March 20, 2009

God willing

Well hello again. Apologies all around for the sabbatical I’ve taken from updating this thing but I find that as my time away from regular contact with computers increases my ability to spend any prolonged amount of time with them decreases. I’ve had many points in the last few months where I set out towards an internet cafĂ© with the intention of posting an update here only to be deterred at the last moment by any number of things from the unbearable heat (142 degrees Fahrenheit a few days ago) to my general fear of all things electrical as of late.

The good news for all of you loyal fans out there is that wheels have been set in motion that should eventually end up with me in possession of a small laptop I can use to prewrite e-mails and blog entries. So with any luck I’ll be kicking up the update frequency by quite a bit once that gets here. We’ll see though, nothing’s certain in a place where people habitually add the phrase “god willing” to simple comments like “I’ll be back in five minutes” or “I’m going to the bathroom”.

I’ve been advised recently by a certain gringo friend of mine that the best way to draw people in to the wonderful charade that my life has become is via an anecdote. So in the spirit of illustrating the uncertainty of even seemingly simple things here I present to you all the story of my chicken farm.

I decided recently that I had too much time on my hands and not enough chickens in my stead (the number at the point being zero). So, I figured the optimal two bird with one stone solution would be to build a chicken coop and give raising a few of our fowl friends the old college try. So I talked to my host dad who, knowing full well that he was in for a windfall of shared KFC, immediately took a liking to the project and helped me build a little mud hut for our future guests near our family’s concession.

Now, I feel it’s necessary at this point to explain the general viewpoint towards chickens here. Villages in Guinea are all teeming with chickens and various other birds such as ducks and Guinea fowl. Supposedly they all have owners and everyone can find the ones they own when they want them but I don’t really know how since as far as I can tell no effort is spent here keeping one’s animals detained in any way. In fact most of the fowl in my village don’t even get fed and they just wander all over town all day long looking for spare bits of corn or rice.

As a result of this somewhat haphazard approach to chicken raising almost all of the chickens here are what are called “village chickens” which give only a small amount of somewhat stringy meat but also are very resilient to disease. In other words they’re a good bird to have if your idea of raising a chicken is letting it run around for six months on its own and then one day grabbing it and lopping its head off for dinner. But that’s not what I wanted, I missed chicken wings that don’t look like they belong sitting on the table of a miniature doll house. I wanted real meat! Which brings me to the second kind of chicken one can get in Guinea, the infamous “Tubabu chicken”.

A tubabu chicken is a chicken that has been bred from genetic lines coming from western chicken farms. As a result they are nice and plump and they lay a bunch of eggs but they’re not very hardy at all. In fact they need a bunch of vaccinations and they need to be fed a regular balanced diet or they won’t live to be much bigger than an hor d’oeuvre. Obviously all of that special treatment can get costly which is why tubabu chickens (which is Malinke for “White person chicken”) don’t general end up in the hands of your average Guinean. But I figured, hey I’m a tubabu I might as well live up to my namesake and get me some nice plump meaty chickens to start my farm off right.

So, my next trip into Kankan I decided to buy some of these infamous birds. I walked into the market under the typically blazing hot African sun and began what I hoped would be a quick process of getting to the nearest tubabu chicken stand, buying my tasty new buddies and retreating back to the shade of the volunteer house, god willing. Well as you can probably guess the ordeal turned out to be neither quick nor painless and after four hours of searching high and low chasing down fruitless leads in the hot crowded market I was at the end of the road. The trail had run cold and it seemed that there would be no buffalo wings in my future.

Just as I turned dejectedly to head home and sulk out the rest of the day sipping lukewarm water mixed with rehydration salts one of the vendors in the market who knew the mission I was on came running up to me excitedly pointed to a guy walking by with a big cage full of what must have been thirty or so month old chickens. I had found the mythical beasts, they really did exist and after a bit of haggling I was told they could be mine for 5,000 FG (about $1) each. I agreed to buy six and asked the guy to load up my basket with four hens and two roosters, a ratio that I thought would lead to many delicious little chicken nuggets further down the line.

So my newfound friendly chicken vendor starts pulling out what appears to me to be random birds from what looked like all identical chicks. Worried that I wasn’t going to get the right ratio of males to females I made sure the point was made again that it was important to me that I got exactly four hens and two roosters. He said he understood and although I might not be able to tell the difference he was very adept at distinguishing the two from each other. So he loaded my six new chickens into my basket and we said our goodbyes as I headed off to the vet to vaccinate my new babies, uneasy but (naively) confident that the vendor knew what he was doing.

So I get to the vet and set my chickens down. He gets the vaccines out and we start making small talk as he’s getting the job done. I let him know that I’m planning on breeding these chickens in my village and that I hoped to have a whole farming operation going in the future. He just looked at me and kind of laughed and told me I’d have to think again, because my chickens were “infecund”. Not knowing the definition of infecund but assuming it meant something along the lines of sterile I asked him if he was sure and he nodded his head, no doubt about it.

Well, I was understandably upset as the prospects of my whole farming operation diminished with the realization that all I had were these 6 chickens that for some reason or another had all been rendered sterile. He finished up the vaccines and I paid him and thanked for the help. Just as I was getting ready to leave he said in passing that the smart thing for me to do would be to get some nice village hens when I got back home and breed them with the tubabu chickens I had with me. He said the babies wouldn’t be quite as meaty as a purebred but it would still be a huge improvement over village chicken. When I asked him with a puzzled look how my sterile chicken were going to do any mating at all he just laughed at me. “Your chickens aren’t sterile,” he said “they’re just all males.”

My reaction was definitely a mixed bag, on the one hand I was happy to hear the news that I would be able to have my farm after all, but on the other I was pretty pissed at the guy who sold me the chickens who either knew well and good that they were all roosters or was just lying when he said he knew how to tell the difference. Either way it wasn’t too big of a deal and when I got home I bought myself 5 young village hens to stick in with my gang of roosters.

I guess I didn’t learn my lesson the first time though because now my “hens” are getting old enough to where even I can readily tell the difference between them and roosters. Well, imagine my surprise when lo and behold 3 of the 5 hens started cock-o-doodle-dooing all day long and sprouting those tell tale red crowns that are the unmistakable sign of a rooster.

So now, when originally I wanted a 2 to 1 ratio of hens to roosters, I am the proud owner of a chicken farm consisting of 9 roosters and 2 hens. Although the situation is a bit annoying and it’s not the ideal way to start down the path to a steady diet of chicken and beer at this point I’m just thankful I’ve even got any hens at all.

I’ve talked it over with my dad and he agrees I messed it all up pretty royally but he says not to worry. When the time comes we’ll just ask around in my village and find someone willing to swap me some hens for some roosters and we’ll be able to restore a more reasonable male/female ratio in my endeavor. So soon we’ll be heading off looking to make the third time a charm, god willing of course.