Aman Iman -Water Is Life

Water Is Life. A charette( donkey cart” traveling down to the ” mare” ( a dry lake that fills up in the rainy season with water.)

Water is Life. Nothing will be without water. Nothing can be.

I lived approximately 60 m away from the great dry-lake that you see in the picture. If by the middle of June no rains had fallen, the prayers at the mosque in Nara started.

If  Allah or the one and only power blessed the country with rain, the vast area, filled up with water.

Then there was life, so much more life than usual.So much more beauty than usual

Aman Iman. Water is Life. Water is Beauty.

Aman Iman

Categories: Islam, Mali, Nara, Nature, Sahel, West Africa | 1 Comment

Time For Cheick Fadel – le Bonne Homme du Sahel

Cheik Fadel ' le bonne homme du Sahel"

It is time for Cheick Fadel ! Cheik Fadel ” aka Fernandel” – le bonne homme du Sahel !

I have created this site also for the ones who have worked, socialized, suffered, danced, laughed, cooked for me, talked through the nights, had meals with me, opposed, helped, invited, fought me, shouted at me, explained, hugged me, gave me presents, listened to music with me, worried, cared for me – and simply became my friends. Yes this is possible!  The most beautiful thing about development work is that true friendships can develop and will and that is why I have added a very personal note to this blog.

Not only did Cheick Fadel have a great sounding, melodic name – who could resist carrying such a name! Not me!  His name is somehow music and so is the whole man. Cheick was born and bred in Nara, a true man of the Sahel. His family has lived there for generations and still is. He worked for the project for several years as ” the field agent for community gardens programme” that was aligned with the Conservation and Management of the Natural Resources Sector.

What else did we do in Nara?  Well, we did basically everything. That is the nature of ” holistic village development programmes” .

Cheick Fadel on tour in Kabida Bambara

Cheick Fadel ” toured” the community garden sites with a 500 Yamaha XT off road bike day after day. We all had a moto cross bike but I think he developed a special relation with his bike. No wonder considering the time he spent in the bush with “her”. He “sensibilised” the people in the villages, showed them how to grow vegetables, supervised the installations of new community gardens and did a trillion of other tasks, always radiating happiness and content.

And he fought a very personal and raging fight against the natural predators, ravaging the pampered gardens in great numbers every year.

Cheik Fadel going to war against the predators

It has to be said that ” la lutte contre les predateurs” ( pest control)- at times turned into a war. And I really don’t know where he got the gas mask from. It was there before I came.

And his favourite place to do after hours work was of course ” Kouame” !

I was invited so many times to his place and we listened to tapes on his tape recorder he had bought on the market in Bamako. Cheik Fadel introduced me to Malian music and to many other aspects of Malian culture and tradition.

Categories: Bar Kouame, Development Aid, Mali, Nara, Nature, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Land Is Scarred and Lost For Us – What It Takes To Grow a Tree in The Sahel

To plant is not the problem but to protect and make them grow. One of the project's tree growing sites.

Sometimes an image is all that is needed to explain something. Words are powerful. Words and images together are unbeatable but there are moments when a picture is enough.

“La lutte anti-erosive”, the fight against erosion and its consequence the advance of desertification, and the stabilization of newly formed dunes to prevent them from further moving down south in the Sahel is an ongoing problem that gets a great amount of attention from development and nature conservation organizations all over the world.

It is in my eyes the biggest problem because ” The land is scarred and lost for us”, as an elder local resident said to me once.

I can never forget his words. A great part of the work I did in the Sahel (with an amazing team of people) was in the field of the protection of the natural environment in the cercle de Nara. Nara having  been classified since decades as a zone of ” food insecurity and extreme poverty” had enormous environmental problems.

And land was lost for us.

I should learn the truth of these words during seven years and see it daily with my own eyes. Once a certain stage of degradation had been reached, the land and its fertility could not be re-gained no matter what measures were applied. Developmental programmes and projects that cover the hole Sahel belt will contradict my statement and say that many measures work and that a combined effort is necessary. They don’t. Combined effort does not work.

It is not my objective to criticize the efforts of organizations and the flow of millions of dollars and euros to the Sahel region because I was involved in the same efforts passionately for many years. Simply to keep these measures going that are taught by developmental organizations ( and they are taught even if the process is named participatory)  and to apply them again and again is exhausting and tiring for the ones who have been designated as ” the responsables” ( village people again)  in the project planning.

To plant a tree is not the problem. To grow it is the challenge. The challenge for the residents is to protect it with a fence, either of wood or wire, if you have, so that the goats can not eat it, then to fetch water from the traditional wells or from the water holes in the marigots ( dried out lakes), to walk to the site by foot in the hot Sahel sun and to water the trees twice at least. Better would be three times a day, as the project said. The challenge is to do this for fifteen or twenty years. The challenge is to protect the young plants against natural predators, such as crickets and bugs. To do this the project has shown the target group ( the village people) how to prepare a ” completely organic and ecologically safe ” brew from plants like the Neem tree. This must be applied preventative once a day.

But yes, of course there is training and” encadrement”- monitoring or follow-up. A local project agent will travel with a motor bike to all the sites and will be in frequent contact with all the locals, ready to answer questions and to offer the project’s support if needed. He will do that at least for five years.

I am holding my breath now here.. but one good thing has happened. We created a job. The local agent is going to feed his family for five years because he has a job and a salary.

But what can be done ? Really?

” It has to be left alone, it is scarred, the land is scarred and it is lost for us, but not forever. It has to be left alone and a new order will be established. It will not be like it was before and it will take a very long time. Other will live on it not us “, was what the old man said to me. ” It has happened like this before”

Categories: Development Aid, Development Project, Landscapes, Mali, Mali Villages, Nara, Nature, Participatory Development, Sahel, Sahelian Goats, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Night In The Sahel

The view over my wall just before night fall

The presence of palm trees in my close vicinity has always contributed to my feeling of happiness. I feel happy when palm trees grown close to where I live. It must be a connection to an earlier life.

Categories: Landscapes, Mali, Nara, Nature, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toumboudrane, an old place of healing and knowledge

As it was then, so it is now!

Toumboudrane, a village of old Africa. A place of healing and great knowledge.

Toumboudrane was founded over 110 years ago. When I started working in Nara in the 1990’s the chief of the village had already reached the honorable age of 88 years. To be old is good in Mali. Old age is an honorable state that deserves respect.

When I paid my first visit to the village to introduce myself to the chief of the village, a representative for the village chief had already been chosen to replace and assist him in decision-making concerning the affairs of the village. His advanced age and the fact that he was not capable anymore to attend to all the demands and situations that arose in the village and  that he was not well physically made this measure necessary.

Toumboudrane was also famous in the cercle de Nara for its Koranic school and for the healing capacities of the old chief of the village. Mentally ill and people with psychological issues were brought frequently to Toumboudrane and handed over to the care of the chief of the village. He had the gift to heal the ill by reciting the koran in their presence.

And people did get well again.

Like a hundred years ago. Houses are built still in the traditional way in the villages by using handmade mud bricks.

At the time of the projects interventions Toumboudrane counted 1115 inhabitants. Today according to a more recent census from 2003 it counts 1662 inhabitants. All the villages in the cercle de Nara have an old history but Toumboudrane was a village known for its spiritual and religious tradition as well.

It belonged also to the interventions zone of the Project LAG. Being the third biggest village of the municipality of  Nara it was chosen as one of the first villages where a “centre d’alphabetisation” was build in the 1980’s. This adult education center taught the people of Toumboudrane with the help of two local teachers, that were paid by the LAG, to read and write in their own language, Sarakolle.

Centre d'Alphabetisation in Toumboudrane

Interesting was that there existed now two educational institutions next to each other in the same village. The one was a koranic school with hundreds of years tradition and a reputation reaching far based on the Muslim faith, exploring the human soul and the many ways how to serve god and to become a better human being.

Koranic teachings under the shade of a tree. The old village chief sitting on the left.

The other one an educational institution based on Western principles trying to empower people by giving them the gift to read and write in their own native languages.

And it has to be said they co-existed well.

I can say it was a good thing that I kept a hand written diary through all those years. Looking at the photographs now brings back the intensity of these moments and encounters. I know now that I have met some great spiritual people and leaders in my life. Even if some of the encounters were short.

One comment I have written in that year caught my eye again. My conclusion at the time was, that both schools had so much to say and to give and that their knowledge and tradition combined could indeed help you to become a more humble, less pretentious, wiser and spiritually richer human being.


Categories: Africa, Development Aid, Islam, Koranic School, Mali, Nara, Nature, Participatory Development, People, Sahel, Tradition, Traditional Healer, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Want You To Stay Up There

We want you to stay up there for a while or the pleasure of unity

The last 100 km of road before "Nara la Sahelienne" would appear in the dust

I had received from my employer a job description, admittedly a little bit vague in nature,  that left room for a variety of  joyful and exciting interpretations about  my new position and the living conditions in Nara.  At the time I liked the fact that this job description was so “open” and that it allowed me to fantasize with my friends and family.

Since the project in Nara was a ” collaboration ” between different organisations I also had three superiors with the same hierarchical powers ( over me ), a fact that should not be underestimated and that can be even under normal working conditions challenging.  All three represented powerful, long-established, reputable organisations with distinct mission statements and philosophies. One organisation was a left orientated political foundation, another one an international donor organisation, the pro-longed arm of the German Ministry of International Development and last but not least an independent, fund-raising  NGO, the initiator of the Nara project in the 1990’s .

All three were experienced, impressive men with decades of working experience in the field of International Development work and they had lived most of their life abroad. Their political and religious convictions varied and so did their view of life, management styles and perceptions of the role of foreign aid and the technical advisors or assistants (me again) assigned to projects. Each one organised, worked and orchestrated from his regional office as a regional director. I dare to say they did not like it other too much.

Johnny Cash’s song  ” The one on the right is the one on the left ” fitted this scenario perfectly.

At the time the sector of International Development Work was a rather wild playground with fierce competition and rivalries between the structures concerning project regions, programme interventions and positions.

Several meetings took place individually between the three directors and me to clarify my mission but instead of enlightenment I felt a tiny little bit of nervousness creeping in. Finally, in the meeting before the last meeting, I got one clear instruction before leaving for Nara.

” We want you to stay up there for a while, that is the most important thing for now,” so I was told by the independent NGO director, who of course had a right to say so because it was him who had created everything in the first place.

“There has not been enough presence so far in that location.” he explained further.

” Up there ?”

” Yes, up North, in Nara, please you take your time, you observe and look at the situation, look at it from all the angles and just be present and patient . No need to be proactive right now.”

” Ok”, I said.  I thought I can do that.

” And then you write us a detailed report at the end of the month about what you have seen with all your personal observations.” he added. ” It should be a bit longer than a page.”

After having arrived up there and having seen the place I had a the necessary and un-avoidable follow-up-thought on my first thought that went somehow like this :  Can I do that ?

It is going to be stimulating! I hope!

But then again..

It is going to be stimulating !

Categories: Africa, Development Aid, Development Project, Landscapes, Mali, Nara, Nature, Transport, Travel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

And Aicha Cooked !

Aicha cooked up a storm in my kitchen everyday !

” I don’t get it,” a friend of mine said, “you and that girl from Niger, whats her name ? Your best friend ? You two, you seem to be the only ones who are picking up weight in Mali ?

” Martina, her name is Martina, ” I replied a little thoughtful because he had rightfully told the truth.

It was obvious! I was picking up a kilogram for every year because AICHA CCOOKED ! Aicha cooked up a storm in my kitchen day and night.  After having employed a life time guard, my resistence to having further people around me and taking over necessary daily tasks had been broken down by African logic and was close to zero.  A personel guard could not be topped! Or only by a cook !

In my first week in Nara, a young woman had been coming to my house for three consecutive days to see me. The first two days I had stayed too long at the office and she was already gone when I came home which was not good, so I was told by Kodjo, but on the third day she was still sitting in front of my house when I hurried home earlier from work not to upset Kodjo again.  Aicha ! A beautiful name and a beautiful woman.

” Aicha wants to cook for you ” , Kodjo said. ” She is a good cook, and you have to eat. “

That was definitely true and I had not been eating a lot these last exciting days. So what the heck, let her cook, I thought. Aicha had a tiny baby, named Moussa and now my houdehold counted already three – not including the animals like Egon, the water-fetching donkey and the young but growing chicken family.

Busy Monday in Nara

Aicha visited every day the Nara market, understandably preferring the food and kitchenalia line, bringing home whatever she needed to make us a healthy Sahel meal.

She had a budget to buy groceries and meat that she used during the whole month and the money was better guarded than a donation box in a catholic church in Poland.

For lunch she usually prepared rice with different Malian traditional sauces or stews everyday. In the evening there was grilled chicken, grilled fish or beef skewers with fried potatoes, vegetables or sometimes salad. And no I did not get sick from the salad. The menu could also offer couscous. Except for the meat and the onions none of the ingredients were familiar to me. It did not matter. She made ginger juices, prepared her own chilli paste, called piment in Nara. She baked maize bread. Cooked with red palm oil.

She made a sauce from Baobab leaves. Cooked with Cassava and bananas. Huge bananas!

Made a peanut butter sauce with chicken and chilli ! YES!!

It did not occur to me that my colleagues did not eat twice a day hot opulent meals. If you have Aicha ! You love Aicha !

Me fiddling with the connection of the gas stove assisted by Martha, the Sahel hound

With the equipment I had received cooking did not always go smooth. Even Martha the Sahel hound ( I will tell her story a little later ) could not help at times.  It was my employers philosophy that technical advisors in developing countries should not display too much luxury. No luxury at all in fact.  And indeed nobody had a gas stove in Nara.

But Aicha cooked ! And she took this task serious. Very serious!  After a while she cooked on fire and then the food got even better. Fresh, lovingly prepared food. Aicha’s cooking became famous in Bamako because colleagues and friends visiting me and not living the same culinary pleasures as I did, told wondrous stories about Aicha’s meals.

Aicha starting to cook at night, preparing a meal for Nara dignitaries

Aicha’s cooking was so tasteful and amazing that I could negotiate more than once a reduction in consultants fees for training and other educational measures in Nara when meals were included in the payment. Aicha’s meals! Aicha cooked at night for guests and Nara dignitaires. Aicha had a calling and followed through with it.

I did not mention that Aicha was a traditional healer as well!

Categories: Africa, Baobab, Mali, Nara, Nature, West Africa, women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sahelian Goats – Pride Of Their Masters

Sahelian goats and their masters on their way home

A small troup of Sahelian goats is led home from the bush through a street in Nara by their Peul (Fulani) masters under the last rays of the Sahel sun. I watched this sight for many evenings, sitting at the gate of my house and it was always of the same beauty and serenity.

Sahelian goats have stiff short hair, are bred in a variety of colors from pure white, cream, to red, black or gray sprinkled or pied, gray, brown or black. They are kept primarily for their meat and skins. Their milk is processed very seldom in the northern dry and arid parts of Mali but is offered to visitors in the villages, mixed and thinned with water as a sign of hospitality. The Sahelian goat is a breed occuring specifically in the north and north-west of Mali

It is difficult to grow and plant trees in the Sahel. No tree grows by itself. It has to be watered, protected by fence and pampered like a prematurely born baby, not only for months but for many years. The Sahelians, as the goats are sometimes simply called add another challenge to the complexity of this task.

In planning processes, aiming at sustainable development the simple fact it is often overlooked that it is extremely tiring and exhausting for the ones who have to do it, to protect young trees and seedlings against livestock that has been living in an area for hundreds of years. Even more so if that livestock is the pride of your soul.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Fulani, Landscapes, Mali, Nara, Nature, People, Sahel, Sahelian Goats, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Baobab – The Trees of The Spirits

Where the ancestors gather!

A Legend from Africa

In the mystical land Africa grew a beautiful tree called Baobab. Although tall and mighty, the Baobab was not satisfied with what it was and it complained to the Great Spirit who ruled the land, the wild open plains and the animals. The Baobab still wanted to be taller, have blossoms and fruits. At first the Great Spirit ignored the tree, but when the complaining continued the Great Spirit got tired, reached down from the heavens, yanked the tree out of the earth and stuffed it back into the ground with force upside down. All the animals on the great plains noticed this and were reminded of the power and omnipresence of the Great Spirit. After that the Baobab grew only leaves once a year. For nine months of the year it stayed leafless and it seemed like as if its roots are growing into the air. And this is how it still is today.

This is an African legend of the Baobab tree. There are many more legends from other countries. The Baobab – Adansonia Digitata – grows on the savannahs of Africa and India, mostly around the equator. It can get up to 25 meters in height and it lives for thousands of years.

Each product of the Baobab is used. From the bark clothes and ropes are made, the leaves can be cooked into a sauce or used as traditional medicine and the fruit often called ” monkey bread ” is eaten as well. Apart from being one of the most beneficial and wondrous trees on this earth it is a mystical tree that attracts spirits.

In the “Cercle de Nara” the Baobab was highly valued by the people. Every year a group of young men left their villages and traveled with donkey carts to areas in the Sahel where the Baobab grew to gather the leaves and bark. Sometimes they would stay away from home for two or three weeks. But with every new year the journey became longer and harder and the harvest less. The Baobab leaves had become scarce. This “mini migration movement” for the beneficial products of the Baobab tree took place every year and the scarcity of the trees and the adventures encountered by the men on the trip were a topic in many a conversation.

In Narai, I was told the spirits of the ancestors visit the trees often and stay a while if it pleases them. In the branches of a Baobab one can feel the ancestors.

As part of our “multisectoral holistic village development programme” that supported self-help initiatives in the Cercle of Nara we had started researching the history of the Baobab ( Adansonia Digitata) on a local level. Under the framework of our agroforestry programme that aimed at planting, growing and re-introducing indigenous trees, we suggested to the people in the village to plant and grow the Adansonia Digitata close-by. This would eventually with time lead to the availability of Baobab leaves, bark and fruits, contribute to re-forestation in the Sahel and reduce the necessity of traveling to remote areas to collect the products. It was an idea that had been well thought through and reflected on from a point of planning and organization. And it was possible to grow the Baobab. I had done several test at my house.

But during several hot afternoon meetings in different villages the men listened to the projects suggestions with great secptism. There was great reluctance.

One afternoon I received the visit of a village chief who had come to the market in Nara to do business.

” Why is it difficult to grow the Baobab” ? I asked him over tea.

” You can live close to a Baobab tree, but you should not plant a new Baobab tree in your yard. You will die before you see it grow big and it is absolutely not sure how the spirits of the ancestors would react to such an action.”

I believe that in most things that are said in Africa, there is truth!

Categories: Adansonia Digitata, Africa, Baobab, Landscapes, Mali, Nara, Nature, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Children In The Villages Are The Greatest Inventors

A group of children in the village of Keybane Soninke

Many things have changed during the last ten years in Mali. With the construction of a tarred road Nara has come out of its isolation. There is cell phone reception and internet access now in Nara. A friend said to me the other day: “These pictures are beautiful memories and you must tell the stories that belong to them”.  The stories can be told easily but the problem is to find the right angle and to link them to the present, since they are my memoirs from the past.

The two pictures show a group of children in the village of Keybane Soninke. The children in the villages of the “Cercle de Nara” can be called without exaggerating ” the greatest inventors on earth”. There was nothing to play with. At least not something that could be called a toy in a traditional or classical way. The contrast between a child raised in a first world country and a child raised in a small village in the Sahel could not be greater.

Extreme poverty creates extreme creativty. Anything could and would be turned into a toy, provided it was interesting enough and it was not needed by the adults anymore.

Is the scenario still the same today or has the arrival of technology als changed the life of the children in the villages. The only way to find out for me is to go back there!

The children in the village

Categories: Africa, Mali, Nara, Nature, People, Sahel, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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