This special report appeared in the the rains - a report from a village in burkina faso issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.
THE SKY has been overcast all day, heavy with the promise of rain. And with the evening come the first warm drops, spilt from the over-brimming air onto the dust of the compound.
Under thatched eaves, a woman crouches in the doorway, watching the patterning earth. Dark blots appear on the terracotta jars stacked in the open by the dead fire. Across the small courtyard an old blackboard, long ingrained with chalk, is being spattered by drops of black rain. In a few minutes the earth’s slow stain is complete but still Assita, second of the three wives of Hamade Ouedraogo, remains in the doorway.
Over the low earth wall which her own hands helped to shape many years ago, she sees the water running from the thatched roof of her husband’s hut The clouds have brought the evening early and already the loose door of woven rushes has been pulled into place across the entrance. Just beyond are the huts of the other wives. One the thatch is grey and brittle, darkened by the rain. On the other water runs easily off the still supple straw, raw edged and palely yellow in the last of the day’s light.
The rain, hesitant at first, is now beginning to insist On the flat-roofed building, the only one in the compound, water is pouring from a clay pipe high on the wall. In the morning, when the first rains have washed the roof, ajar will be placed over the muddy depression where tonight loose water splatters heavily onto the earth. Somewhere nearby an infant cries a cry of hunger and is suddenly silenced at the breast
Now the guttering pipe and the hard rhythm of the rain are the only sounds to be heard in the compound. And over the vanishing outline of the village, the first soft far-off lightning plays around the edges of the sky. Looking out as she reaches for the rush door, Assita wonders whether it is also raining in her own village and, for a moment, she imagines her own mother lying awake, listening to the same sounds under the same sky.
Inside in the darkness she slowly undresses. On the rumpled cloths her two-year-old son has been asleep since long before the rains began. Behind him, lying on their sides against the curved wall, her twin daughters are also now asleep. As she steps over their folded dresses, the thought crosses her mind that, from tomorrow, all their clothes will need much more washing.
Lying in the darkness listening to the deadened sound of the rain on the heavy thatch, Assita remembers how the rain sounded on the tin roof of the nutrition centre all those years ago, how impossible it had been to sleep under the loud drumming of its fingers. They had been the first rains in almost two years. And they had come too late.
At the end of the second dry August, the people had sat in the shade of the empty granaries or under the doorways and walls of the compound, almost everything around them turned to the same parched colour so that only the harsh light and dusty shade defined the familiar shapes of the village. The women still walked to buy cans of water when they could and the men came and went looking for work. But the elders scarcely moved from morning to night, and no children played.
‘Yel Ka- ye,’ people said when you asked how they were — no problems’. ‘Tel Ka-be’, they smiled — ‘no complaints’. ‘Laafi Bala’, murmured the elders—’I have peace and health’. And they were all starving. Every live leaf had been collected and even in the towns it was said there was no food. Finally, when even the red millet had gone and roots were being boiled, the time came when the infants began to be given back.
For Lassana, her first child, tonight would have been the twelfth rains. Tomorrow he would have been working in the fields by her side, his supple arms wielding his own ‘daba’ blade into the wet earth. His action would not have been as economical as her own, but she knew he would have refused to straighten his back before his mother paused. And then the sweat would have run down his tapered body between shining shoulders, and those with daughters to marry would have taken notice. At midday, he would have sat and talked with her in the shade of the neem tree, hands clasped round strong legs caked with dried splashes of the red earth. Nearby, his father would have watched and said nothing. But as the season wore on, the elders would have nodded their heads as her son passed by.
Then, in the darkness, her son came to her as he was in the last days. And she saw again the loose folds of the empty buttocks and the clustered sores on the perished skin; saw the veinless swellings on the tops of both his feet and the helpless wooden charm around his wrinkled neck; saw again the taut skin of the old man’s head on the infant’s body and the agitated look in his lovely eyes.
Then she saw Hamade. It was the first time she had ever seen her husband carrying the baby close to him, like a woman. And her mind had clung to how unusual it was to see a man carrying a child like that and she had almost laughed, suspending its meaning in the air, refusing to allow its truth to touch the ground. Dully, as Hamade walked away, she recognised the custom that only a man shall carry an infant to the grave and it sank into her soul that Lassana was cold against his chest.
IN THE DARKNESS of the small courtyard, water is running in a thousand rivers down the rough terrain of the mud wall, picking out pieces of gravel, exposing the ends of straws. On the ground the shallow thirst of the compact earth is already slaked and reddening pools are swirling over its surface.
Surging under the raised granaries, floating away chaff and straw and dragging along loose stones, the waters pour into a channel and turn for the gap in the compound wall. Under the open night water from all directions is swirling down each imagined incline, flooding each imperceptible hollow, pouring into troubled pools and overflowing into broad white-flecked streams across the countryside. By the encircled wall an old and leaky water-bucket, made from the inner-tube of a tyre, is moving along the level ground.
Overhead the storm bends over the village like a Mossi dancer, body poised motionless over limbs which hammer on the earth so fast it seems that nothing could increase their beat until teeth are bared and eyes stare and in a final frenzy of the drums, the feet blur like humming birds’ wings in an unsustainable ecstasy of dance.
In the porous laterite under the soil the rain is being sucked through a thousand crannies, seething through every crack and fissure, rushing along the centuries of smoothed galleries, pouring into streams and surging over waterfalls to deposit itself into the dark safes of water under the Sahel.
But tonight not even the hydroptic earth can drink enough and across its surface the rejected waters turn away bad-temperedly, a restless reddening tide scouring the earth for another way of escape.
In its way, a small and leafless shrub, unrecognisable as a young neem tree, finds itself marooned by unaccustomed water. For eight months it has survived the white sun and the browsing goats. Now, rupturing the water’s flow, the plant bends its stem to accommodate the angry ripple at its base. Unappeased, the tide streams by on either side, seducing away the soil from around the slender shoot Slowly, lasciviously, the waters reveal the tender whiteness of the young tree’s root Then, in an instant, the tree is gone, persuaded out of the ground, lifted as painlessly as a child’s first tooth. A second later, a little binding of red earth, freed from the grip of the roots, follows after it like a small clot in the haemorrhaging blood of the soil, swept away to find the sudden streams and rivers which tonight are carrying the soil of Upper Volta south to the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and the cold waters of the Atlantic.
IN THE MORNING the earth is red and raw under a cloudless sky. Across its stillness a donkey brays, dislodging the first hooded crows from their nests, rustling the chickens in the loose straw, breaking the sleep of the village.
Soon the first fires are being kindled between stone bobs and across the compounds come the familiar sounds of the morning, of water being splashed into iron pots, firewood being pulled out into the open, the first grains being ground under rough stones, calabashes being scoured out with handfuls of harsh straw, children solemnly pounding green leaves in wooden mortars, baobab or the sour wild sorrel, ready to be boiled into sauces for the morning meal.
Between huts and granaries, in the beaten earth paths and passageways, groups of men are discussing the night’s rains, some holding a warm drink, made with tamarind water to soften the new chill in the dawn. In the low-walled open kitchens, the women of Samitaba are moving about bent double at the waist, not bothering to straighten their backs between the morning tasks: pushing dry twigs a little further under the fire, stirring the sauce with a peeled stick, sieving the steamed neere seeds through handfuls of fine straw, adding the ground millet flour, little by little, to the boiling water.
Close to the opening in the compound wall Assita is crouching by her hearth. With a curved fragment of a broken clay jar she scrapes the last of the porridge from the steaming pot into a large calabash on the ground. In a smaller black pan, wedged by a stone between the larger stones of the fireplace, the dark brown sauce bubbles thickly. The elders and the men have already been served and now Hamade’ s five younger children are sitting on the damp floor around the steaming bowl, left hands gripping its rim as they eat the smooth porridge, tinged faintly pink by the few unwinnowed flecks of the dark-red husk. Assita joins them, dipping puckered fingers into the hot brown sumbala and making sure that her just-weaned son has his share.
Soon she is on her feet again, back bent, splashing a little water into the scraped-out cooking pots. With a last word to her daughters, she takes up the tin of water which had been put to warm on the last of the breakfast fire and turns to leave the crowded kitchen.
In the privacy of the small walled area behind her own hut, she pours the warm water over her face and body, working into a thin lather the crumbly white soap made in the dry season. Feeling faintly sick as she rinses her face with the last of the warm water, she reaches out a hand to the mud wall to steady herself and looks down at the lid of the clay jar standing in the corner of the washroom. It is almost three months now since she has had to use the folded strips of clean cotton in the jar. Perhaps today would be a good time to carry the news to her husband’s family.
Hurrying a little now, she wraps on her oldest fupoko and steps out of the washroom. The other wives will soon be waiting at the wall.
ACROSS the landscape groups of figures are already bent over their fields. Most of the village has been out since soon after dawn, for these are the valuable hours when the earth is still soft and the air is still cool. The rains will last only four months at the most; four months in which the land must be made to grow enough for the year.
Already the night’s streams have disappeared and even the rivers will by now be beds of mud in which cattle are leaving deep oozy hoof-prints as they graze the pools. Only the Black Volta, more than a hundred kilometres away, flows all the year round. But here in Yatenga, the soil which yesterday would have answered the hoe only with a cloud of dust, can today be dug into, turned, planted. And as the morning sun climbs over the Sahel a million dabas rise and fall.
One of them is gripped by the hardened hands of Assita Ouedraogo, working together with her two co-wives, scraping hollows at regular intervals in the wet earth ready for the planting of grain. Within calling distance her husband, Hamade, works alone on a shoal of land between two footpaths, hoeing furrows of the broken heavy earth across the line of a scarcely perceptible slope.
Coming to the end of a row, Hamade straightens his back and stands for a moment, his sleeveless cotton shift, the colour of the earth, standing off his shoulders and making him look even broader than he is. As he rests, he contemplates what his neighbours are doing, which fields they have decided to work first, whose sons are working with them and whose are not. No hedged rectangles, no fences or ditches, tell him where one neighbour’s land ends and another’s begins. It is something he learnt while working these fields at his father’s side, as now he works them with his own sons, gradually coming to know the shapes and peculiarities of the village fields in the same way as he came to recognise the faces and characters of village people. One field starts where the earth dips beyond the footpath and ends at the wide area of thin clay, like an unbroken skin on the surface of the earth, which is the field of the ancestors. Another field begins by the termite hill and ends at that invisible and meandering line between soil and shale, earth and sand, a dividing line of judgement between fertility and barrenness, marked by a fence of decisions that beyond it labour will be in vain. And as his educated eye recognises the contours and boundaries of the land, so it also sees its virtues and vices: a depression in the earth probably means that soil has lodged there and that maize will do well; a darker patch has held its moisture well and can probably take sorghum again; a subtle change of colour means that the soil is too sandy and that millet had better be sown. Memory and the look and feel of the earth under the hoe tell him when a field should rest for another year, though even this morning Hamade has had to decide that fields which a farmer would leave fallow, a father must plant with food.
Normally the first day of the rains and the beginning of work brings with it a release of tension. For eight long months the level of the grain in the mud-built granaries has been steadily falling without anyone being able to do anything about it... until it rains. Now, at last, the work of restocking the granaries tight to their thatched roofs can at least begin. But for Hamade this morning, anxiety is not lessened as he swings the smooth handled daba, feet slightly apart in the wet plastic sandals, and watches the soil breaking under the blows from his body.
An hour ago, as he reached into the sweet-smelling dimness of the granary to pull out the day’s ration of grain, he had seen the granary floor. There are four more months to go to the harvest Once again he has failed to make ’the sesuka’, ‘the welding’, the joining of the last harvest to the next.
His family will not starve. Somehow the grain will be bought It will be bought with the money buried in a tin under the floor of his hut, saved from the last time he left his home for the dry season and travelled a thousand miles by train to work for wages on the coffee plantations of the Ivory Coast. Or it will be bought by selling a few goats and sheep or by borrowing money from his relations or by going to the Naam warehouse in the town. The grain will be found. But he had hoped that the granaries would last a little longer, that he would only have to buy grain for two months, nor four.
Instead, he has had to decide that he will, after all, take up his friend’s offer of a lift into town for the meeting this afternoon. At the same time, he will be able to bring back a sack of grain on the cart.
Hamade’ s forehead is glistening like the earth now as he strikes into the heavy soil and begins to break another ridge across the land. However unjustified the feeling may be, Hamade still feels the shame of having to go into town for grain. It is a feeling embedded in the centuries, rooted in the culture of necessity, a part of his sense of himself. Salt and spices can be bought with money, even neere or karite can be bought with money. But staple grains you grow with your own hands. And you grow enough to stretch across the seasons and make ‘the sesuka’, the joining, If you are known to be buying grain in the months before the harvest or if you are seen to be seeking to exchange red millet for white*, then it is a matter of shame. You are lazy. you have not worked or you are not prudent, you are not a good manager. And you are not worthy of your family.
Circumstances have changed. And Hamade knows that there is not a man in Samitaba this morning who has enough grain to last until October. At the very least, shame should be diluted by the numbers of the shamed. But whatever the reason and no matter how many others are in the same position, Hamade is still disturbed, still feels the dishonour of seeing the granary floor on a morning in June. Not to be able to grow enough grain affects the way he feels as he works the land, subtly changes his sense of himself as he walks through the village and exchanges greetings with the elders or sits down in his compound to eat with his wives and his children.
Reaching the end of another row he straightens again and looks over his shoulder, roughly comparing what has been done with what is still to do. And as he looks around the family’s lands, screwing up his eyes against the climbing sun, the feeling inside hardens into something close to anger as he sees again the evident truth that to fill only two granaries he and his family are working harder and more prudently than his ancestors ever did to fill three.
Up by the village wall, on the ‘beoogla’, the vegetable plots of his wives, he can see Assita’s two daughters dragging out firewood to be stored on the soil. As it dries ready for the kitchen fire, the stock of wood will help to break the flow of the rains and hold the moisture in the soil while the branches entangle the wind, frustrating its attempt to blow away the surface of the soil, and its leaves slowly rot to enrich the earth as they shade the damp land and young seedlings from the sun.
In the millet fields across the path he knows that his wives are planting one black-eyed niebe bean for every three grains of millet in each scraped hollow of earth. Around the feebler grain the bean roots will help to bind the soil and keep the moisture as they grow. Through the long dry months he knows that the seeds themselves have been cared for, buried in earthenware jars full of fine ash from the fires. In the weeks to come, if the rains continue to fall, then the land will be hoed once more, tired dabas scraping small fortresses of earth around each fresh green shoot to defend them against invading rain or tugging wind.
Hamade bends his back to the earth again, breaking off another ridge of soil. And now the nagging blade of his daba is nearing the first of the two lines of shin-high purple stones, arranged like a broad arrow pointing up the slight slope. Last night, as the rains coursed over the land, this heavy stone prow forced the waters away down either side of this, his most fertile field. Many times during the long hot dry season he had wondered if the stones were worth it as he and his sons had brought them one-by-one—- all one hundred and twelve of them — on the back of his ageing bicycle from the low hills four kilometres away. But this morning the smooth shallow channel on the far side of the line of stones tells him that their efforts were not in vain. No soil was carried away by the night’s rains. And now, behind the stone prow’s protection, the droppings of sheep, goats and donkey are sparsely spread, waiting to be dug in along with the winnowings of the pounded grain, the peanut shells and the scattered ash. As the daba moves on, the first of his sons comes dragging an old cardboard box, soggy after the night’s rains, and lays it to rot in the middle of the maize field.
BY MIDDAY the landscape is almost deserted as all living things walk, fly or crawl from under the vertical sun. In the village the elders sleep lightly in their open doorways, chickens brood under the granaries and even the marauding goats are penned up in the narrow strip of shade under the village walls. In the fields the ‘wife of the rain’, the brilliant magenta beetle which appears on the surface only after it has rained — and is loved for it — has disappeared down dark passageways.
Under the neem tree Hamade rests, the field more than half done. It is Ramadan and he will not eat until the sun goes down. Looking out across the landscape, cleansed of the tiring dust, the sun glistening on the shale, the beauty of its colours after the night’s rains forces itself into his drowsy gaze. But to his eyes it is a tragic beauty. For he knows, as all who work the earth of Yatenga know, that it should not look like this. Within the memory of his father, these fields were rich openings of brown soil cut or burnt into the forest and savannah. Underneath lay the laterite, the iron-bearing rock and shale whose naked outcrops could only be seen on the broken sides of the hills. Now it is this scarce-hidden rock and shale, so much of its topsoil gone, which gives the morning’s landscape its brittle red beauty.
Hamade cuts idly at a clod of earth with his resting daba. Already a thin crust of dried soil has formed on its surface. Sand, gravel, shale, soil, it is this earth which yields a little less food at each harvest, this earth which now fills two granaries instead of three, this earth which leaves the ends of ‘the sesuka’ a little further apart each year. The earth, and the rains. If the rains would fall as they used to, and if they would stay in the soil instead of running off and taking its richness with them, little by little, then the earth would again grow enough to stretch across the seasons.
Hamade closes his eyes, at first in rest against the strong light and soon in almost conscious sleep as his back relaxes against the tree.
Down either side of his face run the three curved lines of scars, cut there earlier than he can remember. In the past, these lines would have been his protection. No Mossi would fight another. No Mossi would sell another into slavery. And safety resided in recognition. That is why the Mossi identity is so proudly inscribed upon his face, Ouedraogo — ‘the horseman’ — the name that goes back almost a thousand years to the legendary warrior, born of a Ghanaian princess, who founded the first Kingdom of the Mossi. Hamade — ‘the eyelids’ — the name of the invading Fulani who, a hundred years ago, killed a Mossi Chieftain and whose feared trademark was his perpetually swollen eyelids.
Much has happened to the people of the three Mossi kingdoms of Upper Volta during those hundred years. It has been a century of erosion, a century which has scoured at the sense of self- worth of a people, washed over pride in culture and faith in tradition, eroded the soil of confidence from around the roots of capacity.
First had come the erosive wave of colonialism, confronting the Mossi with military superiority and judging their culture to be backward in science and technology, primitive in religion and economics, barbaric in manners and customs. And with colonialism had come the beginning of the retreat into the dark caves of self-doubt
Soon came the decades of forced labour on the plantations and on the thousand-mile railroad to the coast, sluicing the strength of the men from the villages and harnessing it to the exploiting of their own land. And when the forced labour had stopped, economic migrations had taken its place. More than a third of all the men had left their villages to look for wages, eroding the community both by their departure and by their return, bringing with them new ways and values, new music and new stories. And with them had come the new radios, wrist watches, and motor bikes — not a single component of which could be made in a Mossi village.
Finally, there had come the years without rain. More than a memory, a part of the very matrix by which other memories and perceptions are assimilated, the drought seared the existence of the Sahel. In the trees and plants and grasses it has withered, in the land it has left naked and brittle, the ‘ware seemed to reach out across time as well as across the space of Africa, blighting the invisible future with its touch. Now, when the rains fall, they do not stay on the land and the soil enriches the water as much as the water the soil. And when the Harmattan winds blow in February and March, soil as loose as chaff at the winnowing flies with them to the west.
In Yatenga this morning, the drought of ten years ago can still be felt For it was a time which gnawed at the very capacity of the land to regenerate itself, just as the decades of erosion of culture and confidence has threatened the powers of recovery of the Mossi.
Hamade Ouedraogo opens his eyes. In the midday heat the tired pallor of the land is returning, its freshness fading as its surface yields up its moisture to the irresistible sun. His eyes travel across to the village, its walls the colour of the soil, its huts and granaries the differently lit facets of that same earth, its thatched roofs graded in shape and colour by the years. In all his gaze, the only alien colour is the blue plastic sheet made from a torn fertiliser bag and stretched instead of thatch over the four poles of a shelter in the fields below.
Hamade stands. In the wrinkles of his knees and ankles the mud has dried to fine lines of clay. In the maize field his two eldest boys, the sons of his first wife, are already bending their backs to the work.
Stepping back over the line of stones, he glances at the areas he has allotted to the boys. The patch from the termite hill to the end of the line of stones is quite a lot for his eldest boy to tire his muscles on in an afternoon. But not, as he has often thought, for a man to feed his family on for a lifetime.
Setting to with a will, Hamade’s daba cuts into the already raw and wounded earth, its blade red and wet as it picks and scrapes at his family land. For some reason his mood has changed, optimism and determination replacing the remembered bitterness of the morning. It is one of those swings of mood which is difficult to ascribe to any particular circumstance, though it may be that working with his sons alongside adds something more than muscle to the task.
Soon the steady economical rhythm of the daba frees his mind for other things, wandering ahead to the Naam meeting under the trees which he and his neighbour will attend this afternoon and to the grain he must bring back. There will be some grumbling at the meeting and the attendance today might be poor. No-one likes to lose time away from the fields when the rain has just fallen and some of the Naam leaders will have had to leave their villages before noon. But tension has been slowly growing between local ORD† officials and the Naam groups and the meeting has been called to clear the air. Hamade’s presence is not essential. He is only the secretary of the Samitaba Naam group and he probably would not be going were it not for the chance to bring the hundred-kilo sack of grain back on the cart.
As they progress towards the narrower end of the field, father and sons gradually converge until they are working almost side-by-side on the land. Before long the three dabas are rising and falling in a common rhythm, a rhythm which no-one wants to break Hamade smiles to himself This is the way to finish a field, the way of the Naam. Slowing down the pace a fraction, conscious for a few more years of his own greater stamina, he remembers the traditional Naams of his own youth
As a way of working Naam means many things in the Moore language. But to those who have grown up in the Mossi culture its meaning needs no explanation. All of the adults, all of the elders, took part in the traditional Naams, working together in unison to hoe the fields of the chief, or of the elderly, or of the sick And its unique place in Mossi tradition is one reason why the fight back of the Mossi of Yatenga against what is happening to their lands and their lives is based on the idea of the Naam. For it is a fight back which is as much to do with arresting the erosion of pride in the culture and capacity of a people as it has to do with arresting the erosion of the land itself.
Hamade is the first to straighten his back. His sons give one or two more blows to the earth and then casually straighten too, faces not showing the pain in bicep and wrist After a few seconds they look back on the land they have turned over. One more session like the last and the field will be done. And as they stand near the end of the patch of land, breathing becoming shallower as the pain mellows to an ache, Hamade remembers the excitement of the Naam, of holding up one of a long line of dabas poised in the air, awaiting the drums. On either side, shoulder to shoulder, the line stretched out across the field, the atmosphere of a festival in the air, boys in their loose blue ‘Kuryogyogo’ and girls arranged in groups of friends who had sewn matching tops and headscarves from the same printed cottons. After an age a hush would fall on the field from nowhere. All eyes catch the movement of the Naaba Bãoogo’s arm as he signals to release the raised hands of the drummers and to the boom of the gãgãado and the calabash bendre and the rattle of the lunga, a hundred dabas fall into the field.
And now the shuffling legs of the village youth are hidden by dust and some dabas rise as others fall, struggling for the beat Suddenly they are all swinging into the earth together in an unbreakable rhythm and confident feet are moving off down the field in time to the music. In front the troubadours step backwards before the advancing line of dabas, the buffalo horn flute flowing behind to link the staccato of the tam-tams. Pursuing them, the dabas rise and fall, preceded by a bow wave of dust and trailing behind a wake of freshly turned soil, as if a plough with a hundred blades, the full width of the field, were being dragged through the earth by the irresistible tractor of the drums.
Just as suddenly the noise would stop and a few straggling dabas would bite audibly into the earth Then backs would straighten as the dust slowly died and heads would turn to see how far they had come. They would be excited and a little embarrassed, exchanging smiles as talk broke out and the skin of the girls shone in the sunlight. Down the line the Weem Naaba walks, the protector of the virgins, solicitous lest a note or a message should be smuggled to any of his charges during the Naam. Soon the line of flashing blades would move off again down the field under the influence of the drums. ‘Stay in step!’ the Toogo Naaba shouts, ‘Watch your neighbour, dabas higher, dabas higher!’ Along the sides of the field, the elders also raise their voices, ‘Wa t’d manne,’ they shout, ‘Come on, let’s work, be proud when you dig’. It had been different, Hamade remembered, in the time of his father. Then they had shouted a new slogan down the line: ‘Koy neere yaa naasara tuumde’, ‘Cultivate well, it is for the white man’.
In two hours a field that would have taken weeks of lonely dispiriting hoeing, a field that would have been too much for limbs grown old or frail was freshly ploughed by the ‘kombi-Naam’, the Naam of the youth. There were many such Naams for different groups and different tasks, many traditional ways — like the Sosoga and the Sõng Taaba — of organising the community’s resources, muscles, experience, crafts, music, into a unity of effort and a pride in achievement And it is from the roots of this tradition that the new Naam movement has grown up in Yatenga.
With a grunt of encouragement, Hamade plants his feet again and brings the hoe up behind him. On the second stroke, his sons fall again into his rhythm, moving down the field towards the end of the day’s work.
ON the road by the village, a donkey and cart comes to a halt where the neere tree casts its broken shade over the red shale. While the boys take the dabas back to the compound, Hamade and his neighbour exchange greetings. In the fields Hamade’s wives glance up, wondering why he is leaving the fields so early on a day when it has just rained. He has not told them why he is going into town anymore than he will tell them that the granaries are running low.
ASSITA and her co-wives are beginning the last line of the millet field, hoeing and scraping hollows at regular intervals. By now rhythm and efficiency are compensating for tiredness as Assita and the youngest wife move together, perforating the earth for the first seeds. Behind them moves the eldest wife, a much-mended calabash held under her hand by a double string running across the back of her knuckles. Expertly the finger and thumb roll the four seeds over the edge of the calabash, dropping them with bent back into the waiting hollow of the earth. Hardly pausing. the calabash moves on, while the first bare footstep shifts the earth back over the hole and the next presses gently down on the planted seeds.
Resting with both hands on top of the daba handle, Assita surveys the stretch of disturbed earth which is the day’s work. But from the earth there is no answering promise that the family of Ouedraogo will reap what they have sown today. For no employer is as fickle, kind or cruel as the rains. If the night’s downpour was a false start, if no more rains fall in the weeks to come, then the same sun which will make these plants push out fresh green shoots will turn and wither them in the ground until their pale brown fingers crumble to the touch. Then, if and when the rains begin anew, the wives of Hamade will return to plant this morning’s field again. And each morning now will see anxious eyes cast to the skies. It is an anxiety which forms an invisible bond extending across the Sahel and even across seas to all those who wait and wonder whether the livelihood earned by labours past will see them through until the rewards of present labour fall due. For those in the cities working for money, it is the anxiety of Friday night’s pay packet almost gone by Tuesday; for those in Samitaba who work for food, it is the anxiety of walking past the falling granaries and wondering whether the remainder of the last harvest will last until the next.
For the moment the anxiety is eased by the beginning of the long process of replenishing the granaries. And for the shy youngest wife in particular, there is pleasure amounting almost to an excitement in the walk back to the village in the company of the two older women. On her marriage to Hamade seven months ago she had felt his first two wives close ranks, sensed that her presence had forged a solidarity between them which had not been there before. They had not been unkind. But, imagined or real, she had felt a sense of exclusion which made worse the loneliness of leaving her own family and village for the first time, like the simultaneous closing of the door from which you have come and the door to which you are going.
Today she had worked unobtrusively hard in the field, neither pausing to rest before the others nor continuing to work when they straightened their backs. Now, tired as they. she is part of what has been done, part of the replenishment of the granaries, part of the solidarity it has created. And walking back, she is part of its conversation too. As the three women approach the village wall, her eyes feel hot with inexplicable tears. Just to be part of this casual intimate talk is all that she has wanted in the last few months. Perhaps it is now rather than at her marriage that a door is opening, her old life ending and her new one beginning. Perhaps this is to be the end of the long homesickness of a fifteen year-old girl.
Inside the village the women pass through the labyrinth of low earth walls to Hamade’s compound. By its entrance stand the three granaries themselves, raised on dusty logs for the air to circulate, secure against rodents and sudden rains. High in the gravelly mud walls through which the ends of wooden beams protrude, a square door of planks, about the width of a man’s shoulders, gives access to the dark womb. To reach the door the smooth and barkless tree trunk lying on the passageway is propped up against the granary wall. Using the fork of the tree trunk as a step, it is just possible to reach the wooden latch of the door.
No woman has ever seen inside these granaries. Not even the first wife. Every morning after the early meal Hamade steps up on the tree trunk and reaches down through the narrow opening into the sweet-smelling belly of the barn. Each morning he fills the same wicker basket, about the size of a baby’s cradle, and hands it to whichever of his wives is on duty for the day. Then the door is latched closed and the tree trunk laid to the ground.
Years ago, in the time of another great drought, there were women who saw that their husbands’ barns were almost empty and who left to return to their own families and villages rather than face starvation in the ‘sesuka’. That was in the reign of the Naaba Koabga, whose name means that he was chief in the year when the price of a sack of millet reached 500 cowrie shells. Such was the shame brought upon the men without enough food in their granaries to keep their wives that the old taboos were revived and the silent perfumed granaries were forbidden to the eyes of women.
Just outside the village wall stands the great grey mortar, the communal ‘toore’, hollowed from the trunk of a grainy tree more years ago than anyone can remember. Banished from the village itself because of the irritating white powder which flies from the stalks and grain at the first rough pounding, the mortar stands outside surrounded by a rough carpet of straw, husk, chaff and peanut shells, all the detritus of the pounding, among which the goats and chickens can always find something else to eat And it is here that Assita brings that morning’s wicker basket of sorghum which must last for three main meals.
Soon the heaviest pestle, smooth like the handles of the dabas, is rising and falling on the soft floury sorghum, thudding into the hard bowl of the mortar with the dull sound of the woman’s drum, jolting the black-red beads of grain from the stalks and sending sudden sprays of powder into the air.
As the pestle passes up and down in front of her face, Assita sees through its movement to the goats browsing through the ‘pagã puugo’, the woman’s field, close to the village walls. This year she will try to plant everything, chillies, onions, lettuce, okra, even groundnuts. But recently every time Assita looks at the women’s plots the same thought occurs: with the new water pump so close by and with the cart for the plantation, the vegetable plot could be watered by hand. And crops could be grown in the dry season. It would be a foolish thing for one woman to attempt A lonely patch of green would only feed the village goats. But if all the women were to water the pagã puugo and if those with adjoining plots were to borrow the money for a fence and pay it back by selling vegetables... once more she makes up her mind that she will say something at the next meeting of the women’s Naam.
After a day in the fields the action of pounding with the ‘tulugo’ is too similar to hoeing with a daba not to be tiring to the arms and back. But after ten minutes the crushed and broken straw has been shaken from its grain. Holding a large calabash bowl high over her head, Assita tips its contents in a long graceful pour, watching the hard grains rattle accurately into the calabash at her feet, while the otherwise imperceptible movement of the air wafts straw and chaff gently to the waiting goats.
Hardly a grain is lost as Assita twice winnows the wicker basket-full and then puts the seeds alone back into the mortar. And now the pounding begins again, this time with a grittier thud as the pestle splits the hard backs of the dark red husks and releases the tiny white grains. But now, at the second pounding. an ache suffuses the arms of Assita as the heavy pestle flies and only rhythm can sustain the effort as the actions of her body merge into the numberless millions of blows struck by the ‘tulugo’ in the hands of Yatenga’ s women while her mind remains separate, hers alone, following its secret path over the contours of her circumstance. And as an old woman pauses on the path to the village, watching the pounding as she catches her breath in rest, Assita thinks of the time when she was watched in all her work, watched by the critical eyes of her husband’s family.
Only by reputation had she known Hamade before their marriage. She knew he was in health and that he was considered a hard worker, prudent by nature and respectful of the traditions. She knew he was thought to be kind and not one to work the earth by beating a wife if she did not hoe a set area of land before leaving the fields. Of this much her parents had satisfied themselves. And Assita had been relieved. For in this one decision almost all the possibilities of her life are circumscribed. And by the ‘furbu’. the benediction of marriage, the lines of happiness and wellbeing on the graph of her life are set on course as much as by the accident of birth itself
Then had come her own inspection by the women of the Ouedraogo family who had watched her as she stood and walked, examined the shape of her breasts and legs; satisfied themselves that her feet were not turned outwards or her toes misshapen; watched to see that she was not ill-mannered and didn’t look at other men; sent her for water to make sure that she did not look at the ground as she walked; even asked her to clap her hands in the air as she pounded the grain with the flying pestle. Anxiously her own mother had tried to make last minute corrections to her upbringing, checked her deportment, urged her to relax the neck and to stoop the head and body in submission, shouting at her not to hold her head back like a man.
But when she had carried water, when of necessity a woman is allowed to keep her back straight and her head high, she had known as all young women know that she was at her most attractive to a man. And she had seen Hamade looking at her and known that her inspection would have a favourable result
After the wedding her husband’s family had invited her to enter the hut of their ancestors. It was their final question. For no woman who was not a virgin would have dared to step inside its darkness. Rather, she would have confessed the name of her lover. Then the man would have been summoned. But after promising to stay away from each other forever, both would have been forgiven.
Assita had stepped inside the hut. Then after months made anxious by the fear of infertility had come her first pregnancy and the birth of Lassana.
‘The water is spilt,’ the elder women had told her when she had lost Lassana, but the jar is not broken.’ Now she thinks of the announcement she must soon make to her husband’s aunt and of what will happen when the other women know that she is pregnant One day soon she will be invited into the kitchen of the first wife and the other women of the compound will talk casually without any allusion to her pregnancy. Suddenly, without warning, one of them will bring an open hand from behind her back and slap the side of her face hard, knocking her across the small room and bringing tears to her eyes. ‘You stole my salt,’ she will shriek, or ‘You hit my child’. Now anything that any of the women has ever suspected her of doing, every grudge that has been harboured will be hurled at her, probably with more, lighter, blows.
As suddenly as it began the flow of abuse will stop and her husband’s aunt, the first to be told of the pregnancy, will come forward to congratulate her on the fulfilling of her duty. Then the other women will surprise and embarrass her with their remembrances of kind things she has done, things she didn’t even think they had noticed. They will in turn parade her good qualities, presenting each one with an example from their own experience. By now very emotional, the praise will also bring tears and then the practical kindnesses will flow: the traditional massage from her husband’s mother; meals made and brought to her by the other wives; gifts from other women in the village, and for her first child there had been protective beads for the hips or a text sewn up in a leather necklace. Best of all, there will be gifts of food from her own mother not spices to make the unborn baby cry, not peanuts which will cause it to be born covered in too much greasy vernix, not eggs which may make the child into a thief, but fruit, milk, rice, nuts, oil and flour in calabashes and enamelled bowls.
Assita’ s thoughts return to the ache in her arms and the wooden mortar where white grains and dark husk now lie in roughly equal proportions. Finally the pounding can cease and the gentler winnowing begins again until the calabash bowl is almost level with white grains and the black cases of their heavier chaff. Crouching on her haunches, Assita begins to slap the orange calabash from hand to hand, jolting and rotating it at the same time, moving with the rhythm of yet another of the dances of her life, working the stubborn husks to the edges of the tilted bowl from which they are shaken, slap by slap, onto the waiting earth. Soon the bowl contains only the white grains, the heart of the matter, the end of the long process which began with the rain and the hoe. Carefully Assita pours them into the metal measuring bowl. If a few too many stalks were put into the wicker basket from the granary this morning, then there will now be a little too much grain for the bowl. Today Hamade’s judgement was almost exact Had there been any over, it would have been saved for the following day. There is no room for fluctuation. The family eats exactly the same amount of food each day. The amount of staples cannot be less or energy will fail. And it cannot be more — not even by one handful — because survival through the sesuka is not a matter of guesswork.
INSIDE her own compound, Assita leans against the kitchen wall for balance as she pulls on her sandals. In front of her stands the huge flat circle of the grinding area, waist high from the ground, into which are set the dozen narrow stones at regular intervals around the perimeter. Until three years ago, Assita would now have faced the hardest task of the day, standing at her own place on the circle, both hands gripping the top of the loose stone, rasping it forwards and scraping it back over the grains on the stone fixed in the circle, grinding the grain to the powder of flour. Even more than usual, she is glad of the mill today.
At the entrance to Hamade’s mother’s kitchen, she is told that her infant son is still sleeping. Already feeling the day’s efforts in her back, she decides to leave him where he is. Her mother-in-law’s calabashes of grain, covered like her own by tucked-in cloths, are picked up by her daughters. At eight years old, both can already carry a calabash on their heads with almost the same assurance as Assita herself.
Less than fifty paces from the village entrance, through which Assita and the two girls are now emerging, the youngest wife is working the arm of the pump with both hands. Today it is her turn to bring in the seven 14-litrejars which will meet the family’s needs. Even more than the grinding, it was this which used to claim the most time and drain the most energy before the well was sunk. As the children go to exchange a few words with their aunt, they pass the small stencilled notice ‘NAAM — UNICEF’, put there when the pump was lowered into the well‡.
It is four years now since the men began to dig. At first the hole had been wide and progress swift as they went through earth and gravel. Then, as expected, the steel spike of the pick had begun to grate and clang against shale and then rock. It was a sound which rang out over the village every day for the next eight weeks as the men went down through the rock itself Only one man at a time could work in the dark funnel and the pick axe handle had had to be shortened by half so that it could be swung in the narrow space. All the men of the Naam group had worked in rotation, each one being hauled out after an hour, smeared in dusty sweat, covered in mud and cut by the chips of flying rock.
After five weeks the anxiety of the village had increased. Everyone had gone about telling everyone else that of course the water was there and that it could only be a matter of a few days at the most But by now the clanging of the pick on rock sounded dead and thin as if it were coming from the distant hills. Gradually in the days that followed, the sound of digging began later and later as more and more water was pulled up by the roped buckets. Soon several hours were spent emptying the well before lowering the first man down with the smooth handled pick. Finally, eight weeks after the digging had begun, came the day when more than a hundred buckets full of water were taken out without lowering the level of the water. The men gathered at the top of the well and shook hands.
A year later Hamade had told her that a pump was coming for the well, though she had not totally believed it until the day it had filled the first jar. The well itself had saved hours of fetching and carrying. Now the pump saves more hours of lowering and hauling.
Joining her daughters and exchanging smiles with the youngest wife, she looks down at the old way; the smooth white log still laid across the dark mouth of the well, the five or six rope-grooves at different depths, the frayed piece of rope still knotted around the wire handle of the sewn inner tube which served as a bucket for the long haul. That same bucket used to have to be hauled up fifty or more times to fill the seven jars, depending upon how quick you were and how much of the water was still left in the leaky rubber bucket when it reached the daylight
At first the new pump itself had attracted all the attention, making the drawing of water quicker and easier and keeping the well water cleaner. But soon the women had come to value the plain cement platform and walls as much as the pump itself. It is dangerously slippery when it gets wet, but it keeps animals away from the water used for drinking and washing; it makes the area easy to swill out and keep clean; it keeps litter and dirt and animal droppings from getting into the well itself, especially in heavy rains like last night; and it channels water down the drain to the open cement trough where animals can drink alone. At the well itself the pump has just filled the last of the large earthenware jars.
The carriers of grain and the carriers of water are headed in opposite directions. The youngest wife, conscious that she might be being watched, carefully shakes some water out of the jar so that it is not brim-full. Deftly she lifts it forward onto the edge of her bent left knee, gripping it by the rim while her right hand quickly wipes the mud from the bottom of the jar and adjusts the coiled scarf on the head. Then in one movement both hands lift the 15 kilo jar into the air as the body moves under it and the knees and back straighten before the arms fall down to the sides and the youngest wife moves away, eyes levelled on the entrance of the village. Assita too moves on, smiling to herself and mentioning to her daughter to stop looking down at the path.
THE struggle of the sesuka is often a calm unhurried struggle with its moments of peace and pleasure, walking across the countryside, taking in its familiar sights and sounds, noticing small changes, falling in with a companion on the way. In good time Isaka transfers the calabash of grain to her hip so that she can bow her head in acknowledgement of an elder coming in the opposite direction along the path. He looks straight ahead but raises his flat palm in acknowledgement, a pair of traditional iron pliers hanging round his neck in case of thorns.
It was in this direction that Isaka used to walk with her daughters, the baby wrapped tightly to her back, collecting guava and baobab leaves, sorrell and tamarind, sticky wizened grapes which they used instead of sugar and the thick yellow cherries which were so delicious that they never lasted until they got back. On the way she had taught the two girls how to recognise each plant and tree, told them how each was cooked and used, made collections to be taken back for the kitchens. Here they had learnt that the neere was never touched for firewood because its seeds bring high prices, that tamarind is as good as salt in millet porridge, that the seeds of the kulbiindu flower growing by the path are used for collecting dust and dirt in the eyes, that it is from the shiny brown karite seeds that their butter comes and their cooking oil and their soap and that it is karite wax mixed in with the mud that makes the floor of their hut easy to swill and clean. Gradually each part of the landscape, each plant and bush and tree, had become a part of their lives as they began to see it through educated eyes. Now there is little left to pick along a path that has been much used since the building of the mill.
Ahead of Assita on the path now is one of the few boys in Samitaba to have been sent to the primary school in the town. There he lodges with his father’s sister, only returning to the village in the holidays. For the last few weeks he had been waiting at home to see whether he had passed the examination to go to the secondary school. Passing meant going to the town, learning French and science, maybe going on to the university in Ouagadougou, perhaps even one day going to Paris. It had been known, and all of these thoughts had gone through his head as the weeks went by. Failure, on the other hand, meant staying in Samitaba to work in the fields or migrating to the town to try his luck wherever he could find it Because of his long absences and his education, he is not really accepted into the community of village boys. But the boy himself is quiet and respectful and his mother and father are well liked in Samitaba And the whole village had quietly hoped with them. When the day had come for the list of successful candidates to be pinned on the notice-board outside the office of the Prefet, the boy had left at dawn to walk into the town. And all those who had seen him go had turned to their neighbours to confide in them the purpose of his journey. It must have been late morning when the boy had finally walked up the few wooden steps to the verandah which runs across the front of the Prefet’s office. With tight jaws he had approached the white paper pinned among the duplicated appointments notices and yellowing government circulars. From inside the half-open doors had come the slow clack of a typewriter and the official sound of a ceiling fan. But his name had not been on the list.
Late that afternoon he had walked back into his village with many eyes on him. He had had the journey to prepare himself but it had not been easy. Later that evening one of the elders, a brother of the chief, had come to the compound to tell his father that he had watched the boy come through the village and go directly to his father’s hut and that he had carried the burden in his mind like a man.
As Assita approaches now, the boy is talking to a much older youth sitting astride a motorbike. It is a young man who has returned from Abidjan for the planting but who is known for his scorn of the village and its ways. To the disapproval of the elders, he doesn’t eat and sleep in the village, preferring to ride into the small town to eat in bars with other young men who are also back from the Ivory Coast for the season. As she passes, he is deriding Upper Volta’s capital city for its few cars, poor roads and low buildings. Even before the harvest the youth will be gone and eventually the day will come when he will no longer return even for the planting. As she passes, Assita suspects that a new ambition is growing already in his young listener as he feeds on the casually offered details of life in Abidjan and runs his eyes over the gleaming Yamaha with the traditional Mossi knife bound by leather thongs to the front forks.
THE TIMING of Assita’s approach to the place where two beaten earth tracks converge into the broad path to the mill is such that she cannot avoid falling into step with the woman now coming along the other path. Greetings are exchanged and Assita explains that her young son is not ill but merely sleeping at her mother-in-law’s house. Her new companion is a large woman dressed in a faded purple fupoko and carrying a brightly patterned enamel bowl on her head-scarf Assita glances sideways at the large silver hoops of the earrings, thin and hard against the fleshy, elaborately-scarred face. It is the face of the traditional healer, the one whose business it is to know how to extract the different properties of plants and herbs; which leaves and seeds and barks to boil for measles, diarrhoeas or whooping coughs; how to use the Neere seeds to take away stomach pains, munmuka bark to treat kwashiorkor, kaga nuts to cure meningitis; how to make laxatives from the tamarind tree, haemorrhoid treatments from the bark of the kagdaga, strength-giving drinks with the bark of calao; how to select the white stones, medical woods and the bones of birds to make the threaded waist-beads and necklaces which ease childbirth and help infants to walk and grow strong teeth. Just as important, she knows the times and the seasons at which leaves must be picked, knows what words must be spoken and at what places offerings of salt must be made to the trees, rituals which give potency to the plants and profitability to the profession, secrets which she will pass on not to her daughter, who will one day leave the village, but to the daughter- in-law who will one day come to stay.
Now Assita is complimented effusively on how well her daughters are growing up and asked, tactfully, if her son is walking yet By the side of the path lizards scuttle away at their approach and the brilliant electric-winged jay launches itself from a bare tree.
Many years ago Assita was also initiated and circumcised by this same woman who had led her, as a child of twelve, to a secret place out in the savannah. Like the other girls, she had had no inkling that the expedition was for any other purpose than the presentation of a belt of beads. But on arrival older women had held her down by her arms and legs, naked over a block of wood. So that her screams would not alarm the other girls waiting nearby, she has been told that her mother would die within twelve months if she cried out as the small sharp iron blade slices through her clitoris into the wood.
Then this woman’s perspiring face had looked up into her own. And now they walk together side-by-side in the warm afternoon sunlight, talking about their children as they carry the white grains to the mill.
After the ‘ko toogo’, the time of ‘bitter water’, their wounds had been bathed twice a day and the days of ‘sweet water’ had begun. The days of congratulations and ointments, praise and encouragement, stories and teachings, good food and lessening pain. And after the final jumping over the fires through the thick smoke in their white dresses, they had returned to the village, to her mother’s embrace, to all the respect and status of adult womanhood.
Ahead of them walk the two girls. Three more years. Perhaps four. And Assita feels again the separation of perception, the oneness of a flowing stream divided into channels which lead only to stagnant pools of doubt, the unresolved struggle whose outcome is already decided. There is no decision to be made. If Assita does not do her duty then one day her daughters will simply disappear, taken by Hamade’ s mother to the camp of the initiation. And she would be right No family, no husband, would accept an uncircumcised girl. It is not because there is a debate or choice that Assita has worked through the issue so many times in her mind. It is because it is a way of coming to terms, of quietening powerful instincts, of giving shape to the chaos which is sometimes provoked in her mind, of teasing advantage out of inevitability.
For Assita herself it had been two weeks in which the axes of fear and pain and hardship in her life had been ritually redrawn in order to prepare her for adulthood, putting for ever into perspective the sufferings and the pleasures of all that had gone before, all that had happened since and all that might happen in the future. It had been the attempt of her elders to prepare and fortify her mind against the hardship and fear which is never far from life in the village and from which the only relief is likely to be the fortitude of one’s own mind. And as the women walk gently to the mill surrounded by the peace of the freshened countryside, Assita’ s thoughts cloud with morbid remembrances and imaginings for her children. She thinks of an infant, unattended for just a moment, crawling towards the open fire where the millet water boils, a wound accidentally made by the daba in a daughter’s foot, the bad tooth which will eventually have to be taken out with the blade of a knife. Gradually her mind wanders through all the dark and sudden possibilities, even going back to memories of her own village and the girl whose hips were not yet big enough to give birth and who was in labour for three days, with the baby already dead inside her, and who finally died herself in the cart, at night, as in desperation they tried to take her into town.
Looking at her daughters, carrying the calabashes on their heads, she also wonders if the time will come again when there is no grain to be taken for milling, a time when they will have to carry on without enough to eat and drink, a time of such hunger and thirst that they will be glad to have water, however filthy, or food, however poor.
And as she looks at them her mind turns to the girls who went through the initiation at her side, remembering them by the names they took for those two weeks, names which have never been used since except among that same group. And as she sees their names and faces she thinks of the bond that was forged between them, the times when she has called or been called by the names known only to them, the occasions when she has given or been given support in times of trouble by that same group of friends who could never refuse their help. All of them she could count on with her life. And as her mind fills again with all that might lie in front of her daughters and the fortitude and support which she herself has needed in her life and which they might need in theirs, she knows that when the time comes she will send them for their belt of beads. And she is easier in her mind.
GRADUALLY the coughing of the diesel engine has been getting louder and now, as Assita and her companion walk into the clearing, they see the mill itself. Around the mud-brick building with its exhaust pipe thudding dirty air into the sky, several other women, most with young children, are already waiting. One of them is Azeto Ouedraogo, the president of the women’s Naam group in the village, whose smile of welcome for Assita dies as she recognises her companion.
The traditional healer pretends not to have noticed as she leans over the walled lower part of the entrance to the queue of calabashes on the mill floor. On the top of the doorway, set into the mud-faced wall, is the stencilled sign, ‘NAAM-UNICEF’. On the open door itself a government poster announces in the languages of Dagara, Fulfulde, Kasena, Gulmarema and her own Moore, ‘If you can read, teach. If you can’t, learn’. Inside, in the semi-darkness, the unfamiliar smell of hot oil and the unnaturally mechanical rhythm of the clicking pistons and the thumping exhaust cloak the seated figure of the miller. Behind him the ribbed drum of diesel oil feeds the bottle-green engine. In front the feeding funnel and the hammering chamber span the horizons of his day. As long as there are customers he will sit here pouring the slightly dampened grains into the wide blue funnel above, filtering the falling sorghum or millet with his fingers as it travels down the metal chute, watching the quiet grey flour flow softly into the enamel bowl by his feet Conscientiously, he keeps one hand in the chute itself, his fingers both controlling the flow and making sure that no coins, sometimes placed on top of the grain itself when it is brought by children, have accidentally been left there to fall into the grinding chamber. It is towards the end of the day and a fine veil of white powder covers the miller’s hair and clothes and spreads its train over the concrete floor of the mill
For a long time Assita had been anxious about depending on the mill For the first two years she had regarded the grinding stones in the compound as her reality and the mill as her transient good-fortune. It would have been foolish to accept glibly that one of the most frequent of her jobs, the hardest and the longest, had been replaced by a walk along the footpath to the mill twice a week. But now the mill has been here almost three years and only for one day has it been out of action. Through the Naam meetings she knows that the small fee which the people of three villages pay to have their grain milled here is more than enough to pay for the fuel, the repairs, and the miller’s wages. In fact it has been announced that the profits from this and ten other mills in the region are now enough to buy another mill for another group of villages. And so gradually she has come to accept the savings of time and the savings of tiredness. In the wet season it means that she spends more time in the fields, planting and weeding and conserving the grain and vegetables. In the long dry months it has meant more time for collecting the ingredients and preparing the more nutritious sauces to go with the basic sagbo, more time to earn money by spinning cotton, sewing blanket pieces together and making shia butter to sell in the market; more time to wean her son than she had for either of her daughters, to boil water and try to keep clean the weaning food saved from the main meals so that she can feed him more frequently; more time to make or alter clothes for the children, to resurface the floor of the hut, to water the trees in the plantation, to help build the new dam, to attend the meetings of the Naam. And Assita smiles to herself as she thinks how her mother-in-law always says that the flour doesn’t taste the same. Assita’s relief she announces that she will call back for the flour as she has to attend someone who has asked for her in one of the other villages which uses the mill.
OUTSIDE she joins Azeto on the bench under the shelter, a thinly thatched roof on four poles, where she is teasingly congratulated on her new friendship with the traditional healer. One of Azeto’s jobs as the leader of the women’s Naam in the village is the dispensing of basic
medicines and first aid from the new medical box+, and despite all the talk at meetings about traditional and modern health care going hand-in-hand, there is little love lost between their respective exponents in the village.
Soon the two friends are deep in conversation At their feet, Assita’s daughters have started a game of thoughtfully picking up strategic pebbles from the twelve scooped hollows in the wooden board kept at the mill. Eventually a third woman arrives, pulling at her waist to untie a large red knot which holds a small baby low on her back.
For Assita these discussions are one of the greatest benefits of the grinding mill and one of the most looked forward to times of the week. Sometimes the two women talk of the rains and the crops and the granaries, or of the Naam group and its plans, or of the buying and selling prices of raw cotton and woven blankets. More often the substance of their conversation is drawn from motherhood, from the wellbeing and health of their families. Apart from the few classes she has been to herself, Azeto also gleans occasional information from other women’s Naam leaders in the nearby villages. And increasingly in the sharing of experience and problems, in the expression of doubts and anxieties, in the giving out of information and opinion, their conversations pursue the different strands in the twisted rope of tension between the old established ways and new untried ideas.
If they talk about pregnancy, then there is a tension between the new suggestion of a little more good food and a little more rest each day and the old way which forbids a pregnant woman to eat eggs or chicken or nuts and expects her workload to continue almost unchanged until labour begins. If it is the birth itself they are discussing, then both of them have heard that the midwife’s hands should be washed with soap, that the cord should be cut with the boiled blade of a sharp knife and that the wound should be wiped with alcohol and covered with clean cloths. But when Assita is delivered in the middle of the dry season, she knows that the cord will be cut with a razor blade, that the wound on the baby’s stomach will be covered with mud and grass and that she could not possibly ask the traditional birth attendant to wash her hands. If it is a question of labour, then she hopes that she will again be lucky and have an easy birth. If not, if the labour is long and difficult, then she will be given sesame seeds and a drink made with the skin of cola nut. After that there may be a glass of water in which her husband’s belt has been soaked. If the labour continues to be difficult it will mean that the baby is not her husband’s and will not be born until she confesses the real father’s name.
If they are discussing breast-feeding, then Azeto has been told that babies should be put to the breast from birth because the yellowish fluid which comes in the first few days helps to protect the baby against disease. In practice Assita knows that her new-born child will be taken away and fed on wegda — sorrel juice and water from the well —for the first three days or given to another breast-feeding woman in the village, until all the yellow fluid, said to be dirty milk, has gone from her own breasts and only the white milk flows.
If it is weaning they talk about then strictly speaking a baby should not be given anything but breast-milk until the age of two. Some now say that the infant will not grow properly unless other food is also given from half way through the baby’s first year. And at whatever time weaning does begin, tradition says that eggs and beans should not be given to a young child. On the other hand, the woman who came to talk to the village Naam group about weaning said that eggs and beans are exactly what is needed.
If one of their children is ill, then the different ideas of what to do are also in conflict more often than not Traditionally, a child with measles should be given neither milk nor meat nor eggs. Others say that good things to eat will help the recovery. If a child has diarrhoea the usual treatment is to stop feeding altogether or to use only the fruit of the baobab tree§. At the classes, Azeto is almost certain that they were told to continue breast-feeding a baby with diarrhoea Or when meningitis and whooping cough spread quickly through families in the dry days of February and March, tradition says they are brought by the colder winds and so it is better for everyone to sleep indoors; while the new view says that the two diseases spread so quickly because so many people sleep close together in the small huts to keep warm in the cool night winds.
If their conversation turns, as it sometimes does, to the question of the initiation and the circumcision, then tradition is insistent on its necessity. But it is also sometimes said, and now widely believed in private, that it is the circumcision which leads to the frequent infections and causes many of the complications in childbirth, including the easy tearing of the tissues. And if they discuss the age at which they hope their daughters will marry, one way says that a girl is ready to have a family at thirteen or fourteen and the other way says that she is not
Assita grips the plastic bangle on her wrist as she shakes her head in response to something that Azeto is now saying. On the floor the girls too are deep in concentration over the sophisticated tactics of staring at the arrangement of the pebbles in the different hollows of the board, trying to decide which pebbles can be safely moved and to where.
Sometimes their discussions help the two women in coming to a decision. After talking it through with Azeto, who had given her the confidence, Assita began weaning her two-year old son after only four or five months, though she had continued to breast-feed him until only a month or two ago. She used boiled water when she could, fed him often and enriched the thin porridge with peanut paste or beans or sometimes an egg. It was a big change. A talk by a visitor to the women’s Naam group, an educated Mossi woman who was sent by the Union of Village Naams, convinced her that the new way of weaning was right But what made it possible was the fact that, like all wives, Assita has her own kitchen area and her own small plot of land outside the village hall. Even now, if she is not satisfied with what her own children have eaten at the communal family meal in the evening, cooked by each of the wives in turn, then she will afterwards take them into her own kitchen and prepare something extra for them from her own stock.
More often the discussions of the two women are circumscribed by lack of information or by the lack of any way of knowing whether the pieces of information they have and the ideas they have heard about are valid and trustworthy. And sometimes their conversations become desultory, enervated by the cutting of the cord between thought and action, by the lack of freedom to do much about the conclusions they might otherwise come to. If it were a conflict between different treatments or methods then eventually information and advice might be accumulated and a decision taken. But both women know that traditions are not medical treatments or opinions. They are part of their society, part of its morality, its religion, its culture. They are parts of the inter-locking jigsaw from which one piece cannot be taken out, changed in shape and pattern and simply reinserted back into the picture of their lives.
This too brings in the horizons of action almost close enough to touch. Assita has thought often recently about the time six months from now, in the middle of the dry season, when she will give birth to a child. Of all the things she has heard about, things which some say ought to be done at the time of her delivery, there is only one that is within her power to do anything about She will make sure that she has a clean sheet to put on the floor.
This afternoon Azeto is more optimistic. Perhaps it is because she has a little more scope for action that her thoughts find it easier to breathe. Being chosen as the spokeswoman for the forty-two women in the village Naam has given her some small purchase on the community. And being the person responsible for the Nivaquin has probably given her more. With the rains come the mosquitoes, breeding on stagnant pools. And from June to October, malaria invariably travels across Yatenga No other illness kills as many infants in the villages of Upper Volta And even among the adults, the disease saps the strength at the very time when it is needed in the fields. But in the last two rains, Nivaquin tablets have been available from Azeto Ouedraogo. Six cents buys five months’ treatment — half a tablet a week — for an infant Ten cents is enough to protect an older child. Assita now has to move up to the 25 cents for the three tablets a week which is the dose for a pregnant woman. With the money Azeto gets into town and restocks the medical box. And there is no longer any argument in the village about the effect. Malaria, the most important disease in the country, is both less common and less severe than it was.
This afternoon Azeto has been saying that she would like to do more than sell tablets. But two weeks training are not enough to do much. In theory, she can refer people to the medical centre in the town. In practice two hours walk to the centre ends in more hours of queuing to see the one male nurse who has to get through two hundred patients a day and is well known for his short temper.
More realistically, there is the possibility of organising vaccinations for all the children in the village. The immunisation team will come — and they will need to come three times over a year— if on each occasion they can be sure to find all the women with all their children in the same place at the same time. Confident in the Naam group, Azeto has committed herself to organising the attendance if the team will come. But only to Assita has she confided her idea of somehow starting some kind of village health centre right here under the shade, outside the mill itself, where most of the women frequently come with their children anyway and where most of them have to wait as the two friends are waiting now.
On the floor at their feet one of the twins is busy pounding a piece of shale into a flour of red powder on the hard earth. ‘Can I borrow some salt?’ asks her sister, pretending to arrive at her door. ‘No you can’t,’ she is told, go to your mother’s house for a change, no-one lends me anything when I run out’. A small boy crawls towards them seeking entry into the game and crying to attract the girls’ attention. ‘Be quiet,’ says the other twin. ‘I’ll give you my breast in just a minute’.
Assita and Azeto are listening now to the shy young woman. Her first baby, a boy, is six months old and she too has been wondering what to do about weaning. As Assita advises her, the baby begins to try to suck at the mother’s breast through her yellow T-shirt Automatically, his mother lifts the shirt and offers the breast. But by now the baby has decided against it, turns away and tries to focus his large clear eyes on the noise of the mill. His skin shines with health and his body is sleekly rounded. But, almost inevitably, as infancy comes to an end and childhood begins, his shining health will fade. Around the shelter and the mill, children of all ages sit or play. Most have the swollen bellies of bilharzia, ascariasis, or hook worm. Many have the umbilical hernia of a stomach wall which has never properly healed since birth. Many also are under-weight for their ages and have sores at the edges of their mouth. Others sit on the ground without playing, listless and dulled, not even bothering to brush the flies from their eyelids, their bodies trying to defend weight and growth by reducing the expenditure of energy.
Almost unnoticed an elderly woman, bent by a lifetime of bending, approaches the group. She pauses for a moment, listening to Assita, her own troubled breathing audible under the shelter. Her eyes, in a face as weathered and lined as the ancient village mortar, are alive with concentration as she bends towards the group. ‘Only these, only these’ she says, suddenly taking hold of the empty skin of her own breasts. The women pause respectfully. After a silence in which only her own breathing and the insensitive thud of the diesel engine can be heard; she explains to the younger women that only breast milk is to be given until the child is two and that it is forbidden for a woman to have sexual relations with her husband during that time. More kindly, she explains that she has lived a long time, that she has seen it often before, that if another baby comes within two years then they will have to send the first child back.
A silence follows her unequivocal pronouncements as the elder’s eyes question theirs. And in the silence the woman moves on. From the opposite direction a small boy, sent by the miller, comes to tell the two women that their flour is ready.
THE way which leads from the mill via the dam and the cart-track is a slightly longer way home for both Assita and Azeto but it allows the two women to walk most of the way together and the two girls to go for a swim. Covering the flour carefully with cloths tucked in around the rim of the bowls, the group gradually leaves the clearing and takes the downward path for the dam.
As they leave the sound of the diesel engine behind, Azeto mentions that the miller, a young man who lives in Somniaga, is gradually going deaf. For two hours after the end of each working day ordinary conversation is lost on him. Azeto had asked about it today but his only reply had been that he was very happy with the job.
Long ago it had been thought that the miller might be a woman. After all, the mill reduces the amount of physical strength required to grind the grain. And it is a job which has been the sole preserve of women across the centuries. But now there is machinery and money and prestige involved and so there were a thousand reasons why a woman could not be a miller. Instead it was decided that women should participate fully in the running of the mill. Indeed they were placed in the majority of six to two on the Naam committee which manages the mill’s operations. The two women smile to each other as they recall this decision. In practice the two men participate in the machinery and the money and the women participate in sweeping and cleaning the millhouse and keeping it free of dust. No, not quite true, says Azeto. It was the women who suggested that the wáré board should be kept at the mill and that the lower part of the doorway should be bricked in with a low wall so that they could relax as they waited without worrying about children playing near the machine.
ON THE PATH under the wall of the dam Assita walks alone as the light begins to fall. Her daughters are already bathing near the edge of the lake and Kaleza has just set off on the path around the edge of the small lake to her own compound. Looking up at the great bank of boulders, purple in the evening light, Assita remembers how the men had to be shamed into building the dam of which they are now so proud. No one knows how many stones are in the wall of the dam, perhaps more than 20,000, each just big enough to be carried on a woman’s head.
Before the dam water had run down from the hills after the rains and a stream had flowed through the shallow valley. In the days following the downpour the stream would dwindle to a trickle and finally stagnate in pools which slowly disappeared to leave only muddy depressions in the land. But whether it had flowed on to the South or sunk down into the earth, the water had passed uselessly by Samitaba Meanwhile buckets had to be drawn by hand to water the animals, animals which stayed in the village, mooching by the wells, bringing parasites and dirt and disease to the compounds as they mixed with the water that was used for drinking and cooking. In the dry season, when the water had disappeared entirely from the wells themselves, tins and jars had to be fetched from four kilometres away. And even in the rains the well remained deep because the water flowed away in the rivers before it had the time to sink through the compacted earth, percolate through the porous rocks and replenish the ground waters of Yatenga Meanwhile the rains from the hills flowed by.
Building a dam across the course of the stream had been postponed as often as it had been discussed. But finally, in the dry season of two years ago, the women’s Naam of Samitaba had met and announced that if the men would not build a dam to hold the rains then the women would begin to build it themselves. It had not been a bluff but it had worked anyway. Over the long months of the dry season the Naam groups of Samitaba and three other nearby villages had organised the four-kilometre trek to the distant hills, arranged for food to be brought out and for griot drummers to beat the time. Even the children of seven or eight years old had carried back the smaller rocks, walking in a line behind the adults carrying the heavier stones.
After a year the question of the Samitaba dam had been brought up at a meeting between ‘Six S’ and the Federation of Naam groups in the nearby town. There it was decided that the three village Naams had proved themselves. A week later the ten-ton ‘BEN’ truck, one of the few in the whole of Yatenga, had lumbered down the shale road to the half-built dam. A crowd had gathered round the huge vehicle as the driver and his assistants swung open the high cabin doors, marked with the blue emblem of UNICEF, and begun to undo the chains on the tailboard. On the back were shovels and picks, carts for towing stones, bags of high resistance Portland cement from Abidjan for the facing wall and the two motor pumps from Titao to be used for pumping water to mix the cement Unloaded, the truck had been guided across the open land of hard shale towards the hills, carrying the men. On its return carrying over 500 rocks, it had found the rest of the Naam members waiting to unload the stones onto carts to tow them into position on the dam.
Assita comes to the end of the path under the great bank of silent stones and turns towards the village. For most of the year there will be a lake here behind the dam. The cattle will water themselves and the village will be a cleaner and healthier place. For Assita, this alone would have been reward enough.
For two years after the dam was built the level of the water in the village wells themselves did not change. But now the talk in the surrounding villages is that the water is rising in the wells again and that the season when there is no water at all is getting shorter because the dam is holding the water until it sinks through the earth.
Eventually, as the dry season wears on, the wells will again go dry. But for a while at least the water stays behind in the dam. Hoisted out in buckets and filtered through fine cloth, it loses much of the reddish-colour which gradually increases as the level of the lake falls. In the end even the lake disappears and the struggle for water is as it always was.
But when, after months of nothing but dust and parched colours, the rains finally fall and a lake forms behind the dam, it is as if their labours have been miraculously performed all over again. The women come to wash their clothes here or walk back this way from the mill or just stroll by its edge for a few minutes in the early evening. Quickly ‘going to the dam too much’ has become village parlance for laziness.
For a few more moments Assita waits by the lake for her daughters. The hard white sun has glared all day on Yatenga and she is glad to rest her eyes on the water. The sky is turning through purple now as evening falls. Over the surface of the lake a special silence seems to carry each sound separately, as if it were something distinct and precious in itself And as she waits, she hears even the faint snap of a swallow’s beak as it takes an insect low over the water.
On the road some distance away Assita sees a cart passing slowly by. Recognising the silhouetted figure of Hamade, she moves to walk towards the roadside thinking to ride back with him the rest of the way. Then she remembers that he will almost certainly have a sack of grain with him on the cart and decides to let him go back alone.
Brittle laughter comes from the direction of the village now and Assita looks across the slope to see the figures of boys lighting handfuls of straw as they surround the ancient termite hill. Tonight the termite flies which fill the air in ephemeral thousands a few hours after the rains will add variety to the meals in some of the compounds. As she approaches up the slight slope, the boys are closing in on the termite hills, buildings without architecture, which line the pathway to Samitaba. Fatally attracted by the light of the burning straw, the termites fly into the flames and fall in their hundreds as their wings frizzle. On the ground eager hands scoop their insect bodies into waiting bowls. Back in the village there will be laughter soon as the boys try their hand at winnowing, pouring the insects from a great height for the slight wind to blow away their singed wings. Then their mothers will do the cooking, stirring them in an iron pot, knowing that they will make the children sick unless they are roasted until thoroughly dry.
Entering the village, Assita and her daughters become conscious of their hunger as the smell of cooking comes from all quarters. Tonight in their own compound she has more than a suspicion that there will be chicken to celebrate the rains.
LATER that night, after the evening meal, lying awake in her own hut with the very last of the evening light just visible, a halo around the rush door, Assita resolves that tomorrow will be the day to visit her husband’s aunt with the news. Sleep is coming now and the aches in her body are almost pleasant. At her side her small son turns over in his sleep. The child ate well tonight and she was pleased that Hamade had taken some notice of him. He had even given him some pieces of white meat. She had been right about the chicken. Two had been killed and cooked by the eldest wife. Hamade had seemed cheerful and said something about vegetables and seeing men with hands cut by the wire they were making into fences. They had all watched as the breast and the legs and wings were given to the men and the elders. Suddenly, she remembers that she has forgotten to put the guinea fowl eggs into the hens’ nests. It will have to be done tomorrow if there are to be more chickens. Guinea fowl are such bad brooders. The neck and the feet and the innards had been given to the children while the women had sucked at the bones and drunk a little of the water in which the carcass had been boiled. When the guinea fowl hatch she will have to remember to take the chicks from the hens straightaway. Then they will have to be fed on chillies and water for a while. It’s time the hens’ eggs hatched, too. Tomorrow she will put them into the big clay jar with the holes in it, the one she used to use for steaming until it got cracked. None of the pots seem to last as long as they did. Then the eggs can be put inside on the soft bed of old cotton seeds pulled out at the spinning. The heat will be sure to hatch them again. Very softly rain is beginning to fall in heavy drops on the thatch. Tomorrow she will go to her husband’s aunt to tell her the news. Then there will be no more eggs for a while…
* The inferior red millet is used for making ‘dolo’ the local millet beer. The more respectable white millett is used for making flour.
† The Organization Regionale pour le Developpement is the government body responsible for rural development activities in the eleven regions of Upper Volta
‡ In response to the problems of finding a pump which is inexpensive , easily manipulated, and strong enough to withstand continuous community use, UNICEF and the Government of India have worked together in recent years to develop the India Mark II hand pump. Over 100,000 India Mark Iis are now in use in the villages of India itself and the first field trials for Africa were conducted in Upper Volta. This pump is one of many now in operation in West Africa.
+ The medical box at Samitaba, as in other villages of Yatenga, was given tot he federation of Naam groups by the World Council of Churches. The WCC also pays the salary of a full-time Naam worker whose job it is to give classes to women’s Naam members responsible for the medical boxes and to advise the Naam groups on health and nutrition matters. The training of this advisor, and some of the basic drugs, were provided by UNICEF.
§ The fruit of the boabab contains calcium, vitamin C, tannin, sugar and mineral slats, making it a good absorbent and a helpful treatment for childhood diarrhoea.
I would also like to thank Ahmed Mostefaoui, Regional Director for UNICEF West Africa, and Stanislas Adotevi, UNICEF Resident Programme Officer in Upper Volta – and their staffs – for their co-operation and help. Similarly, thanks tare due to the staff and members of ‘Six S’ and the Naam movement in Yatenga. In particular Bernard Ledea Quedraogo, founder of the modern Naam movement , and Ramata Sawadogo Naam health and education officer, were generous with their time and their patience. Whilst stressing that this report is the responsibility of the writer alone, my thanks also to Margaret Murray Lee and all those who helped her to so thoroughly check the accuracy of this account, and particularly of its descriptions of Mossi culture and custom.
Finally, I would like to express my admiration and thanks to the villagers of Yatenga themselves who welcomed me into their homes and gave me their time and help.
This special report appeared in the the rains - a report from a village in burkina faso issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.
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