Q&A: How COVID-19 is impacting rural Africans in the Sahel

Sidiki Diarra and Camilla Toulmin interview a group of young men, in Bamako, Mali, who have migrated from the village, to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at the local level.

Article, 26 May 2021

In this interview, Sidiki Diarra and Camilla Toulmin explore the different ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic affects the lives of young, rural migrant men. This provides a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic at the very local level and how the health emergency adds to both economic and security challenges in the West African Sahel.

The interviewees are group of young men, based in Mali’s capital Bamako, who have migrated from the village of Dlonguebougou, Ségou Region and are now settled in the city.

Q: We’re here to listen to your news, find out about your life in Bamako, and get ideas about how conditions in the village of Dlonguebougou could improve. First, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the world, causing a lot of damage and deaths. How has it affected you?

A: Ever since this disease was announced 12 months ago, we haven’t known of anyone, either here in town or in the village, who has succumbed. Nevertheless, we’ve all been careful about following the government’s advice and wearing masks. This meeting today is the first we have gone to in a long time.

We’ve all changed our patterns of behaviour – no more hand-shaking and being face to face. But it’s difficult to respect all the hygiene measures when you’re living so close to everyone else. A number of us have had problems because of not being able to travel to look for work, but now we’re much freer to move around, though many of the frontiers are still shut. The schools have been disrupted so those of us who work as teachers have had a lot of trouble, since the classes we’ve been teaching have been suspended.

Money is certainly scarcer and work is harder to find. The factory where one of us works had to shut for a bit because it could neither export its product nor import the inputs it needed. At times, you wonder if the disease is imaginary… They say COVID-19 has caused a worldwide economic crisis. But if you’ve not actually seen anyone who’s affected, it’s hard to understand. We hear in the media of the top politicians and VIPs who are reported to be COVID-19 positive.

While we have seen very little of it directly, we’ve certainly all been suffering from the economic consequences.

Q: Now tell us about the school in Dlonguebougou. We heard it had been forced to shut.

A: There is no more talk of school – it’s completely finished. It was shut by the jihadists two years ago. Across the whole commune of Doura, and further north to Sakala and west to Touba, the schools are all shut. A few medersas (Islamic schools) have opened up in some of the schools where French used to be taught.

When they came to shut the school, they threatened the teacher with death, but thankfully the pupils protected him. The jihadists tried to rough him up, but the pupils encircled him and got him out of the building and away. But they burnt all the books, pens, school bags and teaching materials. My niece was in school that day and tried to escape with her school bag, but they slapped her and took the bag away for burning. That day, two sons of the village chief went to protest loudly.

The jihadists said they had nothing against the villagers, but the school had to shut and the teachers must go. The villagers argued that it’s they who pay the teachers, so when you attack them, you’re also attacking the villagers, but they took no notice. Our school was a community school and village people paid the teachers’ salaries. Those families with the means can send their child to school in Bamako, or wherever else the schools are still open, but for most families, that’s the end of schooling for their children.

Q: We heard that there are many jihadists in the region. How does their presence affect daily life in the village?

A: The jihadists have created an enormous set of problems for the village. Some people have had to move away because they feel vulnerable to attack. Take the case of G and N*, who have had to move to the city because they both had such a powerful reputation as fortune-tellers [an activity associated with traditional, non-Islamic practices].

Traditional festivals, like the dance of the masks at harvest time, and large marriage celebrations have been banned. They don’t allow drumming, so weddings have become more like funerals. And we’ve been forbidden to hold large meetings in the village. The jihadists don’t live in the village but are camped many kilometers away towards the north, but visit from time to time. People are frightened even of holding small meetings in case someone might inform the jihadists.

Even among ourselves, the Bambara, we have become careful and cautious, and more so with the Peul [also known as the Fulani, a livestock-keeping group spread across West Africa]. Despite this, the village chief continues to hold his regular meetings with family heads, but they tend to be short. We haven’t been targeted by the jihadists, apart from the school being shut down. Other villages seem to have been worse affected, with them turning up to lay down the law. We try to follow these laws in advance of being dictated to.

However, on the positive side, the number of animal thefts has definitely gone down, and they have also imposed a ban on tree-cutting, which is certainly necessary. For stealing cattle, the first time they come and warn you, the second time they kill you.

Once or twice, they have walked through the village with their guns, but our old folk sat down with them and asked them – in a very polite way – to stop this sort of behavior. We’ve heard that they have started imposing the zakat [an Islamic tax] on the Peul, so they have to give one-tenth of their herd in taxation. The Bambara have not been asked for this, so far.

The thing to do is to manage your language carefully and avoid confrontation. There is no problem as regards Allah between us, but they really don’t want you to speak well of government. Currently, there is no government presence in Doura (the commune headquarters), neither the sous-préfet, the mayor, nor the technical services – they have all gone – so there is no form of administration for the entire commune.

The only solution seems to be to bring in the army to provide security for the whole area. No individual or village can take steps, since they’ll come and kill you at home. Did you hear about the case of T* in the neighboring village? They suspected he had been giving information to the army, so they went into his house and killed him in front of his family.

The jihadists also play the role of judge. There was a woman who had refused to accept her husband following their marriage. He went to ask the jihadis for help, so they went and found the woman, spoke to her severely, brought her back to the husband, and gave her strict advice. They are now the rulers of our area, they’re the kings, the masters of the zone.

There is not too much difficulty traveling about during the day, but you don’t want to travel at night. And any work at night is forbidden. If you going to a neighbouring village, you need to travel in a group of two or three, whereas before we could go singly on foot, by cycle, or motorbike without any problem.

Before, a woman could set off by herself with a donkey cart to look for wood without needing any accompaniment. But now women go and look for firewood in a group. Then there are some bandits who use the insecurity for their own purposes. At first, they would attack a herder out with the cattle, and take a number of them, so no one wanted to lead the herd to pasture anymore. But it’s a bit better now. I have the impression there are fewer jihadists around right now, and they know of our village’s reputation and power, so they are also a bit frightened of us.

Q: What news of the last farming season? We heard there was a lot of rain. Did that bring a good harvest?

A: The recent harvest has been mixed but overall, it was very poor, with not enough millet to feed people for the year ahead. You’ll remember we cultivate large bush fields with a long cycle millet – sanyo, and village fields with a shorter cycle millet, sunan. Most families harvested sanyo, but many fields planted with sunan got nothing. Since the harvest is not enough to last 12 months, we have stored in the granary enough to cover our food needs during the next farming season, to make sure the weeding team has enough to eat.

Right now, everyone is left to their own devices, that’s our strategy for managing a bad harvest like this one. Last year, many more people gained enough grain to feed themselves, but not this year. Some people will have a bit left from last year, which will help stretch supplies for this year.

We certainly had a lot of rain this year, too much rain in fact, which damaged the crops. Our soils don’t do well with a lot of rain. Rain for two or three days, that’s OK but day after day – there is not enough heat in the soil to help the millet plant develop. Each year, the harvest is smaller and smaller. Every year we say “last year was better than this”.

This year, for example, in our family we made four trips to carry the harvest back from the threshing ground to home, rather than the expected 17-20 trips. You see the difference? It must have to do with how we farm, as well as the nature of our soils, which are tired, they have no more strength in them.

The abundance of rainfall is bad, especially because the soils have lost their fertility. Look around and you see that many of our young people are no longer in the village, so who is fetching manure from the cattle pens to spread on the fields? If this no longer happens, it’s no surprise the harvest is poor. The sesame harvest was especially bad, and the little we’ve been able to harvest is hard to sell, because the buyers who used to come to the village don’t want to risk being caught by the jihadists.

The village has become much poorer, there is little left of the bush which used to surround the settlement. It’s become like a desert as all the trees have been cut down. Villagers have been getting money from chopping wood for cooking and making charcoal, so all the big trees have now gone. How can we live like this? At this time of year, we should be seeing the sweet-smelling jasmine in the woodlands around Farakaye!

But men young and old need to make money. You can’t just sit at home. People need something to do in the dry season, like having irrigated vegetable plots to cultivate, but we need a big deep well to get enough water for this kind of activity.

Q: In the past, you’ve had a lot of migrant farmers coming to the village seeking land to cultivate. Are they still coming?

A: We still have a lot of migrant farmers coming to seek our land; due to the big Chinese sugar cane plantation N-Sukala which took the fields of so many villages, they have no land left to farm. There are even more incomers today because they know they can find refuge with us. There are some who pass the farming season here, and others who have decided to settle permanently.

There was a time when our village council sent all the migrant farmers packing, but we had to let them come back. We have so many ties of marriage between our villages, it’s not possible to send them away for good.

We have the impression that these incomers get better harvests than we do, but it is not clear why. The soils are the same, but maybe they have different ways of farming. We have a lot more farm equipment than we used to, yet the yields seem to fall every year. We’ve been cultivating enormous areas, much bigger than in the past, but the millet plants are often quite a distance apart when you come to harvest time.

In the past, each field was much more densely packed with millet plants. Some of the biggest fields today are probably one square km in size, but despite this, we don’t harvest what you might hope.

Q: How do you find life in Bamako, and how does it compare with living in the village?

A: Life in Bamako is definitely better than in the village. We can earn a better living here. In the village, it’s only in the farming season that you have any work. Apart from that, there is nothing to do. In the past, we used to just come for the dry season to Bamako, having finished all the farming tasks. But now, the harvest is so poor, we’ve decided to stay here and send help to our families in the bush when they need it. What we make here can complement what is produced in the village.

Our parents are happy for us to stay here as we can help them out. Of course, if there was enough to eat in the village, it would be good to live there. Life in Bamako is very expensive especially if you don’t have a proper job that pays you a good wage. In the past, we really ate well in the village – couscous, tô, dégé, and many other millet dishes, but it’s not like that today. With food scarce, and insecurity due to the jihadists, life in the village has become miserable.

So you see Bamako is a lot better. However, here in the city, none of us owns their own house, we’re all renting somewhere to live. It’s very expensive, especially for people with limited means. We should be buying land and building a house, but instead, if you’ve got a little cash, people use it to pay for a big motorbike, a radio, and to live the high life!

The weekly market in Dlonguebougou, which was set up seven years ago, instead of being a blessing, has cursed the village and led to the massive cutting of wood and making of charcoal. Some men will spend four or five nights in the bush seeking wood to cut, so they can bring it to the market on Wednesdays. If you were to compare a photo from the past with today, you would see how extraordinary it is that all the trees have disappeared.

How could we imagine that the bush would become empty? Women have to spend the whole day looking for something to cook with. How can we escape this calvary? There has been no attempt to re-forest the village lands, so we’ve got increasing problems to find both animal fodder and firewood. The animals start to die of hunger in April and May before the rains bring new pastures. There have also been bush fires that destroy all the grazing.

As for those of us who have had an education, we leave the village to look for jobs, as there is no hope of wages in the village, so how will you earn enough even to buy tea? Life in the village can also be difficult. If you have any money, you fear someone will steal it from you, especially the bandits. They can easily attack you either at home or when you’re travelling about. A couple of years ago, if you had a new motorbike, you could only ride it within the settlement, never between villages because you feared having it taken from you.

Lots of people park their motorbikes to gather

A busy meeting place in Bamoko, Mali contrasts with Dlonguebougou where residents are afraid to ride motorbikes outside the village in case it will be taken away from them (Photo: aene gespinst, via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0)

Q: What are some of the jobs you’re doing in Bamako to make a living?

A: There are many forms of work people do here. Some find a job in one of the factories. K* is working in a kiosk “Orange Money”, and at the same time sells petrol, and does some teaching in a private school. Some people earn money as ambulant traders, such as selling pharmaceutical products.

A common job used to be finigosi, which involves beating thick satin cloth, to acquire a fine sheen, especially when it’s been dyed with indigo. But this activity has almost completely disappeared because the Chinese are importing a form of satin cloth that already has a fine sheen. Consequently, the women cloth-traders don’t need us anymore. Then there is selling bread, which many people do, walking the streets to find customers. You can also earn a living by selling second-hand clothing. One of us has a job in a company making fruit juices.

It’s difficult for those of us who are students coming to the end of our training courses. One of us has done the training to be a teacher and has a job in a private school, but must combine this with working nights as a guard in order to earn enough money to live. Everyone is trying to find a mix of things to do.

One of us has inherited a sewing machine and can use this to earn a bit of extra money. Haulage of goods is another way to earn an income, either with a van or a scooter. If you have special learning, you can become a marabout, like X* who has been in Bamako for more than 10 years, having learned the trade from his father who was well-known with a good reputation. A successful consultation with a client seeking advice can bring a good return. When you first arrive, you may find work with a builder who needs an assistant. If you have a solar panel, you can sell electricity.

If you go to the village right now, you won’t find a single young person there – they have all left to look for money – apart from two or three who are rebuilding houses and doing other essential household works. If they are not here in Bamako, they’re looking for gold.

Many of our young men continue to go to the place known as Damanda, where people dig for gold. What’s for sure is that if you manage to find gold and make some money, you’ll never leave, because you’re tempted to stay and look for more. You end up having spent your time and money there, leave with nothing, and keep going back.

There’s a lot of chance involved. T* had a young brother last year who had really good luck. On his return from Damanda, he was able to buy two motorbikes each costing 500,000 FCFA and had another 500,000 FCFA in his pocket. But most people never manage to earn these sums.

Q: Across the Sahel, there have been conflicts and confrontations between farmers like the Bambara and herders like the Peul. How are the relations between Peul and Bambara around Dlonguebougou?

A: Everyone is much more suspicious between Bambara and Peul, and even among Bambara themselves. Knowing how to speak, and controlling what you say, are most important to avoid disputes. We’re very careful about what we discuss, and don’t go in for the kind of teasing we used to do.

As you know, many of the Peuls have been living among us for generations. There has been little or no marriage between our groups, but there is a certain mutual respect. There is a lot of shared history, since before we were born, so we cannot evict them from the land.

Some problems exist between us, but we grew up together. These problems always exist between farmers and herders. The many Peuls that come from much further away, who used to visit Dlonguebougou in the dry season, no longer come in any numbers.

There is greater suspicion between us, but no one is seeking a fight. When they’re around, we’re careful about what we say and talk in code, so they cannot understand our meaning. But local Peuls, we’ve known each other for many years.

Q: What are the most important priorities for the village?

A: The village faces a number of challenges which we want resolved.

First is the poor telephone reception. We need a telephone mast. It is absolutely essential for life today, such as for sending cash by Orange-Money. If you go back to the village for a couple of weeks to visit the family, you miss calls from your clients who were wanting to book you for transport or other services. The phone signal is just too weak.

Then there is the massive destruction of our trees. Everyone has been relying on wood-cutting to make a little income but it’s disastrous for us all and must stop. We need to re-forest our landscape too and make sure there is enough grazing and forage for our animals.

The farming system is in trouble, with year after year of falling harvests, so we need help to find a way to grow better crops. We’d like to develop an area for irrigated fruit and vegetables – say five hectares – including some fruit trees. But for that, we need to dig a big, deep well that won’t dry up in the dry season.

The area needs better roads so you can get to market more quickly and easily, especially in the rainy season when cars and trucks get stuck in the mud.

In terms of services, people’s health matters a lot. The clinic is very run down and needs money and better staff. We want our school to be up and running again, but for that we need to get rid of the jihadis.

Perhaps we could get some of our young folk trained by the army, so they could provide enough protection for us to fight off the jihadists. A number of villages in our zone are protected by their hunters’ association (donzo), but they don’t have enough modern equipment to be really effective.

Another option would be to build a factory in Bamako, some kind of enterprise that could employ young people from the village. In this way, they could find work and earn enough to be able to save money and reinvest it in the village. There are people from many different villages here in Bamako, each with their own association.

If we could organise ourselves, there is a lot we could do. As they say, it’s not possible for one person to move a large rock but together many things are possible.

The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewees and not necessarily those of IIED. This Q&A was originally posted on the website for the Institute for New Economic Thinking. *Some names have been protected.