Eritrea: Filming sorghum
Spate irrigation, a flood water harvesting and management system, is a century old in the Eastern Lowlands of Eritrea. It has largely remained a low external input system with hardly any externally supplied inputs in terms of fertilizers, herbicides, post-harvest technologies, operation and maintenance, water harvesting and sharing rules, to mention, but a few. The system currently covers about 17,000 ha; its potential is estimated at 90, 000 ha, which is nearly one third of the total irrigable area in Eritrea. It is one of the major sources of livelihood for about a quarter of the 3 million rural poor farmers who mainly grow sorghum as their major crop.
Sorghum is highly productive under the spate irrigated agriculture in the Eastern Lowlands of Eritrea. In a good flood season, farmers harvest up to 4.5 ton ha-1y-1 - advisory literature suggests a maximum sorghum yield of 5 ton ha-1y-1 under non-restricted water and climatic conditions (FAO, 1998). In an effort to maintain the high level of productivity of sorghum under drought conditions - spate flows are unreliable in amount, duration and occurrence - the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) of Eritrea has, as part of its plant breeding activities, been striving to identify sorghum varieties that have a well established root system that can extract deep seated residual soil moisture. One such a variety is Hijeri, which has consistently excelled in delivering good yield under extreme drought conditions when very limited soil moisture is stored within the rootzone profile. In spate irrigation systems, the flood/irrigation period precedes the crop production season and the crops complete their entire growth cycle based on residual moisture.
A local MoA extension worker, with his own initiative and a borrowed camera, has, over the past 2 years taken some images over a full growth period of Hijeri. The Centre for Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA) and the Spate Irrigation Network (SpN) are, since October, 2007 working together to ensure the proper finalization of this important video documentation and dissemination as well as documentation of the documentation process. The project is expected to be completed by February 2008.
The tenets of this project, which the SpN considers a start for long-term cooperation with ILEIA, are very much akin to the shared visions and missions of the two institutions. ILEIA strives to promote the exchange of information for small-scale farmers through identifying promising technologies involving no or only marginal external inputs, but building on local farmers’ knowledge and traditional technologies. The SpN activities include liaison with relevant organizations such as ILEIA to document good local practices with the view to initiate need-driven pragmatic research and development in spate irrigation as well as sharing and dissemination of these practices through electronic platform, workshops, tailor-made training modules and other applicable media outlets.
by Karim Nawaz, Spate Irrigation Network
K. E. is a young professional in the Ministry of Agriculture in Eritrea . In the last five years he has been working as the Extension Officer in the spate irrigated area of Sheeb. Mr. K. is also a freelance documentary producer. Recently he completed a one-hour video on sorghum cultivation in Mensheeb – showing all the steps of the surprisingly high yield production system in this area.
Why sorghum? K. has a large interest in documenting local topics. At this own initative he has produced documentaries on vegetable production and on community paravets in Sheeb. There is an energetic artistic streak in Mr. K. – he also works as a cartoonist for a local daily newspaper and has contributed to a television programme titled “Eye of the Camera”. This programme discusses good governance and environment and current local affairs. Footage is sent in on critical issues by free lance producers. It is aired on television and followed by a panel discussion. For example roadside trees are shown that are so close to electric poles and wires, that the power goes off continuously.
It all started, when K. attended a five days training course on video production in the Gash Barka region organized by Ministry of Agriculture in 2002 and supported by a Norwegian NGO, NPAID. At that time K. was working as a Forestry and Wildlife specialist in this western part of the country. There were six participants in the training, but of these he was the only one who decided to pursue work in this new field. The trainers were staff from the Ministry of Information in Asmara. Before the training K. had been a keen photopgrapher, but videography was new to him. To get further in this field he collected information from the website of the Visual Anthropology Society of the USA, which helped him in many ways in the work he was doing at that time.
He took extensive footage of Eritrean wildlife and vegetation during his posting in Gash Barka in Western Eritrea. With staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and students from the University of Asmara, he travelled for twenty days in very remote areas. The main objective was to document the status of the Eritrea elephant, of which very little was known. For this documentary K. used the equipment of Ministry of Agriculture. The shooting of Eritrea elephant resulted in a final production of 35 minutes.
The sorghum documentary was made during his new posting as Extension Officer in Sheeb in the Eastern Lowlands. K. collected shots throughout the different stages of the cropping season, which lasts from July to February. To take the shots was challenging. Spate irrigation is best described as macro-scale water harvesting. Short peaked floods from ephemeral rivers are diverted to land for crop production, for filling drinking water ponds and to regenerate range land regeneration. These lfe-giving floods come suddenly, but being on the spot K. was able to capture them.
Initially K. used the equipment of the sub-district Agricultural Office in Mensheeb, that amongst others owns a handheld video camera. By asking ‘nice’, K. was usually able to borrow it, yet he could never be hundred percent sure. Later on he was helped by relatives in Italy, who provided him with a DVD camcorder.
He says that a camera only does not do. One also need to have the ideas, vision, knowledge and expertise. On practical terms one needs finance too. The final production of the video took took much time and dedication. Through the Spate Irrigation Network K. received some modest support to complete the video documentary – preparing the script and text, loading all footage on computer and cutting and pasting the images and recording the narration.
According to K. technical aspects like the angle of shot, the movement of camera, the time of recording, the darkness and radiance are very important. But in filming local topics one needs to capture reality, when it occurs. This sometimes means compromises on quality because catching the right moment is the main thing. The way farmers plough cannot be directed. One takes the footage, when it occurs and there is no studio or stage set. The light may be nicer and softer early in the morning or late in the afternoon but in the Sheeb documentary the farmer ploughs at midday and this is when the filming has to be done. In making the documentary K. was mentored by a professor at the University of Asmara who has a large private collection of videos on visial anthropology at this subject – all private collection. Mr. K. then selects and discusses with him about specific topics and it will help in the final production of this documentary. He did not have training in visual anthropology but have read the material on this topic and is still learning.
One dream of K. is to raise so much money with the video projects, that it would allow him to pay for a one-year course in visual anthropology abroad. Over the years he already put a lot of effort in the videos – buying tapes and working late hours in the studio of a friend, who he also pays for services, use of equipment and studio time. K. therefore insists on being acknowledged as the sole copyrights owner of the documentaries and on retaining the right to decide on permission to copy the video with collaborators. Copies of the documentary cannot be made without his permission.
The video in many respects is unique. Sorghum is an important crop in Eritrea. It is the main staple food, but it is multipurpose too. Sorghum has many uses, i.e. food, fiber, fodder and even shelter and construction material in rural areas. The most common use is in local bread. People use sorghum, millet and wheat for the sour pancake l‘injera”, but bread is only made from sorghum. It is preferred above other crops as it more easily digestible than other staple foods. In eating there is no preference of red or white sorghum varieties. Red varieties (such as hijri) are old and their production is less and white varieties are improved and high production. Red is not resistant to pest attack while white varieties are pest resistant, heavy in weight and it has more sugar contents and thus stalks are also liked by animals. The high percentage sugar stalks are sold in the local market as sometimes people chew the stalk as they do sugar cane stalk.
The documentary shows all the steps in the cultivation of spate-irrigated sorghum: the preparation of land and field bunds; the spectacular irrigation with flood water; the elaborate ploughing and mulching afterwards to conserve soil moisture; seed sowing and weed control and the harvesting. The special feature of Sheeb’s sorghum cuitivation is that yields are exceptionally high. Without the ratoon crop they maybe as much as 4000 kg per hectare. This is much higher than sorghum yields elsewhere in spate irrigated areas. Spate irrigation systems are a major source of livelihood in large parts of Yemen, Pakistan and increasingly in the lowlands of the Horn of Africa, covering a combined area of 1.5 to 2.0 million hectare globally. In many semi-arid areas they are the most important form of water harvesting. Elsewhere sorghum yield in spate areas seldom exceed 2000 kg per hectare. The key to high yields in Sheeb is the extensive moisture conservation after the floods through ploughing and mulching – making sure evaporation from soil pories is minimized by planking or in some cases even sand mulching. Another feature of the farming system in Sheeb is that the cultivated area is kept relatively compact, As a result a field may get two or three spate irrigation turns. With careful moisture conservation after every turn this ensure that the crop once grown is not stressed. This may be compared with other spate irrigated areas – where the floods are spread over a far larger area. This makes the system much more precarious, as it is unsure whether a field will be served or not, which discourages a farmer to invest in land preparation prior to the floods. Also fields receive one flood at the most and the resultant soil moisture still keeps the crop in the stress zone.
K. also organized a back to village workshop on his documentary – by inviting key informants and active farmers. All in all sixty-five farmers attended this meeting and they had a chance to see, discuss and give feedback. All the footage had been made with the help of key farmers and this session was for verification, authentication and feedback. The video material was very much liked by farmers. Farmers of Sheeb saw it as an opportunity of sharing experience. In K.'s words: “Through this method everybody comes to a common definition of the various agronomic practices”. This was also K.’s experience throughout: “In fact every time I went for video recording I learnt new things omn sorghum. Farmers experience of spate irrigation is lifetime.”
What K. hopes is that this type of documentary is useful for people having book knowledge but lacking visual knowledge. The documentary helps to understand how sorghum is cultivated under spate irrigation systems. It is helpful in awareness raising among farmers in other parts of Eritrea, that have less experience, land also for policy makers and for donors. He hopes the documentaty reflects the Sheeb farmers point of view and not that of an outsider and producer.
An interview with Mr. K.E.
Q: How easy or difficult was to do this work? What were the main problems you had?
The video project was easy and very difficult at the same time. The easiest part of the work was the two way and smooth communication with the farmers (farming community), acquiring using of video, to live and work with the farmers. The difficult part was the unavailability of visual tools, lack of budget.
During these participatory extension working years I closely work with the farming community in general and the contact farmers in particular, to study and learn Sheeb indigenous knowledge on spate irrigation system. During those years I read on culture, ethnography, qualitative research, participatory video, visual cultural studies, and anthropology field research methodologies.
Maintaining strong linkage and two way communications with the farming community, strong desire to learn and to document the spate irrigation system, respecting the norms and culture of the community, being at the right place at the right time are the bases for the success of the video.
Acquired agricultural and video knowledge alone, however, will not take you further unless you have been trusted by the community. For me who has worked with Sheeb farming community for one year before the start of video shooting, the major problems were unavailability of digital visual tools (video camera) and budget.
In conclusion, therefore, one need visual tools, video skills, budget, working knowledge on spate irrigation system agriculture, knowledge on the local culture, participatory extension, social studies. And a good interpersonal communication skills.
Q: Did you get support or help from others? Who were they?
For the duration of intensive and extended field works (participant observation, interviewing, focus group discussions and in collecting feed back from members of the community) the ethnographic documentary video “Sheeb Indigenous Knowledge on Spate Irrigation System”, was by and large a self initiated and financed video project. However, I get support from academic people that I know. Prof. A. K. provided valuable academic advises at all stages of the research project including text editing, H. J. assisted the researcher in participant observation, interviewing, facilitating focus group discussions and in collecting feed back from members of the community based on the video produced by the researcher, Z. H. narrated the main text for the ethnographic video, H. T. directed and assisted by the researcher, edited the video footage and audio. Spate irrigation academics who support in editing the text for the video narration are Dr. M. T., and Dr. F. van S.
Families also gave me moral and material (a digital video camera) support. My colleagues at the Eastern Lowlands Wadi Development Project -D. H., T. T., B. H. and T. O. also gave me moral support. It is also worth mentioning the financial support that was provided by spate irrigation net work (metameta) and Ilesia during the final stage of the video.
Q: Were you able to show all that you wanted to show? Are there ideas or opinions to which you did not have access? (But which are important)?
The ethnographic documentary video presented is a result of many hours of videoing and is a result of hard working. Detailed shooting has been obtained. To my knowledge and experiences I could say I have accessed the ideas and opinion of the farmers, it true however, with trainings in indigenous knowledge documentation, one could have a very good access to ideas and opinions of the local knowledge and practices.
Q: Have you seen similar videos to this one? Is this work based on books or special information already published?
I have seen many documentary videos in National Geography and other television programs; however, I didn’t come across with documentary videos that dealt with indigenous knowledge on spate irrigation agriculture.
Were the farmers and villagers happy to help you? Did they want to participate?
From the out set of the Video project, I have followed and applied the ethics of doing a research. I used the video shootings as a training material during the agricultural extension training programs. The villagers, therefore, were fully aware of the documentation of spate irrigation agriculture video project and were willing to help me. They were also actively participated in back to village workshop where they share their life time knowledge and experiences on spate irrigation.
Q: Can you say that you have learned something as a result of this exercise? What exactly?
The result of video project exercise includes
- Practical knowledge on indigenous knowledge documentation
- Importance of budget and visual tools in documentation project.
- To have a team for the documentary video production.
- Living and working with the farming community for longer period of time to create.
- A very good understanding of the norms and culture of the community under study
- Importance of show back of the video footage to the community.
- Importance of an integrated knowledge on agriculture, participatory extension and social studies.
Q: And how do you expect this result to disseminate? Do you plan to do something similar again?
The video could be disseminated and used by large audiences including policy makers, agricultural extension agents, farmers, and higher institutions scholars (visual anthropologies, sociologists etc). My expectation is to have an international organization that is interested in this video could contact the researcher, producer and director to make an agreement on how to disseminate this video.
I have also video footage which is not finalized to mention two “Vegetation production in spate irrigation system” and “Sheeb Farmer’s Association”. I have a plan to have my post graduate studies in Visual Anthropology at the University of Kent in year 2008. After acquiring my studies, I have a plan to document indigenous knowledge in the fields of agriculture, natural resource management crop production, forestry, animal husbandry, irrigation practices, soil and water conservation, traditional medicines, etc in Africa in general and in East Africa in particular.