We sat three across in the back seat of the pickup truck, seven men perched behind us in the cab holding on to the rails as we drove about 25 kilometers into the bush. The sun seemed to be playing games, positioning itself at exactly the right angle to make me sweat to the maximum, and the air conditioning was completely ineffective more than a foot away from the vent. Tom, an American consultant who is here until March, Mme. Berthé, and I all silently pondered the same thing: how much farther do we have to go, and I really hope this place is worth seeing.
25km on this road in 95 degree weather
In Bougouni, (maybe 100 or 150 km from Bamako) a cooperative of farmers and fishers has decided that they want to expand their enterprise into fish farming. That is, creating and maintaining fishponds in order to raise cultivated varieties of fish (carp, tilapia) to sell on the market. Inland fish breeding has become a quite popular – and at times quite lucrative – source of economic activity in several places across Africa. Fish accounts for a significant percentage of the protein intake for many people, and local production makes a lot of sense, both economically and ecologically.
Right after lunch we saw two attempts at the creation of a fishpond on one man’s farm bordering the river, an estuary of a river originating in Côte d’Ivoire that pours into the Niger. Both ponds that he had dug were completely parched, as the water had quickly infiltrated back into the surrounding soil. Despite their attempts to compact the earth around the pond to make it hold water, a combination of a low water table and lack of étanchéité made the one pond look more like a strange crater in the middle of a cracked and dry field. Not to be flippant, but it looked like a really determined attempt at digging a hole to China. Deeper than I ever got as a kid, but it’s safe to say this is not the objective here.
a really big, really dry hole
The dichotomy is huge between that which is irrigated – either naturally or by hand – and land with no source of water. The occasional shrub or small tree will grow in dry dirt, but a fishpond, even dug right next to the river, has little chance unless the conditions are just right.
no water equals no growth
After a good forty-five minutes crammed into the truck, bouncing over rock hard uneven dirt roads, we finally stopped. Everyone got out, and we proceeded to walk another 500 meters or so to the second fishpond site through the grassy bush of the Sahel. When we finally reached the site, it was like a man-made oasis, except it wasn’t actually a figment of my imagination. Different sized ponds separated by dykes, lush green grass growing on all sides, rich dark brown mud where the water met these man-made walls. (Complemented by the setting sun and a cool breeze for the first time in almost an hour, I actually had to convince myself it was real.)
fish ponds as far as the eye can see
Barry Sidibé’s land is situated in the flood zone of the river, which means that he benefits from the yearly supply of water (and fish) to populate the fishponds. During the rainy season when the water from the river covers the entirety of his farm – all the land we were standing on – the wild fish from the river reach just as far. When the water recedes back to the banks of the river, the fish are trapped in the ponds by the dykes, and can be cultivated, harvested, and sold. In a community where the price of fish imported from north of Bamako has risen from 75CFA ($0.15) to 2500CFA ($5.00) over the past ten years, the economic incentives to partake in local pisciculture are quite high. And for good reason. But the practicality of the venture is unclear.
pisciculture (fish culture)
On the road to M. Sidibé’s farm, we saw several dozen men and women panning for gold, and on our drive back to Bougouni, they were making the long trek home on foot. I asked Mme. Berthé how much gold they actually find out here. She laughed a little ruefully and commented that maybe they wouldn’t be walking to and from work every day if they had enough money to afford a ride on a motorcycle or the back of a cart.
Without the natural flooding of the river, and unless the situation is exactly right, digging these fishponds made me think about panning for gold where there really is none. I wonder how far a strong brew of hope and desperation will drive people, and how long it will last until a good dose of practicality sets in. That’s not to say that the situation is impossible; it just needs to be done in the right context, with the right information and training. Agriculture accounts for over 80 percent of the economic activity of Mali. A combination of an already harsh climate and climate change that is only making things worse has led to some of the most difficult growing seasons in history, and the need for a lot of really innovative thinking.
I’m here for six months, living in one of the poorest countries in Africa, which makes it one of the poorest in the world, too. Mme. Berthé gave me a Malien name, Sarata – incidentally also her own first name – which means that I’m part of this place now. Questions of agricultural development and creating sustainable food systems, writ large, make my head spin they seem so insurmountable. The willingness to be open to new ideas and to innovate is the only way to get anywhere. To dig what might look like holes to China, for a small group of people in Bougouni, just south of Bamako, might just be the way through.
(For more pictures of Bougouni, of a dairy production center at Ouellessebougou and of Kafara where we’ll be working on agribusiness and input/output marketing.)