Experimenting with paddy | Sunday Observer

Experimenting with paddy

Himani Wijethunga
Himani Wijethunga

It is a busy suburb. We steer away from the crammed main road, the sound of bleating horns and of machinery churning cement for the upcoming high-rises. Along the by-road going interior, a turn here and a turn there and finally at a nondescript tin-roofed boutique, awaits a surprise. Lush greenery spreads before us in the form of paddy fields. Alongside is a waterway with a pair of electric blue kingfishers flicking an evening morsel. Startled, a flock of sparrows fly away hurriedly. A few little egrets and red-wattled lapwings enjoy their leisurely buffet in the paddy field. The road leads to a piece of land with trees, shady and tall. A few buildings stand out; white against the green surroundings. Could such a place exist, so close to Colombo? “Is this a hotel?” asks the driver. No. It is the house of a busy woman. The surroundings, the result of her efforts invested over time in achieving a dream close to her heart. Busy, that’s what she is, and what she has been. Life, for Himani Wijethunga, is busy. However, there is one thing she does, every morning and most evenings, like a ritual – almost.

That is to walk among and around the paddy fields surrounding her house, observing, nurturing, enjoying. For her, the cultivation is “precious like my own children.” The result? Her smile tells it all “I haven’t bought any rice for consumption for the past 20 years.”

Rice has been the staple food in Sri Lanka from time immemorial. Archaeological evidence suggests that rice comprised the diet and was cultivated by the pre-historic probably stone-age man of the island. It not only plays a main role in the survival and health of the population, but had much influence in shaping the socio-political and economic history with the country being known as the ‘Granary of the East’.

According to the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI) website, an average Sri Lankan consumes around 100 kg of rice per year which contributes to 45% of the daily total caloric requirement and 40% of the total protein. The traditional Sri Lankan family grew rice and vegetables for household consumption.

According to Wijethunga it is a blessing to be able to grow rice for self consumption. That’s what her childhood dream had been. As a child she had dreamt about growing paddy as well as the other three commercial crops. Her ‘experimenting with paddy’ had started 20 years ago, in an effort to feed her family with a ‘healthy alternative.’ With a factory to manage and a home with two small boys, she had set herself to achieve her childhood dream. “We travelled to Kegalle once a month, and there I had this idea.” Seeing the fields lying fallow, Wijethunga had rented a small plot and employed someone to cultivate the field, which she had continued until she had built the house in Kalalgoda, Thalawathugoda, 10 years ago.

First, it had been her ambition of growing rice for own consumption. Then was the experimenting of growing traditional rice varieties. Besides the invented or imported varieties introduced, there is over a thousand traditional and endemic varieties of rice known to Sri Lankan farmers as more suitable for the soil and climatic conditions, as well as the lifestyle.

Furthermore, these varieties of rice are known for their nutritional and medicinal properties. Some varieties have a specific mentioning in traditional herbal formulae, in the treatment of various diseases. Heenati, a long grained variety of rice, is the most commonly used rice in traditional medicine. It is used to treat diabetic patients and those who are convalescing, due to its low glycemic and high nutrient value.

Al wee, a tiny grained variety is another well known inclusion in traditional formulae in feeding expectant mothers and infants due to its easy digestive and high nutrient quality. Traditional rice varieties are used both by housewives as well as traditional doctors in the preparations of ‘kenda’ gruel made of rice and ‘peyawa’ a medicinal drink where rice-flour is an ingredient.

Kurulu Thuda, Madathawalu, Kalu Heenati, Kahawanu are some of the commonly known among the many varieties Wijethunga had grown. Each of these heirloom rice varieties has its own medicinal and nutritional properties.

Nutrient

Kurulu Thuda is a short term 3 to 3 ½ month variety resistant to salinity and flooding. A red long grained variety renowned for taste, it is believed to be highly nutritious containing high protein and fatty acids along with fibre. Known to provide high energy and recommended for consumption for people with high blood cholesterol it is also known to improve bladder function.

Madathawalu, another high nutrient variety is known to be rich in protein, fat and vitamins and minerals. Its content of digestible enzymes makes it easy to digest. It is also believed to contain antioxidant properties, therefore used in cleansing the circulatory system. This variety is used to feed lactating mothers and infants as well as diabetic patients.

Kalu Heenati, a variety with a long, very dark grain is known as ‘hard’ due to its high fibre content. Its low palatability is set off by its high nutrient value. Rich in minerals and micro nutrients such as iron and zinc, it is believed to enhance immunity, strength and male sexual potency.

This particular variety of rice is used by traditional doctors in treating hepatitis, diabetes, blood cholesterol and diarrhoea. The gruel of Kalu Heenati is used to control the toxic effects of snakebite.

Masuran, a 3 ½ month variety resistant to disease and reducing weed growth is suitable for the soil and climatic conditions of the wet zone. It is known mainly for its medicinal properties. Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant Masuran is used in treating diabetes, cancer and neurological diseases in traditional medicine. It is also believed to reduce blood cholesterol.

While obtaining seed paddy was certainly difficult, it wasn’t difficult to grow the traditional varieties, says Wijethunga. “Sometimes, I have to travel around the country in search of a particular variety of seed paddy. What I do now is to turn a part of my cultivation into seed paddy and share it with other interested persons... You don’t need any special care or attention in growing the traditional varieties.

If you take good care of your cultivation, it is more than enough,” she comments touching the plants tenderly almost as if they are her children, noticing even a minute change. “Here, this leaf has rolled up, we need to check this patch for insect infestation,” she makes a mental note to ask her helper to check the area further for damage.

Pest invasion

Most of the time her cultivation practices are eco-friendly, traditional and organic. Returning the nutrients back to the soil, the fertilizer consists of paddy husk, straw and a mix of leaves. Manual weeding is preferred over spraying weedicide and ‘kem’ or traditional charms get rid of pests and diseases from the fields.

While the bunds are planted with ‘Dahas Pethiya’ (marigold) flowers, smoke-treatment or fumigating the field is a regular practice. Crop rotation and planting different varieties around the field are other practices used in this cultivation. “However, I cannot say it is hundred percent organic. We have to spray pesticides when it becomes absolutely necessary. We usually don’t do it unless we cannot manage pest invasion by any other method,” explains Wijethunga.

A strong believer of the adage ‘health is wealth’ Wijethunga says, the rice she consumed and the nutrients therein helped her stay healthy. “I don’t suffer from any chronic diseases or get sick often. Healthy eating definitely helped.” Eco-friendly organic growing and healthy eating is what she promotes. She believes, the healthiest is the homegrown food and if one is committed to the cause neither the lack of space nor money can stop one from staying healthy.

“Agriculture is Sri Lanka’s tradition. It is intertwined in our culture. You don’t need to own acres of land to grow your own food. Even a family living in a small flat could use the little space they have. Say, for instance just two chillie plants would be enough for a family of four and it is something that anyone can grow in a very small space.

It is not money or space, it is the effort and commitment that matters,” explains Wijethunga. Effort and commitment is what has brought Wijethunga so far, in achieving her dream of becoming a farmer. Family support is the other factor for her success, she says.

She had started the cultivation around her house on a few perches of land. It grew to be a paddy field surrounding her house “because the neighbours saw my efforts and how much I liked this paddy cultivation. Whenever they sold their fields lying fallow, they offered them to me.” Now she cultivates 2 ½ acres of land around her house.

She had renovated the canals and waterways in the area spending money from her pocket. People’s attitudes in using waterways saddens her, she says. “The waterways are polluted with all sorts of garbage.

Then, they are blocked and become fertile grounds for mosquitoes and other diseases. We have to be responsible both for our garbage and our waterways. Think of others, think of the future. Use resources sustainably. Live and let live”.

However, Wijethunga is happy. “Whatever the input – whether it is my time, effort or money, I am happy to be involved in this venture,” she says. What brings her complete satisfaction is the people living in the area who take walks in the evening and sit on the bunds enjoying the scenery and children who fly their kites in the paddy fields after harvesting every August.

Pic: Rukmal Gamage

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