Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

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A Dairy Story, Part II: I promise to stop writing about goats. After this.

With six litres of goats milk in my fridge, and nothing else to do after some rooftop yoga (choreography by crazy redhead swiss women, music score by neighborhood construction workers and teenage footballers..) I went home to make some serious amounts of yogurt.

my bounty..

Not having a thermometer makes things interesting, but I managed to keep the milk at a not-quite-boil, and then cool it down to about 110˚. (According to my Bulgarian yogurt-making website, this is when you can hold the tip of your finger in the milk for 15 seconds without wanting to cry. I had many burned fingertips before getting to that point.)

just below boiling point

The incubating part was easy. When it’s 100˚ out during the day, and you spend two hours heating up the kitchen to some ungodly temperature, there’s no need to worry about the fecundity of the bacteria. Just to be sure, I swathed my pots of probiotics in kitchen towels and bedsheets and left my home-made sauna for the night. (Pores cleared, toxins all sweat out.)

impromptu incubator

Because I am neurotic, I woke up the next morning to thoughts of the previous night’s project, wondering if maybe I hadn’t let the milk cool quite enough, or what if it cooled too much?? Paranoid, I got out of bed (mind you, it’s not even 6am at this point), padded my way to my kitchen that had evidently remained at elevated sauna-like temperatures all night long. I unwrapped the still-warm casseroles, and uncovered the most beautiful cultured creation ever. Paranoia, placated.

successss! (to be enjoyed daily, preferably topped with fruit and honey.)

Shady Operations in Dusty Trainstations : A Dairy Story, Part 1

I officially have a dealer. In goats milk. Two days ago I got a call from Sheick Diarra, our guide de voyage on the trip out to Kayes a few weeks ago, and worked with us throughout the training on gestational and neo-natal care for goats and sheep. He left to go back to Kayes after the training ended, but not before I not-so-subtly mentioned how great it would be to have a regular source of goats milk to satisfy the need of my burgeoning yogurt and cheese making venture. So when my phone rings and he tells me there are six litres of milk en route from almost-Senegal, I knew I had it made.

8:30am, yesterday. I leave from the office with one of our drivers, call the number Sheick gave me for a certain M. Bakari Coulibaly, who was supposed to have arrived the previous night by train, cooler of goats milk in tow. Handing my phone to the driver, Monsieur Coulibaly gives him directions to the train station, where we’re to go.

women selling dried and smoked fish

It’s not quite 9am and the markets are already packed with people: women selling avocados and potatoes, men offering any number of products or services, kids trying to hawk cell phone credit or boxes of kleenex. We get to la gare, and park in the dusty red courtyard of loading docks filled with wooden crates, tables scattered here and there, and hoards of people going about their early morning routine.

piles of shoes and other bric-a-brac

After poking around for a minute and getting some strange looks from the dockworkers – I am slightly out of place here – I call my contact person again. I pass the phone to the driver, having not a clue how exactly to negotiate my way to finding 6 litres of milk in the middle of a dusty dockyard, and something tells me the message will pass easier in Bambara. Mohammad takes the phone and starts walking towards one of the loading docks where a man is serving breakfast to a few of the other workers. He hands my phone to that man. A loud and jumbled conversation follows, and I am beginning to think that dealing in goats milk might just not be my calling. The dockworker-cum-chef hangs up, walks over to a stack of wooden crates, and pulls back a large tarp that has seen better days.

Lo and behold, there lies my glacier, a cooler full of goats milk. I quickly buy a small plastic bag from a woman across the yard, and fill it with a dozen sachets of white, creamy deliciousness. We scurry back to the pickup and bump our way out of the crowded lot, tumbling back into the chaos of early morning Bamako.

9:15am: goats milk safely in my refrigerator.

9:30am: back at my desk, ready to start the day.

Reference Points for Dirty Feet

The name Mali has its origins in an ancient language that roughly translates to, “perpetually filthy feet”. Maybe this has yet to be proven, but I’m developing a theory on the subject.

dirrrrty feet. pretty nailpolish as a diversion.

But this is not something that really bothers me. What irks me the most, is the inconsiderate cockroach that has decided to make a home out of the cabinet underneath my kitchen counter. I am not ok with a 3-inch cockroach who has nothing better to do than surprise me in his cheeky cockeyed way when all I want is a little snack before going to bed.

Alas.

Cockroaches (even a solitary one) in my kitchen isn’t something I want to get accustomed to. On the other hand, there are certain things that make me feel a sense of home or belonging wherever I am. No matter where I am, as long as the sky is clear I can always pick out Orion’s Belt in the sky at night.  Humor me here; I know it’s not the most difficult thing to be able locate three bright stars right in a row, but it has a soothing effect on me somehow. There are some things, all across the world, that remain the same. Orion’s belt is one of them.

my point de répère...

Friday night I went out with a couple of friends to a comedy club in my neighborhood. Over the course of the night, only two of the jokes were in French, so most of the humor was lost on me. (I was enjoying my Pastis enough to make up for it.) One of the jokes I actually could understand, though, was an Africanized version of this joke I had heard back home about different heads of state making phone calls to God (Allah, whomever) for advice, and the rates they’re charged for the phone calls. In this instance, the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, is incensed by the fact that Obama and Sarkozy each paid hundreds of thousands of francs CFA to speak with God, while his call only cost 250F CFA. “What, just because we’re an underdeveloped country you think we need some sort of charity??” (Funny, because Wade probably would say something like that..)

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a comedian. The punch line is something about how it’s a local call and I know I’ve just totally killed the whole thing. But the part that’s really funny to me isn’t the joke itself, but the fact that I heard someone tell it about two months ago, while sitting at a friend’s house in DC. Only the heads of state were Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s kind of like how several civilizations across the entire world invented the wheel all around the same time, without ever being in contact with each other. A little bit less evolutionarily significant, but you get my point.

Sitting in that club, not understanding most of what was going on, I still had my Orion’s Belt. Everyone was laughing, and I knew that if Bambara was within my grasp, we’d all be laughing about the same thing.

The Kids Love This Stuff (A Breakfast of Champions)

To recap the past few days briefly :

Saturday night at 10:30, I got a phone call from my boss, Bara, confirming that I’d be doing a field visit the next day to the west of Mali in a city called Kayes (pronounced like ‘eye’ with a k in front). Kayes is about an 8 hour drive from Bamako, and the epicenter of small ruminant (goats and sheep) production in Mali. As has been pointed out to me, it’s rather amazing that there is an epicenter for goat and sheep production within a country; the sheer quantity of these beautiful little animals in the region is astounding. So we (myself, Judy who is here to do a training on the subject, Cheikh the researcher/expert in the field, and our driver, Boureima) set out on Sunday at around 8am.

Arrived in Kayes, we visited a few producers and more goats and sheep over the course of about 4 hours than I think I have in my entire life. And I could definitely tell you more about breeds and cross breeding and characteristics of the different breeds than you care to hear. Believe me.

I held a newborn goat (literally 3 hours old) and felt the milk in its belly, making sure it had gotten the colostrum essential in the first few hours of life. Saw a sheep that costs up to $1500 simply because it’s a handsome fellow and is quite sought after among breeders.

this one was born the day before

they were amazingly content to be in the back of the truck

Monday morning we set out back for Bamako. Judy and I are waiting at the hotel where we overnighted for Cheikh and Boureima to come back with the truck and… three female goats.. and.. two twin newborn kid goats… and… 10 litres of goats milk, freshly milked and pasteurized that morning. Right.

Needless to say, the journey back took a little longer with five live animals (and their shepherd) in the back of the pickup. We crossed the Senegal River leaving Kayes (which I haven’t seen since I swam across it in 2007!) and crossed the Niger back into Bamako about nine hours later. When I got home, I promptly bought some vinegar at my favorite little boutiki and made goat’s milk ricotta from two litres of the seven in my fridge. Yesterday, I got a starter and made a vat of yogurt.

le fleuve sénégal, kayes

Since Tuesday I’ve been translating the training in Bamako for veterinarians working with goats and sheep into French. A big problem is with aborted pregnancies and infant mortality, yet they want to amp up production in the region because the market for meat and milk is lucrative, and wide open. It’s fascinating to sit in a room spitting out information about something in which I have almost no previous experience, because at the same time I’m translating, I’m learning all sorts of crazy things. (If the membrane of a goat’s eye is light pink or white, it could mean they have stomach worms and are anemic. Measures should be taken immediately to deworm them, or the animal could die.)

From a pedagogical perspective, the week has been hugely productive. But let’s be honest here. The most important thing to remember is : nothing but a little heated goats milk with cinnamon for breakfast is positively divine. Goats milk has this reputation for smelling bad and not tasting good, which, I admit, I bought into for a long time. But I swear it is the sweetest tasting milk/yogurt/cheese I have ever had. And the fact that I know exactly where it came from, how it was produced, and under what conditions the animals were raised, makes the whole process that much better. There’s no better way to be connected to your food than to see la chèvre milking her newborn kid, and then to drink that milk, or maybe the milk from a different female goat, with my breakfast of baguette and Nescafé.

See more goats and sheep here…

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

Faces in the Crowd: A Field Visit in Sikasso

This week I spent four days on a field visit in the south in the region of Sikasso. We met with several different cooperatives – both women and men. I took pictures galore.

meeting with women's rice co-op

In the first village, there were over 200 people that came to the meeting.

one of the secretaries

I was seriously impressed by their organization and their eagerness to advance in all aspects: business management, agriculture techniques, commercialization, marketing…

notetaking

They talked about rice seed varieties and the need for more training on seed multiplication techniques.

kids are cute

Having already had training in packing and storage techniques, they store bags of rice for several months, presumably to sell on the market in the off-season when prices are higher. Excellent in theory, but good connections to markets and transportation are challenges.

There is also a desire for post-harvest processing capacity. Without the machine to ‘décortiquer’ – to hull – the rice, the women aren’t making nearly as much money as they could. There is solar power capacity in this village, currently being used to pump water into a water tower. This solar power could also be used to power a hulling machine – I mean, why not?

best rice i've ever eaten

We ate with them after the meeting: rice with a tomato sauce filled with onions, cabbage, locally grown eggplant, and some fish that I conveniently ignored.

the men of n'pegnéss0

The men in N’Pegnésso are involved in potato farming. A barrage – a dam – has already been constructed to allow for flood irrigation of about 30 hectares (out of 600) of the land.

cows get thirsty too

Rice is grown during l’hivernage – the rainy season, potatoes are grown during the dry season (which is now), and whole herds of cattle graze the land.

In Zoloko, the second village we visited that day, about 175 women were interested in starting a co-op with rice culture and maraîchage, market gardening. They are in the very beginning stages of starting this co-op, and to be honest, I left that village a little disheartened. Out of almost 200 women, not a one spoke up. One man spoke for them all. And only three people in the entire village had basic reading/writing skills. Can we empower women, teach people to read and write, impart leadership skills, *and* reinforce capacity on a business level, at the same time that we do agriculture extension and community building? Please.

where's the white girl?

I wonder sometimes if Mali’s current situation – very much at the bottom of the development totem pole – places it outside of practical agricultural development solutions. An irrigation system being implemented in Rwanda, for example, might not have any relevance here, simply because the costs for implementing it really outweigh the benefits. Or because the amount of water available during the rainy season doesn’t add up to what would make it a realistic installation. Just an example.

future rice and potato growers of mali

Anyway, the next day we visited another co-op of women – again rice culture and market gardening. A much more promising venture, and again, really encouraging to see the initiative and drive of so many women. I’m not sure what the point of this post was; to be honest, I think I just wanted an excuse to put up a bunch of pictures. So take from it what you will.

first to arrive, last to leave

Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

Today is Saturday, my second full weekend in this city. I don’t know very many people in Bamako outside of my colleagues and a couple of Peace Corps volunteers here and there, so basically I had the entire day in front of me. The perfect opportunity to do a little city-field research.

I’m working for an NGO that works with smallholder farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, but my big agricultural passion (yes, I’m going to completely dork out here) is urban agriculture and urban food systems. Bamako is a city of about 2 million people and the fastest growing city in Africa, at that. Other cities across the continent are also expanding at such a rapid rate that the urban systems in place are not equipped to provide for the growing populations. As it is, unemployment is extremely high; people with degrees are jobless or working in unskilled labor, hoping for something better.

Urban ag is (and has for quite some time) been a way to fill in a lot of gaps: it offers job opportunities, feeds people and their families, supplies markets with much-needed produce that is often difficult to transport from rural areas (poor road systems, lack of cold storage, small-scale producers with limited means to move their goods), and helps to green cities that are often dusty, dirty, and littered with trash. And the influx of rural people brings with it a lot of agricultural know-how, to add to a population that is usually already quite agriculturally inclined.

yams and onions and cinder blocks

Mamadou Touré is managing two small plots of land just down the road from my apartment. The owner of this urban garden, Sanou Coulibaly, has been there for over sixty years, since sometime in the 1940s, but is too old to do all of the hard labor herself. Unfortunately for me, Mme. Coulibaly, who was cutting the green shoots off of freshly pulled onions, doesn’t speak much French, and the seven words I know in Bambara would not have really made for much of an interview, so I spoke with M. Touré instead.

M. Touré has been working on these small plots for several years now. He is growing patates (yams), onions and lettuce, mostly because that’s what grows easily and is easy to sell. Every day, anywhere between eight and ten women will come to this mini urban farm and buy the produce that is harvested to sell on the markets – the same neighborhood markets where I buy my produce. It’s an independent operation – not part of any co-op or association, so all of the organizing is done on a person-to-person basis, and very much depends on the relationships between the market women and these urban gardeners. From what I understood, the women are the ones who determine the price for what they buy. Especially considering the size of this operation – there’s no cold storage or post-harvest production, whatever isn’t sold or eaten goes to waste.

That’s not to say there’s a lot of loss here. M. Touré also feeds his family with what is grown; the same goes for Mme. Coulibaly and the five or six other people I saw working there. As I sat in the shade under a giant tree with a few of these people, a bunch of baby chicks ran around us in that crazy uncoordinated way they have, meaning there are big chickens somewhere, laying eggs and probably being eaten, too.

The two plots – which amounted to about a hectare of land – is irrigated by hand from a well dug under that same tree. Bamako’s water table is high enough that well water is readily available. That doesn’t make it easy, however. When I asked what challenges or obstacles he faced in this business, he looked around at all the beds and mused that if he had a motorized pump for the well, things would be much better. He sometimes works until 3 or 4am, just to get everything watered and to pick what will be sold the next day. Urban ag offers possibilities, but it’s not exactly a glamorous life.

After leaving this small venture, I went to one of the markets where M. Touré’s vegetables are sold. A head of lettuce for fifty cents, two eggs for just about half that. As I looked around me at this market, I realized that most of the produce that was there was probably grown within five or ten miles of where I stood. This extensive network of farmers and market women has established itself in a way to take care of a city that isn’t entirely able to take care of itself. I’m going to talk to another woman a little later this evening who has a small plot next door to my building, and hope to venture out near the river soon where several hectares of land are being used to feed the people of this huge city.

Every time I pass by one of these urban plots, I think about the grocery stores back home and the fact that I have no clue where my broccoli or leeks or tomatoes came from. But it’s quite possible that the onion I sautéed for lunch today was one that Mme. Coulibaly picked from her garden sometime earlier this week.

“What’s that?” you ask…

 

hungry anyone?

That, my lovelies, is breakfast. Fresh mangoes and coconut.

They Call Me Sarata: Visiting the Field

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.)