Sleep on our own mat - not yet the last straw.
In Europe people are fighting to retain their purchasing power, while in Africa people are demonstrating against the high cost of living. One does not have to go very far to see that the economic machinery is out of order. A visit to the salesman around the corner or a few words with a neighbour will suffice. The poor who spend nearly all of their meagre resources on food, have to skip one meal a day, do without meat and resort to industrial condensed and sweetened “milk” (of which there is little more in common than the name, since the milk fat has been replaced by vegetable fat).
This calls for some in depth analysis.
What should be done to cope with this situation?
The government decided to cut some taxes, temporarily! At the risk of losing valuable income. And, especially, at the risk of being inefficient.
Trade unions are demanding higher wages. That is probably necessary. But it cannot be done without burdening national expenditure and making enterprises more vulnerable.
The new governor of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who came to Burkina Faso on a formal visit on February 25th, was asked by the international French radio station, RFI what he thought about the high cost of living here. He said: “Nothing must be done which could cause lasting harm to the economic development of the country … maybe just some tax adjustments …”! This is a distressing answer coming from the very person who has announced reforms of the IMF (but reforms for the benefit of whom?) But maybe understandable, given that the man is the best paid civil servant of New York City. Why change a world in which he manages so well?
It is odd to note the absence of the farmers’ voice in the debate on high living costs. They are in fact doubly absent: Firstly, their views on this issue have not been heard. Secondly, they are not referred to when possible solutions are being discussed. In spite of the fact that there is a food crisis and that it is the farmers who feed the world.
The present crisis is serious. It is necessary to take a look at the background.
Some 30 years ago I found myself in the village of Loroni in the North West of Burkina Faso. A village where rainfall is irregular. But also a village where the grain stores are numerous because, since the beginning of time, villagers have known that one must think ahead. They know that after a year of abundant rain, several years of drought might follow. It was in this village that one of the elders told us during the wake, that once, at the beginning of the rainy season, his father gathered his children and all family members around him to announce his decision: “This year we shall not cultivate; we will leave our soil at rest and we will take a rest as well! Our grain store is yet full! We have enough to eat for several years to come”.
Two years later, in the same village, when there was indeed a crop shortage, I witnessed how a family was able to feed all the relatives and members of the enlarged family for a month, when they came to pay their respects at the death of the family chief. The family produced food from the millet grain that they had scrupulously stored for 5 to 6 years.
On a visit to the neighbouring village of Lorunga, after a terrible famine that had spread all across the country, I pointed to the many large barns at the centre of the village and said to my friends: “Last year, these were all empty”. But at the evening wake the village chief called out to me and corrected me: “Not true! These barns were never all empty”.
At a short distance from there, in the village of Kiembara, I observed how the Samo and the Mossi people had very similar customary rules to avoid wasting their millet. In this area the harvesting ends in November, but the new millet can not be put on the market before the traditional ceremony to honour the ancestors (which could also be called the harvest celebration) has taken place. This usually occurs in mid-January. Likewise, the brewing of dolo (beer made from millet) is also forbidden, until the ceremony has been held.
I have taken some time to illustrate my thinking with these events, which date from not too long ago, but which are now about to disappear. The idea is not that we should turn the clock back. I know that this is not possible, it is not even desirable.
But they could be heralded as a source of inspiration. Family chiefs of yesteryear were more foresighted than politicians of today. These “elders” as they are still respectfully called, knew that food is not just any negotiable item. They knew that each family must rely on itself in order to be fed. They knew that they could count only on the village assets: its fields and its rains, sometimes rare, sometimes abundant, to bring them water and food.
At the time one year of drought did not carry any major consequences. Two years of drought were tolerable, for most families. Today, in case of one year of drought anywhere in Burkina, thousands of families will be doomed to famine. At present imported food stuffs are becoming more expensive and poverty is settling down in the cities.
Today’s political leaders seem to have forgotten the common sense that their culture holds. However, all village elders in Burkina, (and in Mali) know that “if you sleep on somebody else’s straw mat, you will be sleeping on the floor.” Besides the political action that will be taken to cope in the short term, this crisis could have the healthy effect of waking us up from our slumber, so that all the citizens could get together and decide: “It is time that we all sleep on our own straw mat” and make do with our own resources.
We shall see in next week’s bulletin, how this “use of our own straw” could be translated in political terms.
Koudougou March 15th 2008