One Conversation Transformation

“I grew up in Libya in abundance and I believed my people lived in similar conditions. My father never told me.

This is pure hunger. Life in the Sahara is hard. It’s tough even for the young people so how can the elderly take it?

I can’t  stand the way my people are living here. People here can’t even bathe. There is no light or electricity. No phone network to stay in contact with the world.

At night it is really cold here. People living in this desert are constantly getting sick.
A lot of illness. They don’t have hospitals,  they don’t have medical tests.

People get used to it but my God this Sahara is tough. This Sahara is tough.
(Mahamad Hassan Tuareg in Sahara Desert)

I have written about the struggle for survival in Mali before. After having been in and around West Africa for over twenty years off and on, I can say definitively that Mali, Niger and Northern Burkina Faso have to be the most difficult places to live on earth. These countries have seen serious drought in the past decade, and in the North of each country the people reliant on cattle, like the Tuareg, and Fulani , have seen severe losses of animals.

I remember speaking with Abou, a Malian guard I knew working for some of us in Cote D’Ivoire years before, in tears when I asked the news of his family up north near Timbuktu. He and his family are Bella. The tears streamed down his face as he told me about the lack of rain and how half his families the cattle had died that year. Their only source of income.

He said he and his brothers had pleaded with his parents to leave that place, come south like so many of their family had, seeking work, only to subsidize a life that no longer worked in Northern Mali. Money being hand delivered back home in a continuous rotation as our guards traded out people. New ones coming, old ones going back to Timbuktu for a time.
From early on in my days in Ivory Coast I knew in my heart of hearts, as early as 1997, that if we ever finished our work in Ivory Coast, and had any future left for us one day in Africa one day,  that it would be to the north, to the Sub-Sahara, to the Sahel.

My first time in Mali was in February 2006. As we crossed  over Southern Mali and arrived in Bamako, all I could see under the wing of the airplane was a sea of dead grass the color of straw, like and over ripe wheat field. But this was not wheat, it was drought killed grass, and it covered the entire country this time of year. Most of the country had not seen rain for four to five months by this time of year.

When I landed in Bamako, I called my wife in Canada to inform her of my safe arrival. She asked what it was like there. My first impressions were important to her, because this research would determine the potential next ten years of our life.

I said to her, “Lynn it is so dry here I don’t know how people live here.”

I described what I saw.

We moved to Sikasso in January 2011. My very first day in Sikasso I was so sick I was almost incoherent. I had procured some badly needed meds for a serious infection I had going.  The only thing that saved me was our gracious taxi driver in Bamako. He got me the help I needed and two days later I was still not able to think straight in Sikasso, but at least now I was on the mend.

In my sickened stupor, I met a man at Salifu’s place. He asked why we were there, and he told them that we are here to do development work in gardening. He asked if the drip irrigation would work on his fruit trees, and we had to tell him that it was more about vegetable growing.

However, I guess I did mention to him about bottle irrigation. How to take a bottle and put a pinhole in it and fill it with water. The pin hole will let slow amounts of water drop out over time. And it will reinforce juvenile fruit trees over the drought season.

Jump ahead to one year later. I was booked by another person to come and meet a man 120 km from where I lived to the SE. I was told his name and I had never met the man before.  We were asked to come and teach this man how to drip irrigate vegetable gardens.

We arrived, did the usual greetings, and then eventually landed in his field where he wanted to grow drought season vegetables.

As my wife and I enter his field we saw that his fruit trees how flowers on them. This is very unusual during this time of year.

Impossible really, without hand watering. Every flowering orange tree for as far as the eye could see had little plastic bottles under them. Some full, some half empty. I had never seen anyone in Mali use this simple  drip method before. It was obvious to me that this man was a visionary, and innovator, and early adopter. There is a great deal of doubt and skepticism with new ideas. Rightfully so, because most “Good ideas” end up costing the poor more than they are helped. Both in time, wasted money, and poor results.

Though I Had been promoting it for the last year, I’d never seen anyone else promoting, let along adopting this methodology.

I asked the man where he learned concept. He looked at me kind of stunned, in disbelief.

“I learned this from you.” he replied in a rather disbelieving tone.

From Me? I have never met you before.

Then he reminded me of the first day I was in Sikasso  with my wife. You told me about this at  Salifu’s house. Now I remember,  but I had long since forgotten his name or anything about the man. But after one conversation, with a Canadian, he went 120 km to his home in the middle of nowhere, and he set to work, trying, and persisted in it for a year.

I asked him how it was working. He said “ Look at my trees, they are all flowering. It works.”

I asked if he had any observations. He said the only problem is the pin holes plug in the bottles and they don’t drain out very fast. I said that is actually the point. You want the water to slowly add humidity to the soil, no more than a cup a day, just enough to strengthen the tree in the drought, but not wear yourself out hauling so much water. 4-7 days is how long you want it to take for the water to slowly drip.

I asked him if any water is still coming out, and he affirmed it was over the week. I said correct, a bottle with a pinhole in it will never stop weeping water.

So this man, based on one conversation, in an incoherent sick stupor, listened, and worked.

Men like this are rare in the world, and in Mali too. But he is reaping the benefits from thinking outside the box, and he is slowly raising his family out of subsistence living. Few others will ask him directly about it he tells me, because he became a christian in his predominantly Muslim village. They don’t attack him or anything, they just do not seek his input on anything in the village.

However, they watch him, and they see what he is trying and they are learning from it as well. What is more, he said that all over the region people have come to see his trees when he is not around, and there are a few people all over that bush region practicing bottle fruit tree irrigation now.

If I have accomplished nothing else of worth in this country, it is stories like this that keep me going. What is best is it is not only me spreading the ideas any more.

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