Reminiscing about peasant cultivation of rice
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Dear editor,

I GREW up in rural Guyana in the 1960s and 70s in Port Mourant, once the most populous village (20K) in Guyana and the most profitable sugar estate of the British Empire. During that era and for decades earlier, my ancestors and almost every family were involved in some kind of cultivation as peasant or small farmers, especially on the Corentyne. As I aged in an urban environment, an educator for some 40 years, I often reminisce about being in the rice fields during cultivation and harvesting. Farming is seen as menial, hard work to be avoided. But it made me who I am, and I am very proud of that history and also of the contributions made in farming by my forebears and others. I thank them for the discipline, work ethic, honesty, and other positive values they instilled in me while on the fields that I used in my studies and career.

In Port Mourant and it is probably true of other villages, some families had several acres of rice land (and cane) in what was called the “backdam,” as well as small plots (a quarter to an acre of rice land) closer to the coast. These lands were given on long-term lease (for an annual fee) or purchased. They were not given for free, and they were not open, cultivable or arable lands. They were densely forested when leased and the ancestors had to clear the land of the trees, plimpa, baboories, moko moko, khirda bush, chi chi ley ley, other bush, other thick vegetation, and wood had to be cleared to make the land cultivable and arable. The same was true of housing plots assigned (in exchange for labour) or sold to the indentured labourers. Anyone who harboured any thought that Indians were given free land was mistaken. It was very hard, back-breaking work to prepare the land. Nothing was free. My family had some 24 acres of rice spread out in three spots of eight acres located deep in the backdam; we also had cane. Other farmers possessed more land than my family. Imagine how much labour was needed to clear that land.

We also had two small plots of some half acres on the coastline. The small plots were cultivated (ploughed) and harvested by hand (sickle or grass knife) while in the larger plots tractors and combines were used. Of course, in the early days prior to the 1960s, virtually all cultivation and harvesting were done by hand. People took pride in growing rice. It was an unforgettable experience growing up in rice or cane or in a farming community. It helped to discipline one for studies and a career that youngsters tend to lack today. On the rice fields and in the villages as well, one gets immersed into usage of a lot of Hindi and Bhojpuri words from the older folks who also sang folk songs they created or brought from the villages of India.

Growing rice is completely different than cane cultivation or harvesting. Whereas in cane work, a person is assigned one tass (task) per day and got paid say a shilling or so, in rice one was paid by the day if payments were to be made. Because farmers had virtually no savings, living day to day, there was hardly any paid labour. In the 1960s, a rice or cane labourer earned $5 a day. Since rice was a family enterprise, no money exchanged hands. And even if outside labour was used, it was borrowed labour to be repaid in labour. Villagers would help each other in cultivation, spraying, and harvesting. A few villagers formed volunteer gangs and worked on each other’s rice land. For example, if my father or mother volunteered four days on your land, you would owe my family eight days of labour to be provided by yourself or spouse or adult sibling. People never robbed each other in labour and the farmers got a full day’s work with volunteers labouring as though the land was theirs. And so the whole production of rice became a community affair and people lived well as a large family, not like today when they are at each other’s throat and seek to bring down each other. Mama, papa, nani, nana, aji, aja, pickney, cha-cha, cha chi, pupa, poa, mousie, mousa, mamu, mami, bhoujie, dabit, dad, didi, and other kins, and neighbours all chipped in to ready the land for rice cultivation. The same principle of togetherness applied when one had a shaadi or Jhandi or Koran Sharief or a birth or nine-day or a scrape-head ritual or any public festival — and religious background was no bar.

Everyone worked together, Muslims and Hindus. The community came together to assist each other in the villages. (Don’t know if same tradition was practised in urban communities).
The small plots were prepared with hand forks or bull or ox utilising wooden plows or other primitive measures such as fastening many cutlasses on holes of planga (wood board) to serve as a plow that was called haranga to prepare the field. One person holds the wooden plow and another pulls it with a rope around the field. The ox or bull replaced one person on the operation or directs ox where to move. And in later years the tractor and iron plows replaced the animal and wooden plows. After ploughing, the land is flooded with trench water. There is a skill involved moving water from the trench into the plot. A bhangee (hand sluice) was built (two pieces of wood and a piece of zinc – creative primitive set up brought from India. Plots of land were separated by banks or mares to store the water and at the right time the farmer bruk bandin (the soil bank). The banks were often used to grow vegetables, chowrai bhajee, and peppers or to store cow dung used to fertilise the fields. The Bhangee was used to regulate water flow or irrigate the land. Near the trench were fruit trees.
The dhan was shai (scattered in the pungent, smelly water). Good seeds sank while wind seeds (jharanda) floated and were collected and discarded. Some seeds that sunk could be bad or are also wind seeds or paiya – a farmer knows because it grows tallest and very quickly way above the good stalks of rice. Wind seed stalks are nuisance-producing rice pods that are empty. They are pulled out and destroyed. After germination, the seedlings or sikka, after growing to about a foot in height, are carefully pulled out of the muddy soil and put into bundles (or atiyas) or about 100 stalks together and ready for the ropaiyee or ropani (transfer of the rice stalks that were popularly known as beeyah).

Replanting beeyah involved an art – an up-and-down motion of the body. The beeyhah bundled were in a bag or rumaal on the back and transferred by hands in the water at about six inches apart. It was a tedious, but scientific approach to planting the rice decades ago, but still used in Trinidad, India, and Southeast Asia in peasant farming. At the appropriate time, weedicide was sprayed to kill grass or weeds. Manure was applied in the water. The estate used to give three pounds of manure to household at one time and then completely stopped the grant. When rice pods developed, if locusts or other insects and parasites pose a threat, the rice was sprayed with a light does of malathon (as farmers called it) a chemical poisonous to the body, but harmless to the rice plants. For endless miles, one would see emerald-green paddy fields. The plants need a lot of water for development of the pods and dhan inside of them. The farmers would say the “rice draw milk,” meaning the pods soaking up the water to grow in size. With time, the stalks and the pods gradually change colour, becoming yellow (from light to dark), signalling the beginning of the harvest season. Harvesting also involved manual voluntary labour and a family effort similar to the cultivation effort. The farmers “bruk banding” to drain remaining water. Fish and jumper shrimps abound during the harvesting period. Water hens were also plentiful on the fields feasting on dhan and laying their eggs. They were virtually caught by the hand and prepared for a delicious meal or sold alive in the market.

The paddy stalks were cut by hand with sickles and khutthi or short piece remained above the soil. A kharion is created to store the cultivated stalks. The dhan was removed from the stalks through stomping of animals and or hammering the stalks that are placed on large tarpaulin, so that the dhan fall on it for easy recovery. Sometimes, a danda was used to beat the stalks resulting in pitna or separation of dhan from stalks. The dhan was separated from the chaff or stalks (stubble or puwaal) by hand siftas. After processing on a jhatta, a hand machine used to remove the outer covering or husk or chilka (that becomes busey), a process called dhan kootna, one gets the chaoor or rice that is shared or sold or kept for use for half a year, or the whole year. When cooked it is bhat that goes well with dhal and curry.
Rice production is very hard work but fulfilling, and it provides a basic food for the family. The work ethic on a private rice or any other farm is unmatched when it comes to productivity that one would not experience in urban dwelling.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram

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