Sara - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Sara, who live in a moderately well-watered Sudano-Guinean ecological zone, specialize in the slash-and-burn cultivation of cereals, especially sorghums and millets. They fish and raise chickens, dwarf goats, and a few horses. Plow oxen, introduced during the 1960s and still rare, are the only cattle kept, owing to a high incidence of sleeping sickness. The French, in search of a stable supply of cotton fiber for their textile industry, introduced cotton as a cash crop in 1928. Postindependence governments have continued to emphasize the crop because its sale has brought 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange. Because of cotton's importance, its production has been mandatory throughout the colonial and immediate postcolonial periods. Most cotton is produced by the Sara, who have added this work to their normal subsistence activities. Raising cotton is more labor intensive than growing food crops. Its farm-gate price has usually been kept low. It has a tendency to exhaust soils.

Increasingly, manioc is substituted for cereals in areas where cotton production is high. Manioc requires less labor than do cereals but has less nutritional value. One reason for its popularity may be that it allows labor that would have been allocated to the growth of cereals to be directed instead to the maintenance or expansion of cotton cultivation. Studies suggest that areas of considerable manioc production are those with lower nutritional levels.

Industrial Arts. Precolonial crafts included metalworking, pottery, cloth and basket weaving, calabash carving, and different forms of woodworking. All of these are in decline as their products are increasingly being replaced by manufactured imports.

Trade. There do not appear to have been indigenous markets among the precolonial Sara. Merchants from Bagirmi, and to a lesser extent from other Muslim states, circulated in the area, usually exchanging sumptuary goods for slaves. Lack of commercial experience has meant that many small stores and other enterprises in Sara towns are owned by members of northern ethnic groups.

Division of Labor. Little is known of the precolonial division of labor. The contemporary ideal, however, is that a wife should work for her husband in farming and domestic activities. In exchange, he should provide her and her children with food and other necessities. In principle, the husband owns the fields and their harvest, which he doles out. As women grow older, however, they clear and plant their own fields, and therefore they own these fields' crops and can dispose of them as they see fit. Both men and women derive labor for their fields from kin, especially children. Gender alone does not seem to confer advantage in securing labor. Rather, what counts is the ability to be generous with grain, alcohol, and cooked food. Women, it appears, can be just as generous as men. Thus, men and women effectively possess the same access to land and labor. This division of labor was reported for a Sara group with abundant land. It is possible that such abundance allows for a more egalitarian access to agricultural resources.

Land Tenure. Perhaps the most important aspect of past and present Sara land tenure, at least in regions of low population density, is the absence of cultural notions producing differential access to land. In the past each clan had its area that it farmed to the exclusion of all other clans. The main rule regulating access was that clan members could acquire land by farming it. Those who were not members of clans could acquire fields simply by asking any clan member for permission to farm. Land inheritance was of little importance. Most fields were on virgin bush or long fallows over which no one exercised rights. The French were convinced that all Sara had chefs de terre who, by virtue of supernatural association with land, might at least partially regulate access to it. Although there may have been some Sara with chefs de terre in this sense, they were rare. The founders of villages, and their descendants, called kwa begi, were sometimes said to "own" the land. Such persons had only a hazy, moral prestige, however, almost indistinct from that resulting from age, which was irrelevant to land apportionment. Today there is a person, known as the chef de carré, who, following consultation with members of his carré (lit., "plot") selects where its cotton fields will be located.

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