“Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice” September Tour of West African Rice Fields

I traveled by boat and road to tour rice fields and talk with cultivators in 5 villages, 3 ecosystems, and 2 countries (it was no small feat!). The trip was planned by Jose (Ze) Felipe Fonseca and his many colleagues and friends.

When I told Ze that “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice” composer, John Wineglass, wanted to come along, he welcomed John with open arms, giving him an opportunity to experience West African rice fields (after we had made 2 trips to the SC rice fields) and record authentic sounds that John will incorporate into the original score.  Our entire trip was captured by Bissau’s own Demba Sanha of TV Kiele and his crew for the “Making ‘Requiem for Rice’” documentary.

I am grateful to the US Embassy in Republic of Guinea Bissau, Instituto da Biodiversidade e das Áreas Protegidas (IBAP), Confederation of Farmers’ Organizations (KAFO), Agricultural and Livestock Cooperative (COAJOQ), and Ministry of Culture in the Republic of Guinea-Bissau for sponsoring my trip and providing logistical support.

Rice grows in water and needs water to grow. We planned the trip to coincide with the end of the rainy season when the torrential rains have ended, but rain still falls at night. September is also the time when cultivators were transplanting rice from the rice nurseries to the rice fields in the mangrove rice fields and weeding rice in the fresh water swamps.

Thankfully, Mother Nature cooperated!

Highlights from our trip:

  • Bissau- I met with and learned about the work of specialists in mangroves, soils, and hydrology at IBAP
  • We drove down the main roads in Bissau and seeing rice fields and mangroves in the city!
  • Bolol- I learned about memories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and traveled with Rose Ebony Custis, Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Senegal
  • Djalicunda- we visited KAFO’s beautifully forested campus, met beautiful and vocal yellow song birds (which are unfortunately the enemies of rice farmers!), visited the seed bank, and learned of all the innovative strategies Executive Director, Sambu Seck, and his team are using to help farmers, particularly women.
  • We visited rice fields where women were transplanting and weeding rice and dancing for our local camera crew, TV Kiele ).
  • Mansoba- I pounded rice with a lady in Mansoba who gave me her pestle as a souvenir (The pestle reminded me of my great grandmother’s “maul” and I cried like a baby.
  • Djalicunda- we enjoyed a musical performance of West African classical music at KAFO by amazing chora players and griots.
  • Mansoa- we visited the mangrove rice fields in Mansoa that seemed endless.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by the dancer who encourages the young men working in the rice fields and observed young people transporting rice seedlings from the rice nurseries to the fields.  I transplanted rice with female farmers, watched young men prepare the rice fields with fulcrum shovels, and attended a village meeting officiated by Sambu Seck in which we introduced our mission and the cultivators asked for assistance from KAFO.
  • We presented our research at IBAP. I presented “Rice History in Pre-Colonial and Stave Trade Periods on West Africa’s Upper Guinea Coast” and “‘Queen Rice’ and the Making of the Gullah Geechee;” John presented “Unburied, Unmourned, Unmarked: Requiem for Rice”.

Author: Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black

Dr. Edda L. Fields-Black is an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Department of History. Her research specialties are pre-colonial and West African history and their connections to the African Diaspora. Fields-Black has written extensively about rice farmers in early modern West Africa, as well as Africans enslaved on Lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia rice plantations. Fields-Black is currently writing an epic history of the Gullah Geechee from their Western African origins to the publication of Lorenzo Dow Turner's study of the Gullah Geechee language