“God made the Soil, but we made it Fertile”

It is my sincerest pleasure and honor to share with you some excerpts from three articles that have been what I started this podcast to find. We add two new terms to our conceptual soil vocabulary, ߕߕߎߔߏߟߋ (tutupole), and ߔߐߙߑߟߟߋ (porleilei).

ߕߕߎߔߏߟߋ (tutupole) means “dump site soils” in Loma and refers to the places, and the soils formed where the ߕߕߎ or dump site is. The dump site is where all of the organic rubbish and wastes go to be broken down. We apply some sankofa-ic license and conceptually transform ߕߕߎߔߏߟߋ to mean compost and also where you compost.

ߔߐߙߑߟߟߋ (porleilei) means “black-black” soils in Mande and refers to the completion of the process of healthy soil formation. We conceptually refer to these healthy black soils that we create as ߔߐߙߑߟߟߋ.

Asante Sana ߊߛߊ߲ߕߌ ߛߣߊ
edase Paa   ߡߍߘߊߛߋ ߔߊ
Modupe O
ߡߏߘߎߔߋ ߏ

Thank you for listening to


Transcript (automated)


I am Mason Olonade and this is Jìgìjìgì: Africulture Podcast. Here we believe building a healthy soil builds a healthy soul, so we share strategies for how to do both. To do both we ask two questions: How do you grow while you grow Kale, Collards, Tomatoes, and Melons? And why, do you think, the healthiest soils are Black?

God made the soil, but we made it fertile.

As you probably have gathered by now this podcast was started out of our curiosity about Natural Farming. We continue to read academic papers and other substantive literature, as well as reflect upon the lived experiences of our friends and previous guests on the show, to study the efficacy of natural farming practices like KNF.

In reading about these practices we noticed that those techniques are founded upon strong cultural, ideological, and spiritual concepts specific to the ethnic group that created the technique.

So where does that leave us? If these people have their own techniques born out of their cultural traditions that led to them building their healthy soils, surely we have the same thing! This is what Jìgìjìgì is to uncover.

As we’ve stated before, especially in the episodes 10 Things I Don’t Know, Odù to Sow Seeds To, and Sankofa, traditional African spiritual systems are at the foundation of our collective development of ENI.

Therefore it is my pleasure to share, liberally, some excerpts and implications from these three articles.

1. “God made the soil, but we made it fertile”: gender, knowledge, and practice in          the formation and use of African dark earths in Liberia and Sierra Leone 
2. Indigenous African soil enrichment as a climate ­smart sustainable agriculture           alternative 
3. Anthropogenic Dark Earths in the Landscapes of Upper Guinea, West Africa:            Intentional or Inevitable? 

From these articles we will add two very relevant words to our conceptualized soil vocabulary.

Articles like these, well, the information from the narratives within them, are the exact reason why we created the podcast and you cannot imagine my excitement and honor to share these articles with you!

Starting with the third article, Intentional or Inevitable?, the authors put forth that these African dark earths, meaning, black soils, of course, are not “intentional” in the sense of “I want to create healthy black soils over there,” but instead they are an inevitable consequence of habitation and the cultural practices of the Loma, Mende, and Ashanti people as they live in their specific areas. The researchers elaborate:

AfDEs form through additions of three primary forms of charred organic material: (1) charred wood from fires lit for cooking, palm oil, soap, and potash production and blacksmiths’ forges; (2) charred palm kernel from oil production; and (3) charred organic by-products from the production of potash (usually from the seed pods of Pentaclethra macrophylla, kola, silk cotton trees, and palm fruit heads), together with diverse organic material (e.g., rice straw, old Raphia thatch and cooking waste; Frausin et al. forthcoming)

The second paper gives significantly more information into the formation of the soils. There are tables of the plants grown, timelines and much more data.

Interviewees in Liberia and Ghana described how AfDE form through additions of several types of waste: ash and char residues from cooking; byproducts from processing palm oil and producing homemade soap; animal-based organic inputs such as bones from food preparation; and harvest residues and plant-biomass-based domestic refuse such as palm thatch, palm-fruit heads, and rice straw. These continuous, high-intensity nutrient and carbon depositions lead to an ongoing formation of highly fertile and carbon-rich AfDE in and around settlements.

For example, They “observed how after dumping in one spot for a certain amount of time (>one year), women burn the pile and spread the ashes and char out for planting. This action is certainly intentional, but the purpose, according to the women, is for crops to grow well, not to transform the soil per se, although this is a long-term outcome that they are certainly aware of. Indeed, different naming and tenuring of land with AfDEs and trees planted with placentas and during burials are all intentional acts related to AfDEs but not directly related to AfDE formation itself.”
The places where the soil will be created are at dumpsites and thusly have the Loma name tutupole or dump site soil.

This is our first vocabulary concept word. I will apply a lil bit of sankofa-ic license and and rename where we build our compost, and compost, to Tutupole. As tutupole literally means dump site soils, the new sankofa-ic license definition, how we will use it here at Jìgìjìgì, Tutupole means “The place where soils are created.”

Fortunately, these articles contain some accounts from four esteemed elders, from Intentional or Inevitable?:

The first elder is unfortunately unnamed but states that “when he was young, he recalls, towns and villages had black soils around them owing to the “dirt” (e.g., fresh and burnt organic waste) people used to throw.”

Gayflor Zee Pewee, the old chief at Beleziau, described how tulupole soils have a different texture, taste, and smell compared to other kinds of soil, because, according to him, of the food that has decomposed there over time. Yassa Reed, of Wenwuta, noted the softness and richness of the soil through the sensation on her hands and hoe when planting taro. Wenwuta people noted the vibrancy of the plantain growing in tulupole and how for this reason visitors to the town often carry off plantain seedlings to plant where they live. Each morning we witnessed women’s sweeping of the yard—the bending and back-and-forth and taken- for-granted part of daily bodily routines, including gathering children’s, sheep’s, and chicken’s feces and throwing them into the kitchen garden, along with ash and charcoal. When processing palm oil or potash, or after cooking in farm huts, we observed people dumping the charred wastes around the site as an extension of the activity itself, a convenient way to get materials out of the working area. In the language of Harman (2011), experiences like these are the sensual qualities through which the Loma sensual object tulupole is created.

Gayflor later states in the article, He was born in Zolowo, and his father brought him to Beleziau in 1950. When people arrived to settle there was no black soil, but when the town was established it began to form from the “dirt” that people threw:
This village has a large amount of black soil because it is very old. If you look at the black soil around a town, you can tell how old it is. If you dig a hole you can see how far down the black soil goes, and this shows how old the town is. When we make a farm, black soil is on the surface, not underneath. The black soil in the old spot continues to form, leaves of trees fall and fertilize it.
Another elder, the oldest man in Wenwuta, Yarkpazu, is about ninety and was town chief of Wenwuta during the Tubman era (1944–1971)…Yarkpazu claims that “god” made the tulupole around the town, but the people made it fertile by dumping there, a perspective also held by most of the town’s women.

A fourth elder is Yarkparwolu, the chief of New Gbokolomie village. When he settled New Gbokolomie, he explained, the soil was not black like it is now. It became black from the thatch, sweeping, straw, and other things people threw away. The chief’s father told him that “when you plant banana you should throw things under it.” According to him charcoal and ash by-products from potash3 production are fertilizers. His father used to tell him that when they were re-thatching houses, he should throw all the old thatch over there because “it will rot and turn the soil black.” According to Yarkparwolu, “We are the ones that are making the soil around the town black with all the things we are throwing . . . [we’ve been] been dumping dirt, then it rots and becomes soil and becomes rich.”

Elders at four different settlements in the Wenwuta landscape thus all see AfDE formation as an inevitable consequence of settled life.

The second paper, is light on cultural details, and heavy in terms of the science. We’ll quote briefly from it.

Most of the novelty expressed in these papers is the uncovering of heavily carbonized soils that are analogous to terra preta soils in the Amazon, outside of the Amazon, and definitely so in West Africa. As the authors say, We uncovered an existing, yet overlooked soil management system that has long been – and continues to be – an important feature of the indigenous West African agricultural repertoire. It transforms highly weathered, infertile, yellowish-to-red tropical soils (Oxisols and Ultisols) into black, highly fertile, carbon- rich soils.

The pH of tutupole soils are less acidic than adjacent soils, reducing aluminum toxicity and increasing the bioavailability of nutrients for plant uptake. Furthermore, availability of phosphorous, nitrogen, and concentrations of calcium, magnesium and potassium are greater in the cultivated tutupole. The soils have a much higher cation exchange capacity, which facilitates nutrient exchange from soil to plants, while having a lower density than the adjacent soils. The lower density will make for a lighter soil which will allow for plants to grow larger and faster. In the third and first articles the authors state that the tutupole are often used as nursery soils for banana and plantain trees, where they are initially planted and tended to, and then moved to other areas when more mature.

In the first article we are met with the extremely powerful phrase and title, “God made the soil, but we made it fertile.” It is also here that we are given more of our vocabulary to internalize.
In Sierra Leone, villagers distinguish black soils (porlei) from ‘very’ or ‘black black’ soils (porleilei), describing the latter as a deeper black in colour, more fine grained and fertile, and with distinct soil organisms. Established dumpsite soils (AfDE) are porleilei, with porlei seemingly understood as an intermediate, transitional stage in AfDE formation.

This theme is repeated throughout women and men’s narratives in the two countries. Thus as Gbolu Korlu, a female elder in Wenwuta, explained the differences between black and red soil:   “Black soil is found around the town, in certain places in the bush. God made the soil, but the dirt is the food for the plants. On the farm when they pile the straw up and burn it makes the soil black too. In some old farmland that is how the soil becomes black. Black soil is good because it is smooth, red soil is rocky. That’s why things grow better in the black soil than the red soil…Black soil is only found in small areas, but the red soil is found all over. Black soil in certain places is made by god, elsewhere by man.”

An elderly woman in Wenwuta, Kortor Flomo, identified that black soil is the most fertile,  that it is mainly found around the town, and [named] some of the materials and processes that lead to its formation:   “What makes the soil so rich? The dirt we [put] there and burn over and over for a very long time will change the soil. The black soil is rich around the town because the things we throw there: rice straw, fire ash, other materials. Soils on the farm are not as rich as those around the town as they do not have things thrown on it like in the town…. The soil that god made, it never had pepper, bitter ball, okra, plantain, on it. But it was us that had that idea of planting things in the soil, and throwing things on the soil making the soil rich, it was not god.”

In another Wenwuta narrative, Carmen Howard attributes the richness of AfDE to the actions of ancestors dumping, and how this has made the town soils the “chief” of all soils: “The black soil was made by god, but made rich by our old people way back. Those things that the old people used to throw in the soil way back are what made the soil rich for planting. Around the town you can plant pepper, bitter ball banana, plantain, they will grow best, better than on the farm. The reason for this is things we throw in the gardens around town. The black soil is the chief of all soil around here”.  
Whereas some women describe fallow burning for farming as creating black soils, one elder woman (Yassa Ubu) claimed that they were mistaken, since it is only black on the surface:   “To know the type of soil you can’t just look at it, you’ve got to dig. The soil can  appear black but when I dig below it is red…there is only real black soil around   town…or in an old town spot. The reason why you only get black soil around the town is because that is where people throw dirt. It was god that made the soil but we are the ones who change the colour… I was born, observed the actions of people throwing dirt, this changed the soil. Soil does not become black here in t he field because we are not throwing things here.”

Her narrative went on to recognise a distinction between a richer but narrow inner ring of AfDE at Wenwuta, where dumping is still taking place, and more extensive AfDE further out:   “You find black soil at Wenwuta and at old town spots for Wenwuta…the blackest  soil is found closest to the town and then as you move out you can also find a black soil, but not as black as the one closest to the town…The inner black soils are darkest because we are still throwing things there, the outer ones only had dirt thrown there way back. Further out black soil was made because town was bigger before but afterwards became smaller…when you see a big area of black soil at an old town spot, that means the town was big, if it is small then the town was small”
Let’s revisit the phrase, that is now an òwe, or proverb here at Jìgìjìgì.

“God made the soil, but we made it fertile.”

What made me highlight this as an òwe is that it is so so so so counter to how we currently think about the environment.

This thought challenges, at least my perception of, messianic environmentalism as put forth in the book of Genesis. Dominion is exactly how we got into this mess. Or, if Dominion were the most divine way to proceed, it would not be necessary to have developed natural farming techniques because they would have already been the common practice.

Another difference is that this òwe is also conceptually, very far away from the new-age love and harmony ecological approach that we discussed in the episode Conflict. Said differently, we have what is similarly expressed in the phrase “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work.” By this we mean certain places naturally have this porleilei, the black-black soils, but they aren’t in locations that lend themselves towards agricultural or societal development. Those places have the talent, but don’t work, for us.

With tutupole as the beginning of the formation of the porleilei, we become active in the process of healthy soil creation. and it is created, as a consequence of the natural processes of the lived lives of the Loma, Mende, and Asante peoples. However, for them, the formation porleilei is inevitable. For us it must become intentionally inevitable. By this we suggest having the forethought to create porleilei at the Tutupole, by having our lifestyle designed so that the foods we eat, the plants we grow, and the way we prepare all of those things result in porleilei.

This òwe empowers us examine our talents and transform them into standardized processes that work hard for us and our community.
This òwe reframes our anxiety, and now we become excited by the prospect of the Creator and Creatress challenging us by delivering us 75% of the way to creating porleilei. It is then our grand opportunity to become creative, to epitomize the most natural thing about us, our inherent divinity, to solve our problems. We’ll make our soil fertile.

Share Jìgìjìgì with your friends, family, and closely related siblings of the soil. Leave us a 5-stare review wherever you listen to and we will say then as we say now, Asante Sana, Medase Pa, Modupe O!
Thank you, for listening, to Jìgìjìgì, Peace.