucky to have many machines for this task, but some people still pound their rice by hand. There is a rhythm to this process that is unmistakable as younger girls and women beat the husks off the rice with giant mortar and pestles. They also use these to cook all manner of delicious treats!

10-   Winnowing- the husks and rice are then separated by using a special circular woven mat, a sahafa, and letting the wind take the husks as the whole kit n caboodle is tossed in the air.

11-   Cook and enjoy- the easiest part- clean your rice once more, pick out any remaining weed seeds, light your charcoal stove, add water, wait and then enjoy!!

The one cup of rice I eat everyday is a product of all of these hours of labor, impossible without the input of the whole community. It’s incredible, it’s remarkable.

Rice is life.


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