"Daily Life in Sierra Leone: the Sherbro in 1936-37"

..> Sierra Leone + the Sherbro Peoples
..> Economy in the 30's
see also: boat-making, net-making, cloth dyeing, domestic tasks, communications
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Economy in the 30's
H. U. Hall was keenly interested in the Sherbro economy and therefore photographic images of occupational endeavors make up a large portion of his collection. The principal economic undertakings at the time of his visit were farming, fishing, salt-making, or spinning and weaving and, in many cases, individuals engaged in more than one. Thus, it was not unusual to be both a hunter and farmer. In addition to extensive agricultural duties, women perform most domestic tasks.

Cassava and rice were the principle food crops. Two kinds of rice--upland and swamp--were grown in the region. Rice could also be traded for dried fish. Other foodstuffs grown were sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, bananas, and okra. Hall wrote:

Economically, the most important crop is the nuts of the oil palm; domestic use of the oil apart, the kernels are exported in large quantities. The oil palm receives no cultivation. Kola nuts also are exported.

Man climbing a palm tree in order to harvest the palm nuts
Man climbing a palm tree in order to harvest the palm nuts

Rice and cassava farming are environmentally-aware processes. After a crop is harvested, the land is allowed to remain fallow for four to five years, sometimes as long as eight years, before it is cleared, the debris burned, and another crop sown. Clearing is carried out during the dry season; sowing occurs before the rainy season begins in April, May or June; weeding is done during the rainy season, usually July; and harvesting can begin as early as September. Men do the clearing; women are responsible for hoeing, planting, and weeding but are sometimes helped by children or men.

The oil palm is a valuable tree. It provides two kinds of oil: one is taken from the soft pulp surrounding the outside of the palm kernels (red oil) and the other extracted from nuts that are inside the kernels (white oil). In a lengthy process, the palm kernels are cracked open to obtain the nuts inside them, and the nuts then pressed to extract oil. Both oils are used as a local food product or sold for export. The palm fibers are used to make hunting and fishing nets, looms, and brooms; the leaves are used to thatch roofs or create fences; the heads or cabbages--young leaves at the top of the palm tree--are eaten as a vegetable; and the sap of the tree is tapped to make a beverage called palm wine.

Farm labor is usually organized as a domestic endeavor. The working group involves a husband, wife or wives, children, and sometimes the junior siblings of either partner but quite often the son of the husband's sister. In busy times, young people from a village, or village group, assist farmers in return for food or gifts.

Fishing is an important part of the economy because the Sherbro live near the sea and because dried or smoked fish can be exported to markets throughout the interior of the country. Men ordinarily fish in the ocean in small dug-out canoes that hold one to two men or in large canoes that can accommodate up to six people. They use several types of nets and lines. Fishing canoes are "small, slender dugouts with upward-curving prows" are made by men who shape them from a single piece of wood by excavating the interior with an axe or adze. Planked boats are generally a European innovation and made by local carpenters to carry fish, palm oil and kernels, or salt to trade centers. Harpoons are used to kill manatees, porpoises, tarpon, barracuda, and shark.

Women fish in rivers and shallow water using scoop nets that are sometimes large enough to require two people. Weirs and traps, made and watched over by men, are also used in shallow waters.

Men arranging the warp for weaving
Men arranging the warp for weaving. "Setting up the loom...The young man standing near the weaver is holding the spool of yarn for the weft...The Mendi loom produces a very long, narrow web, which is cut into suitable lengths and stitched together to form a cloth of the desired width."
Hunting is carried out with traps, snares, hunting nets, or harpoon-like throwing sticks. A few men own guns and live from the proceeds of selling game. Animals sought for meat or hides include antelope, buffalo, bush-hog, guinea-fowl, pigs, pigeons, leopards, crocodiles, pythons, porcupines, and iguana.

Weaving is considered men's work in the Sherbro area, whereas preparing and spinning cotton is the work of women. Hall wrote that "A fair amount of cotton is grown in the colony, for native use, and a considerable amount of yarn is spun and woven..." Most weavers in the Sherbro area are Mende-speaking residents.

Salt is also prepared and used as an export commodity. Men and women join in this work--a laborious process which involves straining sea water and through sand and then boiling the liquid until water evaporates and only salt remains in the cooking pot.

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