Shucking Corn

The column was published in the Capital Journal in July.

One of the general stereotypes of Africa – a reality I’ve mentioned previously in this space – is living without the main First World conveniences.

It’s true that my water supply comes from a well and that I use a battery-powered headlamp and candles to guide my nightly activities. There are no machines to clean my clothes after I’ve fallen in the mud – yes, that happens – or keep dairy products cool so they do not spoil.

But, sometimes, not having all the gadgets of America isn’t such a bad thing. In Lesotho work is often social hour.

My host father is a farmer and has several acres that he uses to grow potatoes, pumpkins, beans and, the main staple of Lesotho, corn. Because it is now winter, he recently harvested his corn, using only a cattle-drawn cart and the labor of a few men. It wasn’t a great harvest because of the season’s little rain, but he managed to bring in a few carts.

Then it was the women and children’s job to shuck the corn so the kernels can be grinded into cornmeal. The cornmeal is cooked with oil and water over a flame to create papa, the Basotho’s main meal and often eaten three times a day with vegetables and meat. A machine does the grinding, but the shucking is sheer manpower.

For a week, a flock of small children – most under the age of four – and a few women pounded husks with flat rocks until all the kernels were knocked off. They did this for hours, never seeming to mind the unending pile of work or the occasional bit that knocked them in the face.

Every so often I helped. The children, to shy to say words, showed me the proper technique of hitting the husk and laughed as I beamed in glory after shucking an entire piece.

While we worked, the women traded gossip and I made faces to the children to get them to giggle. I’d use what little Sesotho I know to say things like, “The Basotho work so hard,” and “I am working like the Basotho; I am now a Mosotho,” which would usually earn roars of laughter. And, when we didn’t have anything to say, we sang sweet songs to pass the time.

There are machines in the developed world that can do this kind or work, and do it much faster. However, in Lesotho, efficiency is not a priority. A bulky machine, most likely too expensive for my village, would take away the simplicity of sitting and enjoying the company of others. It would remove that social element, which is far more important than the time consumed to do the task.

There are many more productive things that I could have been doing than hitting husks of corn with a rock, but not more meaningful. Doing this work, along with bloody knuckles, I gained sweet memories and the understanding that life slowed down, enjoyed each task at a time, is powerfully fulfilling.


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