We were again flying down the dirt road between stops on Mark Haldane’s magical mystery tour. I gazed out across the fields of green that rapidly slid past. I wondered, out loud but mostly to myself, whether the local farmers ever made money from their crops. Mark was listening because he immediately brought the Land Cruiser to an abrupt halt. Frances et al., caught by surprise, came perilously close to entering the truck cab via the back window. I looked at Mark and he pointed to the plants growing on either side of the dirt track and stated, “This is the farmers only purely cash crop. They may sell a small amount of their rice, sorghum and maize if they happen to have more than they need, but this crop is only grown to sell.” I guess maybe he thought as a biologist I should know what the small bushes stretching for hundreds of meters in all directions were, but I was clueless.

I turned my blank stare from the fields of green to Mark. “Sesame,” was his response to my look. “How cool!” was my clever rejoinder; I had never seen Sesame plants. A disheveled Frances and the nearly always-smiling Zakarea climbed from the raised platform as I exited the cab. Locally called Jiri-Jiri, a close examination of the Sesame plants revealed numerous upright stalks topping out at around four feet. Each stalk had rows of narrow, dark green seed pods about half an inch in length. Each pod would hold more than 100 seeds. We were past the flowering stage, but if we had come to the field when still in bloom, we would have seen the area filled with bell-shaped flowers of light purple, rose, or white.

Though a bit uncertain, the domestication of Sesame likely occurred in Asia – probably India. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese used the seeds for everything from flour to oil burned to produce fine soot for the finest Chinese ink blocks. The Romans took advantage of the wonderful flavor and high oil content (about 50% by weight) and ground the seeds with cumin to make a tasty spread for their wonderful Italian breads. Even the author of Arabian Nights showed an infatuation with Sesame seeds, invoking the magical command “open sesame” apparently because of how easily ripe Sesame seed pods pop open.

Obviously, I misunderstood Mark’s meaning of “cash crop.” I asked Zakarea – through Mark – how they used the resulting seeds. “Do you make flour, or grind for the oil, or eat the seeds whole?” Rather than translate my non-sensical question into Portuguese, Mark repeated “This is their only purely cash crop. They harvest the seeds and sell them directly to Indian buyers.” I wish I had asked how much they make from each harvest, but the current estimate from farms in one of the largest producers of Sesame – India – is around $400/acre. If transferable to Mozambique, I was looking at a field of some 50 hectares (about 125 acres) that would deliver its owner – Zakarea in this case – a net income of thousands of dollars. Even if off by a factor of ten, this represented a veritable fortune in Mozambique. No wonder they weren’t spreading it on bread! In fact, Mark emphasized the worth of Zakarea’s Sesame by guessing that at least half of his annual salary resided in the plants standing before us. My respect for Zakarea’s many-layered entrepreneurship was growing. It would continue to do so at our next stop.

Excerpt from Mike’s Upcoming Book: BRINGING BACK THE LIONS: International Hunters, Local Tribespeople, and the Miraculous Rescue of a Doomed Ecosystem in Mozambique

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