Sun Dried Skulls & Jaw Bones Remind Us That The Sahara Desert Will Kick Your Ass!

Skull And Jaw Bone on The Trail To A Village Mali, West Africa
Skull And Jaw Bone on The Trail To A Village in Mali, West Africa

How difficult can life and development work be in Mali, West Africa? People and cattle die in drought season here.  Your, “Like, way awesome!”, community development project could easily die too; ask any Peace Corps worker, or an honest NGO.

Earlier this week I passed this weathered skull and jaw bone on the trail to a work village. I think it’s a serious reminder of the hard work ahead. Of course I had to stop and take a picture.

While living in Ivory Coast, eons ago, my family had to have night guards for our home.  Our guards were  all ethnic Bella’s, from Northern Mali near Timbuktu. There was a huge extended family of them in Abengourou, all coming down South seeking jobs to send money back home to Mali. This Bella family guarded three homes and a Medical Clinic. All of our guards actually rotated. When a batch of fresh new guys arrived, some of our current men would return home. The day before leaving, the current guard would bring over the newly arrived “brother” and introduce him. They would stay one night together, and then the new guy was on duty himself. The new arrivals often barely spoke French. The Locals were timid of the Bella’s, as stories circulated about the ferocious nature of the Desert people. If it was truth or exaggeration,  it did not matter, because this is a great reputation to have about your guards.  We never had any issues with these Bella’s, nor this rotating arrangement. They came and left on time, and did their job with never a word said.

With the arrival of the new guys from the family up north, news from home arrived too. I remember a few times the news from the fringes of the Sahara was not good. With tears in their eyes they shared that the word from their families back home is that they lost over half their cattle herds due to lack of grass and drinking water. The rains just did not come this year. The Sahara was kicking their butt.

This week I was in the bush holding followup meetings in several villages;  at least, I was trying to. I need to get a read on how the villagers want to approach the reset of last term’s drought season drip irrigated vegetable gardens. Rainy season is over, and my wife and I are trying to help elderly women break a generations-old mindset that, “We can’t, and simply do not grow gardens in dry season”. If you think this is an easy mindset to overcome, please come to Mali as a deluded humanitarian NGO;  we need more of those.

This was my second trip out there, and the meetings never actually happened. Welcome to Africa. However, my showing up in the village yesterday, and then leaving again, communicates something and did cause a panicked phone call from the village;  it always does. Sometimes words are best not said, and in Mali this seems doubly so. I have my ways of sending a message when I’m tired of being jerked around by Africa. I do not have to say a word, and this little thing I do is not rude in this culture, but always gets the message across. I only pull it out of my hat from time to time, when I find I am being pushed to the limits of my tolerance.

The good news is, after the panicked phone call, that I purposefully did not answer the first six times over a few hours, we now have a meeting arranged for another day with the addition of all the women in my village program being present. So we can now kill two birds with one stone. So it ends well, as it always does, if you are patient.

The challenge for my village grannies is to be consistent with the drip irrigation. When growing a garden in drought conditions just south of the Sahara Desert (ominously represented by the skull and dry bones), in what we call the Sahel, the margins for error and flexibility are not nearly as forgiving as they would be in ANY other place on earth. The Sahara will suck you dry, if you let your guard down

If a lady gets doubting drip irrigation, becomes discouraged, temporarily undermotivated, sick, or distracted (they carry such a heavy load as it is), for ONE day in a DROUGHT season garden, her garden becomes a skull and dry bones. If she is lucky, she might get away with only seriously stunted production. The Sahara is often not that merciful. There are minuscule margins of mercy when one steps up to tackle the Sahara’s effects head on. This is no small challenge we are meeting head on here in Mali. Some humanitarians and NGO’s wonder if it is a battle that can even be won.

Breaking the cycle of poverty sometimes includes introducing simple, economical technology. However, it always involves developing new ways of thinking. Which do you think is the easier portion? What the two week field visitors with a “helpful project” bringing some “Helpful Stuff” rarely fully appreciate is that the technology they bring is probably less than 5% of the real work in most projects. In order for the locals to adopt and use this technology effectively, even seemingly simple concepts a short-termer plunked down, it requires follow up for six months to several years before they fully understand it, and then they will decide if they will continue with it. For a grandmother to extend her growing season it takes new methods, also new mindsets, dedicated time, and consistent work. The real work is guiding people to accept change in their gardening and farming practices, and adopt new rhythms of life when transitioning between wet and dry season.

First, change has to be desired; does this village see the need to do things differently? If they do not see the need for change, it is impossible to bring change, no matter how helpful the technology or ideas may seem from the outside. Most times subsistence farmers and the poor have to be totally up against the wall, to the place where they have no other choice, before they launch out to try something else.

Secondly, change must be acceptable to them. We can help change some things a lot, but other things only a little. We have to be sensitive to a people’s emotional health too. You do not let a community development project go down the tubes because you did not flex a little on things they seem unwilling to bend about. Fight the more important battles, and then let them make their choices.

Finally, change needs to come at a speed in which the locals can integrate it. Too much at once and they will shut you down.

Earlier this week I was told by Youssuf that the women in one project village lack “comprehension” or “understanding” so it will take time. I thought the women understood well last term. We did considerable follow up. But, as soon as you turn your back, at the end of the term, those decades old habits, doubts, and crippling mindsets easily raise their ugly head.

For me, gravity feed drip irrigation is all so simple; why don’t they get it? The irrigation kits are simple, and easy to use. I have been growing drip irrigated gardens on the same kits in Canada and three African countries for over six years, with tremendous success. Two weeks into our very first drip irrigated test garden, I was already convinced of the simplicity and efficacy of this method to increase harvest and decrease labor.

However, these ladies need more time to “comprehend” it. Waiting for people to “comprehend” is why we actually get paid for what we do. Walking with them until they do “comprehend” is the most difficult and tedious work of all. But this slow “walking with them”  is where relationships are built, relationships that enable you to discover and appreciate the real Mali.  The real Mali is not discovered through a project lens, only a friendship lens.

We still have much hard work ahead, as we reset  all those drought season drip irrigated gardens for their second dry season cycle. It’s a critical transition. I’m stepping out with them on this Gravity Feed Drip Irrigated Garden work again.

Let’s see how many women are ready to change their thinking this year, refusing to give in to the subsistence living effects forced on them by the Skull and Dry Bones – that ever present and meddling Sahara Desert.

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