“Africa will become independent when the intellectuals of the continent connect to their roots. When academics, instead of taking a white collar job, share and improve the lives of the people in their home villages.” Following the completion of her studies in Literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, 30 years ago, Tiyeda Abalah, (56, from Togo), moved with her husband Séda into his home village Baga. During the last GEN Africa conference, CIDAP in Baga was elected Ecovillage of the Year.
The village back then was a dying place on the rim of the desert, where soils produced less every year, and where increasing numbers of inhabitants were leaving the village and their homes. In the time since their arrival, they have initiated a flourishing women´s initiative, a grassroots school for organic farming and economy, reforestation and water programs, and a village bank – breathing life and prosperity into Baga once again. In the face of a massively increasing rural exodus – that drives 17 Million Africans into the cities every year – this remarkable example shows that the future of Africa lies equally in the hands of women.
Tiyeda Abalah´s temperament is hard to resist. The petite woman weaves even sobering facts into a colourful story carpet. Skillfully, she modulates her voice from very soft to roaring loud and leads the spellbound audience clearly to her undoubting conclusions: “Women can win the respect of men when they gain knowledge”, or: “Intellectuals have to connect to their roots”, or: “Desertification can be reversed…Water is life”.
She really gets going when speaking in front of a large audience. Prayers, trills, and dance steps accompany her stories from 30 years of village life in Baga: e.g. the one about fifty women blocking the mayor’s office until he gave in and gave permission for market booths. Or the one where the women carried away the teacher´s bicycle and hid it until he returned the money that he owed one of them. In Tiyeda´s words, Baga comes to life, and most importantly, those stories of the women of Baga who have learned to take their destiny into their own hands.
Tiyeda herself had to learn that lesson early in her life. Her talent for languages that, as a young woman, would lead her to literature studies at the Sorbonne university in Paris, was a life saver when she was a girl. Being a daughter of a second wife, Tiyeda always had to please the first wife in order to have a bearable life: “She and my mother were jealous of each other for the love of my father. I know many examples of children being sent away – and worse.”
She was sent away, but this turned into a blessing as she could attend school and learn English with her relatives in Ghana. Upon her return, she met the man who became her husband – Séda – and soon after that followed him to France, where he studied International Law at Toulouse University, and she studied Literature in Paris, commuting twice a week to visit her husband, and becoming the mother of two children.
Séda is awarded his PhD, but it does bring him the satisfaction that he was hoping for. Tiyeda explains: “This did not change when we returned to Togo. He did not want to become a lawyer. A white collar job was too far from real life. The years in Europe had made him homesick. He wanted to touch the soil of his village again. He decided to show his family and neighbours that a dignified life in the countryside is possible.”
But Baga was no longer the village of his childhood. Sites that had been rich in soil and diversity are now deserted. Forests and rivers have disappeared. Farm houses have become ruins. The desert seems to inexorably advance and consume the village. Those who are young and have plans for their lives have moved away to the cities.
Baga´s inhabitants don´t welcome the academics with open arms, either. Their decision irritates family and neighbours. They would rather see them rich and with ‘proper’ jobs in the city so that they can be proud of them.
Tiyeda and Séda refuse to be discouraged and purchase some acres of land. Tiyeda: “I swear it was the worst and poorest piece of land in the whole area. Dry to the bone for the seven months of the dry season. Not even meager bushes grew here. But this was what we wanted: to show the people how it is possible to live on poor soils and even create prosperity and abundance on them.”
To begin with, they worked on their own to improve the site, exchanging their computers and desks for spade and hoe. They ploughed the ground with oxen, sowed cereals, created gardens, planted orchards, dug ditches for irrigation using the manure of cows and goats instead of artificial fertilizers. The couple introduced modern techniques of organic farming in an area where the farmers had been moved for decades to use chemicals for farming, and cultivate in monocultures.
The women of the neighbourhood could not just stand by and watch this for long, and began to help out. And so a cooperation started that continues to this day and is characterized by mutual learning, weaving together local traditional skills and modern knowledge.
As the years pass, the center CIDAP emerges: a women´s cooperative with more than 1000 women members today. It is especially the women who make good use of every improvement, as they are typically the hardest hit by the poverty triggered by climate change.
Tiyeda: “The majority of men in the countryside think that children belong to the women. Many men cannot bear poverty, famine and whining children, and they abandon their families. It is the women who are left to bear the heavy task of feeding and caring for the children.”
With CIDAP, they now have access to the knowledge and support that improves their lives.
Tiyeda: “In exchange, we also learn a lot from the women. They have shown us their traditional rituals, stories, dances, and songs that have accompanied their work for millennia.
Colonialism has replaced traditions with modern techniques, and so stripped people of their cultural roots in order to destroy their self confidence and make them governable. We have always wanted to connect indigenous and modern knowledge – for me it is the basis for true autonomy.”
In this way, CIDAP can encourage something that has nearly been lost in the village: community spirit. The practices and techniques are showing great success. Women who work with CIDAP also apply them at home. As time passes, the situation in Baga is changing. Most men recognize the progress one evening in a village convergence, where up until recently the situation has been that men talk, and women listen.
It is not particularly an offense for women to speak, but they have not felt worthy to raise their voices outside of their houses. On this particular evening, the men talk about desertification and how everything becomes worthless and nothing can be done about it. A woman contradicts: “When bushes and trees grow on a field, their leaves give shade and help new soil to build. Water gathers, the soil becomes fertile, and sorghum can grow again.”
Some men frown, others are curious: the woman does not look so poor and tired anymore, and her children seem well-fed. It seems she knows what she is talking about. People ask: who is she? To whom does she belong, and where has she learnt this knowledge?
Tiyeda: “Her husband, who had not respected her previously, became proud of her again. He stayed more at home and helped to work in the fields. And so people started to talk about CIDAP and came to know that the women learnt something good here. More women came to learn, and the center grew.”
More and more women are successful enough to be able to sell parts of their yield. Now they come upon another level of discrimination: the price policy of the traders.
Tiyeda: “When the corn was ripe and the women wanted to sell it, they realized that the prices had gone down. The traders knew that the women needed the money right away and reduced the buying price. Then, when the women wanted to buy tools, seeds and other items, they found that the prices had risen enormously. They had no choice – because they were on their own they were dependent on the traders.”
Tiyeda and Séda suggested a simple but effective solution: a village bank. For a small fee, for the administration, every inhabitant of Baga can become a member, carry his or her money to the bank and withdraw it at any time. Now the women can sell or buy or wait until the prices are better. They support each other when one of them needs help. It is not about micro-loans however, the women stay free of debts
Tiyeda: “Some of them get their money when the soy beans are cheap and produce soy cheese which they sell at the market. The profit goes into their account again. Others buy nuts and oil and produce organic soap.”
Soon the women of Baga have a diversity of products, such as jams and dried fruits,which they sell in the markets of the region. Eventually poverty leaves the village of Baga.
Inspired by the success, CIDAP opens an officially registered school for organic farming and book keeping. They employ teachers and educate them in the special knowledge of Baga. Women, men, and youths from the surrounding villages and towns have completed the education. In this way, Tiyeda and Séda hope to make farming interesting again for young people who have escaped from the poverty and hard work in the cities.
Tiyeda: “We created the syllabus together with the locals. Meanwhile, the government of Togo, in spite of the suspicions that they held earlier, is working with our model and has opened schools throughout the country. The students learn 70% percent practise and 30% theory. For the last study year they go back to their families and are given a piece of land to cultivate it using the skills and knowledge they have gathered in school, under the guidance of their teachers. As soon as they know how to do it, they are encouraged to teach and consult their neighbours. This way, the graduates stay in the countryside and support the prosperity of their villages.”
In spite of the impressive success many challenges remain. Does Tiyeda really think that she and her village friends can combat global processes such as climate change and desertification?
“Definitely! Strong women can change everything. By our cooperation a communal spirit rises again that pulls more and more people in. The women of Baga have become more self confident, happier and more prosperous. People in the whole region are talking about them, and others try to copy them. There is no reason why this should not be adapted throughout the whole country. An active community population with healthy traditions and active knowledge about sustainability can start a revolution. The whole of humanity needs examples of how to live meaningful lives in the countryside. For this, we create examples – and on the other hand we are looking everywhere for solutions that we can apply here.”
For example, concerning water, which is a key issue for Togo and the whole of Africa. In Baga, the dry season lasts 7 months. Without a proper decentralized water management these are lost months where nothing grows. Tiyeda and Séda have started to change that:
“Water is life. There is enough rainwater in Baga, but it falls in too short a time. We want to gather and harvest the rainwater in order to make use of it during the whole year. We have built the first three retention spaces and planted fruit orchards around, which are growing well. It is a start.”
Tiyeda learnt this and other techniques in a partner organisation in Portugal, the peace research center, Tamera. Tiyeda: “We saw, in a seminar in Tamera, how in a landscape which seems to dry out completely in summer, the soil is able to store water even in the dry season and let trees, cereals and vegetables grow. Applying this knowledge in our region means that we will be able to reverse desertification.”
No aid organisation could have achieved what Tiyeda and Séda have made happen in Baga: “Nothing here is forced upon the people. It is not about helping from the outside, but about activating the original potential of the people and their land – and connecting it carefully with modern techniques”.
The example that is given in Baga – self help and community building – serves not only as a role model for developing countries. Industrialized countries could also prosper using these principles, and solve many of their problems. In times of the global ecological and economical crisis it is decentralized solutions, developed by committed people on the ground, and shared globally, that have the greatest chance for success.
The Global Ecovillage Network is an international association of many thousands of decentralized initiatives for social and ecological sustainability, that are sharing knowledge and skills globally. This is also a profit for CIDAP. In 2013, the initiative was elected the Ecovillage of the Year by GEN Africa.
Watch the beautiful video about CIDAP: “The Dancing Forest” that can be ordered here: www.thedancingforest.com