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Feature Story
Forecast: Dry and Brutal
Page 4

We stop at Allison's village, near the trading center of San, 180 miles northeast of Bamako. It is called Koroguelenbougou and is down to 300 permanent residents, less than half as many as it once had. Most of the young adults have gone to try their luck in Bamako or one of Mali's other cities, attempting to break into the modern world rather than struggle with the increasingly marginal viability of traditional agriculture. They come back only at harvest time. It is bone dry here and baking hot, but nothing compared with what it will be like in two months, when the dry season climaxes with ground temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and higher.

"The forest is pretty much gone," Allison says as we motor through a flat, desiccated landscape devoid of plant life except for a few tall trees along what appear to be property lines. It is hard to conceive how anyone could eke out a living here. "Each family has a piece of land and takes care of what trees and medicinal plants remain on it, and they don't poach each other's, so private ownership offers some protection for the vegetation that is left," she explains.

We pull into the village. A crowd gathers around the car and Allison and the villagers exchange long, traditional greetings: Has there been peace in the day? Is your family healthy? How is your mother, your father, your children and relatives? How's the wife? How were the people in Bamako? I am growing impatient because I have the runs. A boy is sent off to collect some leaves that are brewed into a bitter tea; it works. The Malian herbal pharmacopoeia can be highly efficacious, as Western researchers have discovered.

Allison, a 24-year-old blonde in a sunbonnet, has won the villagers' hearts with her selfless dedication and beautiful manners, but she is finding it a challenge to learn the language and to understand how the villagers see things and what they need. Water, of course, is the biggest issue. "The three village wells are filling with sand because the water table is sinking," she says, "so I'm helping repair their walls and line their bottoms with cement and rocks." Any day, she is expecting a pump from World Vision, a Christian organization based in the United States that has an office in San, 14 miles away. "It's going to be huge for women," she continues. "They spend two hours in the morning and another two in the evening hauling up buckets from the wells."

In 2003, before the rains, the village ran out of food, as it had repeatedly since 1968. But this time the villagers had stored millet, their main crop, from the previous year's harvest in a "bank" that Allison's predecessor started, so they could borrow enough grain to get through the worst of the shortage. When the new crop came in, they restocked it.

We find several elders in the one-room school, relearning their ABCs, which they were taught in the French colonial schools in the late 1950s but have forgotten. The illiteracy rate in Mali is shocking: an overwhelming majority of the men and women can't read. The old men, sitting at tiny desks with their frizzy gray beards and skullcaps, beam the imperturbable good cheer that I often encounter in Africa, even in the most horrible circumstances. Sacks of millet take up half the room. The school doubles as the grain bank.

One of the elders reminisces about the drought in the early 1970s. Allison translates his Bambara (the language of the Bamana). "The first year we were reduced to eating roots and leaves, but we stayed. The next year we finally gave up and abandoned the village and went to the cities."

Why has everything been drying up? I ask.

"We don't know," he says. "It is the will of Allah. You can resist what men want you to do, but you can't fight your destiny."

Overpopulation, deforestation, overgrazing -- do these have anything to do with it?

"No," says another man. "When we were growing up in the forties and fifties, we cut a lot of wood, but still the rains came. When the rains stopped, the trees died. The cutting of trees did not stop the rain. Allah gives rain. He is so old. He knows better than us."

"Last year we planted 1,500 Acacia senegalensis trees around the village," Allison says. "They're good for the soil, and a French rural development organization says it will buy the wood. But a tree crop takes longer to come in than an annual food crop, and a big drought can wipe it out. These people don't have the luxury of waiting 10 years to be rewarded with the fruit of their labor, of investing time and energy in something that they may get a return on in the distant future but that every year they have a chance of losing."

"When the rains come, we have to plant millet and other crops every day, from sunup to sunset, for four months. We don't have time to plant trees," a third elder says.

This explains why none of the reforestation programs in Mali have been catching on in the villages. And the second man's contention that desertification has more to do with the lack of rain than the lack of trees is borne out by recent scientific findings, which indicate that the remote influence is a more important factor than the degradation narrative. The drought in the Sahel seems to correlate with El Niño, a cyclical warming in the Pacific Ocean that can cause a disruption in global climate. During an El Niño year, a complex system of atmospheric conditions interacting over vast distances weakens the moisture-laden winds that come up to the Sahel from the Atlantic during the summer monsoon season and bring rain.

There is consensus among climate scientists that the current global warming trend, the consistent rise in the world's mean temperature since 1970, has a distinct human "fingerprint." The desertification of the Sahel may therefore be doubly anthropogenic -- caused not only by the physical removal of its vegetative cover but also by faraway emissions from smokestacks and cars.

We continue to Djenne, in its heyday the biggest city in West Africa, approaching the size of medieval London until 800 years ago, when a big drought drove everyone out (the population at the time was not large enough for deforestation to have played a role). It is still recovering from the 1983-84 drought, when all the herds that sustained the city were lost and there was nothing to eat. Most of the buildings are made of mud, including Djenne's mosque -- the largest mud structure on earth and one of the wonders of Africa. Its imam is like the archbishop of Canterbury, and there are some 60 Koranic schools in the city, which is little changed from the thirteenth century. A colorful cornucopia of ethnic groups in turbans and boubous barter in the city's numerous bazaars. Camels saunter down its dusty streets.

Djenne's fortunes depend on the annual flooding of the Niger's inland delta. From here on up to Timbuktu, the northeast-flowing Niger spills its banks during the rainy season, forming the world's second-largest inland delta (after the Okavango River delta in Botswana). The river becomes a labyrinth of lakes and one of the most fecund freshwater fisheries in Africa, with raucous nesting colonies of waterbirds. There are 111 waterbird species that either breed in the Delta or depend on it as their wintering grounds from Europe. Only five nesting colonies remained after the drought, from 1969 to 1973.

In the old days, flood-recession agriculture, a simple but ingenious practice, enabled Djenne, and later Timbuktu, to flourish. After the delta had flooded, as soon as the water seeped into the ground and the soil was gleaming with a rich new layer of sediment, the people sowed their crops. There was enough residual moisture in the soil to produce prodigious harvests without a drop of rain. In 1983, World Vision expanded and improved the practice on eight square miles near Gao, and villagers grew bumper crops of sorghum. Even though this project was phased out in 2003, with the recent rains, flood-recession agriculture is returning to the delta. It may save the day for Mali, or at least buy some time until the next drought, although parts of the country where it hasn't rained may still be in trouble.

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Photos: Remi Benali
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council