Must A Future Go Up In Smoke? Cooking Fires in Mali, West Africa

“Throughout the Global South, growing numbers of poor rural people overfarm already poor soils, cut down trees for fuel, use local lakes and streams as toilets and waste dumps, burn carbon-intensive fuels for cooking and heating, and compete for fast-shrinking supplies of water. Lack of education, high infant mortality, and the need for more hands to increase family income lead to overpopulation, which adds a multiplier effect to the existing pressure that humanity exerts on our dwindling resource base.”
(The Business Solution To Poverty : Paul Polak & Mal Warwick)

Setting: Mali West Africa.
I am working in a very remote Malian village with a group of thirty women (soon to expand to sixty) who have never gardened in their lives. They walk seven km to buy vegetables in the next village. Let me tell you, there are alarmingly few there as well.

On a patch of soil so nutrient poor that grass would not grow, we are now miraculously managing to produce vegetables with drip irrigation and heavy doses of compost tea. It’s a quick solution, but we have more difficult work ahead.

Incidentally, during the nine month drought season, these women also harvest wood for cooking fires. Big trucks arrive from time to time to buy a load of cooking firewood. Destined for the city markets of Sikasso or Bamako. Every stick of wood in the village arrives on the heads of these women and is stock pilled, hoping for a payday.

One time, as I approach the village on my motorcycle (which has no real road, just meandering paths through the bush), for miles and miles in every direction I was seeing evidence of hacking damage to most of the small shrub trees of the Sahel. The hot winds, coming down from the Sahara, blow through this village with nary a shrub or tree to inhibit it.

This day, upon seeing the resulting open, bleak, barrenness, I came to a hault, turned the motor off and simply stared around in silence for a while. The silence was only broken by the wind rustling the dry grass. Sometimes there is little that can be said. Eventually, with a very deep sullenness (knowing where this incessant wood cutting was leading), I commented to my friend Emmanuel Coulabally perched on the back of my motorcycle.

“Emmanuel, they must eat, but they are going to regret this some day.”

Have you ever felt small? No, I mean very small. So small that you feel what you do changes little. Like trying to hold water in your hands. I was seeing their hard future before my eyes. It was too big, too overwhelming, and I too small. I have said nothing to them about it to this very day. Until we have an alternate reality to offer, it’s probably wise to continue to say nothing. We would need more people, time, irrigation, money, and help to tip the ballance for this village of 300.

What can you say? They need to eat. These women are the poorest of the poor on this planet.

How can one hand change a future?
Small? Ya!….. Real small!

“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” (Tolkien.  Gandalf. The Hobbit)

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