Burden of dreams
An emotional arrival...
Three children too many...
One of two wives in a second-best marriage...
Houses changing shape
- is that progress or a problem?
A teenager is leading me through the two kilometres of open country that separate the outlying district of Bidiga, where I am to live, from the centre of Sabtenga. I need his guidance. I thought I would remember my way but I haven't a clue which path to take. To Westerners the word 'village' conveys a clump of houses clustered around a road or central square. That doesn't begin to conjure up Sabtenga, whose 5,000 inhabitants sprawl over a vast area, each living in complex warrens of huts, yards and passageways called concessions. These concessions can house anything between 10 and 100 people - they can be a bit like a village in themselves and are separated from the neighbouring concession by anything from twenty to hundreds of metres of rough, baked earth.
Identifying Mariama's concession would have been just as impossible, though I recognize the huge tree at its entrance as I pass. This is dressed not only in leaves but in wrinkled skin - hundreds of bats hang from its upper branches and burst into alarming life every evening the moment the sun takes its leave of the horizon.
To tell the truth I am a bit nervous - I am approaching the key moment in this whole adventure, since it was Mariama's insights that opened the door for me on the life of the village ten years ago. She is pleased to see me and gives me an enthusiastic kiss but after that I think neither of us knows quite what to do. She looks a touch more careworn - but nowhere near as much as I do (a soldier at the airport looked at the fresh-faced photo in my passport and then back at me about five times in half-feigned incredulity).
We sit down in her courtyard and exchange the most basic news while she pummels at some millet for the evening meal - the everyday staple in the village is a thick, sticky millet porridge or t™, chunks of which you dip into a thin vegetable sauce. Her younger children pull at and clamour round her as she works.
Ah yes, those younger children. When I was here ten years ago Mariama told me clearly that she didn't want any more than the four children she then had. It was a matter of some urgency for her since the traditional period of grace for a mother after the birth of a child was coming to an end - she knew that Issa, her husband, would soon be resuming his visits to her hut. The familiar sickness and swelling would follow as inevitably as night follows day. She knew they had pills to stop pregnancy in the capital but what use was that here? I remember feeling desperate to think of some way out for her but without contraception her only hope was to persuade Issa that another child would not be a good idea.
The inevitable happened and she now has seven children. She is unusually lucky that all her babies have survived - her co-wife Alia, for example, lost four of her seven children. But there is a flipside to this luck: Mariama is an active, intelligent woman who feels besieged by her smaller children and who is desperately conscious of the burden of feeding so many.
'I wanted to stop at four,' she tells me the next day when we are a bit more used to each other again. 'But it wasn't possible. First Issa didn't want to stop. And second there were no pills in the village.' It seems contraceptives only became available a year ago - and even now they are used by only 12 women.
Mariama's story seems to scotch one myth about population: the one which says that people without contraceptive technology will find some natural method of their own. True, the Bissa had evolved a method of birth spacing through the husband's sexual abstinence for two years after the birth. But in this case a woman who was absolutely convinced that she didn't want more children was unable to prevent their coming. 'It's children that drain a woman and exhaust her,' she says.
But for Issa the drain on his wife counted less than the potential help in the fields later on - the traditional peasant argument in favour of more children. Now, ten years and three children later, he is finally convinced that another mouth to feed would be bad news. So perhaps Mariama's tired body will get some rest. But it's a sad, sad thought that she's been subjected to so much.
I think Issa always knew he was getting an unusual package when he took Mariama as his second wife. She says he understood from the start, even as a man who had to live and die by farming his own land, that Mariama would not work in the fields - that she never had and never would. What he was getting instead was a woman of ability and outspokenness - qualities other men would not necessarily have valued in a wife and which won her election to the village's Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, established by Sankara to challenge the conservative power of rural chiefs.
When I first met her she was 28: tall and slim, still young despite her four children and with a face so infused with life that it looked all the time as though she were poised on the brink of laughter. All the same, she made no bones about telling me how hard she found life in the village, which she contrasted with her childhood memories of rain and plenty in the nearby town of Garango.
Her father had served as a soldier with the French in Vietnam and gained financial security as a result. And he had marked that in the traditional fashion by taking four wives, so there had always been plenty of brothers and sisters around to play with. He was also a devout Muslim - and this turned out to have a profound impact on the course of his daughter's life.
By the time Mariama was 17, the traditional age for a Bissa woman to marry, she had fallen in love with a young gendarme in the town. But it was a doomed affair. The fact that he was from a Catholic family might not have presented an insuperable obstacle - Catholics and Muslims live happily cheek by jowl in the village and, provided the woman (never the man) is prepared to adapt, marriages between the communities are not uncommon. But the gendarme was an atheist and Mariama's father absolutely ruled out the idea of a son-in-law who did not pray. She did not even think of standing out against her father's judgement: the marriage she preferred was simply not to be.
Instead she had no alternative but to marry another, older suitor who already had one wife. It could have been much worse. Issa was a quiet man of 30 whom she knew would be steady and never beat her. Besides, there was at first the excitement of cosmopolitan Abidjan, capital of Cote d'Ivoire. But after two years Issa's father died and they had to return to Sabtenga so he could become head of the family. It is still a source of regret that they did not have time to build up more savings to underpin their lives as subsistence farmers.
This notion of material comfort as something that comes from Cote d'Ivoire or Ghana is ubiquitous in the village. The community lives by subsistence agriculture - people grow enough millet to see them through the year during the rainy season that stretches from May until the harvest in September. Surpluses can be sold to raise cash but surpluses are rare. Instead young men still follow the model set when the French used what is now Burkina Faso as a pool of forced labour for the resource-rich coastal areas. They set out in search of work on the plantations or in the cities. Some never come back. Some go just during the dry season when no useful work can be done in the fields. Some build up a nest-egg to the point where they can return and set themselves up with a wife (or three).
It's odd witnessing the effect of such cash infusions over a long period. If I were visiting Sabtenga for the first time now I would probably just be struck by the hardship of subsistence life. Yet having known the village ten years ago I can't help but be struck by signs of material progress that I hadn't really expected to find.
Ten years ago, for example, I was desperately aware of people's backbreaking labour in the fields. They walked kilometres to reach their fields then bent double to hack at the bitter earth with their dabas (small hoes). 'Can't they get any help at all with this work?' I remember thinking, being more used to Asia, where oxen pulling ploughs are the norm.
To my surprise, the ox and plough have now arrived in Sabtenga. By no means all households have them - and Issa and Mariama are among those who cannot yet afford them. But many households do have oxen, as well as donkey carts in which to bring the harvest back from the fields - a significant advance for women, who used to carry it in vast bundles on their heads. Those who have managed to buy an ox can also cultivate a much larger area, which is especially important when the fertility of the soil is declining. The other family I knew best ten years ago was that of Zenabou and Adama, about whom we made our film. They now have no less than 12 oxen and in material terms are pulling away from their neighbours.
As this suggests, a gap between 'rich' and 'poor' is beginning to open up within the village - and as in all societies, the awareness of your own poverty becomes more painful when someone else's relative prosperity is staring you in the face.
Even the houses now testify to this. Ten years ago people lived as their foreparents had since time immemorial - in concessions composed of small round huts with conical thatched roofs. I certainly had no thought that this traditional housing was likely to change. Yet it has.
They are still building with mud, which is softened with well-water then poured into a mould to form a brick that hardens in the sun for a day. When they have enough bricks they use mud as mortar and build up a rectangular house which is roofed with sheets of corrugated iron.
I am used to decrying corrugated iron as a terrible sign of Westernization in a tropical clime - it is an expensive, industrially produced item which invites rather than repels the heat. But you have to listen to what the villagers say. They know full well that corrugated iron makes their houses hotter. But it will not leak during the rains as even the best thatch is liable to - and it will last for fifteen years instead of just two. Even more to the point, the high-quality straw traditionally used for roofing is becoming impossible to find in the bush.
If I come back in another ten years I may well find only donkeys in thatched huts. That will certainly be so if the villagers have any choice in the matter, since only the lack of money to pay for corrugated iron stands in their way. As a result the village will look altogether less picturesque to Western eyes. But people will probably be happier in homes which are more spacious, more durable and, sad to say, more free from the connotation of poverty now attached to the traditional houses.
Mariama is certainly in no doubt. A box topped with corrugated iron might seem to us a questionable improvement. But to her it would be a palace. She has vivid, longing dreams about living in it - literally her dream home.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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