Describing Life for the Billion Subsistence Farmers – Primitive Hand Tools Hurt My Back

Farming tools have not changed for these people for 300 years.
Farming tools have not changed for these people for 300 years.

Two worlds colliding together in one simple photo. The primitive and modern married. Let us decipher the history and future seen here.

How people farm in Mali (Asia and Africa) is as primitive as can be. The simple hand tools used to prepare fields and plant crops have not changed for centuries.

This “Dabba” (See photo) has  a steel tip used to chop up and loosen the soil. One then turns it over with the steel blade pointed upwards, and the wooden ball is used to break up the hard lumps of soil. Then the blade is turned on its side (As demonstrated here) to level the soil. There are many variations of this Dabba, some larger, some smaller for planting seed, some with wide shovel-like blades for moving larger amounts of soil  around.

I’ve used a dabba for many hours in the hot sun in Africa; it is exhausting and backbreaking work. How these people constantly work stooped over like this all day baffles my mind.

This photo really stuns me because it represents two worlds: the ancient ways and the modern ways. Here we see a Malian woman using a backbreaking, primitive, yet simple, economical,  and effective hand tool to prepare soil for modern drip irrigation lines to water a drought season vegetable garden.

I highly recommend the book “The Village of Waiting”. It is one of the most realistic and intelligent books on living and working in Africa I have ever read. The daily personal struggle Westerners often experience is well described.

The following paragraph describes life for the bottom billion subsistence farmers on earth very well.


“One Saturday morning I hiked with Christine, Claudie, Markie, and Mawuli three kilometers up a steep rise of the plateau. Christine kept her field separate from Benjamin’s because, she said, hers would produce more since she tended it better. She gave the children and me a handful of seeds each. We all bent over and shuffled along the slope, scooping out small holes a few feet apart with one hand and tossing in a couple of seeds with the other. Christine worked with Aku on her back. It seemed easy enough at first, but after two hours my back and legs ached from crouching and my hands were filthy with mud. Standing up to stretch, I noticed that Christine had covered twice as much soil as I; even eight-year-old Markie had done more. The next day my entire body was sore from having done this fraction of the work they did week after week.

I would watch the farmers wandering back at night, …, singing in their pleasantly gravelly voices, and wonder how many millions or billions of people were doing the same work all over the world, and had been doing it, in ways that couldn’t have been much different from this, throughout human history. It has been the lot for all but a tiny portion of humanity until very recently, and still is for the majority. Yet to that privileged minority, the work and the workers are invisible, don’t exist. I would have never given them a real thought if I hadn’t been living in their midst.”
(The Village of Waiting. George Packer, Farra, Straus and Giroux Pub, New York, 2001, pg 164


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