THE agricultural experts told me, `It's impossible to store potatoes in this climate without them sprouting.' Well, I've proved you can.'' Halidou Sawadogo is standing next to the potato cellar he designed in his home village of S'egu'en'ega, Burkina Faso. It stands 10 feet underground, with a special ventilation system that ensures the temperature is a constant 15 degrees C. below the temperature outside. Yet, Mr. Sawdogo never finished primary school.
He speaks with quiet passion and optimism of the challenges facing Africa. ``If our 6-S peasant organization continues, we will forget the very word famine. For instance, I still have grain from last year in my family granary. I'm absolutely positive that we will have ended hunger by the year 2000.''
Sawadogo typifies a new attitude among many African peasants. He and other peasant leaders are the spearhead of a sizable movement that is bringing peasants together in small groups, and fundamentally changing life in many African villages. Confident, innovative, and committed, they are bent on achieving self-reliance.
``The peasant movement represents the future of Africa,'' says Fernand Vincent, founder of a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that establishes links between peasant groups on three continents. ``Western NGOs should efface themselves more and more and let this movement come to the fore. The future belongs to the peasants and other grass-roots popular movements - if they manage to acquire the needed means and know-how and a real understanding of economic forces.''
The peasant groups either work singly - in Kenya, there are an estimated 16,000 to 25,000 separate such women's groups - or they organize into large and potentially powerful federations. In Burkina Faso, one federation has gathered under its wings 2,500 groups.
In southern Senegal, thousands of peasants have established a ``committee to fight for the end of hunger'' (Comit'e de Lutte pour la Fin de la Faim), which may be unique in the third world: They aim to end hunger in their region by the year 2000. ``If we want to end hunger, we can,'' says Barlo Diedhiou, a founder. ``It all depends on us, on our motivation, our commitment.''
The dramatic growth of this peasant movement ``has an incredible potential,'' says agronomist Gil Ducommun, who for years has coordinated activities with Sahelian groups for a Swiss aid organization. ``These farmers will acquire increasing power but in a nonviolent manner, through their increased knowledge....''
With a few exceptions, these groups sprang up spontaneously in the 1970s in response to rapid and far-reaching environmental, economic, social, and cultural changes.
The environmental changes have been devastating. ``When I was a child, there were all sorts of animals here,'' says a peasant in Dissin, Burkina Faso. ``Lions, cobras, monkeys, antelope ... others in abundance. The soil was productive.''
But in the last few decades, all this has changed in much of Africa. Animals and forests are disappearing. Everywhere crop yields are falling because of deforestation, changes in agricultural techniques, population growth, and lack of rain.
The Fulani cattle-breeders of Kalassirou, a small Malian village nestled in a curve of the river Niger, have not a single head of cattle left. Balla Traor'e and his neighbors say they haven't used their plow ``for three years.'' And the women have sold their jewelry. ``The famine ate them up,'' says Jahawa Tamboura, touching her neck and stomach. Women in Mali walk 25 miles in 110 degrees F. heat daily to fetch water during the dry season.
But here and there, instead of waiting for outside help, some innovators began organizing villages: men like Jean-Gabriel S'eni or Bernard Ouedraogo in Burkina Faso, Robinson Gapar'e in Zimbabwe, Demba Mansar'e in Senegal.
Many of the groups function at the village level only, uniting from 20 to 80 peasants to work on small development projects - sometimes with outside help, sometimes with their own means. Others form regional organizations. Some, like the National Farmers Association of Zimbabwe, aim at organizing all the African smallholders of the country. Although resolutely nonpolitical, the larger groups inevitably acquire political significance.
A striking characteristic of this movement is that it is predominantly made up of women - though they do not often appear at the head of the organizations. In the Sahel, women make up between two-thirds and three-quarters of the organized peasants. In some areas of Kenya, they make up more than 90 percent. The dominant role of women is partly because they produce about 75 percent of Africa's food, and because, in some areas, the men have gone to the cities looking for work.
Women were the first to feel the harsh environmental changes. ``We are closer to the children,'' says T'edy B^a of Senegal.
The peasant self-help movement is initiating changes at all levels: in relationships between men and women (women can speak in public, which they could never do before) and in a stronger cohesiveness within communities and more collaboration among families, ethnic groups, villages, even regions.
In many regions, it is also leading to significant improvement in living standards and nutrition which belies the stereotype of universal deterioration in Africa. In some areas, young men with high school diplomas are leaving cities to come back to the villages to work, and in many areas jobs created by the village groups are slowing down emigration of young men and women.
``In the past 10 years, not one young person has left our village, Ronx, for the city,'' says Abdoulaye Diop, founder of a 40,000-member movement in northern Senegal.
Most striking of all are the changes in attitudes. ``Among the many things this peasant movement is doing for the farmers, one can mention the improvements of their self-image and hence a sense of identity and the rediscovery of a centuries-old capital of traditional knowledge which had fallen into oblivion,'' says Paul Jubin, project chief of a Swiss development agency.
Dondo P'eliaba, the village chief of the tiny village of Minti, Mali, made this comment:
``The drought has turned into a tool for us. Before, each one took care of his own affairs. The drought has led us to practice water and soil conservation together, to discover new plants that grow more rapidly. Hunger has become a teacher that has taught us to think.'' After a whole day discussing strategies for food self-sufficiency with 40 peasant leaders in the village of Badumb'e, Mali, their chairman closed the meeting by saying, ``Don't give us money - we spend it straight away. Give us ideas, for they enable us to create our own means.''
Mr. Pradervand, an Africa and development affairs specialist, is working on a book about grass-roots movements in Africa, entitled ``Listening to Africa.'' He recently traveled through five countries of West, East, and southern Africa, speaking with peasants in 111 villages.