My friend Halidou Sawadogo is typical of a new breed of peasant leaders in Africa today. When you first meet this quiet, unassuming man whose stocky frame stands like a rock on the windblown plain of his native Yatenga in Burkina Faso, you would never expect that you have in front of you a real powerhouse of ideas, an inventor and peasant philosopher whose life belies his modest education and background.
Halidou is the inventor of a remarkable potato cellar, which was created in unique circumstances. In this chronically drought-stricken area of the world, food conservation plays a key role. Farmers in his region had started producing potatoes, but because of the heat, they were sprouting. Professional government agronomists trained in Europe had told him that it was useless to attempt producing potatoes in such a hot, dry climate. Halidou had told them that rather than sit in air-conditioned offices sayi ng, "It's not possible," it would be more helpful to break through limited concepts and find new ways of doing things.
Which is exactly what he did. After thinking the matter through, he invented a potato cellar in his backyard, where he was able to keep potatoes for a long period. With this, he persuaded the villagers of Seguga, his home village, to build a larger, improved model, which I visited. With an earthen floor 10 feet under ground level, the sides rough-cast in cement, and a unique ventilation system of his creation with three openings, it contained more than five tons of potatoes that the farmers were able to keep well for more than nine months. They were able to realize a handsome profit by selling potatoes when there were none on the market.
"Check the temperature for yourself," Halidou told me, handing me a large thermometer. It was about 23 degrees below the outside temperature. "Even in the hottest weather, it's constantly cool inside the cellar," Halidou explained.
Similar cellars are now sprouting - if I dare use the expression - all over the region. Since then, Halidou has been to Holland to study potato production and is disseminating his knowledge to all those now building potato cellars in his region.
Halidou is not only an inventor, he is a peasant philosopher, well-grounded in the popular wisdom of his region. Touches of poetry enliven his speech, as when he told me, "The farmer is the guardian of life. He is like the roots of a tree. If someone passes by, they see the leaves, the flowers, the branches. But something is holding up the tree: the roots. The roots are the farmers." Keenly aware of the major mistake that has been made by importing foreign development models to the continent, he once tol d me, "Above all, we must start from what we are - we have to know who we are, and then we can improve what our parents did. Then we shall rise on our own. Our development will not be copied elsewhere. We must value what is in our house, our village, our region, our country. Only if we appreciate the value of these things will we be able to relate correctly to the things that come from abroad, some of which are very worthwhile for our country. But all must come from our own roots."
Contrary to well-worn stereotypes, peasant farmers are among some of the world's most inventive people, as another example from the same region illustrates.
In recent years, private aid agencies have been giving women in African villages small grinders to help alleviate their work load. It is not infrequent for women to work 16-hour days and to spend five to seven hours in the preparation of the evening meal of couscous - based on ground millet, sorgo, or some other cereal.
In a certain village of the Mossi country of Burkina Faso, where women are organized in village self-help groups, one of these groups received a small grinder from a European donor. The women, assembled to receive the mill, asked whether it was a gift. When they discovered that it was, they told the donor, "It will not work this way. We also have to do our part. Just wait here and we will tell you what we plan to do."
Then they gathered together, and an elderly woman farmer had an idea. The women came back to the donor, and said, "This is what we have decided. Each woman who wants to grind some cereal has to pay. It must not be free. Then when we have saved enough money to purchase a new grinder, we will give it to a neighboring friendly village. It will be a `daughter mill,' because in our culture, daughters marry outside their home village." They went on to explain that they would continue to save part of the income
from the mill until they had enough to purchase a second one. "We will call it a `son mill,' and it will stay in the village to replace the `father mill,' which by then will be ready for retirement - because in our culture sons marry in the village."
Thanks to this ingenious system, hundreds of villages in the Sahel have started to partly finance small village development projects. Some have even come up with their own social-security systems.
In the course of a 14,000-kilometer trip through over 100 African villages, during which I had discussions with well over a thousand farmers, I came across numerous examples of this remarkable creativity. When people find themselves in situations where they can control their own lives, very often the best in them comes out, and they are capable of amazing achievements and sometimes the most extraordinary courage.