If you come to Martin Harbury’s film “Peanuts” expecting Charlie Brown and Snoopy, you are seriously in the wrong movie. This “Peanuts” is a documentary about West African agriculture and, believe it or else, it is a damn fine film which shines a light on a rarely-considered corner of the world.
The focus of “Peanuts” is Jock Brandis, a Canadian who became concerned with the state of potential soil erosion in a small village in Mali during a 2000 visit when he came to repair a broken solar powered water pump. Brandis noted the village’s reliance on cotton as a cash crop would eventually damage the soil, as cotton robs the soil of nitrogen and speeds desertification. Picking up a lesson first proposed a century ago by George Washington Carver, Brandis recommended that the villager plant peanuts, which would bring nitrogen to the soil, either as a substitute crop or in rotation with cotton. Peanuts would also help in the diet for the locals, Brandis observed, especially the village children who were discovered to be deficient in proteins.
The only problem with Brandis’ plan was getting the peanuts shelled. The Mali villagers sun-dried their peanuts and did the shelling process by hand, which was slow and cumbersome. Brandis promised to send a hand-operated shelling machine to the village once he returned home, but to his astonishment he discovered that no such machine existed. The only peanut shelling machines for sale were industrial contraptions, which could not be shipped and built in distant Mali.
The solution to Brandis’ problem is the joy and spirit of “Peanuts”–the man literally invented his own hand-cranked peanut shelling machine. Through trial and error and plenty of cracked nuts, Brandis eventually perfected the machine’s design and returned to Mali to help the villagers build and operate their own version of the invention.
The beauty of “Peanuts” is the power of the documentary genre: taking the camera to a hitherto unexplored part of the human experience and giving attention to a story that deserves to be shared. The “Peanuts” adventure is both simple and esoteric, yet its theme of people of wildly different backgrounds and cultures working together to ensure a healthier world is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Harbury’s film is a gentle, quiet and sincere effort that approaches its subject with respect and brilliantly pinpoints the universal elements in its most specialized of topics.
Brandis is the rare Westerner who, with patience and understanding, came to a Third World nation with the goal of building self-sufficiency at a grass roots level rather than exploiting the people or turning them into permanent hand-out recipients. At a time when the United States is spending billions of dollars to destroy countries with the goal of “liberating” them, the liberation that Brandis is giving to the villages in Mali (economic self-sufficiency, agricultural protection, healthy food) costs only $10 per peanut sheller. The irony of achieving more with less was never more clear. This film deserves to be seen by the powers in Washington and by foreign ministries and foreign aid organizations around the world–a strong lesson can be found here.