Living in the Community – The Shape of Fintonia

Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot.  After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty.  I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model.  In the centre of the village were most of the buildings.  The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces.  In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown.  I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used.  I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown.  The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing.  Two types of this agriculture existed.  Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two.  While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields.  Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown.  On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier.  Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown.  The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping.  In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest.  Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.

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Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth

The Other Mauritius – new walks

I found  a couple of other similar beaches not far from the house.  My favourite was Butte A’L’Herbe.  It was hardly a mile from the house on the other side of Calodyne village.  You dropped off the main coast road onto a rubbly track which passed between a few house plots before opening up onto a stone causeway to the Butte – or small island.

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Although the island was a public beach, I discovered the first time I went over that it was not uninhabited.  There were three or four well appointed houses set in their own grounds.  The centre was the usual car park, toilet and shower facilities that were a feature of all the more popular public beaches.  Of course there were the filau trees everywhere, but the coastline was the most interesting part.  The island is shaped like a spiders web with needle wide points reaching out into the lagoon.  In between were little fragments of sand and the rocks were numerous and jagged where the water did not reach them frequently.  So I would scramble round the perimeter of the island looking at the views.  those were most spectacular at the far end, where you had reached out far enough to see the small islands to the north and a decent bit of the north east coastline, including back to our compound.

But as I said at the start of this chapter, I was working on the beaches and coastline all day long; I wanted to see more of the interior of the island.  I’d noticed as we drove back from the office in Port Louis when we turned off the M2, which was not really a motorway at that time but a single lane highway, and bounced over the plain of cane fields, there was a long strip of woodland to the north of us.  I looked on the map and saw a long thin rectangle of plantation.  Once on my own, I decided to go and investigate more closely, turned off the main road, passed through one field, and then plunged into the forest.  A sign proclaimed it was managed by the Government of Mauritius as part of the Forestry Department.  I passed some government housing deep under the canopy and then slowed to see if there was a place I could walk in.  Every hundred metres a track went off the road in either direction perpendicular to the tarmac.  It was difficult to park as the road was elevated and set on a bed or very vicious looking volcanic rocks, but I managed to find a wide enough part of the verge where I could get most of the car off the road.

At first I thought this would be a boring walk through a monocrop of pine trees.  I headed west to start with and apart from the lushness of the vegetation round the track where some light did get in, most of the woodland was empty save for the trunks of the pines.

But then I saw it did change – not just the species of the timber trees, but there were fruit trees and other ornamentals which had either been planted or had escaped from gardens in villages nearby.  At first I was uncertain whether I was allowed in here, but then I saw a few joggers, the odd dog walker.  I could walk for about fifteen minutes in either direction before reaching the cane fields, but the plot was barely 1/2 km width-wise.  There were only two main tracks lengthways to walk on, but I chose different cross tracks each time.  You had to be careful.  The Forestry Department were obviously underfunded as they did not have the resources to maintain all the tracks properly, and given they were in the shade for so long, many had become waterlogged and muddy.  The western end was a stone’s throw from the M1, the eastern end opened out at the edges of  Petit Raffray, the next village inland from our own.  I’ve learnt since that the forest is called Dufray, but it was not marked on maps when I was there and was unique in being the only patch of inland forest in the entire northern plain.