Chapter 19: Sun and Sunflowers in Algeria

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by Dr. Sydney Ellerton

The summer season, as we have seen, often left time for some other project, always overseas. It was now 1970 and this one, in Algeria, was different. For once it had nothing to do with sugar but with oil, edible oil. Richard Constanduros, who had been involved with the research project in Pakistan, was by now a member of an agricultural consultancy called Agroplan, with offices in Thame in Oxfordshire and I was called in to plan and oversee the experimental work. With me was ‘Kench’, an old friend who had retired from his teaching post at the Essex Institute of Agriculture. For most of his career he had bred cotton in the Sudan and his knowledge of Arabic was very useful. He was pretty good at French too. Even his own family called him Kench, since for some reason he did not like his Christian name, which was Frank.

Attached to the project was a rather mysterious American named Shaw, who knew about oil but of a very different kind, for his oil was the kind that was at that time being discovered under the North Sea. He served no essential function in our project and Kench was sure that he was in fact a C.I.A. agent, an American spy. At that time the Americans were certainly paranoid about communism. We stayed in an apartment in Algiers, a very French-looking city with a centre of wide, well-planned streets, a smaller version of Hausmann’s Paris. It had a fine harbour. I went there in the spring to help with trial planning and again in the late summer, for the harvest.

The crop was the sunflower, the tournesol as it was locally known. We were needed for a strange reason. There was a Ministry of Agriculture and a Ministry of Food, of which the relevant section had to do with Edible Oils and Fats. The two ministries had opposing ideas about sunflower development and we were really called in to act as referees. Algeria was pretty new as an independent state and in colonial days the French had been careful not to let the locals learn too much about the skills of administration. So we met government officials who were remarkably young for their level of seniority. The political philosophy was communist, though not so severe as the Russian variety. They seemed to be terrified, probably with just cause, of the development of corrupt practices and anybody found lining his own nest was dealt with in a draconian manner. The result was that any contact with foreigners was handled very carefully indeed and for the most part no government official would stick his neck out by giving us information. The job of getting very straightforward climatic data for Algeria involved three ministries and much time and effort. One of the officials we met was a lawyer named Lunici. Of course we anglicised this as Lunacy.

Algeria is a huge country and is divided into five zones: the rich coastal area next to the Mediterranean, gradually rising to the second zone, the Maritime Atlas Mountains. Then there was the intermontane plateau, still with some natural rainfall. Then came the Saharan Atlas and lastly the apparently unending desert. We were to plan and conduct trials in the coastal zone and the intermontane plateau. We were able to move about freely in our Renault 16 and to meet local agricultural officials, from whom we got much help.

The coastal area had vineyards and many other flourishing tree-fruit and vegetable crops, but as the land gradually rose towards the mountains it became more arid and we saw groups of wandering bedouin with their grazing animals and goat-hair tents. We were in a Muslim country but a minority of the women went about veiled. In the villages there were usually groups of colourfully dressed men swathed in long robes and with tall, circular ‘top-hats’ with multi-coloured banding, sitting at tables smoking, drinking coffee and looking very solemn and self-important. They eyed us with curiosity and suspicion. In the world of farming there was a private sector and a public sector with large collective farms. These were mechanised. The government had imported tractors and other implements from politically acceptable sources, from East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and Soviet Russia. There were so many types and so few spares that long lines of these machines, all stone dead, could be seen in many places. Probably they were short not only of spares, but of skills too.

We had variety trials in several places in the coastal area, using sorts of sunflower from America, Romania and elsewhere. In the area near the coast there were many trees about and also great colonies of a voracious seed-eating bird called the Spanish sparrow. One trial in particular I remember. One does not plant a sunflower trial on any isolated little patch of land; that would be asking for trouble. Instead, our trial area was in the middle of a ten-acre field of commercial sunflowers. In that way any bird damage would be spread over the whole field and we knew that it would be the areas near the edges which would be the first to be raided. Nevertheless we felt uneasy and ordered a sufficient quantity of poles and nylon netting to make a bird-proof cage over the entire trial. The equipment arrived in time in Algiers harbour. The red tape involved in getting it ashore was, however, so long-winded that by the time it was released the last seed had been eaten. So we had a yield trial with no yield. We will see later how this little difficulty was overcome! Bureaucracy is a great French tradition, indeed it is a French word. It is a dearly loved feature of all communist countries too. The combination of the two in a formerly French and now communist nation really reached the acme of perfection.

The intermontane region was mostly extensive grassland, with hardly any trees. Here and there we could see a grazing herd of camels. It was sunny and dry and because of the dryness the heat was not oppressive. Owing to the virtual absence of trees we had no trouble with the Spanish sparrow. We went up to the little town of Tiaret, totally French in appearance with sidewalk cafes, boulangeries with sun awnings, a place for playing boules and all the other things to be seen everywhere in France. We met the local agricultural agent, Sadiq, and found him interesting, competent and also very pleased to see us. He had spent a good deal of his working life in another French colony, Madagascar, had acquired wider horizons and felt oppressed by the prevailing regime in Algeria. We had a good trial up there, which served two purposes. In addition to the designed use, we measured the diameter of a great many sunflower heads, threshed the seed out separately from each and made a chart relating head diameter to seed yield. Then we went back to the ravaged coastal trial, still bearing empty flower heads at the tips of gaunt stalks, did a lot of counting and measuring, and worked out the quantities of seed which had vanished into the crops of sparrows! We got consistent and significant varietal differences and this unique, yield-less yield trial really should be in all the textbooks. Whether it would have earned me fame or ridicule, I am not so sure, but it was fun.

Our friend from Madagascar found us a pleasant change from his administrative bosses from Algiers. We were sad that we could not have a longer association with him. He was with us on our trip back to Tiaret after all the work was done. As we approached town we came to a square-built house with smooth, sand-coloured walls with no windows and just a little door in one side. Sadiq asked us very casually whether we would like to “casser une croute” with him. Thinking that this was just a spur-of-the-moment invitation to a snack, we gladly accepted. How mistaken we were!

Ushered in through the door in the blank wall, we were first taken into a small, carpeted room with low divans lining the walls. Incongruously there was a television set in a corner, but no other furniture whatsoever. After a few moments we were taken to a really lovely central courtyard. The rooms of the house clearly butted on to the blank outer walls, but they all faced inwards on to a lovely and quite spacious scene. There were flowering shrubs, a fountain and a little trickling stream. The ground was at two levels and Kench and I were soon seated at a table at the upper level laid with plates and a central piled-high dish of couscous. Bearing in mind the invitation to “share a crust” we tucked in and, offered a second helping, took it gladly. What a mistake. This was only a preamble and dish after dish followed and we could not possibly be so discourteous as to refuse any of them. I really do not know how we managed to eat it all and we certainly did not ask for any more second helpings. After the meal was over we moved down to a shady spot by the fountain and drank mint tea.

This was a most memorable and delightful evening but by our way of thinking it had it sad side. We heard the ladies of the house (wife and daughter, we understood), slaving away in one of the rooms, preparing the meal, but there they were, isolated. We never so much caught a glimpse of them. In Muslim countries this all seems to be freely accepted and this was doubtless a happy family but such treatment of half of the human race would not do for us.

We had another meal in an Algerian home, but there is some explaining to do first. We were able to do well enough with French. Kench’s Arabic often got us by, but Arabic is spoken all the way from Iraq to Morocco and it is not surprising that there is considerable local variation. As we have said, his was learnt in the Sudan. Then there was a third language, of which we were all ignorant, Berber. This was, after all, the Barbary Coast from which the famous pirates used to ply. Because of this we needed an interpreter and we went to the University of Algiers, who supplied us with a very likeable young fellow named Said, for a stipulated and quite high salary. It was his first job and he was thrilled. It was Said who was later to invite us to a meal at his home.

Tizi Ouzou is a long way to the west of Algiers and behind it is hilly country with rocky soil, often terraced, yielding rather scant crops. It is poor country, with little villages scattered about. Said lived in one of these with his parents and pretty little sisters, aged six and four. Said himself had made local history. He was the first person from there ever to get to a university. When he got his job with us he saved every penny he could to send to his parents and with it they built a small extension to their house, which was rather touchingly re-named the Villa Tournesol.

This was still a Muslim home, but much, much simpler and poorer than that of Sadiq. It too was built in a square with blank outer walls, but inside was an unpaved yard. Our meal was served in the new room, and consisted of little besides couscous, made from wheaten semolina with cubes of watermelon mixed in. Said and his father sat with us and shared our meal, while his mother, unveiled, served at table. They were all incredibly grateful for the way we had inadvertently helped the family.

Algeria at that time preserved much of its French influence and indeed many young Algerian men took seasonal work in the fields in France, going in by boat via Marseilles. Here in the mountains, though, bitter memories persisted of the early days of French colonisation, when soldiers came into the villages plundering what they could. It the area where Said lived there was a tradition of craftsmanship in silver. As is the case among the Navajos in America today, much of the wealth of the villagers was in the form of a few precious trinkets. The soldiers took all they could lay hands on and the story goes that, when they could not get a bracelet off the wrist of a woman, they would cut off the hand to get it. Exaggerated or not, bitterness of this kind is very long lasting.

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