Patrick Sakyi - monitoring & evaluation associate with Farmerline, Ghana.

Sharing the experience of rural life: a wisdom pot for the modern world

Growing up on the farm, in rural surroundings, is a profound experience. You learn many life skills and lessons, but there are also a lot of challenges that cause many young people to seek their fortunes in the city. A personal story that takes up the cudgels for a life in a rural area.

I live in Kumasi, Ghana and I work with a social enterprise that helps smallholder farmers turn into successful entrepreneurs. I like the city for its greenery and moderate cost of living. Kumasi is a big town with about 1.17 million inhabitants. I have lived here for almost nine years, but this is not where I grew up. When I would meet people and tell them that I had spent my childhood and youth on a farm, in a rural area, they hardly believed me. This happened so often that I stopped talking about the topic. But recently, my conversations with some colleagues about my childhood made me realise that I had a lot to share about my experiences growing up on the farm. So I went down memory lane and put together this piece as a way of sharing my experiences.

My dad was a cocoa farmer. My mom was a trader and cocoa farmer as well. She bought maize, oranges, plantain and avocados from several farmers in neighbouring villages and sent the produce to a big market at Mankesim in the Central region to be sold. I have five siblings (two brothers and three sisters). I spent my first seven years with my parents in the village. Afterwards, they had me stay with an aunt in the city. Sending me away at this age was one of the hardest decisions my parents made, but this was necessary for me to start schooling and get proper education.

While schooling in the city, I returned to the village during every holiday to spend time with my parents. Coming back home was always a happy moment because my other siblings, living and schooling in different towns and with other families, also returned to the village for their break. During the school holidays, we helped on the farm. Cocoa farming was my dad’s main business, but we grew almost all the other food crops that we consumed at home. So at a young age, I knew very well where our food came from. We planted crops such as maize, yam, cocoyam, plantain and vegetables. These provided us with the food we needed all year round. Occasionally, we cultivated rice. We also raised goats, sheep, turkeys and chicken. Fruit trees such as mangoes, oranges and avocados were spread all over the cocoa farm. When the fruits were in season, you never got hungry while working on the cocoa farm because there would be plenty of fruits to eat. Since we grew almost everything we consumed, the main items I remember my mom purchasing from the market, on her usual trading trips, were salt, bread, dried fish and meat pie.

I learnt how to earn and save money in order to buy what I wanted. I grew plantain in our backyard garden. For the plantain to thrive and yield good bunches, it required a good soil rich in nutrients. So I was taught to add animal droppings and decayed plant leaves to the soil as organic manure to improve its nutrients. When the plantain matured, I harvested it, and my mom would sell it on one of her several trading trips to the market at Mankesim. My siblings and I also went to the bush in search of black pepper (Piper guineense) for sale.
This vine grows by climbing on tree branches and smaller stems. It could only be found growing in the wild and was difficult to find, but we knew it was a pricy spice and therefore worth the search. The spice itself is derived from the dried fruit. So after harvesting the fruits, we dried them in the hot sun for about two weeks. Afterwards, we measured the quantity with a standard tin or bowl, and then the spice was sold at the market by my mom. With my savings, I bought additional clothes or shoes for Christmas.

Snapshots of rural life

Our village was a small one, and I think it would be best described as a homestead. Five separate families lived there. It is located in the Central region of Ghana. The towns of Assin Kushea and Assin Ahyiresu Donkorkrom were 5.3 km and 3.2 km away, and could only be reached on foot. The village was situated near a river called the Prah. At the age of eight, I could already ride a canoe on the Prah. The canoe was a small dug-out boat without a motor. My dad had carved it out of a hardwood trunk. Carving is an art that requires a lot of skill and precision. I accompanied my dad and my elder brothers to fish in the river. Of course, I was always eager to be the one riding the canoe.

After the daily work on the farm, we had plenty of time to do what we wanted. We went either hunting or swimming. This was the part of the day we enjoyed most. In the evenings, after dinner, we played games such as ludo and oware or card games. On other nights, we sat in a circle around a warm fire and told stories, above all the popular Ananse stories portraying the spider Ananse as a witty or cunning character. These story telling moments expanded our imagination and were also a way for adults, including our parents, to pass on important life lessons to the children in the form of storytelling. The stories were colourful and varied from drama to tragedy to comedy. I’m sure most Ghanaians will be able to remember at least one Ananse story or tell you their favourite one.

The other side of the coin

Farm life, in rural Ghana, was exciting, but it also posed challenges that seemed almost insurmountable. Access to health facilities and school as well as transportation was difficult. One of the things I disliked most was when I felt sick. Actually, this was when I received the most attention or care, but I still didn’t like it because I knew very well that the nearest hospital was at Assin Kushea, 5.3 km walking distance away from the village. And when I felt sick, my mom would walk with me there to get medical treatment. After seeing the doctor, we had to walk back to the village. This was exhausting. Similarly, when I started schooling in the village at the age of six, I had to walk 3.2 km to reach the school and the same distance back after school. Transportation was a challenge. There were no motorable roads to the village so no cars could access the community. The long walks to the hospital and the school were the reason why my parents sent me to the city at such an early age.

How things have changed

Life in the village could be unrelenting because we had to provide so much for ourselves. We didn’t need to buy soap in the village since we made our own. I learnt how to make soap from cocoa husks and palm oil at an early age. I would later come to learn about this in school, in science class, as a process called saponification. Through my dad, I also learned how to brew our local alcoholic gin made from palm wine, which I was later taught in school was through a process called distillation. Brewing alcohol was just another source of income for my dad. Surprisingly, he did not drink. He had a way of testing the quality of the gin without even having to taste it.

I didn't think much of these rural experiences at the time, but I have begun to appreciate them lately in my work and life. As a frontline staff of a social enterprise working in Ghana, my work brings me to the rural areas almost every week to interact with farmers. The proliferation of mobile phones and their use in agriculture is vastly changing the way farmers communicate and access information and other beneficial services.
With innovative services running on mobile phones, my dad could have received a weather forecast every day for him to plan his daily farm activities or a seasonal forecast to know when and what staple crops to plant. Similarly, he could also have sought for advice on best farm management practices whenever he had challenges on the farm without necessarily travelling long distances to obtain the same information.
Mobile Money is another great innovation. It is an electronic wallet service that allows users to send and receive money using their mobile phones. Easy and fast transaction, huh!! If its access were extended to all rural areas, people wouldn’t have to travel long distances to conduct financial transactions.

But how do we ensure that such important mobile services reach the people, especially the farmers in the rural areas, who need them most? I believe that tested and proven innovations will require scaling-up support to scale to make them accessible and affordable to farmers in rural settings, most of whose incomes tend to be small and seasonal. This should be combined with more awareness creation and training of the users to improve their capacity to utilise these services. Such innovations would be important in attracting the youth into agriculture, improving agriculture productivity, decision-making and reducing youth unemployment.

Let’s work together for rural development

Well, looking back, I seem to have had a rich childhood. I ate fresh food and fruits every day, I had a river in the backyard as a swimming and fishing pool, I had a lot of time to play in natural surroundings and also learnt many valuable life skills and lessons. In hindsight, I believe there are a wealth of novel ideas in the rural areas that need to be documented and shared. Growing up on a farm or in a village may have its disadvantages and challenges, but it is certainly a very special experience.
And I think that is the reason why anytime I step on the farm, I become like a child again! Hopefully, this piece gives you some insight into what it is really like to grow up on farm or in a rural area. I know I am not alone. There may be many of us with rural roots –many of whom have probably left the farm but certainly do remember their experiences. Your story might be an inspiration for the youth as we work together to make agriculture more attractive and also contribute to rural development.

About the author: Patrick Sakyi works as a monitoring & evaluation associate with Farmerline, a social enterprise which builds innovative data collection platforms and mobile applications to improve information access for smallholder farmers in Ghana and other African countries.

Contact:  Patrick Sakyi

Further reading :

Family Farming /Rural 21

Rural youth /Rural 21