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Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Red Sorghum in Cameroun

Red Sorghum in Cameroun

by Marian Hungerford of Garona, Cameroun

Dear Shannon, and everyone,

I’m heading right back to Cameroun for the red sorghum harvest. And it is not good news for farmers. Not enough rain this year, neither quantity nor timing – not enough food, not enough water in the electricity reservoirs for 24 hour electricity, the hydroelectric dams are hugely silted in so there isn’t much space to hold back and contain water. The electricity will be tightly rationed among the towns and inside the city neighborhoods. I am glad to be imminently moving away from grid electricity and out to the country with solar panels and constant power.

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Sweet stem sorghum seeds.

As a sort of introduction.

In this part of the world, sorghum is roughly divided into the rainy season kind and the dry season kind. The rainy season kind is the typical red sorghum seen also in the US and called milo. There are many sub species in each category. The varieties allow farmers to harvest twice a year if they have the correct soil. The dry season sorghum requires a flat piece of mostly clay soil. During the rainy season, these flat fields are ploughed in a checkerboard fashion to make squarish ponds so the rainfall will soak into the soil and not drain away. The dry season sorghum begins in a seedling nursery at the end of the rainy season. When the clay soil is sufficiently dried out to work, the seedlings are transplanted and given a good dose of water in the bottom of each hole. That is all. The dry season sorghum roots catch the receding water table and grow the entire season with no rainfall, just the water underneath the dry ground. They have phenomenal root systems. Farmers appreciate the dust cover of the harmattan days as it slows the plant transpiration and helps the sorghum set a good crop for a harvest in Jan/Feb.

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Sorghum, tall ba’eri with Esther.

In contrast, the rainy season sorghum requires a more sandy soil and is often farmed on the steep slopes of hills or on terraces. The bane of the culture are those beautiful purple flowers – striga, which are a root parasite that reduces yields. At harvest the field is shocked in rows to dry rather than sheaves.

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Harvest, stalks in shocks, row by row.

The taller unripe sorghum is a variety often used as a boundary marker between fields and yields a grayish white tasty cereal. The sorghum is a major building material and the tall stems are much sought after for shade supports and woven walls.

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Bringing the sorghum to the threshing floor.

The harvesting proceeds with cutting the seed head, transporting to the threshing site, threshing, winnowing and storing the clean grain in bags (in these modern times). Often freighted by donkey, but in these times usually by motorcycle. Traditionally stored loose in huge clay-pot-style granaries, modernly stored in the plastic sacks. Adding Neem leaves or branches of twigs among the sacks helps reduce the weevils and other bugs.

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Threshing, each flailing on time and in the right spot, working the edge in a horseshoe.

The threshing bee in the photos is for the church at Sukundu. The man in the blue gown is the pastor. Very hot work with the chaff sticking to the sweaty skin. Sale of the communal fields produce funds church projects and ministries. This crew also kept together and went from one private farm to another, helping each other to get the harvest in. There is no danger of frost but constant danger from roving herds of cattle or village goats released to fend for themselves most of the year.

On pilgrimage,
Marian Hungerford
Garona, Cameroun

Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Winnowing: good grain drops heavily into basin, chaff goes away with the wind.
Red Sorghum in Cameroun
Bagging the good grain, tying the bag shut with bard shreds.