Heart and Soul
Chris Brazier returns after ten years to the African village
which transformed his way of looking at the world.
What words and ideas do you associate with Africa? War. Famine. Murderous tribalism. Population spiralling. A basket case. A permanently outstretched hand.
You can probably add your own impression of awfulness to this list. And after years that have contained Somalia and Rwanda, not to mention the current events in Sierra Leone and Burundi, you can be forgiven for holding such images in your head. Prompted by news media which only dip into the continent when they can find events sufficiently terrible to top what we have seen before, people are quick to give up on Africa. It seems a hopeless, helpless case.
And yet how much of Africa do these images leave out? How many countries quietly busying themselves with the process of peaceful development are betrayed by the media focus on war and famine? How many millions of people leading their everyday lives with dignity and endeavour are dismissed and forgotten when we draw a red line through the whole continent?
The longer I live, the more I learn that what you see depends on your vantage-point and not on any absolute truth. Look at Africa from a rich country and you are likely to see that kaleidoscope of suffering and mayhem. Look at the African countryside from one of its capital cities and you are likely to see poverty, backwardness and ignorance. Look at rural Burkina Faso from a bus during the dry season and you will find nothing visually to contradict the fact that this is one of the poorest countries in the world. The earth is baked hard and looks dusty and lifeless. The villages and trees seem almost like intrusions into a landscape which looks like it is already giving up the ghost, yielding to the relentless southward march of the once-distant Sahara.
But spend a few weeks in any one of those villages, as I have just done, and you soon see the world in a very different way. The red earth looks different when you remember the vibrant, raw life that screams out of it during the rains. Once you're in the village you not only know that life is possible here but also that it has its full quota of human drama. People come alive for you. 'African villagers' stop being statistics in a thesis, cyphers on a printed page. They have real bodies, real feelings - lives that have a beginning and a middle, not just some horribly painful end. Their loving and their laughing, their dancing and their dreaming, their pain and their joy are not that different from our own.
It was ten years ago, in June 1985, when I learned this lesson. My first-ever journalistic assignment in Africa sent me in search of a woman farmer whose story we could tell in the NI film that was eventually broadcast as Man-Made Famine. I'd chosen Burkina Faso because it was in the middle of a revolution - and for once it was a revolution in more than just rhetoric. Its young President, Thomas Sankara, had a unique honesty and vision which set him apart from almost any other African leader and which could have served as an alternative blueprint for development (see Who Killed the Lion King?). I have never been in a country where I have felt such a kinship with what the Government was trying to do.
Eventually the film crew came out and we settled on a village called Sabtenga, in the south-east of the country, and on a woman called Zenabou Bambara. But I found myself peripheral to the filming process and instead took to wandering through the village in the company of a young woman who volunteered to act as my interpreter, Mariama Gamene. Those days of walking and talking utterly changed the way I viewed the world.
I was staggered by how much I had in common with the people I met. Here I was in one of the poorest villages in one of the poorest countries in the world, a village in which people did not have animals to help them work the land, forget about machines. They simply had to scrape at the bitter earth with their backs bent. Here I was in a place on the far side of a cultural as well as economic gulf - a society in which animism was the dominant religion, in which polygamy was the norm and in which girls almost without exception suffered genital mutilation. And yet across this widest of all gulfs I made a connection with people, a connection of common humanity transcending all borders, all difficulties and differences.
That I should have been surprised by such an instinctive and natural connection says a lot about the package of prejudices we carry with us. The goal of this issue is to leave you with the same feeling of connection. Of course there is a world of difference between reading about someone and actually sitting down to chat with them, between being told about your common kinship and actually sensing it for yourself. But short of sending you all to Sabtenga for a few weeks that's what we're going to have to do.
I could have chosen any village in Africa and found human stories, vivid personalities and lessons about how development works out on the ground. But I'm not sure I would have had the gall to turn up unannounced in a village I'd never visited before and expect it to reveal its innermost secrets: after all, anthropologists spend years living with people and still manage to get some things wrong.
No, I chose Sabtenga because I had a head start there - I felt I'd got halfway to understanding the way it worked before and would be able to build on that. But above all I wanted to return to see what had happened to the community and individual people within it like Zenabou and Mariama.
It's all too rare that journalists return to the stories they have once told or exploited - people are milked for their angle and then dropped back into limbo as if they have only lived for the moment in which the media blesses them with its magnanimous eye. That's inevitably true even of development journalists who are looking to tell the human stories behind the big statistics about the poor world.
For years I've had the idea of returning to this village that opened my eyes so dramatically, that had literally changed the whole way in which I viewed the world. This year the tenth anniversary of my first visit seemed to tip the project over the brink into plausibility. I sent word to the village that I was coming, giving at least a bit of warning. But I had no idea what had happened in the intervening years - my early attempts at correspondence had soon petered out.
What would I find? Would the village be utterly unchanged, barely rippled by the raging tides of world events? Or would the Revolution that I witnessed in action there, that inspired me so, have survived the murder of its leader? Would Mariama have managed to maintain her courageous lone stand against genital mutilation? Would the earth look even more degraded and the trees have completely disappeared? Above all, would the people I remembered still be alive?
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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