This morning I heard on CNN that all around the world rice is in short supply, so short that it has to be rationed.
I wondered what we in St. Kitts and Nevis would do if the scarcity of rice touched our islands. Not if, but when, because if it is so scarce around the world that the major Television Net Work has taken the time to report it, it must be only a matter of time before St. Kitts and Nevis runs right out of rice.
Rice is our staple food. Regardless of the claim that our national dish is saltfish, dumplings, sweet potatoes and plantain, nearly everybody in St. Kitts and Nevis eats rice every day of our lives. Even the restaurants seem to be unable to find anything else to cook for their customers but rice. If we ran out of rice what would we eat?
This is a pertinent question in the context of the present situation in St. Kitts. It was never as pertinent a question as it is now. Earlier in our history we could ask this question and the answer would be defiant.
“How you mean wha we goin eat? We got potatoes, yam, tannia, dasheen, green fig, pigeon peas, black-eye peas, white beans and all kinda odder tings.”
That would be typical answer in the days when sensible policies prevailed in St. Kitts and Nevis. These days now seem so far away when the public markets in Basseterre and Sandy Point were literally flooded with ground provisions from which Kittitians of every level picked every Saturday, indeed every day, to feed their families.
When I was a young man, going to the market every Saturday was a social ritual. The market used is abuz with live as buyers wandered from stall to stall selecting what suited them best of the pumpkins, avocados, ginger, bananas and the whole assortment of fruit and vegetables displayed around the market.
Many of these vegetable and fruit shoppers did not even appreciate what went into the preparation of the items which they gleefully selected.
Not very many of them stopped to realize that farmers worked the mountains to provide them with food. Early morning to late evenings, hard-working men and women trudged to Dale Mountain, Phillips Mountain, Green Hill, Old Road Mountain, Saddlers, Fahies, Profits, to force the soil to yield food to feed the country.
I know about that first hand although I grew up in Basseterre. Every morning at a certain time in the year, my mother, a hard working, ambitions Nevis woman, used to wake me up early to accompany her to Big Hill where she cultivated a piece of land.
I used to shiver as the early morning dew soaked through my shirt. I yawned as sleep persisted. I think sometimes I walked in my sleep.
I would hear the Anglican church clock ring four times and wished that I could be home sleeping still.
But my mother knew what she was doing and as she paced her morning steps I tried to keep up with her and would be fully awake by the time we crossed the airport and neared her little farm.
My mother was just one of the hundreds of small farmers who made their living from the soil and ensured that those Kittitians who chose not to eat imported food had a choice in food locally produced.
I was a little boy during World War 2 when imported food was scarce. Flour was scarce, rice was scarce. Bread was not available and people could not get rice. Now and then hundreds of people would rush to get a ration of rice and flour which was so full of weevils that it was not worth cooking.
Yet people did not starve and not many suffered hunger. There was an abundant supply of local food to fall back on when a German submarine torpedoed a flour boat. The scarcity of flour did not have an extraordinarily painful impact on our population, because our housewives had local alternatives. They made flour from dried breadfruits, they baked cassava bread, they prepared meals with local vegetables. In those days people ate a lot of soup, all kinds of soup: beef soup, pork soup, fish soup, mutton soup and chicken soup all blended with an assortment of ground provisions, yam, tannia, eddoes, sweet potato.
In those days, all the sugar estates were in the habit of rotating sweet potato and yam on selected fields of sugarcane. Villagers would take advantage of this practice and would agree to let the estate staff have one out of every three rows of whatever they harvested.
In those days our people were poor. We lived in small houses, we walked wherever we went, we slept on grass beds, we bathed in the sea and rinsed in public baths, our domestic water supplies came from public stand pipes. Our houses were lighted by kerosene lamps.
But we were never really in need for we were not hungry. We could not be hungry because we had an effective back-up against the shortage of imported food.
How was then different from now? We live in nice houses now with running water and electricity. We sit and sleep on furniture of varying grades of luxury. We drive posh vehicles. But we eat foods which derive from overseas just like our beds and cars. We rely on frozen poultry, meat and fish. We eat a lot of rice, our seasonings are imported. Our milk is imported. So if there is a scarcity of food from abroad we will most likely starve.
What is most strange about our impending food crisis is that in the old days when sugar competed for the use of our land, some of the land was used to produce an abundant supply of local food. Now when the sugar industry has been dismissed totally from our land, there is only a grudging effort to use the land to meet our immediate needs of food and to store some against the years of drought.
We have committed our land to all kinds of use: multiple golf courses, and the like. If food becomes suddenly scarce, in spite of all our assumed sophistication, because we do not have sufficient land growing food, we will face the unimaginable experience of starvation.