Notes from a trip through northern Mali

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By Rocky Oishi

Badalabougou East, Bamako, 4 November 2008 - Our Projet Bas-Fonds team is being dispatched to develop rice fields in northern Mali, and we head out to sites in Niafounke in the region of Timbuktu. This time, we take the route stretching from Niono, the seat of Mali's famous agriculture institute, "Office du Niger," founded in 1932 as one of the largest irrigation programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa. We continue to Timbuktu, where our sub-office is located.

Although it feels like one time is enough for an adventure like this, once rice production has started, one of our project staff members has to make a site visit every month. Part of our route isn't even officially registered as a roadway. For driving across this wilderness, our Toyota LandCruiser does a fantastic job.

This terrain is predominately arid, lying in the middle of Sahel -- the 2,400-mile eco-region that stretches from the Atlantic in the west to the Red Sea in the east. Here and there, you find some bodies of water, with agricultural operations along them. Where there's little human activity, the natural habitants claim their sovereignty, as you can tell from the picture I got of a termite tower.

A day after our arrival at Niafounke, there's an annual festival to honor the singer Ali Farka Toure (1939-2006), who was raised in this town and became one of Mali's most famous singers. Niafounke is a little town and offers a few modern services, including telephone, electricity, and running water.

Once we're away from the town and moving to the programme villages, there are no such modern conveniences. Participants in our Food for Work activities rely on their own muscles and the work of their animals to open up new rice fields. Part of the fun for me is jumping in and helping with the labor.

Women of one of the beneficiary communities working on opening the rice fields turn out in beautiful, brightly colored dresses!

They drink water from a nearby pond and kindly offer me some - I manage to pretend not to be thirsty, even after working on the project.

After Niafounke, there are no restaurants either, so we depend on our partner organization, Mali North Programme, a GTZ subsidiary, to prepare something. They share and have food using their hands in a circle; I cannot. Having contracted some food-borne diseases in the past, I've resolved not to eat in communal format as they do, so they bring me something akin to barbecued chicken and couscous. It works, I don't get sick here.

After two days stay in the Niafounke region, we return to Timbuktu on a good road built with U.S. assistance. It's not paved but makes the route easier to handle.

We make several stops at beneficiary communities engaged in some of WFP's other programmes including school feeding, health care, and food assistance. In one community, we find several women getting water from a well 24 meters deep.

Being in the town of Timbuktu might sound very exciting, but having picked up a case of typhoid from some food there, I'm already looking forward to going back to Bamako and modern conveniences.

We again cross the River Niger. Kouriumé is the point where ferry departs.

From Timbuktu to Kouriumé, the roads are paved, but from the other side of river they're not until we reach Douentza, famous for its herd of Malian elephants. We get some breathtaking views along the way.

There is usually a large mosque in each community, as in Koumaira and Mopti.

Firewood is a popular commodity sold by local residents. The tree-cutting behind it, though , begins to threaten the health of a terrain, unfortunately. There are some NGOs working on reforestation in the area, but it seems to be a tough battle at this point.

There are other products sold along the way, too, of course. My driver buys a type of eggplant I've seen nowhere else on Earth.

And all along the way, we're reminded that development programs like ours aren't easy to push forward and maintain. They require a lot of people working together, and that requires training to help those people be creative about how to make things work.

But despite occational serious challenges, I cannot give up contributing to development of this country, a region known for being tough to get going economically.

A week later, I head back to my development site and give rice to the farmers as payment for their labor with usin the fields, part of the Food for Work plan. I get a shot of the kids as their parents get the rice, which has been donated by Japan and purchased in this case from California.

With this rice, they're not going to go hungry for a while.


Rocky Oishi is a WFP Projet Bas-Fonds expert in Mali.