Randriamahefa: 'That's what we swap for our farming: in bad years I go to sea and there it's never a bad year.'
Randriamahefa is at home in Faux Cap, making a living from fishing, farming and raising chickens – all things he has done since he was a child. He explains that “if the year is good, I plant in the fields…[but] in bad years I go to sea…[and] we depend on the sea for our income to purchase things”.
Randri attributes the drought to the lack of forest cover: “…even when heavy rain clouds lumber toward us from the east, if there is anywhere to get it, it’s the forests in the west that get it – leaving us dry.” He describes changing rain patterns and their impact on farming and says the last series of good harvests was in the 1980s.
However, he is enthusiastic about the successful sorghum harvest of 2007, and explains that sorghum is “a crop of our ancestors”, which isn’t “killed by drought.” He says it was his “good fortune” that he was able to use it to feed his wife, who had just given birth.
Randri says that livestock are important investments: “We must put cash into animal husbandry. For cash never sticks in the pocket; it finds a path of its own. That’s why we turn the cash into a cow.”
My name is Randriamahefa and I’m 49 years old. I have a wife and nine children: seven boys and two girls. I was 18 when a wife was fetched for me. We were many brothers and sisters, and most of them have gone elsewhere to work for wages, and the women are with their husbands. So me and my older sibling are all who remain [here]. Salaried work got all of them and it was thought that I’d be on my way as well, and so a wife was found for me. So that’s why there are so many children: I married very young.
“The year has turned bad on us”
We here are all OK, just sitting, given this year…waiting for what that God will do with us – we in this southern region. For of rain he has not given much to us, just a little, a sprinkling, but it’s the strong winds that we struggle against.
In bad years like this one, I’ll try to find work that pays in order to buy food, but if the year is good, I plant in the fields. Also I’ve become a member of that association, the one [promoting] sorghum, which the foreigner distributed to the membership. But now that the year has turned bad on us we’ve lost that; and all those traditional crops like vañemba (small red bean) and corn – all are lost. Now there are none.
The one [field] I inherited from my father is mine, and I have purchased more as I’ve been able to find money… In my fields I plant manioc, yams, the sorghum distributed by that foreigner, vañemba, corn, watermelon. Whatever would grow I’d plant – like voanjobory, antsoroko (types of bean), we plant all of those, but none succeeded this year because it was a bad one. It’s rainfall that I’m referring to – that’s our problem here in this country.
“In a bad year we depend on the sea”
[If the crops fail] I do one kind of work – as we live near the ocean, there is lobster trapping here, and diving for lobster, diving for deda (sea snails), and paddling [out for fish] when the weather is fine. That’s what we swap for our farming: in bad years I go to sea and there it’s never a bad year, just rough seas that would hamper that work.
So in a bad year we depend on the sea for our income to purchase things. The [lobster] purchasers have a collector here…who purchases daily from us… Before, we could find [lobster] by the kilo, but [not] any more, they are becoming scarce.
Other sea products
The lobsters are among the seaweed, and only occasionally will we find the deda among the lobsters – they’d rather the rocks. And so if we’re after lobster and happen upon a deda we’ll take it, but our efforts are really for the lobster. And when the lobster season ends, we’ll then go after the deda among the limestone reefs. When the sea is calm, we’ll paddle out and fish. We’ll pick at all those different things to get through a bad year, in order to get some money.
When we paddle [for fish] we might bring in AR 10,000 [or] AR 8,000, 5,000; it’s according to how many fish we can catch, for there are days when we catch and other days that are poor fishing.
There is [an association of fishermen], but it’s only a month since it was organised, and it is…not yet functional. We’re just in the working out of it now, and just last week we had our first meeting.
Working the soil and the sea
So I go to the ocean to find cash, I go down there when the day heats up so I can dive into the water to seek what I might find, and that’s where I can earn some cash. But in a good year I’ll purchase chickens and by raising chickens I can sell them to purchase food by the kapoake (standard cup for measuring grain).We raise goats, chickens, sheep, whatever God will give one.
[Farming, fishing and livestock] are all my professions, since we are near the sea. For my farm is not too far from the coast, and I’ll go to the sea at midday, and I’ll dive right in to seek something there. Occasionally I’ll not weed my field, but will leave early in the morning to fish and when I return at midday I’ll then go into the fields, so that’s how I work, and that kind of work has been mine since I was a child.
Too many bad harvests
The time for planting manioc begins in April and goes on to June – that’s called winter planting – while the planting of corn, vañemba, sorghum, and antake (type of bean) begins in December through to February. And later, into April, May and June, it’ll be sweet potatoes [and squash] – if there is rain of course – and if not we wait until the new year again.
It used to be that the rains began in October, but now there is rarely rainfall in September, October, November. In the old days we had rain in those months, but now it’s December before we receive rain, or January or February.
It’s been a long time, in fact since about 1982, that we had a good harvest. I was still young back then when we had that harvest, and then were three, four years – all drought – and then one that was OK. Then it was five, six years, before another season that worked. So those were the few good years but most are bad. I haven’t kept track that well but I do know that it’s been a long time.
The agricultural season of 2007 wasn’t too bad, we began planting in January and the rains didn’t stop in February, March, April, May, but kept on raining, and we kept planting, and our crops grew at that time: corn, sweet potatoes, and the sorghum distributed through that association all grew.
Reviving sorghum cultivation
I began to eat my corn crop in the month of June and I’m still eating from that now, in February. I also used it for planting again, and I sold some at market, because I was able to harvest corn that winter – corn that I’d planted in April, May, since the rains were good. I purchased goats with the money I received from that corn and I purchased clothes.
I did harvest [the sorghum], but I mixed it with all the other crops. We consumed it and I bought clothes and chickens. Maybe it was a little over 100 kapoake [of sorghum] that I sold, for I used most of it to feed one who had just delivered a baby. It was my good fortune to have harvested, and that my wife also should bear a child whom I fed from my harvest.
There were reasons [why I joined the sorghum association], the first being that it was also a crop of our ancestors. And the sorghum that was distributed was successful, and I was very satisfied with it, since I planted it for the first time and it brought a harvest, and so it has meaning for me.
There are insects and larvae that ruin our crops. When the plants have grown tall – this sorghum – there are insects which eat the head, and kill that plant, [but] the sorghum then will send up new shoots. And it’s from the new shoots, from the roots, that we might hope for produce. So, of the sorghum delivered by the foreigner, weeding is the main problem, and the rains. But if the rains come then we are eager to weed, and we might get enough for seed for the next season.
That’s what’s good about this sorghum, and that is why we have good hopes for this, in that it isn’t killed by drought like the other crops… This IRAT 153 (improved variety of sorghum that matures in three months) will not die from drought, but will continually sprout from the roots.
“We turn the cash into a cow”
First I’ll put some of my harvest up, store it in the granary. I will take from that to sell or to eat. And if the income from that is sufficient, I’ll purchase a head of cattle; if average I’ll purchase a goat; and if small I’ll buy a chicken.
Now if there is a bereavement and one of my relatives dies, then some of the money will go that way: “Sell this steer for that funeral.” So if the harvest is good and not much cash is required, then we’ll take out some of our food and sell it; if the cash demands are great we’ll have to sell a goat or a steer.
When the manioc ripens, the sweet potatoes, the vañemba, the sorghum, it will not all be consumed. We must sell most of that and store the rest… If the harvest is large I’ve got to consider what to do, for there will always be [need] to purchase a head of cattle.
There is a good reason [for purchasing cattle, goats or chickens when the harvest is sufficient]. We must put cash into animal husbandry. For cash never sticks in the pocket; it finds a path of its own. That’s why we turn the cash into a cow. And if we leave the food in storage it will rot, so we must put that into something as savings – so that when the drought comes we’ll have that, where we stored our cash in reserve.
Down at Ejijike we have a well put in by a foreigner a long time ago and we still use it today. And that well has multiplied to six wells now. So we bring the cattle to water every other day. That is also where we get our drinking water. It is 3km from here. There are wells for drinking water, and wells for the animals, and there are water bassins (rainwater catchment and storage systems); the water is sweet enough. So we here don’t often see a water truck, but depend on those wells for our water.
There are two government impluviums (containers to collect and store rainwater) here. And for those we only need rainfall. That water is sold when they are full. That money is saved for a day of need, to purchase cement to seal the bassin when cracked, and if the community needs cash it can be taken from that money…
There is no market here; only at Anovy is there a market, every Monday. Indeed we are organising a market here, but it’s not doing well… And as for small stores, there are none. Some sell merchandise out of their homes – matches, soap, oil, candy etc. They can’t be called stores, but are simply individuals using their cash to that end.
“We don’t have any forests”
Here we don’t have any [forests]; [fuelwood] is fetched from somewhere north of here. So it’s green wood that the women fetch here for their fires. And if wood is needed for house construction we purchase it from Lamitihy [20km to the north]… But timber to cut down, there is none here… We have difficulty in building houses and corrals (animal enclosures) because of not having the wood, and so we must buy it and that runs down our cash reserves.
That’s also probably the reason we aren’t getting our rainfall. So even when heavy rain clouds lumber towards us from the east, if there is anywhere to get it, it’s the forests in the west that get it – leaving us dry. So that’s probably why we have droughts here: we don’t have any forests.
It’s the followers of traditional religion who hold to traditional customs. For us Christians the funeral custom is simple: we have a big meal and that’s it. But for the non-Christians – they can’t get out of having to consume three cattle at least…
In earlier times it was demanded that the house of the deceased be demolished, but now that the light is dawning they don’t stick to that, and won’t destroy the house as wood is too costly. So now blood is sprinkled on the house, and that blood is used in lieu of destroying the house, to purify it… Later the house may be bequeathed [to someone].
Let’s say, then, that I wish to add to my spouses. I’ll go in search of a woman without telling my wife, and when I find one I’ll get to know her first, and if we get along well, I’ll tell her I want to take her as my wife. Then I’ll break it to my first wife: “What do you think, I’m planning to take a woman for my wife, but I’m not taking her to be an enemy of yours, but only that I want another wife to increase the number of my progeny to increase our family.”
Then we debate, and converse, and if [the first wife] accepts then I’ll go and fetch the other; if not we’ll be in an argument all night until I can break her into the idea… And each of them will have their own possessions, and fields and furniture, when the distribution is settled. That is the custom of polygamy in this area.
Reflection on the past year
I’m not one to do many [different] tasks: if I’m not in my fields I’m out at sea. So what made me happy last year was the planting, which gave a good harvest, which gave me possessions, and let me do as I pleased. And the rain continued to come, and I was happy to weed.
If God still exists, then I look forward to continued rains. I’m also a fisherman, and so I’m not desperate, but have that to fall back on for support. But if there were some tools – sea rope, diving masks, canoes – those are in my dreams as goals. And if I had the means [to get them], then those things would be my targets.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.