‘You whites – your skins are like those of new-born babies,’ says Mariama one day, the day we walk seven kilometres through the bush in the midday heat to the neighbouring village of Sago. ‘Ours are tough.’ This emphasis on my difference becomes a recurring theme, which isn’t exactly what I’d intended.
My main reason for returning to Sabtenga, after all, was to stress the human connection between people on either side of the Great Divide. And it’s true that the cultural changes in the village over the last ten years – the impact of modernization, really – have, for good or ill, rendered people more comprehensible and closer to us.
Yet throughout my time in the village my most vivid feeling is one of pain and embarrassment at the vast economic chasm between us. I write about the interaction between rich world and poor world all the time – that’s my job. But I have never before felt my nose so pressed up against the glass that separates us, been so acutely conscious of how much I have in material terms compared with all the people around me.
I have brought with me, for example, some photos showing my life in England – my partner and children, my house and car, my daughter’s school, the NI office and team, a typical supermarket, a double-decker bus and so on. I knew people in the village would be fascinated by these and that they would help me to re-establish a connection with them. And I was right about that. But my primary purpose in showing people the photographs – to build a bridge of understanding between their world and ours – is consistently frustrated.
People are staggered by the sheer wealth of the world revealed by the snapshots. And for many of them it is as if they take the photos as a personal reflection upon their own poverty. Mariama’s habitual sigh of ‘c’est pas facile’ (it’s not easy) becomes almost a mantra as she looks at them – and she tells me straight that this verbal reflex is a comment on the hardship of her own life. Another time she asks me if I think her house is as beautiful as she thinks mine is. What can I say? To say yes I find it beautiful (as I do in one sense) would be a condescending insult in this context. It would be more honest to talk about slavery, the colonial century and the foundation they have provided for my own comfort. I manage to escape without answering.
The place where the photos really do their job is in the lesson I give about life in England to the oldest class in the village school. This produces some lively interest – and some illuminating questions once the children overcome their inevitable reticence. How do you hunt? How do you keep animals? How do you eat? Do you fetch wood for your fire? Do you have wells? What do children wear to school? Are their teachers like ours? Do you have Peulh (nomadic pastoralists)? Do you have black people? Are black people accepted by white people? Do you carry babies on your backs like we do?
The school is a breeze-block building containing three classrooms. There should really be six classes here corresponding to the six years of primary education but in the absence of a second building the school can only take in new seven-year-old pupils once every two years. On the day of admission prospective pupils queue up and the first 64 are admitted for an education; the 50 or so others simply have to do without.
The Government has promised that it will provide three more teachers’ salaries if the villagers can erect a second three-classroom building. So back in 1992 villagers got together to pay for and work on the foundations of this second school building – they knew they would have no chance of getting money from outside unless they showed this collective commitment. And despite lobbying of government and foreign aid agencies in Ouagadougou, there is still nothing but the foundations in place. Meanwhile every two years 50 of Sabtenga’s children are left with no education. All for want of $22,000, little more than my partner and I just paid to convert the loft of our house into an extra bedroom.
The children sit at desks ranged in rows of three along both the long sides of the room, with blackboards at each end. Given the class size of more than 60 it’s hardly surprising that the teaching methods have to be quite traditional. The teacher stands up front and runs the children through their paces. And the teacher I watch in action – Idrissa Ky, a tall and good-looking 34-year-old man from the Samo people on the other side of the country – seems pretty good to me. He is clearly in control, but his firmness is balanced by his careful and patient explanations.
The children range from 11 to 15 years and look an average enough cross-section of the village. They are doing mathematics, which is not my strong suit, but to me the standard seems surprisingly high, especially since they are coping with it in a foreign language (all education is in the former colonial language, French). Now I see the bridge those dusty, snotty kids running around outside cross over to become the sharp teenagers with whom I discuss things in the evenings.
The missing link personified is perhaps Zenabou’s daughter Salamatu. She was just a toddler hanging on her mother’s breast ten years ago – there was a magical scene in the film when the two of them watched the first long-awaited raindrops falling. Now Salamatu has bright and lively eyes and radiates an enthusiasm for learning which is truly heartening – one day she proudly recites a poem to me on the way home from school. On another occasion she demonstrates her reading, using a grotesquely inappropriate textbook full of white children and Parisian landmarks. This must have dated from her parents’ schooldays since now the texts are impeccably Africanized – though the exercise books the children use (from Côte d’Ivoire) are covered with pictures of black Americans like Michael Jordan and Whitney Houston. Salamatu’s bears the words of rap artist Kris Kross: ‘I’m the wrong brother for suckers to be messin with/ Cos when I put the mike in my hand I start wreckin it.’ How appropriate...
I ask Salamatu’s father Adama if he will be prepared to pay for her to attend secondary school in Garango if she is one of the 15 or so who pass the national exam at the end of six years’ village schooling. He says he will, which is encouraging in itself since there are only 14 girls in a class of 64 in Garango at the moment. This is partly due to parents not placing high value on a daughter’s education. But it is also because girls imbibe early on the idea that education is not for them. Salamatu’s half-sister Rasmatu, for instance, used to leave home with her satchel simply to hide in the bush all day. Last year the teachers threw her out.
Education can be a route out of poverty in any society. And many parents are now aware that the sacrifices involved in paying for their children to be educated will pay dividends later on. Take Francois Moné, one of Sabtenga’s most prominent sons, who passed a national exam to become an army pilot and now travels regularly in Africa and Europe for work. He maintains a very decent lifestyle in the capital and has enough left over to pay for new-style houses for some of his older relatives.
But the investment is harder for some than for others. Habibu is a widow who pays for her son Momini to go to secondary school. She lives just down the hill from me and early on in my stay I arrange for her to provide me with an evening meal in return for a decent daily sum. I feel this is the best way to cope with the economic divide between me and the village: to pay well over the market price for any services I receive, like Habibu’s meals and Mariama’s translation.
But otherwise I generally refrain from giving people money – rightly or wrongly I feel that once the dam of this rule bursts, I will find myself in serious trouble. The money backing me up effectively makes me a kind of god. So little in my own society’s terms could make so much difference to people here. But I find myself utterly incapable of making godlike decisions. How can you give money to a boy to repair the bike he needs to get to school when an old woman elsewhere in the village is on the brink of starvation? How do you decide whom should take priority?
I find it unbearable living alongside human beings who live so close to the edge, where people periodically die of hunger or disease born of plain and simple poverty. I have reluctantly got used to the idea that developing countries cannot afford to provide a safety net: you look after yourself or you die. But somehow ten years ago I – romantically – came to think of the concession as the very embodiment of the extended family. I assumed that if a person fell on hard times someone else in the wider family would rescue them.
But it doesn’t work like that. The sad and terrible fact is that people here live so close to the brink themselves that they can’t afford to take responsibility for each other’s misery – and this lesson of tough peasant stoicism must be etched on their bones. What right do we have to say it should be otherwise, given the hardship we gloss over in our own societies, let alone in these other quarters of the world?
Habibu is a classic case of someone truly on her own. Her husband Tasseré was poisoned in Abidjan – a mysterious case involving a curse and some of the old magic, by her account – and died back in the village after a year of her nursing him. Now she must simply grow enough for herself and her three children to eat all year from her own fields – and try to cook things for sale in the market to raise the cash needed for Momini’s schooling. Life could not be harder and she has an air of weariness about her all the time. One night as the light from the kerosene lamp falls on her face, looking for all the world like she is in a painting by de La Tour, I ask about her hopes and dreams for the future.
‘Just for us all to be healthy,’ she says. ‘And for Momini, who is my great hope, to find a job that will make us all secure.’ It’s a tough burden for a teenage boy to bear. And with the Government now going down the IMF/World Bank road of structural adjustment – while at the same time turning a blind eye to corruption and nepotism – the salvation of secure employment is unlikely. Educational qualifications simply do not lead to jobs even to the extent that they used to ten years ago. Politicians and businesspeople in the capital are now buying their relations the new posts.
I would be duping you and betraying the people of the village if, in my concern to look for hopeful stories, I did not tell you that the material gulf between our lives and theirs is obscene. Not all the world’s people can live like we do – but we could still have a decent life while giving the people of this village, this country, this continent, this Majority World, the fairer deal that ought to be their birthright. As Thomas Sankara said once: ‘Whilst elsewhere people die from being too well-nourished, here we die from lack of nourishment. Between these two extremes there is a way of life to be discovered if each of us meets the other halfway.’