April 24th, Saturday
This afternoon, I threshed rice in a big group in Madame Haingo's fields. Her fields are flat, lowland rice that is flood-irrigated. Harvesting it is different from what I've been doing on the hillside, dry (rain irrigated) rice, where you harvest each strand individually, cutting the stalk with a small knife just a few inches below where the grain is attached, just enough stalk to be able to grasp it with your hand. With lowland rice, the men have a scythe and harvest in armfuls, which they lay on the ground, and the women gather it and carry big bundles of the stalks, forming a pile on a big tarp in the field.
To separate the grains of rice (still in the hull) from the stalk of grass (ie straw), we thresh it. For upland dry rice, people often spread the rice stalks on a mat or tarp and walk on it, smashing it around with their feet. This separates the rice grains from the straw. And tends to hurt the soft feet of people like me... With lowland rice, which is cut lower on the stalk and therefore has a much longer straw to deal with than upland rice, we used long wooden sticks to remove the grain.
The rice sat in a high pile on the tarp. We stood 8-10 people facing each other in two rows, and the two people closest to the pile began by using their sticks to pass a bunch of rice down through the row, one side beating on it in unison, followed by the next side, with a beat-fluff-beat-flick down to next person-movement. Being part of the rhythm of 10 people beating and moving the rice in unison was amazing. The momentum and energy would keep going and going until my mind stopped even thinking about anything but the stick moving and the rice moving and my body moving in coordination with all the other sticks and rice and bodies. Now and then people would shout out things with the rhythm, and whenever we would finally pause, the young people would jump and do back flips on the piles of accumulated straw, laughing, and the old people would lean against their sticks watching and smiling. We would rest for a minute and start again, until we had threshed two huge piles. It was good, concentrative work. (I knew that wasn't a real word, now the computer with its red line confirms it...!)
I stayed until we were done threshing and all the rice had been put in big sacs and carried back to town on the men's shoulders, who walked fast because of the weight of the sacs. Seeing the whole process and what was accomplished with a big group of people working together, being there in the midst of it all made me happy. It was like making hay, but more fun, everyone close together putting in their energy. I know they are all there because they are paid to be there, it's probably not the same feeling one would get if it was a community working together because they wanted to help each other, they are farm laborers for the “wealthy” woman in town. There is a certain tiredness towards the work that they may not have if they were threshing their own rice. But they still formed this amazing human threshing machine, all of the strength going into making daily food.