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Culture Briefs
Number 3 · Fall 2013

Rice Cultivation and African Intelligence: Where’s the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics?


If you are African American and have at some point in your life found the courage to wonder what it was like during, what my mother called, ‘slavery times’, lend my your ear. The term ‘slave’ focuses on the status as property. Sometimes the term ‘free labor’ will enter into the description of those times and the people, but have you ever taken the time to connect the dots between the work and the worker, the labor and the laborer? Just what did ‘slaves’ (the enslaved) do every day, and what skills did they need to do what they did successfully? They had to be SCIENTISTS, TECHNOLOGISTS, ENGINEERS, AND MATHEMATICIANS! Just think, if they could fast forward their lives and have access to the current resources African Americans have, they might be trying to earn a degree from Purdue. Why? Based on the culture they were from and what they did there, they might want to get a degree in one of the STEM disciplines because they come from a tradition over 100 years old, they cultivated rice so people could eat.

Africans introduced sophisticated soil and water management techniques to low-country South Carolina. The hollow cypress logs known as “trunks” or “plugs,” used to control water flow in embankments, were an African innovation. Likewise, the red-colored rice found in early South Carolina, was probably Oryza glaberrima, an African, not an Asian, variety. The Asian variety, made its way to Sierra Leone, probably with freed African Americans and Christian missionaries. Rice was largely a women’s crop in Africa, although in mangrove rice systems men played a larger role than elsewhere and tasks tended to be gender specific. Key aspects of “female knowledge systems” were transferred from Africa to South Carolina: the sheer predominance of women sowers, the practice of encasing seeds in clay before planting and covering the seed on the ground by foot, milling rice with a mortar and pestle and winnowing it with baskets of African design, and cooking rice in distinctively African-influenced ways.

One explanation is that “haint blue” is a heavenly color and that the haint won’t have anything to do with heaven. However, another common explanation stems from the Gullah belief that haints are spirits that are caught between mortal and immortal worlds and cannot cross water. Therefore the “haint blue” which in its many variations, always resembles the color of water, will confuse the spirits. Blue also figures prominently in another Gullah folklore tradition; that of blue bottle trees. These trees are seen in many variations throughout the Lowcountry. Like many Gullah practices some scholars believe the origin of the blue bottle tree can be traced to African spiritual practices, more specifically to that of the Congo. The tree’s purpose is to keep the evil spirits; i.e. “haints” from entering the home. The spirits are attracted as the light passes through the bottles. When the “haints follow the light they become trapped in the bottles.

We also find that there were “different forms of production [for rice crops], tidal floodplain, mangrove swamp, inland swamp, and rain-fed.” Each method of production needed Scientists to figure out how to grow the crops, Technologists to build the tools needed to grow the crops, Engineers to figure out how to flood the fields, Mathematicians to estimate yield or how much rice will be available for human consumption.

Tidal Floodplains Production

The development of the more intensive and productive tidal floodplain system led to huge demand for slaves, which, in turn, created a large black majority in rice-producing regions. It involved techniques of water control reminiscent of the irrigation systems of West Africa. As the construction of sluices and canals, landscape gradients, and reservoirs increased production, rice cultivation became a year-round labor-intensive project; much of the post-harvest months were devoted to rice milling to ready the product for export and consumption.

Mangrove Swamp Rice Production

Mangrove swamps occur mainly along the West African coast and have high salinity levels caused by seawater intrusion brought in by tidal waves from the sea, although nearly all mangrove swamps enjoy a salt-free period during the rainy season as freshwater floods wash the land. This period decreases from over six months to under four, with increasing proximity to the sea, but is generally long enough to allow a crop of rice to grow. The mangrove swamp rice areas cover a wide range of climatic conditions from dry tropical climate to humid tropical climate. Between the tidal swamps and the uplands lie the associated mangrove swamps which are characterized by excessive grasses and sedge weeds with few broad leaves.

Inland Swamp Rice Production

The irrigated ecosystem provides the best conditions for rice cultivation because of the better control of water compared with other ecologies. The yield range is the highest of all the ecosystems (from 3.5 to 7 tons/ha). The vast wetlands in the West and East Africa regions are yet to be fully developed. But ased largely on the activities of Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire, the irrigated ecosystem is expected to increase.

Rain-Fed Rice Production

This ecosystem occurs from the mid-slope to the valley bottom in the topo-sequence. Depending on its location in the topo-sequence, the rice crop here may obtain water from three sources: direct rainfall, high water table and surface water. The main hydraulic characteristic of this ecosystem is the fluctuating water table, caused by cyclical swelling and receding water levels of rivers during the rains. Depending on the many factors, the range of yields is wide.

Upland Rice Farming

Firstly, there are two farming systems in Sierra Leone: Upland and Swamp. Upland rice farming is done on dry land while Swamp rice farming is done on wet land or swamp. The steps in upland rice farming are: Preparing the ground - Farmers do the brushing (clearing the land), fell the trees, burn their farms late in March and let the land cool for a period for sowing. Sowing - Farmers sow their seeds in early May to late July, scattering by hand and then ‘ploughing’ to cover the seeds with hand hoes. After it has started to grow they remove the unwanted plants, put up fencing or set traps for animals. Harvesting - Farmers at this time hire labor to harvest in either November or December for a reasonable time depending on the size of the farm. They use hand tools which consist of sharp knives, some straight, some curved. Threshing and Winnowing - Farmers’ wives thresh and winnow the harvest that has been stored at farm houses and put the rice in bags. The grain is processed by drying, milling and putting the clean rice in bags for marketing to the public. Marketing - The Government will now buy from the farmers and traders buy and sell to the people at a reasonable cost.


Bokarie, J. (n.d.). Steps in rice growing in Bo. Bo, Sierra Leone: Bo-OWL Teachers’ Group. Retrieved from http://www.oneworldlink.org.uk/primary_1/09-3%20About%20Rice.pdf

Carney, J.A. (2001). Black rice: The African origins of rice cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morgan, P.D. (2002). Caroline rice: African origins, new world crop. William and Mary Quarterly 59(3), 739-741.