Eight insights from 30 years of visits to a village in Mali

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18 July 2014

More than 30 years ago I lived in a mud hut in Dlonguebougou, a village that now is home to 1,200 Bambara people in drought-prone central Mali, where the two main activities are farming millet and raising livestock. Since 1982, I have visited every two to three years, and have just returned from my latest trip. The changes I have seen over three decades represent in microcosm the forces at work in the wider context.

Rains in Dlonguebougou begin with huge duststorm, big wind, howling, dust then darkness. Then heavy rain (Photo: Camilla Toulmin/IIED)

1. Pressure on land is increasing

In 1980, villagers said – "the bush cannot finish", there is plenty of land. The closest other settlements were 10-20 kilometres away and this meant Dlonguebougou controlled a large area of land. 

Since then, this area has started to fill up, thanks to immigration, population growth and more ploughs, with which people can farm larger fields. Grazing resources are scarcer and in the dry season herders must take their livestock ever further to feed.

For the past 10 years, people from less well-endowed areas have been coming to Dlonguebougou to ask for land to farm. Usually the village council says no. This is because experience shows that many incomers will reap their harvest and take it back home, whereas the council wants people to settle and join the community.

The pressure on land is rising. This last year, several villages nearby have lost farmland due to the extension of an irrigated sugar-cane plantation under Chinese management 40 kilometres away. Now a new wave of farmers seeks land in villages like Dlonguebougou, to make up for what they have lost.

2. The farming system has run into trouble

In the 1980s, farmers dug wells on their fields to attract visiting herders needing water for their animals. The benefit to the farmers came when the animals deposited manure on their fields, keeping the soils fertile. Farmers prefer dung to chemical fertiliser as the latter can 'burn' their crops.

For the last few years, however, investment in wells has broken down, due to greater water scarcity, the need to dig much deeper, and herders' desire to take their animals further away where pasture resources are better. All this means less manure on the fields, so soil fertility is falling as are crop yields. 

3. Pursuit of individual over collective action has become manifest

"No one wants to be together anymore," says the village chief. The clearest sign of this is neglect of the wooden gwele platforms, where men would sit and talk for hours. These have fallen into disuse and largely disappeared. Equally, the entrance halls to each household, or blon, are empty. Formerly there would be a group of men sitting, talking, taking snuff, sewing cloth and making rope in a convivial party. Instead, they sit at home. 

Bambara family life is complex, with many extended households of 50 or more people. Each large group will have a common field (foroba), which supplies a common granary from which the group eats certain meals together. Within these extended families, men who share a mother often work together on a smaller field (suroforo) in the evenings when work on the main field is finished, or on Mondays when is it taboo to farm millet. Then there are individual fields (karsa ka foro), which women or men cultivated for their own needs, in any spare time they have.

A household head must manage tensions between collective foroba activity and more private, individual activity. If people have no time for their individual fields, they may complain that their needs are not met. But if people spend much of their time and energy on private activity, they neglect the common field and the granary will not be full enough to support everyone in the household in the coming season.

This tension has come to a head because over recent years, people have invested in sesame cultivation on their personal fields, and earned good profits – so much so that there is serious worry that the granary won’t be filled. As one older man told me: "You can earn lots of cash with sesame, but you can never buy all the millet you need to feed the family."

People need cash to fulfil a number of wants. There's a lot of competitive consumption under way, especially among the young, who proudly show off their motorbikes, mobile phones and latest fashions learned from the streets of the capital, Bamako.

4. People have embraced new technology but it remains in male hands

Thirty years ago the most advanced technology was the donkey cart. Three years ago, there were eight solar panels, and now there are more than 40. There are only a few households without them and several families have half a dozen. They are used for light, radio, charging mobile phones and various other activities. They power the barber's electric razor, the TVs shopkeepers use to attract customers, and the mosque's loud speaker. Equally, mobile phones have multiplied greatly, especially among the young men who have been on migration. 

But access to technology remains largely in the hands of men. Women do benefit from having light in the evening, but very few have mobile phones. Women's work remains largely unchanged from 30 years ago. They walk to the well, draw water and carry it home. They collect firewood in the bush for cooking. With their pestles they pound mortar after mortar of millet.

5. The climate story is not straightforward

Makono Dembele has recorded the number of rain events since 1988, and says there is no clear decline in amounts, but what matters more is rainfall variability. To get millet off to a good start, farmers sow seeds after a heavy rain and then hope another good rain will follow within a week. Unlike heavier clay soils to the south and east, Dlonguebougou's sandy soils do not need as much rain. As Dembele says, it's often not the total amount which matters, but the way in which it falls at the start of the rainy season. It's this which has become more variable. 

After the first rains, everyone goes out to plough crops in Dlonguebougou (Photo: Camilla Toulmin/IIED)

6. Religion has changed

Thirty years ago, Dlonguebougou was a centre of animist worship. At the edge of the village, a fetish cult kept sacred objects in a hut, regularly doused with millet and chicken's blood. This has all fallen into disuse, in favour of Islam. Several village men take turns to act as imam in a mosque built 10 years ago. Women's dress has become more demure, with no one bare-breasted, though in many ways women are at least as assertive as before. Many of the older people were observing the Ramadan fast during my visit, but those involved with farming were eating and drinking as normal.

7. The population is in flux

People come and go all the time – rural and urban are firmly mixed up. At the end of June, a group of young men had come back from Bamako to work on the farm for three months. They'll return to the city once most of the weeding is over, and leave others to harvest the crop. 

Many men have been away from Dlonguebougou for 10 years or more, and some have lost all contact. One young man told me about his months in the artisanal gold mines in the southwest of the country, digging pits into which he and a fellow villager disappear. So far they have done well and come back with good earnings, but they recognise the risk of accident and theft. 

8. Mali's decentralisation programme is bearing fruit

Elected local councils with a mayor and a dozen councillors were established in Mali for the first time in 1999. Already Dlonguebougou has acquired a school, a clinic and a market. The mayor is based 30 kilometres away, but he comes through every few months. The main contact happens through Makono Dembele who taught himself to read and write, and acts as informal liaison with the mayor’s office. 

Dembele is thinking of running for the local council elections next due in April 2015. So gradually, the old sources of traditional authority are giving ground to new forms of power. When I next visit, I will no doubt see yet another shift in the story of this small piece of Mali whose dynamism reminds me that change is constant even in the most remote of places. 

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