New Moon in Bissiri – February 2011
During this season, everything and everyone is chronically covered with an umber layer of dust. Wet clothes take no more than twenty minutes to dry, giving the impression that even the air is thirsty. Before making the 40 kilometer motorcycle ride from Ouagadougou to Bissiri, Dada Purusottama wrapped his face and head in an orange turban; and I in a keffiyeh. Just after sunrise, we set off on the cavity ridden dirt road, navigating our way quickly through the thick clouds of Sahelian soot.
Unlike previous stays in Bissiri, I feel blessed to have good health and plenty of energy. The land where I live and work was given by the naaba (chief) many years ago for the purpose of community development. The caretaker of the land is a simple, principled man named Rasmani. He lives there with his wife, Salatu, and their six children. Three other farmers (Mooney, Amadou and Mohammadu) collectively farm the three hectare property. Mooney and Mohammadu were busy irrigating their respective onions and papaya plots. Amadou was busy weeding alonside his wife and their baby. So, endowed with my good health, I decided to take the opportunity to fertilize and compost the 100 mango trees on the property. Despite being a 106 degree day, it was quite refreshing to engage in a grounding, tangible activity. It took about five buckets of sheep manure and four donkey carts of semi-composted peanut shells and plant-remains to finish the job. Covered in all the above, I took my evening bath just adjacent to the large baobob tree, which presented its branches and fruit brilliantly in the glow of the setting sun.
Days here begin with the morning azan (call to worship) and end with the last evening Isha prayers. Men and women toil in the fields or in the home, all day, and retire to sleep before 9pm. Our food this season is simple; consisting mostly of thick millet porridge, tasty, local rice, boiled cowpeas adorned with melted shea butter, alkaline rich green stew flavored with a fermented bean spice, an occasional handful of fresh moringa leaves and papaya. For those with a sweet tooth, the chalky, dry pulp of the baobab fruit is quite satisfying. (We’re still waiting for the honey, from our bee boxes, to finish!)
While eating lunch the other day, I wanted some salt. Salatu was sitting on a mat nursing her youngest. It was the first time I’d seen her resting all day. I hesitated to ask, but did anyway. (I was sorry I did) “Mam data yamsum.” She immediately got up and went in to the storage room where the food is kept. I then heard, thump thump thump….the sound of pounding. Such a work!! Here, one doesn’t simply pass the salt, but rather must go through the trouble to pound the large salt crystals into a more edible size. In the words of a wise friend,” No work is easy work.” Water must be pumped, carried and poured; millet must be cleaned, pounded, boiled and stirred before serving; leaves must be collected, de-stemmed, washed, pounded and cooked. My salaams to Salatu and all women who bear such a weight with unmitigated grace and content.
The plight of the small scale farmer..
Even under the best conditions, the practice of agriculture is not an easy one. People in Burkina farm in one of the most unforgiving natural and economic climates of the world. Soil infertility, drought and dependency is commonplace. In Bissiri, families farm vegetables, maize and millet. One of the main challenges they face is not having enough money to invest in their farms during the planting season. In effect, much land is left underutilized. For example, a cabbage farmer may only have enough money to buy seeds to plant 40% of his land, leaving the other 60% fallow. Vegetable seeds, in particular, are extremely expensive. (some varieties being nearly 3 times as expensive than in the US) Veggie farmers here also use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thereby polluting the local water reservoir and leading to a slow death of their already deprived soil. Good news is that farmers are irritated by high input costs and understand the negative effects of conventional methods, but feel as though they don’t have a substantial alternative.
Project in the making..
Recently, we (Amadou, Dada, Mahommedu, Mooney, Rasmani and myself) held a couple of key meetings during which we spoke about cooperatives and the future of this property/project. Somehow during our simple dialogue, I felt something of a more subtle nature gently guiding us to a point of collective metamorphosis. Something just clicked…
In an effort to address some of the challenges listed above, we made a list of clear objectives for the coming year. Included is a plan to take steps toward the establishment of a model farm that features potentially sustainable systems of short/long term crop production. Sitting together and speaking three different languages, we etched some ideas in the hard earth. In addition to a bio-intensive moringa plot, we also made a determination to develop an extensive tree nursery. I recently received a kind donation from one progressive and independently-owned organic seed company – High Mowing Organic Seeds! They gave varieties that may easily adapt this this climate. With this donation, we’re going to begin seed trials with an aim to eventually establish a local seed distribution center in Bissiri. (woe to the multi-national seed companies keeping African farmers in a perpetual state of dependency!!) The crux of our project, however, is the burgeoning no-profit/no-loss microloan program. In an effort to assist farmers in maximizing production on their land holdings, we’re developing a practical system to give microloans in the form of seeds and other necessary inputs.
After some years of virtually living out of a suitcase, I’ve decided to settle in Bissiri. Being here, more often than not, allows me to focus my efforts on this project. Using mostly local materials, I hired some folks to build a traditional hut. The walls are super thick, making the inside feel like a cool cave. The bricks are made from clay, and the plastering was done with a red clay mixed with old car oil. (for waterproofing) I was sick during most of the construction, but appeared from time to time to carry some bricks and carve mini alters into the walls. After making the thatch roof, my first home will be complete. Not many people, at least from the West, can say they purchased their home for 500 dollars cash!
The night of the new moon
On the darkest night of this cycle, Dada and I lay on the floor of my roofless hut, silently gazing at the starlit sky above. I thought that perhaps my brothers and sisters in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere were gazing at the same sky; humbled by the same mammoth task of building and establishing a world where people are more important than profit, where economic democracy takes precedence over politicians and their politricks, and our inherent longing for the fulfillment of our ideals dominates over our petty differences and self-interest.
“You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars guides you too.”
- Shrii Shrii Anandamurtii