Although rice cultivation was introduced in the lowlands along Lake Tanganyika by Arab and Swahili traders in the 19th Century, it is only within the last several decades that the crop has become popular both as a cash crop and to eat in Burundi.
In this blog I want to talk about the laborious steps of cultivation, harvesting and processing – and in another blog I will talk about the cultivation and use of rice in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries throughout Africa.
I cannot trace exactly when and how rice cultivation became widely cultivated and eaten here in central Africa, but in talking with older residents it is claimed that a generation ago rice was not popular and was grown only by the Asian community – with local labor. Perhaps the diffusion of the crop was linked to state goals of food security and production of cash crops after the 1980s. At that time the balance between food production and self-sufficiency in the country began to change, with increasing reliance on imported foods. Now, rice now is grown primarily by smallholders both as a cash crop and to eat. Still today, it is considered a luxury food by the poor and in rural areas, to be eaten during celebrations.
Rice is grown as a lowlands crop associated with swampy areas, and as a ‘upland’ crop, both in rain-fed and reclaimed wetlands areas. Over the last decade the government has encouraged donors and NGOs to implement the drainage of wetlands, after which the lands are partitioned to locals for rice production. Since the country has traditionally contained numerous wetlands located between the cultivated hills, there is ample opportunity for this strategy to continue; approximately 8% of the country consists of wetlands, which traditionally have been used as a third season during the dry months, with plantings of beans, maize and sweet potatoes.
The spread of rice production in wetlands has been accompanied by increased incidents of both malaria and Schistosoma mansoni. There is, however, some debate as to the introduction of rice production on the one hand, and increases in malaria on the other are directly linked with malaria increases. This is because of variance in malaria types preceding the introduction of rice and other factors.
The growing of rice is a family affair or, for the wealthy, entails hired labor. After planting it is necessary to keep birds and goats away, and this is generally accomplished by small boys. At least one weeding is necessary. Once ripe, the rice is harvested and often put out to dry:
In our area, we are fortunate to have a small rice mill that is run by a Catholic association. Here, people bring their rice, have it milled, and take it home:
The mill charges so much a kilo for milling and keeps the bran, which it sells to livestock owners. Those having a number of sacks of rice keep most of it in storage (mills provide this service free), for the price will nearly double between August and November – December.
Poorer families who raise a small quantity of rice will generally keep it at home, to be consumed or sold as needed.
The rice straw left in the field is sold or used for animal fodder. As well, it is used as a mulch around plants.
In more isolated areas upcountry where there are no mills close-by, the rice is ground and cleaned by hand. I have not taken pictures, but here are a couple of interesting pictures of these processes being performed in South Carolina and in Georgia some years ago:
These processes are conducted exactly the same way here in Burundi.