Through the doorway I can see her arriving before she sees me. She looks uncharacteristically anxious, though probably no more than I do. As she approaches and we greet each other, we are both inevitably assessing the damage that 10 years have done to our faces. There is no doubt which of us is showing more signs of age – and it is not Mariama. How can this be? She is now 48, which is no insignificant age, being the average life expectancy in Burkina Faso at present. She lives in a subsistence farming community in one of the world’s poorest countries, she has had to do more physical work than I have ever done in my life, she has borne and brought up eight children – how is it possible for her still to look so good?
To be perfectly honest, this story begins and ends with Mariama. Without her, I would have had no story to tell.
It was 1985 and I was what the Superman comics used to call a ‘cub reporter’, still learning my trade as the New Internationalist’s latest editorial recruit. With the hubris of youth, when asked to locate a woman farmer whose story we could tell in a film about African hunger – eventually broadcast on TV as Man-Made Famine – I chose to seek her out in Burkina Faso, which was then in the throes of a febrile but highly promising revolution.
When the film crew flew out to join me, we eventually found ourselves in the village of Sabtenga, in the southeastern region of the country near the border with Ghana.
It was a grim time for the village. The rains were two months late and still showed no sign of arriving. Twice people had sown seeds as the sky darkened, only to see them shrivel beneath the unrelenting sun as the clouds withheld their bounty.
Conditions in the village were about as far removed from those in the West as I could have imagined. People did not even have draught animals to help them work the land, but bent double to scrape at the baked earth with a hand-hoe, or daba. They made their huts out of mud and straw, grouping them in circular compounds. Most families were polygamous. Women bore the brunt of the hard labour, carrying vast weights of wood, water and other materials on their heads for hours at a time. Contraception was a distant rumour, something only practised in the capital, while all young girls suffered genital mutilation.
Once the filming had started, focusing on the story of a young woman named Zenabou Bambara, I found myself rather redundant and took to wandering around other parts of the village in the company of Mariama Gamené, one of the very few people who could speak French.
The weeks I spent there completely changed my view of the world. I was, of course, already committed to campaigning for a fairer deal for the ‘Third World’ – I had been deeply shocked by my first encounters with brutal poverty in India and had in a sense been propelled by them to the door of the NI three or four years later.
But the people of Sabtenga taught me a different lesson. They plainly lived on the opposite side of as great an economic and cultural divide as there had ever been and yet something quite simple and quite amazing happened – I made friends.
Why was I so surprised? Well, when it came down to it, I guess I carried around with me pretty much the same bundle of prejudices and preconceptions as everyone else in the West. Even when I got past the colonial legacy that presented Africans as ‘primitive’, there was the problem of Africa’s modern image to contend with. We see Africa through the eyes of the mainstream media and the only real-life dramas that make it into prime time are those of famine and feuding, conflict and catastrophe.
In Sabtenga I finally understood that all over Africa there are villages composed of people who are really just like us, with the same kinds of aspirations for themselves and their families, the same sorts of hopes and dreams. The sense of common humanity and affectionate kinship trumps the cultural differences every time.
When I returned to the village in 1995 it was with this in mind – to make readers feel the same way as I did. I wanted to show them an African village, not as some anthropological study of difference or as an object of charitable sympathy, but instead as a real community with its own characters and internal conflicts, its everyday dramas and ineluctable tragedies. The magazine that emerged – Heart and Soul – also portrayed, however, a community in the grip of change, with collective life improving in ways that I could not have expected. As I returned for the second time in October 2005, I hoped against hope that I would find life was still improving – and, above all, that the people I knew best would still be alive.
When I first met Mariama she was 28. Not allowed by her Muslim parents to marry her first love, a police officer in the town of Garango who offended them by his committed atheism, she had, at the normal marriageable age of 17, settled for the next best option – becoming the second wife of a 30-year-old man called Issa Moné. At first this entailed the excitement of living in the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan, where her first child was born. But the death of Issa’s father soon forced the family to return to his home village of Sabtenga and to take up the reins of a life based on subsistence farming – too early, unfortunately, for them to have saved the kind of nest-egg that would have sustained them in the tougher years to come.
She already had four children by the time we met – and told me clearly that she did not want any more. She had more than enough good reasons for wanting to avoid further pregnancies. She had recently, for example, been elected as the only female representative on the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – effectively a new tier of local government by which revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara hoped to sweep away the old negative traditions. And there was a chance this might lead to her being paid to study on a residential course in the regional centre of Tenkodogo. But, more than anything else, she was aware of the drain that young children exert upon a mother and was unsure she could face a further dose.
By 1995 she had borne a further three children, and the latest of them, two-year-old Rasinatu, was constantly besieging her for attention. She talked ruefully about Issa’s insistence that having more children was a good thing for a subsistence farmer, providing more help in the fields and more insurance for old age (the traditional peasant view). She had eventually persuaded him that another mouth to feed would be a drain on the family – but in any case reliable contraception had only arrived in the village the year before. This time around I arrive assuming that Rasinatu, born the same year as my own youngest child, Holly, will still be Mariama’s youngest – none of her letters to me over the intervening years had got through, and I’d given up trying to keep in touch in the face of the apparent silence.
To be perfectly honest, this story begins and ends with Mariama. Without her, I would have had no story to tell
‘I’ve had another daughter – Zahara.’ She watches for my reaction, an amused twinkle about her eyes, remembering my horror 10 years ago at her having had to cope with seven children.
Zahara arrived not out of peasant policy but as a result of simple contraceptive failure such as can afflict us all. Mariama has been persuaded by it to adopt even more radical measures – Norplant implants in her arm that should provide protection for up to five years. I’m not sure at the time whether to be pleased about this, dimly remembering debates about long-term contraceptive methods with dodgy side-effects being foisted on African women. But I say nothing – and it’s good that I do, since the major worries that I recalled from the 1980s about the injectable contraceptive Depo-provera, which other women in the village are now using every three months, seem largely to have dissipated now. There are potential drawbacks and side-effects with all forms of contraception but Norplant does seem to be a sensible option for Mariama.
Zahara is now three and at more or less the same stage as Rasinatu was all those years ago – not least in being alternately horrified and fascinated by the sight of my strange white mug. She shows every sign of being able to milk her position as baby of the family for all its worth and adamantly refuses to co-operate with my attempts to photograph her with her mother, turning her back on the camera (as you can see below).
By now we are in Mariama’s concession. This French word designates the family compounds that house people here, which are a little like micro-villages in themselves. A circular or oval mud wall on the outside is broken up by individual houses, while within the compound are other houses, granaries, kitchen areas and animal huts, each separated by internal walls and creating an immensely complex warren of passageways. It’s a fascinating physical embodiment of the extended family – albeit vastly complicated by polygamy.
Twenty years ago the huts within Mariama’s concession, like the others in the village, were all small and rounded, with circular thatched roofs. The effect was fantastically photogenic, in much the same way as thatched roofs still make old English villages look quaint and picturesque. But by 1995 changes were afoot: villagers who could afford it were replacing these huts with much bigger rectangular, two-room mud-brick houses and corrugated-iron roofs.
‘We chose to risk new paths to achieve greater happiness... To liberate the countryside from feudal paralysis or regression; to democratize our society and open our minds to a universe of collective responsibility in order to dare to invent the future.’ - Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s President from 1983 until his assassination in 1987..
It wasn’t only the photographer in me that rued this change – I knew how much hotter a corrugated-iron roof would make the houses in the unrelenting climate of the Sahel. But the villagers saw other practical advantages – they knew the new roofs would give them much better protection against the rains and would last 15 years instead of just 2. And who could deny the benefit of the extra space and solidity? Mariama told me that she had vivid dreams about what it would be like to live in such a house, and aimed to put all the money she earned through working as my interpreter towards making it a reality. Her husband Issa drew me aside quietly towards the end of my 1995 visit and said, touchingly: ‘I would be very happy if you could help my wife build her dream home – she really does deserve it.’
Now, not only does Mariama have her two-room house but so too do most of the other adults in the concession. Even more than in 1995, living in a traditional thatched hut has become an emblem of poverty.
Poverty is, in this case, even more relative than it is usually. The number of rectangular houses in her concession give solid material testimony to the fact that Mariama’s family are better off than some. On the other hand, they have fallen well behind many others, including the other main family whose fortunes the magazine has monitored: that of Zenabou and Adama. For more than a decade Adama has had the benefit of oxen to help him plough the fields and cultivate a larger area, while Issa and his co-wives still struggle on unaided.
This turns out to be the equivalent this time around of the dream home in 1995 – Mariama thinks she will put the money she earns from me towards buying two oxen. These will not only mean they can cultivate more land with basic food crops such as millet and rice but probably also sow more areas with crops that can generate cash for the family.
Money, in Sabtenga, is largely something sent from a distance rather than earned on the spot. Just as Issa and Mariama suffered through not having earned enough in Côte d’Ivoire before they returned to subsistence agriculture, so most families depend on remittances in one form or another from relatives in the capital Ouagadougou, in Abidjan, Lomé or Accra. The French once treated this country as little more than a labour pool for the plantations of the more fertile territories to the south and that colonial legacy lives on to this day.
Poverty may be relative within the village but in international terms almost all the villagers here are in the grip of absolute poverty – very few would have access to the dollar a day routinely cited as a threshold indicator by the World Bank and the UN.
And compared to most of us in the rich world, the lack of material comfort and disposable income in the lives of people like Mariama and Issa is nothing short of obscene.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7