New Internationalist

Lending A Hand

Issue 268
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photo by CHRIS BRAZIER photo by CHRIS BRAZIER [image, unknown]

Lending a hand
This is all very well but how can I help?

That may well be the question on your lips as you emerge from this issue of the magazine. Part of the answer lies with the reasons I gave for embarking on this journey: those of us who know that Africa is much more than a continent waiting for the next disaster must spread that word in every area of society. Our media and politicians are only able to assume that the kind of people you have met in this issue do not matter because we the public give our collective consent to such an assumption.     

I know changing this seems a long shot. So too does exerting any influence on institutions like the World Bank and the IMF which continue to grind Africa down in our name. But fortunately there is an intermediate stage which helps to make the gulf between African villagers and sympathetic Westerners a touch smaller.

By supporting the most progressive charities with argument as well as money we can contribute to a different, fairer agenda – while at the same time directly helping those villagers who take collective action to change their conditions.

I witness this connection being made in a local women’s group. The words ‘women’s group’ do not connote the same as they do in the West. The first time I attend one of their meetings I am frustrated to find myself perched on a chair in front of a crescent of 30 or so women sitting on the floor. But I cannot object without being impolite, since Yacouba the Delegate and the male secretary of the group (who volunteers his time because none of the women are literate) are also on chairs by my side.

These women band together in their free time for very practical reasons. The work they do together is useful and helps supplement the family income – they have started cultivating peanuts in their own field and are working towards buying an ox. But another good reason to form a groupement villageois is that it can unlock the door to financial help from outside.

The meeting today, for instance, is debating what to do with a loan from the French agency Afrique Verte – 500,000 francs ($1,000) to be repaid with ten-per-cent interest within ten months, the kind of credit they could never get from a bank. If it were earlier in the season they could buy grain and sell later at a profit. But prices have already soared to what they think will be the ceiling – red sorghum, for instance, has tripled its price in the last three months. So they opt to loan out the money to the members.

I wonder if this is throwing the burden back on individuals rather than shouldering it collectively but there seems to be general agreement that this is the best thing to do. The main organizers of the group are the boldest when it comes to deciding on the size of their loan – Alisieta, the chair (wearing the pink-and-white headdress in the photo), takes 20,000 francs ($40) and so do her lieutenants, but the majority are more cautious, taking only 5,000 or 10,000.

Zenabou is among the few who borrow 20,000 and, as we walk home together, she tells me she knows exactly what she is going to do with it. She is going to travel to Ouagadougou to sell sumballa in the Great Market every day for a fortnight. Every three days she cooks up these balls of food – which people buy to use as the basis of the sauce for their evening meal – and walks the four kilometres to Garango to sell them in the market. But she feels she’ll be able to sell much more in the capital.

Over the other side of Sabtenga I meet a much more long-established mixed-sex collective which last year won 150,000 francs for being the sixth best groupement villageois in the country and received the prize from President Compaoré himself.

These examples of communal action are still in the vanguard, set apart from the normal operation of village life. But the groups are growing in size and quantity all the time, and the more they are seen to be effective the more people will get involved. One of the brightest hopes on Sabtenga’s horizon has arisen out of this collective action: a new local organization is being launched in Garango called Association Dakupa, which will work with groupements from 25 villages in the area to address their key development needs.

This new organization is part of a worldwide movement – the last five years have seen an explosion of indigenous development groups in the Third World. At first there were only big national agencies such as BRAC in Bangladesh or REST in Tigray – and these received eager support from the best Western charities. But particularly since the Earth Summit there has been a proliferation of smaller, more diverse organizations which are closer to the grassroots. These new organizations are making civil society and democracy more vibrant and resilient wherever they appear.

I have high hopes for Association Dakupa. It is being set up by a Bissa man called Yacouba Zeba who was born and bred in Garango but who has worked with Oxfam UK in Ouagadougou and thus knows the aid business from both ends. Oxfam has provided him with a start-up grant.

I hope this initiative can help make a big difference to the lives of Sabtenga’s villagers in the next ten years. And I hope that more and more people here will be able to protect themselves by working collectively as they and their country make their way ever deeper into this modernized, market-led, money-mad world.

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