Millet Threshing Ceremony, Bikita, Zimbabwe – 23 August 2019
Since 2015, Bikita farmers in Zimbabwe have been working with EarthLore to revive their robust traditional seeds that cope better with climate change. A significant development has been to revive millet, over hybrid maize, as the staple food in the area, resulting in bumper crops of this nourishing and versatile small grain.
The day after the Bikita Seed & Food Fair, the EarthLore team, an ABN representative and twelve Mpumalanga farmers travelled to Chiroorwe village to attend the millet threshing ceremony.
Joyful singing greeted the visitors. Already a group of women were busy preparing food for the large gathering, while the rest of the farmers were organising themselves to start threshing the millet.
Very early that morning, just as it was getting light, the men had carried the pearl millet heads from the tsapi, the structure where the crop had been safely stored after harvesting. They then spread the millet evenly over a large baked and polished circular cow dung surface specially prepared some days before in anticipation of this activity. The millet had then been left for the sun’s heat to dry it further and make it easy to break during the threshing.
Rhythmically, in time to the singing, the threshing began. Wielding long flexible threshing sticks, the farmers beat the millet heads to separate the grain from the stalks and chaff. Like a wave, the threshers move together towards the centre and then retreat. At the same time they rotate anti-clockwise and clockwise to reach all corners evenly. The threshing is faster at the beginning and reduces pace as people get tired. At the beginning of the threshing, when people have energy, the rhythm is 1-1-1 but as people get tired it changes to 1-0-1 and the middle hit is skipped for rest.
The threshing is a sophisticated process that uses a variety of low tech implements and tools, each with a very specific function suited to the various stages. The branches of specific trees that grow in a particular area had been sourced beforehand for the threshing sticks.
During the threshing, the elderly use brooms to sweep back scattered grains. They also playfully turn the millet with their feet to bring the heads that are lying at the bottom to the top to make it easy for the threshers to beat them. Twenty to thirty minutes into the threshing, the women bring the alcoholic beer and maheu, all collectively called chikururamabhachi which literally means take off your jackets now as the real work is about to start. There is not a lot of beer but enough to get the threshers excited and continue the work in good spirits, singing and dancing at the same time. At the end of the threshing, the men gather all the millet together at the centre of the polished circle surface in preparation for the winnowing to begin.
During the winnowing process, the women constantly read the direction of the wind and twist and turn rhythmically so they do not choke on the chaff. The wind sometimes stops blowing completely and the winnowers put down their baskets and ask elderly women to sing a song to invite the wind to start blowing again. As the winnowing progresses, different brooms are used, ranging from a bunch of large twigs tied together for separating the larger pieces of stalk and chaff in the early part of the threshing. While one woman winnows, another uses specifically designed brooms to clean the grain of chaff. Increasingly finer brooms are used until, at the end of the process, fine grass brooms sweep together the millet grains for storage and grinding.
It happens during the winnowing that some millet stalks are found that still have grain on them. These are called makoto. The women carefully separate makoto from pure chaff so that the makoto can be brought back for more threshing.
The work is shared, with certain tasks being allocated to men, like the heavy physical work of carrying the millet to the threshing area early in the morning, and the more detailed work being done by the women, like selecting the best seeds for the next growing season. Older women also have their specific role as they assist with sweeping away the husks and the chaff.
Towards the late afternoon, after the demanding work had been done and the millet seeds were put into bags for distribution, people relaxed to eat a nourishing meal, drink brewed millet beer and celebrate together.
It is inspiring to see a community gathered together to work hard but also to have fun.
This particular ceremony, where members of the Chiroorwe community gathered together and worked without payment, is known as humwe. In the old days people could stay at the homestead for up to two days after the threshing to drink, eat and celebrate the work done. A more elaborate ceremony involving more people and several days of work is called Jaka.
Below is an album of photos from the Threshing Ceremony. Please click on individual photos to enlarge.