When an African village is home

In 1974, 500 Malian nomads boarded a caravan of government trucks in Goundam, 100 miles west of the ancient desert crossroad Timbuktu. Shoulder to shoulder were Tuaregs, Bellas, Moors, people who had nothing in common but the fact that they were survivors of a drought that had cost the lives of 1 million nomads, the worst in central West Africa's history.

Six hours out of Goundam, the trucks spilled their passengers on the north shore of Niger-fed Lake Faguibine. This would be their new home, Tin Aicha ("teen-ah'-sha"), a village these refugees would build from the ground up, with the help of the Malian government and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

In six years, this village has become one of the remarkable success stories of resettlement and self-sufficiency.

Last year a photographer and I spent two weeks in the village on the fringe of the Sahara. Thursday, Jan. 17 Bamako, Mali's capital:

4 a.m.: . . . and Venus is glowing like the sun. Todd and I are en route to the airport to catch our plane for Goundman, a desert's-edge town of 8,000 people, halfway between Timbuktu and Tin Aicha. "I know about Tin Aicha," our driver, Sidibe, says beaming, in broken French. "Everyone knows that village!"

From the air, the land below our old prop plane looks tired and worn in this morning haze; few sings of life other than an occasional fire by a small cluster of huts. I can see the Niger down there, a huge sleepy thing plowing through thirsty land. Goundam airport:

The first time an AFSC representative landed here, she stayed on the plane, thinking it had made an emergency landing. The terminal is a one-room, two-window, cement affair, containing -- in toto -- one bench, one counter, one plane schedule book, and no welcoming party. The landscape is as empty as the building: a few meager bushes, a couple of thord trees, sand and more sand. Friday, Jan. 18 Goundam, AFSC Headquarters:

Afternoon: WE've sent a We're here!m message by camel to AFSC representative Greg Allard [not his real name -- he prefers anonymity] in Tin Aicha. He should receive it in two days. Meanwhile, we're living with a host of flies. Saturday, Jan. 19

Evening: Eating mutton ribs. Dipping our hands into a shared bowl. Fingers glowing with grease by the light of an oil lamp. The housekeeper, Inchoto, chews hunks of fat as if they were bubble gum -- sucking out the flavor and then swallowing the whole lump. Muhammad gnaws every bit of meat off the ribs and tosses the gleaming bones to a dog. Sunday, Jan. 20

Evening: Fongoye's radio rocks loud and late tonight, while warm night air hangs heavy and barely moves. Falling asleep is work. About 11 p.m. I doze off , only to have it shattered by Fongoye's shouting in French, e's coming! He's coming! Le patron!"m

"How do you know?" I ask.

"I hear his car!" Sure enough, five minutes later a Land-Rover careens to a halt in front of the house. Its doors fly open and three men rip into our courtyard.

One whips out a letter and thrusts it under Todd's nose; another blazes a flashlight on the words; the third bends down to look while Todd reads aloud: Welcome to the Great North. Sorry to have missed your arrival. Am sending the Land-Rover to fetch you -- Greg.m Monday, Jan. 21

Goundam to Tin Aicha: Topsy-turvy, that's what we are, for the ride to Tin Aicha is rugged, roadless. Slippery sand and spinning wheels. Now and then a relief of traction as our tires grab brittle patches of brown grass that spot the terrain like miniature throw rugs. Foliage is sparse, fierce. Bushes stab the air with thorns. Parched trees lie up-rooted on the sand like piles of bones.

Just when I'm certain nothing could survive in this land, three goats dart in front of our Land-Rover. Garba, the driver, tells me that means water is nearby , and soon we come to it: springing up in the middle of nowhere, a 200-foot wall , dug by the French in the '60s. One nomad bathes in its trough, his wet skin slick as deep-brown patent leather; another coaxes his donkey to draw water; 50 head of cattle paw the ground and wait for a drink.

We're getting close. When we pass through the village of Adar-Mellen on the southwest edge of Lake Faguibine, Garba announces that we're only 20 kilometers from Tin Aicha's site on the northern shore. The lake has receded, so we shortcut across the sunbaked floor of its western tip.

Curtains of dried millet reeds sway on either side of us, hiding the view. Suddenly the curtains end, enveilling a scattered collection of round grass homes rising out of hot sand like loaves of golden bread. Tin Aicha?

Yes, Tin Aicha. Garba steers through an opening in a straw fence and declares: "La maison de Monsieur Greg."m A crowd of grinning villagers, thick as a flock of Goundam flies, presses in around the Land-Rover. Greg -- tall, bespectacled, fair skin reddened by the desert sun -- saunters through the group and greets us as casually as if we'd come four miles instead of 4,000.

Midnight: Greg and I sit outside his hut. Sifting sand through my fingers, I watch our campfire wane and listen to him relate the still young history of Tin Aicha's agriculture: All the nomads in the village were alloted equal amounts of land under the same conditions: Work the land or lose it; and work it yourself.m

These were stiff requirements. The Moors were familiar with breeding camels, not with seeding fields; and the noble Tuaregs had owned land but never held hoes. Only the diligent Bellas, formerly captives of the Tuareg, had some farming know-how.

Today, Tin Aichans are pretty much self-sufficient. But it was a tough row to hoe.

During the first year, the village's motley farmers had to contend with a shortage of tools and appropriate seeds, destruction of crops by rats and locusts, and their own lingering debility inflicted by the drought and life in the refugee camp. In addition, the inexperienced Moors and Tuaregs struggled with severe blisters, hoe wounds, and humuliation. They were so embarrassed to be farming that they leaped into their boubousm (robes) and pretended not to be working every time a stranger came near. And they mistakenly sowed their fields with three kinds of rice -- all of which ripened at different times -- inextricably mingled.

When the Tin Aicha project first got under way, no heads of families were allowed extended leaves from the village. Today, the regulation is no longer needed -- not that these nomads have lost their wanderlust; they've simply gained a stake in Tin Aicha. Tuesday, Jan. 22

Morning: For an hour or so I sit with a Tuareg named Mariama while she alternately nurses her child, slurps tea, and works on a leather cushion. The goat hide comes from her family's herd. While she slices strips of it, Mariama holds the animal skin right against her index finger -- cutting deep into calluses as if her finger itself were a piece of thick leather.

"What will you buy with the money you earn from your cushion?" I ask Mariama as she uses her small knife to apply lines of red dye to the leather.

"A young goat." Wednesday, Jan. 23

Morning: Seven children and I walk toward the lake's edge, trudging through thick sand, teaching one another songs, halting to pull thorns from our thongs or feet. We pass dozens of prickle bush "fences" encircling young acacia trees planted by the village reforestation team to provide shade and hold back the dunes. The young boys stop to do acrobatics down the sides of dunes -- their naked bodies dark against giant leg of white sand; flies flipping off them as they tumble.

Evening: The black night thrills to chanting, groaning, hissing. Tongues trill high-pitched screams. Insisted hands slap the tam-tamm and impose a rhythm on everything.

Then, the dancing begins. A Moorish woman, caped in indigo, unfolds a silk turban and slowly slithers the cloth about her body, around her neck, down her arm, between graceful fingers.It's a movement as old as her ancestors, and it draws villagers out of their grass huts. But only half of Tin Aicha's community is in the village now; the other half is far away, roaming with the village herds.

Until fall rains call them home for three months of planting and harvest work , the wanderers will live in the bush with their beasts, thinning out one pasture, then moving on to the next.

Important to Tin Aichan nomads, who so honor tradition, was the provision of cattle to replenish the "bones on hooves" which they had lost during the drought. Not only did the herds give nomads a comforting link with their heritage, they also filled essential economic and social needs by permitting the nomads to continue as merchants of meat and dairy products. Says one Tin Aichan: "The animals in Tin Aicha have restored the nomads' peace of mind." Thursday, Jan. 24

Noon: It is not uncommon to be invited to someone's home for a meal and see little of the host. To the nomad, "entertaining" means providing a sumptuous meal more than it means chatting away the afternoon. And it's acceptable for a visitor to curl up on the mat and sleep a bit while waiting for dinner; in fact, it eases the host to know one is not anxious.

Special meals, such as today's lunch with Chief Tangui Ag Hassan, traditionally begin with the finest of the "delicacies": lamb organs -- every single unappetizing (to Westerners) one. i choose my mouthfuls carefully, slowly chewing one morsel while scrutinizing the communal pot to determine which will be my next. One has to have two "next bites" in mind, just in case some other hand scoops the firs choice. Friday, Jan. 25

Morning: Yehia, arrayed in an orange bouboum and blue thongs, sashays up to the old chalkboard and sprawls French phrases across its pitted face. Then, like the ring-leader of a circus, he makes an elegant pivot toward his fifth-grade class, gestures grandly, and flings a question.

Before the query is half flung, bodies leap from their seats, hands shoot in the ari; earger shouts of "Moi Monsieur! Moi monsieur!"m bounce off clay walls. One would think M. Yehia had asked, "Who wants lunch?" not, "What is the correct demonstrative pronoun for this sentence?" When it comes to learning, Yehia's students have become as demonstrative as their teacher -- and it's OK with their parents.

It has not always been OK. In fact, enthusiasm for schooling is still relatively rare among nomads. But this school is different. Unlike most Malian schools that recruit nomad children, it's in a village, not in a town.

"Nomad parents," one Tuareg explains, "have little affection for the habits their children pick up in urban centers. The habits seem shameful to them in contrast with traditional ways."

Because the school is local, it doesn't divide children and parents to the degree town schools do.

There is something else that makes this school unfrightening: the process of being "ruralized." This means that in addition to a basic education, the children are taught the skills needed in their particular agrarian-pastoral community.

Comments Greg: "It's either make education more relevant or render half of the country's land, and a great many of her people, useless."

Until this years, Tin Aicha's classes met in schoolhouses made of straw mats draped over frames of twisted acacia tree trunks and branches. Every year, the schools had to be rebuilt -- ferocious sandstorms flattened them, and fall rains seeped through them.

Two years ago, villagers requested permanet school buildings. The government enthusiastically agreed; the AFSC brought in a truck for hauling clay; and villagers made it clear they wanted to help. In January 1979, a Goundam construction team of skilled laborers arrived in Tin Aicha and building began.

Thirty village men were trained and hired by the team to mix clay, mold large support bricks, and help with construction. Four Tin Aicha women learned to form and fire the small bricks for the exteriors of the buildings. Today the classrooms are complete, as are permanent structures to house the village dispensary and cooperative store. Saturday, Jan. 26

Morning: I wince when she draws a sizable dagger from its sheath and places its point on my scalp. Though not terribly delighted with the thought of having butter and charcoal rubbed through my hair, I've succumbed to Fati's offer to fashion my blond tresses a la Tuareg. With the knife's tip she parts my hair down the middle, front to back. Then the braiding begins. Tuareg tradition calls for three braids, one behind each ear, a third at the crown. Sunday, Jan. 27

Afternoon: The hut is familiar, but the man in it turbaned beyond recognition. "Ali?" I ask. "Oui, responds Ali, teacher and director for Tin Aicha's school. Like the four other teachers in the village, his education earns for him the demanding status of "wise man," and he's called upon often to act as arbitrator among villagers, staff, and officials.

In some ways his job is growing easier, for, as he says, "the government and Tin Aichans have begun to trust each other." Greg comments that the increased trust is "best evidenced in the willingness of Tin Aichans to present their grievances and their difficulties to local administrators, because they believe that ears are less deaf than before."

There is a reason for this change in attitude. Last year, the federal government officials overseeing the Tin Aicha project made the rigorous journey from Bamako to the remore village to find out how nomads felt about what was happening in their lives.

Perhaps "the gift without the giver is cold," for that one personal gesture did more to build nomad trust in their government than had all the donated supplies and professional staff.

Ali proclaims: "The government has surprised us with concern, and we have surprised them with hard work and flexibility. Bit by bit, there has been change on both sides."

It wasn't longer after that visit that the officials turned land control over to the village council. It was a remarkable sign of confidence placed in a group of nomadic herders who only five years before had been painfully embarrassed to be farmers and whom officials had stereotype as "lazy" and "shiftless." Tuesday, Jan. 29

Morning: I spend the early morning doing a pencil sketch of Zeinabou, Chief Tangui's niece. Her skin is as taut and tan as taffy, and its hue makes me wich I'd brought my watercolors. When i finish the drawing, I give it to Zeinabou and the two of us abandon my hut for Tin Aicha's marketplace.

This three-year-old weekly market is bigger than I'd expected. More than 70 vendors, including many Tin Aichans, congregate here on Lake Faguibine's edge every Tuesday. They supply North Shore people with goods ranging from salt, tea , and soap to fabrics, meat, and leather cushions.

Evening: I lie in my hut, eyes open. The darkness is so thick that I can't tell if I'm looking up or down. I stare into the blankness and think about the last two weeks. When I leave Tin Aicha tomorrow it will be with the conviction that it is more efficient, not to mention more loving, to include people in the authorship of their own development.

I recall what a governmental official in Bamako involved in this project had said had been the most profound effect on Tin Aicha on the government and the nomad: "There is greater trust between us."

It is possible.

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