Village Chickens and Hard-boiled Eggs

First, consider the image below:

The (hopefully) interesting tale below occurred during my recent visit to Sierra Leone.  Unfortunately, my phone, which was doubling as a camera, apparently was not partial to the weather.  After one photo (see my previous post), the software departed for parts unknown and did not return till end of day.  I looked through a boatload of other photos from the same trip.  Chickens seem ever-present in these villages, so I figured I’d find a random chicken to make my point.  But alas, the chickens are apparently camera shy, and so I was out of luck.  With no images of my own to illustrate the story, I took a look at Wikimedia Commons, and voila.  A kind soul I have never heard of before (Foodeel Seddichi) posted a picture to a Flickr account (clicking the picture will take you there), and in turn posted it to the Commons.  The picture is from Niger, not Sierra Leone, but gives a pretty similar sense.  I love that the copyright holder made it available under open license.  We collaborated semi-anonymously (I know a name, but don’t really know the person) in creating this blog post.

The story that prompted this picture began December 29th in Mafirah, a small village near Lunsar, Sierra Leone.  Jon Bart and I were taking a village survey as part of Village Hope.  Our goal was to get a handle on the dietary situation of the members of this village.  Remarkably, although domesticated chickens were scurrying about and seemed to be constantly underfoot, they were not part of the village diet.  Neither the chickens nor the eggs.  The chickens were raised for sale in the market.  I’m guessing they aren’t bought by other villages (which have their own chickens), but by townspeople.  In addition, these chickens were not bred for egg-laying, and roosters and chickens were not kept separate.  In other words, eggs were not produced in high quantities, and they were all fertilized, and therefore represent the chickens of tomorrow.  So, these chickens and eggs represent a small but relatively easy source of extra cash.

A couple of days later, while driving out to another village, I got to talking about this chicken topic with Village Hope’s one paid employee, a Sierra Leonan name Stephen Gibateh.   Stephen told me that fertile eggs are very important to villagers.  Each egg represents valuable future income.  It is a part of the village culture, he said, to tell children stories of bad things that would happen if they ever ate an egg.   The only time a chicken would be eaten in the village was if it became ill and could not be sold.  Similarly, the only eggs that are eaten are those that have clearly been abandoned by a hen.    I marveled at the elaborate customs built up around economic necessity.  Fish is cheaper than chicken.  They raise chickens for sale, and buy fish for protein.  Remarkable.  It made me appreciate the previous day’s meal: a killer fish-AND-chicken stew served over white rice.

Stephen and I continued on our drive out to the villages as part of my investigation of groundnut farming (again, previous post).  At the first village, Kolifah, spent a couple of hours learning a lot of detail about groundnut farming.  I truly am fascinated by this stuff.  At the end of our interviews, the village demonstrated their hospitality with a fish-stew-over-rice meal.  Yum!  We drove on, passing through several villages, including Robanka, where they encouraged us to stop by on our return.  We made no promises, but continued on to Robump, and did another round of interviews.  (In all, I did these interviews in 5 villages, learning something new and relevant in each interview.)  The folks in Robump, upon learning that we had eaten, rewarded Stephen and I with two live chickens, bananas and papayas to take with us in lieu of the meal.  Stunning!  Each chicken alone represents a day’s wages!

As we drove home, twilight was settling in.  We didn’t have much daylight remaining to navigate the rough dirt roads with a series of somewhat makeshift and dodgy bridges over small streams.  Clearly we could not linger in Robanka.  As we passed through Robanka, we paused to explain.  In a heartbeat, someone trotted out, reached through the open window, and handed us four hard-boiled eggs.  They’d been prepared assuming we would pay a longer visit.  Obviously, some villages don’t have such harsh taboos on eating eggs!  Stephen and I had a good laugh over that.  Even Stephen, the local expert-on-the-ground, didn’t have a full picture.  And so there’s yet another lesson.  Along with subtly different ways in which each village farms its groundnuts, they also have different ways of handling chickens and eggs.

And that highlights once again the need for solutions that can be adapted to the local situation.  I propose (surprise!) semi-anonymous collaboration as a useful technique to develop these solutions.  Here at Appropedia, we’re working on getting the infrastructure up and going.  There’s a lot here, but of course always more to do.  Now we just need a more ubiquitous culture of semi-anonymous shared problem solving.  Some may say that’s a bit of a chicken and egg challenge.  All I can say is that bad things may happen if we can’t figure out how to work together.