Local Heroes


Having their say: villagers from all over the province at the Dakupa assembly.

I return from Sabtenga full of hope not just because of the positive changes in areas such as water, health, education and communication but also because many of those changes have arisen out of grassroots collective action.

‘Grassroots participation’ is one of those buzzword phrases that crops up all over the place in development literature. You will find hymns to it in stodgy reports from the World Bank, in UN conference plenaries and in NGO newsletters.

Much of the time you can take it with an extremely large pinch of salt: it is lipservice paid to the interests of locals by bigwigs in Washington or Brussels who have no intention whatsoever of relinquishing their power.

All the same, as a general rule, voluntary aid is most likely to reach the people who really need it if it is channelled through small organizations that remain close to and understand local needs and priorities. There are at least two such NGOs based in Garango now, serving villages around it like Sabtenga.

Dakupa was just starting out when I was last here and my high hopes for it then have certainly been realized. The word _dakupa_ means ‘solidarity’ in Bissa and, from what I have witnessed, the organization seems to be a model of democratic, responsive community action. Among its many activities are storing 1,000 tonnes of cereals that can be called on in an emergency, installing pumps and latrines, and offering microcredit to its members.

There is a long waiting list of villages that would like to join Dakupa – at least 100 more at the last count – but up to now the organization has decided not to expand any further so as not to endanger its present democratic structure, based on an assembly of representatives from the 38 villages it works with. There is an intriguing parallel between this and the New Internationalist, which has resisted growing above 20 staff members on the grounds that if we were bigger we would find co-operative working (at least along current lines) much more difficult.

Dakupa’s co-ordinator, Yacouba Zeba, is a big man in more ways than one but his most important job over the years, he says, has been to make himself loom less large. ‘The best thing of all is that I’m no longer seen as Jesus Christ – you know the kind of thing: here’s Zeba, the man who is going to save us all. At the outset, people really did seem to want to see it like that and I worked very hard to shatter that image. Today, if you ask in Sabtenga or any of the other villages, they won’t say Dakupa is Zeba; they’ll say it’s us, the 38 _groupements villageois_.’

‘The New International Economic Order for which we are fighting... will never be the result of some big power’s generosity.’

Thomas Sankara, to the UN General Assembly in October 1984.

The other local NGO that I encountered also has a long waiting list of villages wishing to join, and does not currently work in Sabtenga. Association Bissakou-Pou was set up in 1986 and its three priorities are the environment, AIDS and poverty, in that order.

I’m particularly interested in talking to its staff about the environment, as it’s difficult to get a clear sense of the local situation from my periodic visits. This is the first time I have ever been here at the end of the rainy season, for example, so the whole landscape looks incomparably more green and fertile than it ever has before; yet that belies the worsening position overall. The Government’s ‘8,000 Villages, 8,000 Forests’ campaign that was in train 10 years ago has, they say, been an utter failure and the environment has deteriorated over the past decade both in terms of deforestation (by which is meant tree and vegetation cover) and soil erosion. But they bear out the villagers’ testimony that firewood is generally no longer cut from living trees. There remain rangers at large looking out for offenders and anyone cutting, transporting or selling wood requires a special permit.

Bissakou-Pou has a programme to introduce improved cooking stoves – consuming less wood and producing less smoke – the absence of which in Sabtenga I have long lamented. They have so far introduced these in five villages over a four-year period and their method of doing so has been so successful that it recently won them a national competition as the best initiative against desertification.

The active community involvement and pressure from below in these local NGOs is the best possible safeguard of the future of villages like Sabtenga. National governments and international money have to play their part but can by no means be relied on to work in villagers’ best interests. A sign that local organizations are more in touch comes when Yacouba Zeba is honest enough to say that he thinks Dakupa has failed in one respect: they are not reaching the absolute poorest. Their microcredit and agricultural schemes have reached the active, able majority but they have not yet found a surefire way of reaching the destitute. We agree that any money saved on the production of this issue by my having taken all its photographs will fund a study of how best to help this neediest sector of the population. Both Dakupa and Bissakou-Pou are keen to hear from NGOs overseas that can help fund future activities while respecting their grassroots knowledge.


So here I am at the end of another decadal report on the life of the village – who knows if there’ll be another?

Promise of what? Rasinatu is in her last year of primary school. What will her life be like in 2015, the year the Millennium Development Goals are supposed to be met?

Returning to the village after so long a period away was always bound to be an emotional experience. It was one that I didn’t undertake lightly. There is a great and painful difference between writing about poverty and injustice from a distance, and being confronted by its everyday implications for people you care about.

Yet this time around the experience wasn’t so painful. The fact that life seems to be looking up for the community in all kinds of ways obviously helps. But also I wasn’t quite so ‘up close and personal’ as I was both 10 and 20 years ago. I stayed this time in a house in Garango, and bought a bike on which to make my daily journey to and from the village. Initially this was because Mariama sent word that the hut I used to stay in had fallen into disrepair. But when I later visited the hut and found it in good shape I discovered that she had been protecting me – she felt after the death from some undefined disease of my former landlord, Antoine, that it might not be a healthy place for me to stay. As a result I had electric light in the evenings – but I was also much more a visitor than a neighbour. Last time around there were many people who had a ‘claim’ on me (and the money I brought with me) – my landlord and his family, my neighbours, the woman who cooked for me and so on. This time around only Mariama and her family had such a claim.

The pressure was also greater in the past because there was no real chance of follow-up – 10 years’ worth of contact had to be condensed into a few weeks. Communication with people in the village by letter has proved more or less impossible over the years and even in the months leading up to this issue I found it incredibly difficult to get in touch. Both in 1985 and 1995, to visit Sabtenga was to step into another world, impossibly distant and almost unattainable from my own everyday life.

Perhaps they will miss the warm, communal atmosphere that is so refreshing to a visitor from the frantic consumerism of the West

The advent of electricity to Garango and of cellphones to Sabtenga itself has utterly changed that. Conscious that so many of her letters had failed to get through, I made a point of showing Mariama the internet café that has just opened on the edge of Garango and explaining how it worked, and within a week of being back I had a message from her. More incredible still, I should in theory be able to reach Ousmane at the clinic by phone or by text – though admittedly I have not yet managed to get through.

The possibility of more regular contact should mean that changes in the village over the next decade do not come as such a surprise. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether subsistence farming is sustainable there in the long term. I don’t mean that in an environmental sense – though that is also a factor – but in a social one. None of the adolescents in the village seem to have much interest in inheriting the mantle of the subsistence farmer. They all, understandably, want to make their way in the big city or in foreign parts where money flows more easily. None of Mariama’s sons, for example, plan to live by farming, and her 17-year-old (also called Ousmane) was planning to set off for Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire in search of work as soon as the harvest was in. The girls, regrettably, still tend to have to hitch their fortunes to a husband’s – but even that often entails a drift to the cities.

Maybe, over time, these young people will return in search of the slower and more natural rhythm of life in the village. Perhaps they will miss the warm, communal atmosphere that is so refreshing to a visitor from the frantic, atomized consumerism of the West. Let’s hope this aspect of traditional life, at least, survives the tide of irreversible change – most of it for the better – that has now engulfed the village.

New Internationalist issue 389 magazine cover This article is from the May 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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