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A couple of weeks ago, in the seven days between my Haiti and Panama trips, I had a hard time building up the will-power to buy groceries. The closest grocery store was only a five minute drive away, and buying groceries for only a week was hardly going to take long, but I just didn’t seem to have the energy.
I scrounged in my pantry for old soup cans, ate out once or twice, and, like any bachelor twenty-something should, I bummed a few meals off of my parents.
Somehow I made it through the entire week without putting in the “hard work” of buying any groceries.
But then I came to Panama. I began living in a shack made out of sticks. I ate my meals with a family of impoverished subsistence farmers. And when they took me with them to harvest rice one day, the “hassle” of buying food suddenly didn’t seem like that big of a deal…
The plan for the day was simple. My host Bernardo explained that we would walk to one of his fields in a nearby village, harvest rice for an hour or so, hang out at his family’s home there for a little while, then walk back to Llano Ñopo in time to beat the early afternoon rains.
Yeah, the plan was simple, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
We rose before the sun came up, beginning our trek at around 6am. Bernardo, his wife Nidia and I walked across the village to pick up Andrea (a “community ambassador” for Dead Wheat). Then, the four of us headed off for the fields.
I was feeling pretty good about life. The sun was shining, the hills were green and the river we crossed was sparkling and clear. As we walked across the rusty old suspension bridge, I definitely had a smile on my face.
On the other side of the bridge, the path we were taking began to climb. We walked from rock to rock, stepping over muddy puddles and trying not to slip.
“Whew!” I thought with a grin, as my breath started to pick up, “I’m getting a workout today!”
The path grew even steeper. Up and up we climbed. Every time I saw a curve in the path ahead of us, I got excited, thinking we had finally reached the top. And every time we rounded the corner I looked straight up at yet another steep climb.
By now, my legs were getting a bit wobbly and my heart was pounding like crazy. My smile had definitely faded. With buckets of sweat pouring off my face and my lungs gasping for air, I asked if we could stop for a break.
I sat on a rock and guzzled water from my bottle. When I was able to finally get my heart back to a semi-reasonable beat, we continued heading up the hill. By the time we reached the top, I had asked them to stop at least three more times.
As we started walking along the top of the hill, I expected to see Bernardo’s fields of flowing rice around every bend. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that our journey was far from over.
Over the next hour and a half, we walked along cliffs, trudged down muddy jungle paths and crossed countless small streams and rivers. One thought kept running through my head. “They make this journey all the time!” I could hardly believe it.
Finally, after a seemingly endless hike, we arrived at the field.
With my legs throbbing and my back aching, I looked up to see just what would make such an arduous journey worth it. What I saw took my breath away.
Bernardo’s “field” was nothing more than a few acres of rice, yuca and beans clinging to the side of a steep hill. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could harvest on such a slope, much less how it would be enough food to get by!
Nevertheless, we dropped our bags, took one last sip of water and began climbing into the rice.
Using a small hand tool with a blade, we gathered stem after stem of rice, each of us moving at a snail’s pace farther and farther into the field.
After an hour or so, we gathered the rice we had collected and climbed a steep hill to reach the wooden building the family uses to dry and store the rice. We ate a small lunch, watched Bernardo tie up the stalks of rice to dry, then began the long hike back to Llano Ñopo.
At one point during our hike, it began to pour down rain. We slogged through the mud, slid down steep hillsides and finally arrived home in the early afternoon.
The whole way back, I thought about how incredibly difficult it was simply to harvest a bit of rice. After all of that work, the four of us produced only five or six pounds!
The day’s experience gave me a much deeper understanding of what it really means to be a subsistence farmer. The work is hard, the payoff is slim and there is rarely much left over to sell.
And realizing that much of the world lives like that is a deeply sobering thought. Millions of people scratch out a living on tiny plots of land, never fully satiating their hunger.
It’s a difficult reality to deal with, but I know one thing for sure. The next time I’m home looking at an empty refrigerator, my perspective will definitely have changed.
I don’t think it will be quite as hard anymore to get myself out to buy groceries…
- Check out Dead Wheat's website to see their efforts to support subsistence farmers in Panama.
- Give a loan to a subsistence farmer in a developing country through Kiva!
- Read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs to learn more about economic possibilities for impoverished farmers worldwide.
- Spend some time in prayer for subsistence farmers worldwide. Pray that they would have access to education about sustainable agricultural techniques.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.