Once a writer for the rock music weekly Melody Maker (1977-80), Chris Brazier has been a co-editor of New Internationalist magazine since 1984. He has covered myriad subjects from masculinity to maternal mortality, Panafricanism to the paranormal, and has edited country issues on South Africa, Burkina Faso, Western Sahara, Bangladesh, Iran, China and Vietnam. He edits the country profile section of the magazine as well as its puzzle page. Since 2010 he has focused primarily on commissioning and editing New Internationalist’s books and other publications. He has also written regularly for UNICEF’s annual The State of the World’s Children report since 1997.

Chris is the author of Vietnam: The Price of Peace (Oxfam, 1992), The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (2001, 2006 & 2010) and Trigger Issues: Football (2007). He also compiled the New Internationalist anthologies Raging Against the Machine (2003) and Brief Histories of Almost Anything (2008).


Once a writer for the rock music weekly Melody Maker (1977-80), Chris Brazier has been a co-editor of New Internationalist magazine since 1984. He has covered myriad subjects from masculinity to maternal mortality, Panafricanism to the paranormal, and has edited country issues on South Africa, Burkina Faso, Western Sahara, Bangladesh, Iran, China and Vietnam. He edits the country profile section of the magazine as well as its puzzle page. Since 2010 he has focused primarily on commissioning and editing New Internationalist’s books and other publications. He has also written regularly for UNICEF’s annual The State of the World’s Children report since 1997.

Chris is the author of Vietnam: The Price of Peace (Oxfam, 1992), The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (2001, 2006 & 2010) and Trigger Issues: Football (2007). He also compiled the New Internationalist anthologies Raging Against the Machine (2003) and Brief Histories of Almost Anything (2008).

Contributor Image: 

The earth just moved…


After the election, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, arrives at the Labour Party's Headquarters in London on 9 June 2017 © REUTERS/Marko Djurica

In the wake of the election results, Chris Brazier reflects on a momentous night in British politics.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the London School of Economics as Danny Dorling launched his book The Equality Effect, on which I have been working with him over the past few months. He gave a stunning presentation of the evidence that the more equal countries are, the better, healthier and happier they are in every way. But he was also relentlessly optimistic, trying to persuade the audience that the tide is already starting to turn.

He pointed to the way progressive people tend to focus on the bad news rather than to celebrate and draw sustenance from positive developments, from the electoral defeat of far-right figures in Austria, France and the Netherlands to the near-unanimity of the key international organizations that inequality has to be turned back.

Like many in the audience, I was much easier to persuade about the benefits of greater equality than about the grounds for optimism. I am all too conscious that – after a lifetime spent campaigning through my journalism for greater equality and social justice – I have seen things in my own country, Britain, become more socially unequal with every passing year since the 1970s.

But after an election night such as we have just experienced, Danny looks rather like a prophet. As in many recent polls, the mainstream press and the commentariat read this election completely wrong – and really can no longer be trusted.

From the moment Jeremy Corbyn first became leader of the Labour Party – to his own and everyone else’s great surprise – he was ridiculed and vilified not just by the rightwing media but also by the vast majority of commentators on progressive newspapers and, indeed, on the BBC. Commentators on The Guardian and The Observer seemingly failed to realize that they were part of the problem, with their everyday dismissal of Corbyn as ‘unelectable’ apparently functioning as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The damning ‘unelectable’ tag survived despite the influx of hundreds of thousands of new Labour Party members, many of them from a new generation of activists, and Corbyn’s resounding victory in a second leadership campaign.

The routine assumption was effectively Blairite – that the Labour Party’s only path to power was via playing it safe and tacking to the centre, buttering up the financial markets and the Tory media moguls rather than tackling the problem of inequality head-on. And the opinion polls seemed to bear this out, with damagingly low approval ratings for Corbyn leading the majority of Labour MPs to fear for their own seats.

Yet last night has proved all of those commentators wrong – and the political ground may just have shifted generationally, with young people inspired by the idea of greater public ownership, a more caring society and renewed investment in our common resources. The more the public was exposed on television to Corbyn and the Labour manifesto, the more it became evident that they were responding positively and, as people made up their own minds rather than just reflected back what they were told, the polls started to shift.

The election result is not immediately transformational given that the Conservatives are still the largest party and will presumably still try to form a government by relying on the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland. But the extreme rightwing version of Brexit that was to be negotiated by dyed-in-the-wool xenophobes such as David Davis and Liam Fox is now surely dead in the water. So too are the austerity policies that have been pursued with such relish over the past seven years.

Arguably the most heartening thing of all, though, is the sense of the young turning out in unprecedentedly large numbers to vote for a new conception of politics and a more inclusive, nourishing vision of society. This could be the start of something big.

Martin McGuinness: the day he set sail for peace


Then Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness speaks to reporters at a news conference 26 February 1998. © REUTERS/Paul Hackett/File Photo

Chris Brazier recalls an encounter with the Sinn Fein leader in the days when his voice was still banned from being broadcast in the UK.

It was March 1994 when I met Martin McGuinness for the one and only time. I was researching a theme issue of New Internationalist on Northern Ireland (The Fire and the Future) and was basing myself in McGuinness’s historic stamping ground of Derry, where he came to prominence as the IRA’s local commander in 1971 at the age of just 21.

We met in Sinn Fein’s Derry office – a bog-standard terraced house in the Bogside, the décor of which I described as early 1970s student squat, with ageing posters commemorating the Easter Rising and Malcolm X. McGuinness made it clear that he had agreed to an interview not because of the credibility or reach of New Internationalist but rather thanks to the esteem in which he held the local playwright Dave Duggan, who was working with me on the magazine and had opened doors for me on both sides of the unionist/republican divide.

A flag flies at half-mast after the death of Martin McGuinness, on Freedom Corner in Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

It was a strange, limbo period in Northern Irish politics. The day before the interview, the IRA had launched a mortar attack on London’s Heathrow airport for the third time in five days. This sequence of mortar attacks proved two things: first, that the IRA could still cause mayhem in mainland Britain almost any time it wanted; and second, that it was serious about the incipient peace process, given that the mortars deployed were deliberate duds.

That peace process had been formally initiated by the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 by the British and Irish leaders but had been presaged by approaches from the British government to republicans earlier that year aimed at bringing them to the negotiating table.

McGuinness told me: ‘On the basis of these discussions we decided to ask the IRA in the early part of last year if they would be prepared to create the conditions in which such talks could take place – because we understood that the British prime minister would have trouble defending the talks on the floor of the House of Commons if armed conflict was taking place outside. The IRA agreed to suspend their activities for several weeks to facilitate this. But when the British government were told about this they ran away from their own proposals for talks.’

The reason for this was plain enough: the change of heart came because John Major’s government desperately needed Ulster Unionist votes to get the Maastricht Treaty on European Union through Parliament. But it still placed McGuinness and his fellow advocates of a peace process within the republican movement in an odd position. I was more than aware as I recorded him talking that his voice was still banned from being broadcast within the UK.

Sinn Feinn Leader Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Feinn President Gerry Adams carry the coffin of Martin McGuinness through the streets of Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Looking back on the interview, ostensibly with a former IRA chief of staff of rather forbidding reputation, there were plenty of foreshadows of the avuncular peace advocate and compromising deputy prime minister he was later to become. I was particularly struck at the time by the extent to which his conversation was peppered with words like ‘flexible’, ‘realistic’ and ‘open-minded’ – not exactly words with which he would then have been readily associated.

But what I found even more striking than McGuinness’s constant talk about ‘peace’ – the word itself was easy enough to repeat, after all – was the way he returned again and again to unionists’ feelings and how these might be accommodated. As I said at the time: ‘This is not the battling underdog lashing out at the unionist oppressor that I would have encountered in 1971 or even 1981; and maybe it is a sign that the tide in Northern Ireland has genuinely turned. The closer we get to a proper settlement, the more republicans like Martin McGuinness are starting to think about how they are going to live with and alongside unionists rather than how to fight back against them.’

If I had gone on to predict that this readiness to co-exist with and accommodate unionists would ultimately result in McGuinness forming a personal friendship and close working relationship with the Reverend Ian Paisley, I would, of course, have been laughed out of court. Yet these early signals he was sending out, four long years before the Good Friday Agreement that set Northern Ireland firmly on a new and peaceful road, were entirely consistent with that future.

The Irish flag flies at half-mast after the death of Martin McGuinness, in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, 21 March 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

‘We have to find some way,’ he said, ‘whereby those 900,000 people who believe that their loyalty lies with the British state can be accommodated. That is a major area of work that republicans have to get involved in.’

It is a major area of work to which Martin McGuinness then dedicated himself over the succeeding two decades; more remarkably still, he managed to carry the vast bulk of the republican movement with him as he did so.

It will not only be republicans who will mourn his loss as Ireland wrestles with the worrying implications of Brexit for the border between north and south.

Before you go...

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we are launching an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

Sabtenga: modernization knocks on the gates of tradition


The Chief with his traditional bonnet (2016). by Chris Brazier

You became Chief three years ago…

June 2012.

How did that happen? I don’t understand the succession of chiefs. 60 years ago or so Belingogo was part of this concession but his sons were in Ghana so it passed to another family. Normally it passes from father to son. The Chief that I met here 11 and 21 years ago was from that family then?

No. There was another in between.

He was from another ethnic group. He was Mossi whereas we are Bissa.

Yes, it’s necessary but there was an incident. When Belingogo was alive he was naughty like all the chiefs in the old days (laughs riotously). Therefore, after he died, it wasn’t allowed for someone from his concession to assume the position of chief. So they went to see the Mossi in Tenkodogo [to the regional authorities] in order that they could send a chief.

But why not someone in the village?

Because it was the Big Chief in Tenkodogo who gave the bonnet. And he appointed a Mossi. But he also was naughty with the Big Chief in Tenkodogo so they appointed a soldier who then died in the Second World War. They replaced him with a Bissa but he was naughty too so the people chased him out.

Wow, this is a story!

So they sent a Mossi again.

And was it then him that I met?

It was his son that you met. His grandmother was actually a Moné [the most common name in the village by far]. But he had the bonnet just for the form. When there were judgments to make, when there was something to do, he called for a Bissa, for a Moné. In doing that he was actually wise.

But I thought he did play a positive part in one respect – in helping the campaign against Female Genital Mutilation…

No, he was just relaying what he was told by the authorities in Tenkodogo. That came about through raising awareness nationally – government and NGOs playing a key part – but also, as you point out, through the strong example given by some local women. So, no, I don’t think he should be allowed any credit for that.

Now, being Chief is supposed to about guarding the traditions. But with literacy and migration, people have their eyes a bit open and they are more and more independent. They decided that it was important for someone actually from the village to be Chief instead of them coming from the other side. And everybody thought that – they were unanimous.

And the Great Chief in Tenkodogo agreed to that?

No, he refused. When he refused people forced the issue by naming one of their own but he nominated his own brother as Chief. So that makes two chiefs in the village. But no one goes to him over there. The Conseil des Sages [Council of Wise Elders] found it difficult to find a suitable local candidate, however. So they came to Ouagadougou to ask me.

So there wasn’t exactly an election…

No, this has nothing to do with elections…

But there was a unanimity…

The succession of Chiefs is by filial descent or else by unanimity – in the case where the Chief has no son, for example. But it’s the wise elders who direct matters.

And when they came to you to ask you, what did you think of that at that moment?

My first reaction was that I found it a ridiculous idea – me wearing the bonnet! – and I said I didn’t want to do that.

Plus you as guardian of the traditions when you are in Ouaga living a very modern life.

For sure. Also I am a Catholic and there are things that I don’t believe in – such as you have seen going on over there [the animist ceremony involving animal sacrifice that we had witnessed two days earlier]. But since there were so many people asking me I was obliged to accept in the end.

The ceremony is an essential part of the role of the Chief [none of the Mossi chiefs ever attended].

Exactly. It’s the very role of the Chief as guardian of the traditions. And you saw that I wasn’t the only Catholic there by any means – the man who was cutting the throats of the animals was himself a Christian, a Catholic. You have to bear in mind that the main religions, whether Christianity or Islam, came from elsewhere. And at the same time as they were telling us how to pray, they were teaching us their way of life – and that’s what the people refused.

So it seemed bizarre at first but you accepted immediately or it took you a while?

No, I refused at first but when they insisted I said I had to reflect. At that point they said, look, don’t worry about it, we want you to have the bonnet but you can still live in Ouaga while coming for the key times and we will handle everything in your absence. And that’s how it has operated for the past three years.

There are the special occasions such as you witnessed the day before yesterday. Then Eid ul-Adha – the Muslim festival remembering the Sacrifice of Abraham [Ibrahim]. I have to come here for that – on the 11 September this year. And there is a third event when it is obligatory for me to be here – when I have to meet the other chiefs of the region. Plus, if the young people or the women have something to do for which they want the Chief to be present, they can ask for me to be here. I will come and they will have their meeting around me.

So we’re pretty lucky to be here exactly at the time of one of those special occasions – it’s almost like it was planned that way… I presume you accepted the role of Chief not to continue the old traditions but to have influence, to develop the village and the life of its people.

Exactly. That’s what I was coming to. We have formed the Association de Resortissants de Sabtenga at Ouagadougou, in Italy, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Gabon, in France, in England – everywhere. If there is someone from Sabtenga who is, for example, in the United States, he is au courant with the Association, with the economic and cultural development of the village. The seat of the Association is in Ouaga because we are numerous there.

And did this come about only after you became Chief?

No, before that. So it was this Association that told me to accept the offer to become Chief so that they could have a correspondence here – when I come to the village, I see what there is to do then I contact them and communicate with them to say, and then we think about how best to deal with the problem.

It’s by that means that we brought about the college [the new secondary school in the village]. It was necessary for me to be here to choose the best location in order that everybody was happy with that. So I assumed the role of interface between the village and the Association. We have monthly meetings at which we debate the problems and if it’s necessary to communicate with people in other countries we send out mail or email. We have the telephone too.

Always important to harness the money and the force of the Diaspora for the development of the village…

Exactly that. That’s what we were after. Even if it’s not only money – you have the things you are throwing away, tractors, or cars so we could have an ambulance to take sick people to Tenkodogo. Everything you throw away. Beds for the sick and wheelchairs – we have given those to the health centre. Now we are seeking the ambulance. The Association has made its programme of work with the people responsible. We have a five-year plan that prioritizes the economy, culture and society. After that we’ll do a stocktake and see where we need to go from there.

When did you start applying for funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

The Muslim countries – like France, the US and China – want to have a certain influence in Africa. They want more Muslims. They also want our wealth so it’s necessary for them to start by flattering us. So they go to the government and ask what they need and they say we need water, we need you to give money to make new dams. We need schools and they say okay, but they have to be bilingual schools – French and Arabic. Or we get their help to build new roads. That’s always how it is.

I read about Kaboré [Jean Marc Christian Kaboré, the president of Burkina Faso] visiting the Saudis and saying Burkinabè troops would help them in their war on Yemen. That would be a seriously bad idea…

Rest easy. We haven’t got many soldiers and we need them against the jihadists plus we have to send them on UN peacekeeping missions – how would we have enough to send them to Yemen? There won’t be any. That’s just buttering them up, a question of form, saying we’re friends.

But in addition to that government-to-government aid, there are also these applications to Saudi and Qatari funds that you have shown me.

Yes, but that’s not the Association. The Association does the planning and decides what is needed but it is then up to us to seek the money that will help the village no matter where. I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!

The Association is really a person resource. If we’re talking about education, it has teachers. If it is health we have doctors and pharmacists. We also have politicians who can provide connections with the relevant Ministry in order to ask them for information as to whether things are possible. That’s how we brought about the college [the new secondary school], the new road and the electricity. The road came about through someone who had contacts in the government while the electricity was pursued by someone in Saudi Arabia and came from the Saudi village electrification programme. I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!’

How did the new road come about?

The main road that you used to take over the dam when you were living in the Villettes’ hut at Bidiga is impassable when there is water, as now. We wanted to make a straighter road with a much bigger bridge to facilitate villagers’ access to the paved road between Garango and Tenkodogo but that turned out to be too expensive so we went for a cheaper option that has still improved access. We have built our own bridge by hand, with the Association paying people for their work, buying the cement and so on. In former times it was impossible for trucks to get through to Sabtenga but now it is possible.

But of course maintaining the road is another thing – I’ve seen how the marigaux [seasonal rivers] have broken it down in places this season…

Of course we will need to do more work in renovating the road when the rains are over…

As for the electrification… You said this was a Saudi project. Has this reached every part of the village?

No. For the moment the electricity lines are in place but there aren’t enough meters to monitor the supply. We have requested more and when these arrive we should be able to supply all those homes that want electricity – and even extend the supply to other villages.

So the infrastructure for the electricity – the poles, the cables etc – has been supplied by this Saudi village electrification programme. But the electricity itself comes from the Burkinabe national grid?

Yes – effectively from the huge hydroelectric dam at Bagré, which is not that far from here.

In an environment like this, however, it seems to me that solar power has to be the way forward.

Well, I have it here, you see [he shows me the solar panel on his roof, which was installed by his son, who works in this field in the capital]. This feeds in to a battery. As for the wider application of solar power, in a way that depends on you [meaning the wider world] – those who make the solar panels in France, Germany.

China too. The cost of solar panels has come down a lot.

Yes, but not enough to make them viable here. The State is currently working on developing its solar-power capacity and the plan is to save power by using solar-generated electricity for street lighting at least. But there’s no way we could go it alone here.

Do you think the advent of electricity is going to change peasant life in fundamental ways?

Yes. You can compare it with the development of the steam engine in Britain, which did so much to give you your power and wealth in the world. Here we could use electricity to power pumps to bring up water and to irrigate farmland - and that could change everything.

Provided there is enough water…

[He laughs] Certainly, and maybe while we’re searching for water we’ll find oil! [laughs again]

And on that subject, why is it that you need new water pumps? Is it because the water table is sinking and you need to go much deeper to gain a secure supply all year round?

In the old days, if you dug a well to a depth of three or four metres there would be water. So then there was no problem apart from the dirtiness of that water – it wasn’t pure enough. But now the water table is much deeper – if you sink a well to a depth of eight metres, you might have water until the end of January and maybe a little in February but not enough to see you through to June. We need to go much deeper now.

The secondary school. When you were small, you had to walk to Garango to go to primary school. More recently we’ve had a primary school in the village but children have still had to go to Garango for secondary schooling. But now you have built a secondary school in Sabtenga.

Yes, it’s been open two years – the third year group will join in September. When I was a child people here didn’t really want their children to go to school – they wanted them to look after their goats and cows or do other kinds of work; anything but school. But my family was in Ghana where school was obligatory, and that’s how I started my education.

Now we have a primary school here but children had to go to Garango to continue into secondary school. And the numbers wanting to continue their education were growing – there weren’t enough places in Garango to accommodate them. So we decided we needed to build a secondary school here.

It’s fantastic that the village now has its own secondary school. But it is still a problem for subsistence farmers to find enough money to pay for all their children to go on to secondary school. And that applies in particular to the girls in the family. Again and again going around the village I hear people say when it comes to paying for girls’ schooling, ‘il n’y a pas les moyens’ (we don’t have the wherewithal). Yet it is really just a question of priorities – and girls’ schooling isn’t given enough priority. Only yesterday Rasinatu [whom the Chief knows well, as she came from his concession] was complaining that she was unable to stay in school for that reason.

It doesn’t take much to have sufficient means. If you have chickens that you keep in good condition and vaccinate, you can sell them. If you raise goats or cows for sale, that can pay children’s school fees.

But anyway, with the secondary school being here in the village, that reduces the expense. If it had been here when Rasinatu was the right age, it would have been much easier for her to attend and would have cost less. She could have come home for lunch and then returned for classes. And besides, the costs are not great – it’s not like the private colleges. In our family in Ouaga we are looking after a boy from here who worked very hard at school and passed his bac. He’s going to live with us and go to university and we’re going to help him. I have two university students in my house at the moment who come from the village.

It’s a big responsibility being Chief. But in a way for you as someone who loves this village and wants it to prosper, there has always been that sense of responsibility, hasn’t there?

Yes, that’s true. I’ve always kept in close touch and visited often. And whenever there was a problem – François. [Laughs]. So I am a man of the people.

And they always talked about you. They were always proud of your achievements in life. So do you think there is a problem with the life of subsistence farming in the village? Mariama’s sons, for example, have all left, not wanting to take on the family farm. Can life here continue when so many of the young men leave?

They have been to school and there is nothing for them here. They have to eat and so they seek to earn a living elsewhere. Again, this is why we are trying to develop animal-husbandry projects, so that there is more to life in the village than growing food crops for subsistence.

So your idea is that if you develop these animal-husbandry projects, it will earn people that bit more money that will make life in the village just that bit more comfortable and appealing…

Plus, if every family has a cow, then everyone in the family can have milk. And that’s good for their health. If you raise goats and cows and sell them, you will be able to dress better – you will be able to afford that Chinese motorbike! [Laughs] And, more important still, you’ll be able to look after yourself if you fall ill.

You talked the other day about this idea of encouraging people in the village to drink more milk and eat more eggs. Is there any resistance to that idea?

No, there is no resistance. People like drinking [goat’s] milk in their coffee, for example, they like making yoghurt with it.

And how about eggs?

People are used to eating guinea-fowl eggs – there are a lot of these around in the rainy season. And we are just starting with hens but of course African hens never lay eggs.


Never. Plus that chick over there born yesterday will take a year to be big enough to be eaten – they grow very slowly. We call them ‘poulet bicyclette’ [he laughs]. But we are now starting to use hens from France that lay eggs every day.

So at least we’ve found one thing for which Burkina can be grateful to France! That could change things for local people then, to have poultry that are more productive…

Yes indeed, and especially if we can interbreed them with African chickens to make them more productive too. The importing of these French chickens was started by functionaries in Ouagadougou and hasn’t spread far beyond here. But in the village we do have one man who came back from Italy and is now running an egg business based on French hens. [Issaka, whom I was to meet later.]

So when we buy eggs on the streets of Garango, they come from these Western chickens rather than African ones?

Actually, they probably come from Sabtenga, from the business of the man I was talking about.

Sanitation. On my last visit there were latrines at the health centre and the school but none for the concessions. Now such latrines have been installed – for every concession?

They ought to have been, but no – just for the bigger ones. Association Dakupa’s programme tried to install a latrine for every concession but many of them have already been ruined because there were no trucks for clearing them out. Some new latrines have been installed that are better. We don’t put water down them but rather ash and ultimately use this as manure in the fields.

After a suitable interval when it becomes safe?

That’s it. And we use urine right away, which is good for plants. There’s one close to here – come and see.

[Excursion to functioning latrine]

Did you say there was a 50-50 commitment between the State and local people who want to install one of these new latrines?

Yes, we have to supply half. We can supply the work, and the water, and the bricks but they need to supply the cement and the iron. People are not going to pay the government to do work because they will be worried about corruption but they can trust a direct relationship like that.

Can we turn to the position of women? When you showed us the list of officers responsible for the various areas of activity – health, education and so on – without exception all were male. Yet under Sankara’s revolution two women had to be on each CDR, and one had to be either the head or the deputy. That was a very forward-thinking idea. And in the village now there are many women who are very strong, who have good ideas – can’t they contribute their ideas and participate at this developmental level?

They can do it – and I especially want to work with women. But they are not sufficiently independent from men at the moment.

What about Mariama? She is like a force of nature – impossible to resist!

But even Mariama doesn’t have control – if Issa tells her to do something, she will do it. It’s always like that – it’s the husband who directs things. It’s that which is bad. If a woman wants to leave home to find work, he won’t agree to it. In addition there is the Islamic religion, which makes things difficult in this respect. We need to liberate men’s thinking.

Because normally in development circles if one sees a list of areas that need attention, one would expect to find there the position of women. Don’t you in your Association need to privilege this issue more?

Yes, we could do it, but it is anyway difficult. For example we have projects concerned with the raising of hens. We’re happy for women to work on this. But these are women without a husband, or whose husband is away. If she’s here living with her husband it’s more difficult.

But aren’t there young women who are educated, who have ambition to break out of this? At the health centre, for example, there are Mossi nurses who have been educated and work independently and with responsibility for good salaries. Can’t young Bissa girls from Sabtenga follow that example and aspire to such independence?

We have to get that into their heads, yes. Because education has rather failed in that regard. We have tried to get more girls in school and to some extent have done so. But then they simply get married.

But I wonder if all those girls who marry at 17 actually want that…

Yes, for sure, it’s them who want it, it’s them who want it.

On the question of polygyny or polygamy… Is this something that is diminishing or is it just as accepted?

It’s happening less. It’s not rare but it is happening less. A man might still take two wives but in the past he might have taken as many as ten. Two wives has become a more normal number.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

Journey's End

Mariama Gamené in 1985, aged 28.

Chris Brazier

There is a new road to Sabtenga and, remarkably, I am travelling along it – gingerly, and with no small danger to the life and limb of those around me – on a motor scooter. In a way the changes in my mode of transport have mirrored developments locally.

When I first came here, in 1985, I was part of a film crew with its hired four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying equipment and fording streams, though once in the village itself I went everywhere on foot. In 1995, on my first solo return, I walked everywhere, regularly covering the four kilometres to the town of Garango as well as considerable distances every day in my wanderings around the village, which sprawls over a wide area. In 2005 I based myself in Garango and travelled to and around the village on a bicycle that I bought in the market and then gave away at the end of my trip.

I had assumed I would be doing the same this time, but instead the excellent local NGO Association Dakupa, which has provided me with invaluable help on all my visits, has furnished me with motorized transport of my own.

A world apart

I spent my 30th birthday in Sabtenga in the summer of 1985. I was a relatively recent recruit to New Internationalist and, when given the task of finding a woman farmer who could tell her story to camera in our TV film Man-Made Famine, I opted, rather brashly, to seek her out in Burkina Faso, which was in the middle of a tumultuous revolution. When we found a suitable subject in Sabtenga, a village in the southeast near the border with Ghana and Togo, it was not through my own endeavours but through a contact of the director’s, and I was the least useful member of the team. So, instead of hanging around the often tedious filming process, I took to wandering around the village in the company of a young woman, Mariama Gamené, who had been elected as a female representative on the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution and who had learned enough French at school to be able to act as my interpreter and guide.

The great French photographer and filmmaker Claude Sauvageot shooting the compound of Adama and Zenabou in 1985, with director Christopher Sheppard looking on.

Claude Sauvageot

I soon realized that, through sheer good fortune, I had been given a remarkable opportunity, in human as well as journalistic terms. The village was about as far removed from life in the Western world as could be imagined. Its inhabitants lived by subsistence farming, coaxing what crops they could from the unyielding earth of the Sahel region. Most seemed not even to have animals to help them in the fields, but turned the earth over in backbreaking work with hand-hoes called dabas. Water had to be carried in large bowls on the head from wells that were often a long distance away. In most families the man, undisputed head of the household, would take more than one wife. The village had neither a school nor a health centre of its own.

In other words, this was a village that had experienced not a trace of the ‘development’ that was regularly discussed in our magazine or envisioned in the corridors of power at the United Nations or the World Bank.

Despite this immense distance from Western life, in terms of culture as much as wealth, I was staggered to discover how similar to people back home the inhabitants of Sabtenga seemed. For all that I was committed to notions of global justice and equality, I had to that point still been guilty deep down of lumping all Africans into a Pandora’s box marked ‘poverty, famine, conflict etc’. I understood now, in emotional rather than just intellectual terms, that every individual had their own unique story to tell, most of which would be to do with making ends meet, and drawing strength and sustenance from family and friends. As I was later to write: ‘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.’

Put more simply, across that vast material and cultural gulf, I felt able to make friends. Of course, Mariama was the key to that. She was amazingly generous with her time and remarkably open in talking to me about her own life and attitudes. Her own popularity and respected status opened all kinds of doors to me that would normally have been impenetrable for a visiting journalist.

My experience in Sabtenga in 1985 changed the way I looked at the world and informed everything I wrote over the next decade. But I still felt I had not made the most of this unique opportunity and so persuaded New Internationalist to send me back in 1995, to report on changes that had taken place in the life of the community over the course of another decade of ‘development’.

The razor’s end

It had proved impossible to keep in touch with the villagers by post, so I had no idea what I would find – or even whether the people I had come to know best would still be alive. Our stay there in 1985 had been at a difficult time, when the rains had failed to materialize and food stocks had dwindled to almost nothing, and any kind of calamity seemed possible, especially when reading about Burkina Faso’s generally dire poverty and health statistics. What is more, that hopeful egalitarian revolution had been strangled by the new, corrupt president, Blaise Compaoré, who had murdered his visionary former comrade Thomas Sankara in 1987 before setting out on a much more traditional, self-enriching course.

A Burkinabè poster campaigning against female genital mutilation (l’excision) in the mid-1990s.

Claude Sauvageot

Yet to my great pleasure, not only were my key contacts all alive and well but there were also many positive changes to report in development terms. There was now a school with three classrooms – offering only around half of the places needed but, nevertheless, a clear sign of progress. And the ‘clinic’, which had previously been an empty building with neither medicines nor staff, was now a fully functioning health centre with a nurse, and his wife as an assistant, which was particularly active in caring for mothers and babies.

Delivering many of those babies was Mariama herself, who was paid a very modest amount as a full-time assistant health worker, though untrained by anything but the experience she had gained on the job. She was now 38 and had seven children. She had told me 10 years earlier that she wanted no more than the four children she had at that point, conscious of the constant demands associated with parenting and feeling that she wanted to do more with her life. But her husband Issa had overruled her, subscribing to the traditional peasant notion that having more children would offer more help in the fields and more security in old age. Besides, reliable methods of contraception had not arrived from the capital until the early 1990s.

Mariama, pictured in 1985 with her first four children: Oumarou, Memnatu, Bubakar and Aseta.

Chris Brazier

The biggest and most hopeful story I had to report in 1995, however, also related directly to Mariama’s own life. Ten years before, I had discovered that she was the first and only mother in the village to take a stand against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and not allow her oldest daughter Memnatu to be cut as she herself had once been. I went back full of trepidation on this front. Would she have been forced to conform by her husband or the village authorities? Might one of the old ‘wise women’ have taken matters into her own hands and used the razor on Memnatu anyway?

What I found was truly remarkable. Not only were Memnatu and her sister Aseta still intact, but, through a combination of local pressure from women like Mariama and government messages about the disastrous health implications of FGM, the tide of opinion in the village had turned. The old, near-blind Chief told me how and why he had been converted to believing that FGM should be discontinued – and one of the old women who had herself been wielding the razor up to three years before told me that even she had come round to the new way of thinking.

I am back. What changes will I find in people’s lives this time around?

The 1995 magazine Heart and Soul: ten years of change in an African village was seen as successful enough that I was pushing at an open door when I suggested returning to write a further instalment 10 years later. And, while in 2005 the village was still very much a subsistence-farming community in which money could generally be earned only if it was sent home from abroad, there was plenty more progress to report, especially in terms of basic needs.

In 2005 a few mobile phones were already in use in the village, though their owners had to travel to newly electrified Garango to charge them. So my return in 2016 was not as much of a voyage in the dark as on previous occasions – I was able to text Mariama in advance to let her and others know that I was on my way and exactly when they could expect me to arrive.

Here and now

Not so easy rider, with baobab backdrop.

Pat Tope

All the same, I am on tenterhooks as to what I will find in the village as I make the perilous journey on the motor scooter across one of the marigaux (seasonal streams) that has broken the road down in this period of the rains. The brand-new road branching out from the tarmac highway – still a dirt track but flattened and impressively landscaped – peters out a couple of kilometres from the centre of Sabtenga and becomes a much more basic path, subsiding now and then into soft sand (see map opposite).

Having spent so much time in the village in past years, I would have expected to recognize key landmarks and buildings more easily. But every time I have come it has been a different season – from the driest point of the year in 1985 through to the wettest in 2016 – and that makes the landscape look very different. On the other hand, it may be just that my memory is becoming shaky and that my sense of direction is as terrible as ever. But, for whatever reason, I manage to sail right past the health centre without recognizing it before I realize that Ousmane, my old friend from the dispensary, is chasing after me to hail me down.

I am back. What changes will I find in people’s lives this time around?

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

Map of Sabtenga - and 30 years of change in Burkina Faso

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga’s people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

Great Expectations

Oumarou's family

A newly prosperous family: Oumarou (centre) with his wife Bintu and (from left to right) Kadijamila, Abdul Gani Rayan, Muhammad and (in his grandmother’s arms) Issa Arif. Oumarou’s younger brother Ousmane is on the left. © Chris Brazier

When I last met Oumarou, Mariama’s eldest son, in 1995, he was 17. I ended up spending quite a bit of time with him and he regularly expressed his frustration with village life. His peers were already spending the dry season away, earning money in Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, and would return to find ‘good old Oumarou’ still at home ploughing the same furrow. He was still at school but had already had to repeat a year and doubted that it would justify the expense of his continuing for much longer. His father was keen to groom him for the role of working in the fields as the main family provider, but he was plainly itching to get away.

By 2005 he had made that break and was living in the capital, where he was working in a relatively menial role in a bakery. I intended to catch up with him to see how he was doing but it somehow never happened. This time I am determined to meet him, not least to gain his perspective on how sustainable village life now is.

Oumarou’s new circumstances are a shock to my system – a salutary shock

Without exception, all of Mariama’s sons have followed his example and left the village to seek their fortune elsewhere. Bubakar worked for some years in Abidjan before his boss, a Lebanese Arab, invited him to Beirut to work for him there – and that is where he is still, though his wife is currently living in Mariama’s house. Ousmane and Zakariya have also been trying to make their way in Abidjan, and their sister Aseta is well established there too, with her husband and children. But Oumarou has stayed in Ouagadougou, in part at least because he feels a responsibility as the eldest to remain in close contact with his family and home village.

When Oumarou picks us up in the capital it is at the wheel of a BMW. I express some surprise at this and ask who it belongs to, assuming he has borrowed it in order to make an impression. He gives me a complicated explanation that I don’t quite understand over the noise of the traffic, so I sit back and wait for clarification later. He drives us to a new suburb on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, though shanty town might conjure up more nearly what confronts us – a maze of rubble-strewn dirt tracks with a phantasmagoria of improvised accommodation and children playing on the street. In amongst the poorer dwellings, however, are more substantial houses catering for the new middle class, and it turns out that Oumarou’s is one of these.

Expanded horizons

He takes us in to meet his family – he is now married with four children – and I am staggered to be presented with the most enormous TV screen that I think I have ever seen in a home. It is, admittedly, quite a small living room but the TV on the wall completely dominates it – and over dinner our conversation is carried on with its disconcerting sound and vision beside us, being drunk in by Oumarou’s own children and those of his neighbours.

Essentially, Oumarou has made good – and has successfully expanded his horizons and those of his family. He worked as a labourer on construction sites for three years, then in the bakery for six years before he seized the moment and followed his entrepreneurial instincts. His great stroke of luck was that he met a Burkinabè who had just come back from Italy with a container full of consumer goods that he wanted to sell quickly and who involved Oumarou as an agent for these sales. That gave him the opportunity effectively to create his own import business. He started off buying and selling individual motor scooters and motorbikes. These are generally bought second or third hand at 12 or more years old, at which point they have next to no market value in the West, though they often still work perfectly well, and are then shipped to west Africa, where they are sold on at a profit to the expanding middle class.

Gradually Oumarou was able to work up from motorbikes to cars, starting off with Ford Focuses but then graduating to higher-value makes – first Nissan and now Toyotas, BMWs and Mercedes. The BMW he was driving is one that he is currently trying to sell – and would only drive himself on extraordinary occasions. He recently moved to this rented house, which is clearly a symbol that he has made it, as are the leather sofa and TV, which also came from Italy. He sends his children to private school to give them a head start – just round the corner in the midst of this new suburb, catering for new middle-class families just like his.

What was once a journalistic project that emphasized the vast gulf between rich and poor worlds is now showing how fundamentally, inextricably intertwined are those two realities

Oumarou’s new circumstances are a shock to my system – a salutary shock. Even while in the village this time, and despite all the material improvements I have chronicled, I have nevertheless still tended to slot it into a mental framework marked ‘poor and in need of charity’. And, to be honest, Mariama and Issa have played up to that, always emphasizing their lack of means.

This casts things in a rather different light. The boys have clearly been sending money home – especially when their father was ill in 2015. Both Oumarou and his younger brother Ousmane are scornful of the idea that their dad needs to keep working in the fields in order to put food on the family table; from their perspective he does it because he wants to, because it is what he has always done. It’s also clear that I have stirred up something of a hornet’s nest by giving gifts to some members of the family and not others. From our perspective, we prioritized the girls who didn’t have the opportunities to make their own way that the boys did. But from their point of view, they would ask why on earth I gave a gift to Rasinatu, who is already looked after by her husband, rather than to Ousmane, who has struggled to make his way and will not marry until he does so, and who is about to embark yet again on a new and perilous attempt to establish himself in Côte d’Ivoire. Plenty of food for thought there, and some difficult questions to answer.

But meeting Oumarou helps put other things in perspective. It has always been the case that money in this subsistence-farming community is something that comes from elsewhere – most often from work in Côte d’Ivoire. And this is all the more the case now – it’s just that the net is cast much wider, to Europe and North America, and everyone is keen to take advantage of any connection they have that might help them to improve their material situation.

A perilous endeavour that paid off

Issaka in front of his hen house with a sample of the eggs it produces. I never understood before this trip that indigenous African hens rarely lay eggs; Issaka’s come from France.

Chris Brazier

The villager in the photo (right), Issaka, is a case in point. A few years ago, he somehow made his way to Europe via North Africa. He is vague about exactly how, but may well have made the perilous migrant boat trip from Libya. He eventually wound up in Italy, where he persuaded an employer to vouch for him and complete all the paperwork that enabled him to work there for two or three years. Now he has come back to Sabtenga – and he says that this was always his intention, but that he needed the head start that money from Europe would give him. But it wasn’t only the money that made the difference. He also needed the new sense of perspective that Europe gave him. He has now started his own egg business.

I never knew this before, but indigenous African chickens usually don’t lay eggs – or, rather, only lay a few each year. European chickens have been bred to maximize their egg-laying potential and Issaka is now raising French hens and collecting their eggs daily for sale in Garango. He will soon have to sell these 18-month-old hens for meat and start again with new chicks – but he plans to build a second hen house soon, which will ultimately allow him to have eggs for sale every day of the year.

It is this kind of sustainable business that the Chief is trying to promote, that will give new life to Sabtenga beyond subsistence farming. He is encouraging others to raise their own goats for sale as meat, for example, and he thinks eggs will help improve the village diet. But Issaka’s particular business could not and would not have happened without migration.

So the overall message from this magazine is very different from the previous ones. What was once a village utterly on its own, disconnected from all the wealth and scientific advancement of the modern world, is now fundamentally part of the global community, interlinked with the rich world in myriad complex ways. Globalization and ‘development’ – in all its manifestations – have had a phenomenal impact, and there is no doubt that they have improved the quality of life. Nobody would choose to turn the clock back. Life expectancy in Burkina Faso as a whole has improved from 42 to 59 over the past three decades and is still rising.

People on the move. A truck with a full cargo of goods and people sets off from the centre of Garango. Young men in particular are determined to seek their fortune in the wider world.

Chris Brazier

But you simply cannot bring Africa into a global system based on free trade, encourage its people to think beyond their traditions and embrace a new way of life, and then shut all the gates, as Europe and the rest of the rich world are currently doing, denying them freedom of movement and access to the kinds of opportunities that can transform things for them at home.

I never would have expected it, but what was once a journalistic project that emphasized the vast gulf between rich and poor worlds is now showing how fundamentally, inextricably intertwined are those two realities. To the extent that Sabtenga is a typical African village, it contains people who are keen to make good on the promise that has been held out to them, that they and their country will be able to trade their way out of poverty. It is the hardest thing in the world to convey to them that people and governments in rich countries – in Britain and the US most of all – seem to be changing their minds about belonging to One World, have become suspicious of, even hostile to, migration, and now see Africa as a threat.

We owe it to these people to turn back this tide and to keep ourselves open to the world.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

The Perils of Charity


Rasinatu as she was in 2005, with Mariama, Zakariya and a determinedly contrary Zahara. © Chris Brazier

Mariama is still working as an assistant in the health centre, as she has done for the past 25 years; my other friend Ousmane is also still working in the dispensary there. They both complain rather bitterly (and justifiably) about the exploitatively low pay they receive for this full-time work – the monthly equivalent of around $15 in Mariama’s case and $22.50 in Ousmane’s, sums which have not been increased with inflation for a decade and a half. They feel there should be some kind of trade union acting on their behalf, though there is nothing in place at the moment. I encourage Ousmane to write a letter to the Health Minister, on the basis that it can do no harm to lay this nationwide issue before a new government that has, in a sense, tried to make healthcare its watchword.

The economics of life in the village has inevitably been a nagging theme pervading all my visits. In a subsistence-farming community like this one, cash has always tended to be something sent from elsewhere – usually from family members working in the capital or abroad. People cannot but be painfully conscious that a Western visitor has access to money that could make a great difference to their lives.

Rightly or wrongly, I took the decision long ago that I was visiting as a journalist reporting sympathetically on changes in people’s lives and paying over the odds for any services rendered, rather than as an individual seeking to make a charitable difference. This attitude was born out of self-defence on my first return, when I was living cheek by jowl with the community and found myself besieged by individual requests for money for anything from mending a broken bicycle to providing start-up funding for a small business. On that first visit, the perils of charity were further illustrated by the furore associated with my having innocently brought bottles of aspirin and chloroquine to give away. (You can read the full story of this episode, ‘Pandora’s bottle’, at nin.tl/villagehub).

This time around I pay Ousmane for his help in guiding and interpreting for me, in addition to paying Mariama the substantial fee she has come to expect – though she has had to dedicate less time to work for me than in past years.

People cannot but be painfully conscious that a Western visitor has access to money that could make a great difference to their lives

My primary emotional link has always been with Mariama and her family. Over the years I have sent euro notes with my sporadic letters, and when her house was destroyed by heavy rain in 2008 my family helped to pay for its rebuilding.

On this trip, though, my partner Pat accompanies me – as my daughter Kate did 11 years before – to the great delight of everyone we encounter. She experiences for the first time the privileged access from which a journalist benefits and is fascinated to be so warmly welcomed by people who feel they have some connection with us built up over decades. And, although she knows how much this relationship with the village has always meant to me, being personally introduced to the individuals who have loomed so large in my stories is, of course, completely different from hearing about them second hand.

Rasinatu makes her point

Early on in our stay, Mariama’s daughter Rasinatu comes to visit. It is delightful to see her. In 1995 she was the indulged and rather demanding baby of the family and in 2005 she was attending the local school. Now she is married and brings along her own one-year-old child. As we chat about the changes in her life over the past decade, though, the conversation takes a surprisingly dark turn. She feels that her family did not support her enough financially, not being prepared to pay for her to stay on at school. Mariama confirms that they did not, using the familiar phrase that I have so often heard wheeled out in relation to paying for girls’ education: ‘Il n’y avait pas les moyens’ (we didn’t have the wherewithal). Rasinatu felt she had no option but to follow the traditional female path – she married a boy from school whose family live in a village on the other side of Garango.

Rasinatu as she is now.

Chris Brazier

In contrast, her cousin Issa Junior – an enchanting boy who was orphaned early in life and was taken in by Mariama’s family – was able to continue at school and pass his baccalauréat. He is now starting his studies at university in the capital, hoping to pursue a medical career (students start out on this track but may become pharmacists, nurses or doctors, depending on how good their results are). His school fees were paid not by Mariama and her husband but by their son Zakariya, who sent the money home from where he was working in Côte d’Ivoire. This is a wonderful story that speaks volumes for Zakariya’s selflessness, but it also sets the differences in girls’ and boys’ situations in stark relief.

Rasinatu has not finished, however. If she was surprisingly open in telling me about resentment towards her own parents for not having provided her with enough, I am even more shocked when she directs some of her anger towards me: ‘Why didn’t you give me anything from England? You could have sent me something – a bicycle, a mobile phone or something!’

I don’t know quite how to respond and am truly discomfited that she feels sufficiently hard done by to challenge me to my face in this way, despite the extreme politeness endemic in Bissa society. The extent to which I have individual responsibility for Mariama’s family has always been at issue, but I have always seen it as a matter between her and myself rather than considering that I have a direct relationship with (let alone responsibility for) any of her children. It would clearly have been possible for me to pay Rasinatu’s school fees had I been in closer touch at the time – and my direct relationship with her family might well have overcome reservations derived from New Internationalist’s principled objection to child sponsorship.

The last day in the village

The incident resonates through our remaining time in the village and colours the discussions Pat and I have about how much we might help. We decide that we will not go back home with any euros but will make cash gifts from our family to theirs over and above Mariama’s fee from New Internationalist – including covering the next year’s school fees for Zahara, Mariama’s youngest daughter, as well as specific gifts to Rasinatu (in propitiation?) and to Issa Junior towards the cost of a computer he should ideally have at university. These gifts are made on our last day in the village – which may be the last time I will ever be there (the prospect of a further return in my seventies seeming rather remote).

We are not at this point saying goodbye to Mariama, however – she has decided that she will accompany us on the bus to Ouagadougou, where I have arranged to meet up with her eldest son Oumarou. It is a visit that is to cast my deliberations about the relationship between rich and poor worlds, and about the perils associated with individual charity, in a somewhat different light.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

Autumn of the Patriarch


Adama today, now aged 73. © Chris Brazier

The family of Zenabou and Adama live in an outlying area of Sabtenga called Bidiga. We based ourselves there in 1985 while making the film that told Zenabou’s story. She was the daughter of the Chief in Garango and was considered to have married beneath herself when she fell in love with Adama. By the time we met her, Adama had taken a second wife, Meryam, and we were there for both the birth and the baptism of her new baby.

When I returned in 1995, I lived in the same hut, just up the hill from Zenabou’s concession. I had been there for more than a week before I made a jaw-dropping discovery. As I chatted to Adama, a girl I had previously assumed to be a guest – or possibly a daughter – wandered past us and straight into his house. This seemed rather familiar, so I leaned over to ask Adama who she was. It turned out that this was Bintu, his new, fourth wife, who was just 16 years old.

Somehow, even when you know you are in a society where it is common for a man to take more than one wife, the reality is still constantly surprising, so fundamentally different is our conception of the relationship between men and women. And the notion that Adama, then 52, should have taken a fourth wife – let alone one young enough to be his granddaughter – seemed extraordinary. Stranger still, Adama explained that Bintu was the daughter of old friends who had first offered her to his son Hamaru. When Hamaru turned her down, Adama took her on instead. The element of ‘charity’ involved in this had, it seemed, soon been overcome – Bintu did not even have her own bedroom yet but spent every night with Adama, which prompted some gentle banter from her co-wives, who might normally have expected to be sharing their husband’s favours more equally.

’Younger men are so silly‘

When I asked her directly, Bintu said she preferred older men because younger ones were so silly, and she certainly did not see herself as an exploited child bride. She and her parents would have agreed to the marriage on the basis that it was a sound economic decision – Adama was a good provider who was also highly respected locally as a marabout (lay Islamic preacher).

Adama’s four wives with an assortment of their children and grandchildren. Meryam, Zenabou and Bintu are at the back on the left, with Kadiguiatou third from the right. Mwadisa is in the middle, with red on her headdress, and Alimata is on the far right. A full range of photos of this family from 1985 to 2016 is available at nin.tl/villagehub

Chris Brazier

And those economic expectations have not been disappointed. I have been struck on every visit by how enterprising – entrepreneurial, even – Adama is as a farmer. I must confess that, looking back, our film Man-Made Famine somewhat traduced him. We were making a vital point about how African women grew much of the food but were generally ignored by governments and aid agencies. And there was an iconic moment in the film when Adama brazenly accepted that women worked more than men: ‘I can see for myself that she is tired, that she works too hard. But tradition and habit stop me from helping her. It is a woman’s place to do that work. I don’t see why I should help her.’

Even when you know you are in a society where it is common for a man to take more than one wife, the reality is still constantly surprising

But Adama was referring primarily to domestic work, and there is no doubt that he takes primary responsibility for the farming and has not been shy of bearing the brunt of the hard labour himself. It is hard to find a time to talk with him because he is always out in the fields somewhere. One day, I get his granddaughter Mwadisa to take me to the fields to find him. This involves quite a long journey to a parcel of land on the other side of the main road, where water from the reservoir has been channelled into a stepped, jigsaw network of ricefields. The sophisticated use of irrigation is a revelation to me, something I have not seen before in the village – and I might previously have thought wet-rice cultivation of this kind to be impossible in this arid locale.

Rolling up trousers to get stuck in

As usual, Adama is more concerned to get on with his work than to waste time chatting to me, and he puts his back into turning over the soil in preparation for his daughters to transplant the rice plants from their seed bed. I feel uncomfortable sitting in the shade doing nothing so, when one of the girls mischievously suggests that I help them, I strip off my shoes, roll up my trousers and join in, rather rashly disregarding the risk of being invaded by the schistomiasis worm. As when I picked cotton with the family in 2005, they are delighted that I am prepared to muck in.

Adama says that he cultivates these ricefields as part of a farming co-operative; he also says he heads up the association responsible for the dam, which clearly gives him an advantage over the farmers on the other side of the village, where such irrigation would be impossible. He has used chemical fertilizer for decades instead of just switching to it seven years ago, as was the case elsewhere. Even in his mid-seventies, when we in the West would hope to do no more than enjoy our retirement, he is as active as ever.

So his four wives probably feel they have little to complain about in economic terms. And, while I thought I detected signs of discontent in 1995 as the older wives adjusted to the influx of younger women, possibly I was just projecting this on to them. Both in 2005 and 2016 they have followed the party line that it is good to have co-wives with whom you can share the domestic workload, and have presented a remarkably harmonious, sisterly group.

Adama's granddaughters are set to work – with a little help from a friend.

Pat Tope

And what a family they now have! They have 26 children between them and seem completely unable to calculate how many grandchildren there are. Among them, though, are the two eldest daughters of Salamatu, whose portrait graced the cover of the 2005 magazine. She was a bright-as-a-button schoolgirl when I met her in 1995, and I made a point of asking Adama if he would pay for her to attend secondary school when the time came. He said that he would.

So one of my great disappointments on revisiting in 2005 was to find that he had not done so. She had therefore had no alternative but to marry at the traditional age of 17 and live with her husband’s family. When I visited her and her new baby in a nearby village I was struck by the change in her condition. Her husband was in Côte d’Ivoire seeking work and she had no indication as to whether or when she would be able to join him. In the meantime she was living with her in-laws in what seemed much less salubrious conditions than her own family enjoyed.

Fortunately, the news is a little happier this time. Salamatu is now with her husband and her third child in Abidjan; her daughters Mwadisa and Leila are living with their grandparents so that they can go to school in Sabtenga. And maybe Adama has had a change of heart on girls’ education, since Alimata, one of Bintu’s daughters who worked alongside me in the ricefield, is still at school at the age of 21, and pursuing her dream of becoming a pharmacist or a nurse.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

An Audience with the Chief

chief and audience

© Chris Brazier

Bonjour, Monsieur Chris.’

Bonjour, Monsieur François,’ I respond, naturally enough. The mouths of the men sitting on the mat around me drop open in shock. I have, it seems, committed a grave faux pas: no-one is allowed to address the Chief by name, only by his title.

This is a touch embarrassing but somewhat understandable given that I knew the Chief as plain François Moné 21 years ago. He later tells me that technically I should offer him a chicken in propitiation for this transgression, but that he will graciously exempt me on this occasion.

It is strange to see him in this traditional role, in which people routinely bow and scrape before him when he receives them under the awning beside his house. When I heard in advance of my trip that François had become the traditional Chief, in one respect it made perfect sense. He has always been talked about by villagers in tones of awe on account of what he has achieved in the wider world. Yet in another respect the idea seemed absurd. François is a thoroughly modern man, urbane and well educated: how on earth could he fulfil that role as guardian of the village’s ancient animist traditions?

The Chief.

Chris Brazier

As a child, François was one of the very few villagers who received an education – though he had to walk the four kilometres to Garango to attend the French colonial school. Independence came while he was still at school and after he had passed his baccalauréat he joined the air force in 1974, at the age of 21, and trained as a pilot. This involved spending two years training in France, which he liked at first; but after a year or so he started pining for home. He travelled all over north and west Africa, but also spent time in Cheshire, England, while Burkinabè planes were being refitted by Hawker Siddeley and speaks some English as a result. He knew Thomas Sankara well – and on the day of the Revolution in 1983 was sent by him to Accra to collect a load of Kalashnikovs and other weapons that had come from Libya.

He has always lived with his own family in the capital, Ouagadougou, but has made a point of keeping in close touch with people in the village and making regular visits to what he has always considered to be his ancestral home.

Though the role of the traditional Chief was sidelined and scorned by Sankara’s revolution, I have always had to visit the Chief to pay my respects. What I had never realized until this latest trip, however, was that the old, blind Chief was a Mossi man imposed on the village by the regional authorities, rather than a representative from the local Bissa people. This originally happened, François says, because previous Bissa chiefs had been ‘naughty’. But the net effect was that the Mossi chief was never taken that seriously and never participated in any of the traditional animist rituals.

In 2012, however, the elders of the village decided that they had had enough of being dictated to by the regional authorities and that they wanted a Bissa chief, someone from the village who spoke their language and understood their traditions.

The Chief takes up the story:

‘Being Chief is supposed to be about guarding the traditions. But, with literacy and migration, people have their eyes a bit open and they are more and more independent. They decided that it was important for someone actually from the village to be Chief. And everybody thought that – they were unanimous.’

And the Great Chief in Tenkodogo agreed to that?

‘No, he refused. People forced the issue by naming one of their own but he nominated his own brother as Chief. So that makes two chiefs in the village now. But no-one takes any notice of him. Anyway, the Conseil des Sages [Council of Wise Elders] found it difficult to find a suitable local candidate. So they came to Ouagadougou to ask me to do it.’

And what did you initially think of the notion?

‘I found it a ridiculous idea – me wearing the bonnet! – and I said I didn’t want to do it.’

I imagine you wondered how you could act as guardian of the traditions while living a modern, urbanized life in Ouagadougou.

‘I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!’

‘For sure. Also, I am a Catholic and the Chief has to participate in things that I don’t believe in. But since there were so many people asking me, I was obliged to accept in the end. They told me: “Look, don’t worry about it, we want you to have the bonnet but you can still live in Ouaga, while coming home for the key times and we will handle everything in your absence.” And that’s how it has operated for the past three years.’

But I presume you accepted the role of Chief not to continue the old traditions but to develop the village and the life of its people.

‘Exactly. That’s what I was coming to. We have formed the Association de Resortissants de Sabtenga at Ouagadougou, though also in Italy, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, France, the US – wherever there is someone from Sabtenga who is concerned about the economic and cultural development of the village. It was this Association that told me to accept the offer to become Chief, because they thought it could help them to have an impact. So I assumed the role of interface between the village and the Association.

‘This is how we brought about the college [the new secondary school], the new road and the electricity. The road came about through someone who had contacts in the government, while the electricity was pursued by someone in Saudi Arabia and came from the Saudi village electrification programme. I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!’

It’s important to harness the money and the knowhow of the Diaspora for the development of the village…

‘Exactly so. That’s what we were after. Even if it’s not only money but things you whites are throwing away, like tractors or cars. Beds for the sick and wheelchairs – we have given those to the health centre. Now we are seeking an ambulance. We have a five-year plan that prioritizes the economy, culture and society. After that we’ll do a stocktake and see where we need to go from there.’

Yet to play this key role in the development of the community, the Chief also has to participate in traditional ceremonies at certain points in the year. The main animist rite of the year takes place while I am in the village and involves scores of people gathering in their finery at the foot of one of the stony hills that adjoin the village, which look a little like the kopjes of southern Africa. They have come together to propitiate the local gods by asking them for good fortune, which involves the ritual sacrifice of hundreds of chickens and a few poor goats. Others, who cannot stretch to an animal, bring cooked food or even tree branches. In a village where animism, which was so powerful when I was first here, has seemed increasingly sidelined by Islam, Christianity and modernization, this is a strange sight indeed – and one that evidently fascinates many teenagers from Muslim families whom I know have been forbidden to attend by their parents but watch from the hillside regardless.

The contradictions are obvious – and the Chief’s Catholic faith as much as his modernity makes his position a peculiar one. But, though it is certainly not the kind of revolution that Thomas Sankara had in mind, in its own way the village has exercised people power by defying the authorities and going out on a limb to insist on having one of their own as Chief – and by embracing modernization and social progress in doing so.

To find more information, read the full, wide-ranging question-and-answer interview with the Chief, available on the hub.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.

Then & Now

traditional Burkina Faso housing

© Claude Sauvageot

Housing – from straw to iron

The physical appearance of the village has changed substantially over the decades. The photo above from 1985 shows a concession (the local French term for a family compound) as traditionally constructed – round houses with earthen walls (the colonialists disparagingly called them ‘mud huts’) and thatched roofs that made them very picturesque to the Western eye.

Chris Brazier

Those thatched circular huts do still exist, but more and more are used for storage, animals or children. Anyone who can afford to prefers to have their house built in rectangular shape with baked-earth bricks and a corrugated iron roof. Although these roofs draw in the heat, they last a lot longer than the thatched variety and are much more watertight in the rainy season – besides, there isn’t the straw for thatching that there used to be.

In 1995 Mariama was dreaming of just such a new house and resolved to put the money she earned as my interpreter towards it – each wife has a separate house, though her children also sleep inside it. That house was built, but in 2008 was destroyed during particularly violent rains.

She now has a much more substantial abode – bigger than her husband’s – complete with a decorative rendering. She lives in it with her daughter and her daughter-in-law. Of course, not everyone has been able to afford an upgrade like that – and housing is generally a good indicator of how poor a family is. Inside such houses there is still generally no decoration to speak of and very little in the way of furniture.

Water – the blessing of pumps

One of the main messages of our 1985 film was that women had to work far too hard – and collecting water played a large part in this. Water for drinking, washing and cooking had to be carried long distances from one of the few reliable wells and this took up hours of each day.

Claude Sauvageot

But in 2002 a joint programme between the Burkinabè government and a German NGO offered all the families in Sabtenga the chance to have a water pump sunk beside their concession. The catch was that they had to contribute $270 towards the cost – an enormous sum for a subsistence-farming family – and then pay for its maintenance. Many families could not afford this, but enough could that pumps were installed at many different locations around the village – and even the families without can rent access to them.

Chris Brazier

The concern now is that the water table is sinking so low that in the dry season these pumps will soon not be able to reach a supply. New super pumps that reach much deeper are very expensive to construct and only three are so far in place.

Water is collected now in all kinds of containers, including plastic ones, and often carried back on bicycles or donkey carts rather than on the head.

Chris Brazier

Education – a new secondary school

Claude Sauvageot

There was no school in Sabtenga in 1985 – the few children who gained an education had to do so by walking the four kilometres or so to Garango. By 1995, a primary school had been built, but its three classrooms could accommodate a new seven-year-old intake only once every two years, leaving at least 50 children a year without any education. I gave a lesson to children under a tree about life in Britain and they were full of questions.

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

Three more classrooms had been built by 2005, with money from the debt relief Burkina Faso had been granted under the HIPC Programme on condition that the money was spent on health and education. Here, in this village far from the capital, was the concrete proof that it was getting through to the right places rather than into the pockets of corrupt government ministers. New primary schools in surrounding villages had reduced pressure on places in Sabtenga itself.

There is now also a secondary school in the village (pictured above). It started with just one year group, but admitted its third intake last September and plans a new set of three classrooms as it expands further. Mariama’s youngest daughter Zahara is currently studying here.

Health – from an empty shell to a hub

Claude Sauvageot

In 1985 the health centre was non-existent – the shell of a building with neither medicines nor staff. By 1995, it was fully functioning (see left) – with fewer staff than would be ideal but still a hive of activity and marking a major improvement in villagers’ quality of life.

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

A separate maternity unit had been added by 2005, again thanks to debt relief. But villagers still had to pay to use the clinic’s services, which meant that many women continued to deliver their babies at home, with the inevitable result that some died in childbirth.

In 2016 the clinic was much the same, though better staffed than before. The staff were seeing a big increase in their workload because, I was delighted to discover, healthcare became free for pregnant women and children under five in June, following an election promise of the new president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. This is being paid for by a rise in taxes on alcohol, tobacco and mobile phones.

I witnessed primary healthcare in action, going out with local health assistants to distribute anti-malaria medication to all children under five (left) – an internationally supported campaign funded by the Malaria Consortium that saw 1.3 million children reached nationally by 29,000 volunteers.

Sanitation – latrines at last

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

Traditionally, the only toilet in the village was a secluded spot in the open fields. When the school and health centre were built, latrines were attached, but the majority of villagers would still defecate in the open air, with the inevitable poor health consequences. For all the improvement in the provision of drinking water, as of 2005 there were still no other latrines – which reflected the lack of progress worldwide towards the Millennium Development Goal on adequate sanitation. The local NGO Association Dakupa was, however, operating a rolling programme of latrine installation that was supposed to reach Sabtenga in the near future. By 2016 these latrines had long been in place, and many are still functioning. Others, though, have fallen into disrepair (top photo) – and ensuring that latrines are cleaned out and maintained has often been a problem for rural sanitation programmes the world over. Some concessions have now installed new latrines on a different model, like the one shown in the second photo, in which the faeces are mixed with ash until they are eventually in a state suitable for use in the fields as fertilizer. Certainly there is much more widespread acceptance in the village now that the only safe place for defecation is in a latrine. Urine is often separately channelled to feed plants with its nutrients.

Food and farming – from millet to maize

Claude Sauvageot

Chris Brazier

Most people in the village depend on cultivating subsistence crops – and the traditional crops were millet or red sorghum, drought-resistant varieties that would be pounded into flour and then turned into the staple food, a stodgy porridge called . This remained the case in 2005, at which point most of the farmers were using only animal dung as a fertilizer. But around seven years ago agronomists visited the village to talk about the advantages of using chemical fertilizer. Some people resisted, feeling they had enough organic manure from animals. But when they saw the better results achieved by the farmers who did use fertilizer, they soon switched over and this has become much more common now.

Chris Brazier

Around the same time, most people also switched from millet to maize, which they find takes much less work – the photo below shows Mariama’s husband Issa in his maize fields (along with his nephew, also called Issa). The maize is still ground into flour for making , though people almost always pay for this to be done at the village mill now, rather than pounding it in the traditional way.

Technology – advent of electric light

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

In 2005 I was astonished to find that the first few mobile phones had reached the village – this photo (left) showed Ousmane, who works at the dispensary and was one of the early adopters.

It’s no surprise, given how enthusiastically mobiles have been taken up across Africa, that they are almost as ubiquitous in the village now as they are in the West. They are used only for texting and speaking rather than as computers, but they are invaluable to people whose family members work abroad and with whom they would not otherwise be able to stay in touch.

There is now even a phone mast right in the middle of the village, near the health centre.

But the most momentous change in 2016 was that electricity had reached at least some parts of the village. I had hardly dared to hope for this, but beyond the donkey cart here are the tell-tale signs – masts carrying power lines and even TV aerials sprouting from a few of the compounds.

The number of households covered is limited for the moment by a shortage of electricity meters. But for the first time, families with electricity are able to keep food cool in the punishing heat, while their children can read or do homework in the evenings.

Women – patriarchy still rules

Chris Brazier

I wish I could report more substantial progress in the political situation of women – though the end of FGM is a huge advance, and the new water pumps have reduced their workload. In 1985 Mariama filled one of the two places reserved for women on the local Committee for the Defence of the Revolution – an amazingly far-sighted policy instituted by Thomas Sankara, who said just before his death: ‘Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence.’ The policy fell by the wayside after his assassination and there are currently just 12 women in the national parliament – a mere nine per cent.

Chris Brazier

Chris Brazier

There are women’s groups in the village, but these are not formed to challenge the patriarchal status quo but rather to offer each other practical support in gaining a small income from market gardening or petty commerce. Time and again I have attended village meetings in which men are on chairs and women on the ground. Women do now have more access to bicycles and even to motorbikes, like Salamatu Darga, who is taking part in the anti-malaria campaign. But men continue to rule the roost in this society, with even the most forceful, dynamic women having to fall in with their husband’s wishes – and many men continue to take a second wife without even consulting the first.

Continue the journey: find Sabtenga's people, their stories, photos and videos on our special African Village Hub.