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Annalisa Monfreda - reporter


reportage > Burkina Faso, July 2006

Geo Italy - n.7

Story of the man who stopped the desert
He was 30 years old and did not know how to read or write. One day he rediscovered an ancient agrarian technique called zaï. And taught people how to grow millet on the hard, barren crust of his country, Burkina Faso.

It's six o'clock in the evening. In Ouaygouya it's tam-tam time. The speaker on the radio, The Farmer's Voice, reads the news: "Two oxen are missing in Kongussi. The chief of the Ninighui lands is dead. Two Italian journalists are looking for Yacouba Sawadogo: tomorrow morning at nine they will be in Gourga". The tam-tam has begun. From the city north of Burkina Faso, it spreads through a panorama of thorny scrub and scattered trees called brousse, the bush, for a range of 70 kilometers. "At this hour people are returning home on their bicycles, the radio around their necks", the speaker assures us. "Peaceful dreams, tomorrow Yacouba will be waiting for you in the village".

The black magic of that mechanism paints a perplexed expression on our faces. But there is no other way: we have to have faith. The following day we would not be sorry. At nine on the dot, as our jeep approaches the first huts of the village of Gourga, five kilometers north of Ouaygouya, a tall, thin man of about sixty is waiting for us beneath a gazebo of millet stalks. He wears a long green garment that flutters in the dry, dusty harmattan wind, a kefti on his head, and dark sunglasses. Yacouba Sawadogo wastes no time on formalities. He climbs on his motorbike and signals for us to follow him.

After a couple of kilometers, an unexpected sight appears before our eyes. An imaginary boundary line cuts the scene in two. On the left, a lush, green tangle of forest. Tamarind, baobab, cailcedra, karite and acacia as far as the eye can see. On the right, an expanse of red, dry, hardened land. An infinite void, interrupted only by the majestic skeleton of a tamarind: "I wanted it to stand as a reminder of what this place was like thirty years ago", Yacouba explains in Moré, the language of the Mossi peoples. "It had not rained for a long time and the earth was dead: no ants, no shoots, only crushed stone and a cemetery of trees like this tamarind. That was why I made the forest", he says, turning his gaze to the other side of the boundary line.

The miracle that is talked about from one end of the bush to the other is there before us. I would like to ask him to tell us the story of that forest, but Yacouba does not give me a chance. He climbs back on his motorbike and heads for the village. We follow him along the red dirt track.

We have been tramping the arid ground of the Sahel for days. On this southern edge of the Sahara, soil and sand chase after each other in a continual competition. The one that triumphs is always the desert, which captures 15,000 square kilometers a year. And yet this "dead land" is full of life. An indefatigable people cross it every day on motorbikes, bicycles, bush taxis or even on foot. Some are going to market, some to the dam to do the wash, some to the fields. For some of them, the destination is the bush itself. These are the women who use rudimentary sieves to sift the arid soil in search of particles of gold. From every ton they extract only a few grams. Still, it is a precious resource, especially in dry periods when the harmattan blows and the sky can be obscured by sand for days on end. The miraculously found speck will be placed in one of the pouches arranged along the track beforehand by the buyer, who will pay each woman according to the weight of her pouch. These are the people of the bush. Or at least the ones you see. Because then there is a whole other invisible population. There are the witches lurking in the baobabs to study their victims. Or the evil spirits that the hunters keep away with precious gris-gris (amulets). The bush is the enemy, it is the advancing desert.

In this infinite panorama, inhabited by men and legends, a cultivated field suddenly appears: hundreds of millet stalks arranged like a checkerboard, with sinuously winding cordons of stones all around. Impossible to mistake it: it's zaï, a technique used by the region's farmers since time immemorial. Burkinabé researcher Eric Bologo has not yet traced its origins, though he's discovered that it existed with different names among the Dogon tribes in Mali and in Niger as well. It involves digging small pits, 20-30 centimeters in diameter, starting in October, right after the period of the rains. During the dry season, the harmattan blows leaves into them and the farmers add the organic material collected in the trenches adjacent to the houses. When it rains, beginning in May, the water collects in those pits. But to make sure runoff is controlled, stone cordons channel it, following the slope of the ground. After the first rain, comes sowing time: a single seed for every pit. Even if it doesn't rain again for months, the moisture captured in those hollows will make the millet grow luxuriantly.

This practice by which man and nature collaborate with one another against desertization disappeared one day. It happened toward the middle of the nineteenth century, when the sky again began bestowing water on the arid lands of the Sahel. Zaï, instead of improving the harvest, ended up stifling the plants. Thus its use was suspended, and even the memory of it was lost. At the beginning of the twentieth century the climate took a turn for the worse again, but by then no one recalled that ancient method to stop the encroaching desert. The population was growing, water was becoming rare, the land impoverished; trees vanished, cows and men were dying, and the young people fled. It was a crescendo, up until the great famine of 1972-1973 that was even accorded space in the western press. A few years later, zaï reemerged from the viscera of the barren land. Who was the person responsible for that exhumation? Who gave zaï back to the people of the Sahel? The peasants encountered along the trails of Burkina Faso talk about a merchant from Gourga. Someone, they say, who one fine day abandoned his business and made a forest. His name is Yacouba Sawadogo.

Now there he is in front of us, stopping his motorbike near his hut. He signals to us to get out of the jeep and have a seat under a gazebo. It's one o'clock in the afternoon and the harmattan caresses us. I press him at once, asking about that forest. He looks at me and says: are you in a hurry? No, I tell him. Well then, have no fear, everything will be told. In due time. He takes a breath and begins his account.

It all started when he attended a Koranic school in Mali. One night the teacher had him summoned and told him: "You, Yacouba, do not have the intelligence of some of my other students, yet I will provide you with such knowledge that men will speak of you beyond the seas". For a long time, Yacouba did not believe what the old man had told him. And so, when he returned to his native village, Gourga, he set about being a merchant. He earned 400,000 CFA francs (1) a day (approximately 600 euros) and was quite content. One night, however, he had a vision: he was to leave the market-place, because in a short time there would be trouble. A week later the coup d'état that brought general Lamizana to power took place. It was 1966. Yacouba put his possessions in a safe place and, having built himself a large hangar at the edge of the village, spent all his time there, seeking solutions to improve agrarian yields. Finally, a new vision announced to him that the time had come.

Pause. Like a griot (2), Yacouba arranges the threads of the story in his mind.

It was 1976 when he dug the first zaï pits and in them planted the seeds of the forest that we have just seen. Then he did the same with two hectares of land planted with millet. When the first harvest came, the neighboring village had to be asked to help: the residents of Gourga had never seen so much millet at one time. They began harvesting at six in the morning and by six in the evening they had still not reached the end of the field. Yacouba sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, inviting him to Gourga. And so it was that a motorcade of forty automobiles arrived at the small village in the bush and witnessed the miracle. The minister asked Yacouba what this technique was called. He replied: zaï, that in the Moré language means to wake up early. That is, to begin working the hardened crust of the Sahel right after the rainy season.

It is time to resume our journey in the bush. Yacouba offers to accompany us to Bougouri. He gets in the jeep and we take off. After a few meters he signals to the driver to stop. He lowers the window and warmly shakes the hands of a man passing by on a bicycle. We continue on. A few more meters and this time it's an entire family on foot. It's like that for the entire drive to Bougouri. Down here Yacouba is a star. To make the technique of zaï known, he went up and down all over the province. And even where he did not go in person, news of him spread. "At the beginning, the Minister of Agriculture invited me to the capital to educate the peasants who had come from all corners of the country", he recounts. "Later on, it was the peasants themselves who came to me". Yacouba became so famous that even president Blaise Campaoré asked him to apply the zaï technique on the two hectares of land surrounding the palace of Ouagadougou, as well as 17 hectares of his own property in Ziniaré. Meanwhile his reputation was spreading beyond the borders of Burkina Faso. Today, just as he is invited to Mali, Gambia, Senegal, France and Italy, delegations from Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Indonesia visit the zaï fields of Gourga. His old teacher's prophecy has thus come to pass. Yacouba never did learn to read or write, much less speak French. Yet he is spoken of beyond the seas.

All the same, he would not have been able to reach the most remote villages in the bush if he had not been able to rely on a capillary structure: the network of farming associations by the name of Groupement Naam created in 1967. In the north of Burkina Faso it is a kind of counterpower. And it possesses a tool that in Africa is precious: the radio. Since 1996, The Farmer's Voice (3) has transmitted programs in the eight languages spoken in the region and is listened to by 98 percent of the inhabitants. At eight in the evening, when the families gather around the fire, the speaker announces a new episode of Echo of the rural world. Special guests are the growers who practice zaï and who, on the air, recount how the last harvest season went. From time to time, budget permitting, the radio broadcasts from the field: a kind of zaï reality show.

We arrive in Bougouri right in the middle of a traditional feast that is celebrated in December: Rassandaga, young people's market day. "Bougouri is a very important village", Yacouba tells us. "Its inhabitants possess knowledge of the stars and of the rains. They are the ones who determine when it is time to begin cultivating the land. That day is called Bougouri Kiougou and it falls more or less in March. If anyone starts sooner, he dies". Something doesn't add up here. According to what we've learned so far, zaï requires that you begin working the land as early as October. Yacouba remains unfazed: "Zaï has no interdictions", he says, "neither rituals nor sacrifices. We rely solely on ourselves, on the strength of our labor and on our determination". A free port liberated from tradition, in short.

We bring Yacouba back to Gourga, promising to go back and see him before we leave. The following morning we set out towards the south. Destination: Gomponsong, a district contained between the city of Yako and the Black Volta, a tributary of the Volta. Flags of European and American nations flutter up and down the street: each signals the presence of an NGO project or that of an international agency in the area. Burkina Faso is the country with the greatest concentration of these outside interventions, almost all of them having an ecological theme. The desert's advance, here, has always been the national problem. In fact, there was a time when Burkina, gateway to the Sahara, became the outpost of the battle against desertization. It was at the time of the Revolution: this is what the Burkinabé still call the five year period from 1983 to 1987 in which Thomas Sankara, the father of the country, was in power: the man who transformed Upper Volta into Burkina Faso, "the land of honest men". Sankara believed that to understand the needs of a people 98 percent of whom were peasants, you had to cultivate the land, and so he assigned a plot of land to each minister. Born amid the dusty streets of Yako, Sankara thought that Burkina had to first of all fight against the uncontrolled cutting of trees. That is why he launched the program "8,000 villages, 8,000 forests". Each village had to see to restoring a forest of its own. How? "Every joy has its tree, every tree is a joy" went the slogan by which he established that every ceremony or happy occasion - a wedding, the birth of a child, a baptism - should become an occasion for planting a tree. Today the struggle against desertization continues. But imagination is no longer in power: in the year 2000, the government of Blaise Campaoré - president of Burkina Faso since that long-ago 1987 when he commissioned the burst of machine-gun fire that killed Sankara - launched "Operation Saaga", a program of chemical cloud-seeding intended to induce rain. Costly, perhaps harmful, but effective. If it were not for the fact that Burkina's sky is often miserly even with its clouds.

We reach Gomponsong and once again find ourselves in the midst of a traditional festival: it's Napousme, the king's salute. Sanfo Missiri, 65 years old, president of the Naam group, welcomes us: "We are celebrating the results of a spectacular harvest", he explains. "All thanks to zaï. In the past we practiced guendo, a similar technique but with smaller pits, that lasted only one season. Then in 1996 I traveled to Ouaygouya. I learned zaï, studied it further in books, and began practicing it. At the first harvest, I called my people and showed them that two hectares of land had yielded as much as ten. And so they were all persuaded to use it. Today 75 percent of the farmers of the district of Gomponsong (19,000 inhabitants) practice zaï. For ten years, the granaries have been constantly full".

A few rifle shots kick off the festival. Two long rows of people define a corridor in the middle of which youthful cowboys riding bareback and noble knights in ceremonial dress shoot past on runaway horses. Afterwards the men gather beneath a spacious gazebo. Each of them holds a sheaf of millet in his hand, that he will symbolically offer to the thirteenth king of Gomponsong, Naba Kougri, seated in the center.

The Mossi are a tribe founded on hierarchy. A pyramidal system of king, chiefs and subjects has structured the society for centuries, and modern civic government has only been able to work side by side with it. For this reason every city has a mayor, but also a king. The particularity, however, lies in the villages. Without ever having heard of Montesquieu, the Mossi villages have applied a rigid division of powers since antiquity: the naba is the political chief, while the têng-saba is chief of the land. The power of authority rests with the first, the power of property with the second: the two roles are never combined in the hands of one individual. Added to these two chiefs is a third one, in charge of customs and traditions, who sees to celebrations and sacrifices.

In Gomponsong the dancing begins: the traditional music is quickly replaced by African Techno that is blasted from a boom box until five in the morning. We listen to it from the hut where Sanfo Missiri offered us hospitality for the night. Here nobody goes to sleep. Yet when we wake up at the first light of dawn, there is already a beehive of activity all around.

The Mossi villages are organized like a kind of kolchoz (cooperative). Each family lives within a concession, that is, a nucleus of huts surrounded by land received in trust from the state. The concessions are quite distant from one another, even kilometers away. We enter one of these small courtyards. The elder of the family signals us to follow him. Beside an enormous table where a girl is grinding millet by hand, he shows us the tinkoagealga, the improved firepit: a small clay cylinder, that uses less firewood compared to the traditional firepit formed by three stones. It is a sensible energy-saving system, introduced and propagated in Sankara's times. "Desertization is also fought with these simple home methods", the old man chuckles. Outside the enclosure, a row of stones arranged in a semicircle and facing toward Mecca marks the "mosque": a few square meters where one can stop and pray. Nearby, a trench collects the organic waste that will be utilized as compost for zaï.

We set out for Ouaygouya again, but before getting there we make a stop in Gourga, for a last farewell to the master of zaï, Yacouba. Here too preparations are underway for a big festival. But it is not a traditional ceremony. It is the festival of zaï and has only been in existence for twenty years. Yacouba learned on his own, rather than by studying it in books, what American anthropologist Leslie White maintains: namely, that a technique adapts better if it follows the culture. Zaï may fail to follow the Bougouri Kiougou, by cultivating the land ahead of time in October, but it now has its very own festival. It is celebrated at the end of December, before the new year, and people from all over the region come for the occasion. Even president Blaise Campaoré takes part in it, if he can.

Yacouba takes us to his forest again. This time, however, he pushes his way through the foliage until we come to a huge acacia that rises solitary in the middle of a strangely barren area. "It was the first seed planted in a zaï pit", he explains to us. His plan, now, is to construct a school and a hospital around it. Right here, in the heart of the forest, so that the children may learn to treat illnesses with medicinal plants. The bush is not the enemy. There are more than witches and evil spirits lurking among its trees and scrub. There are also plants, which for centuries people of the Sahel learned to utilize in order to treat all types of illness and relieve their hunger in times of famine. But if this knowledge is not transmitted, it is in danger of disappearing. Just as zaï did.

(1) Coopération Financière en Afrique Centrale/Financial Cooperation in Central Africa
(2) A West African wandering poet and singer, considered a repository of oral tradition
(3) Voice of Africa radio

Text by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, July 2006
Photographs by Stefano De Luigi
English Translation by Anne Milano Appel