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Village Life and Arrowroot

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Tue, Jul 24. 2012

by Oswald Fereira
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There was a time when arrowroot was King in St Vincent. I grew up in the village of Park Hill, where there were abundant arrowroot fields around the village and on the nearby estates of Colonarie and Belle Vue.{{more}}

In those days, the arrowroot harvest was once a year. The harvest started in November and ended about February. That meant our arrowroot mill would start up and together with the arrowroot harvesting, provide money for the farmers and workers to have a good Christmas season. The buses would be coming from Kingstown loaded with new mattresses, paint, perhaps a new kerosene stove, some new chairs and other bits and pieces for the homes.

Arrowroot, despite the drawback of the once per year income, was the perfect crop that made our society sustainable. No one could say that we were not a “Green” society. The crop was planted with a plan. As the ladies planted the bits of tubers, they strategically planted Bobas yams throughout the fields, so that at harvest time, as they dug the arrowroot, they would eventually end up with a basket of yams. Any arrowroot farmer worth his salt would ensure that there were Bobas yams planted in his fields or his would be the last to be harvested. The yams were a means to attract workers; it was their bonus. Also, some farmers would plant pigeon peas, around their arrowroot fields and would sometimes allow the workers to pick some peas so they would go home with peas and yams on top of their earned wages.

From the time the arrowroot crop started growing, there were uses for the foliage. I remember when the village men would be smoking their Empire cigarettes and as they came to the end, they would get the unrolled leaf of the arrowroot and wrap the cigarette end in it, making an extension tube in order that they could get a few more puffs for their money’s worth.

Which old-timer my age does not remember playing coop in the moonlight and often hiding out in the arrowroot fields? Or how many of us remember rolling downhill in an arrowroot field, just for the hell of it and much to the chagrin of the farmer? And as the arrowroot fields were ripening and ready for harvest, what a relief to have a place to “tie out” the goat and cows to graze!

And as the arrowroot was ground at the mill and the starch washed and strained out, the coarse fibre or “bitty” was thrown out in the mill yard in great heaps. Cows were often left to graze on the bitty and most of the chickens in the village would be grazing on the bitty heap. We used the bitty as a “dish rag” to scrub pots and pans and water buckets. Most of all we used the bitty to build our then famous “wattle and daub” homes and kitchens. The adults would often dig a large hole and pile it with mud and water and add bitty and we children would step in the hole and mix in the bitty and mud with our feet, much like Europeans would stomp on grapes to make wine. The result would be the “daub” mixture which we would have great fun pelting at the wattled huts to give the finished “wall”. Then the men would make a roof of thatch from dried sugar cane leaves or dried Old Man’s Beard grass – nothing imported, except perhaps hinges for the windows and door. The bed was often a wooden frame made by the local carpenter and the mattress would often be made of joined flour bags and stuffed with dried Old Man’s Beard grass or barfleau – it was all local.

As the starch was strained from the arrowroot, the grey top portion or madungo was skimmed off from the white starch below. Much of the madungo was given to the workers. This was the main ingredient for madungo dumpling, which would be roasted, fried or boiled in soup. So, over the season, people would accumulate as much madungo as they could and store it for future use.

The white starch was used on our clothes. Yes, in those days, we washed on Mondays and starched our clothes on Tuesdays, so that when they were ironed with those flat irons that we heated on the coal pot and cleaned with dried plantain leaves, the crease on a pair of trousers would last a whole week and it could even cut you. The white starch was also used to make fungee and to make “pap” and “porridge”, which was fed to babies and the sick. Oh yes, there was no baby formula back then and most of us from those days were “arrowroot babies” and a fine lot we became!

I have many fond memories of a calabash of pigeon peas soup, laden with bobas yams and madungo dumplings; or of a slab of dried, roasted blackfish on top of a roasted madungo dumpling; or of a bowl of fungee floating in a soup of crayfish or river fish on Holy Thursday.

What a crop! It provided recreation, food for our tables, fodder for our livestock; we built homes from its bitty and the harvest meant income for the farmers and workers and agricultural export for the island. Village social life revolved around the harvest. But alas, arrowroot is reduced to a marginal crop on one small portion of the island and with its demise we have lost a huge slice of our sustainable “Green” society.

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