Another world in Mali


by Nathaniel Minor • Last spring I was offered the opportunity to go on a low-cost research trip to Mali, Africa. Being an underpaid, debt-burdened journalism and sociology student at St. Thomas I thought I’d never get out of the States unless I shipped myself somewhere in a box. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. The trip was made possible by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, which teamed faculty and students at a handful of US colleges and a Malian organization: The Mali Agribusiness Center. While I knew I’d see poverty unlike anything I’d ever witnessed, I didn’t think I would realize the personal commitment and type of help necessary it takes to really make someone’s life better. Believe me, I have.

World Views publishes stories, reflection and analysis with an international perspective and a Minnesota connection. This story comes to us from Nathaniel Minor, a student at the University of St. Thomas.

My classmates and I spent the fall learning about the Mali Agribusiness Center’s goal: to give Malian farmers the tools to lift themselves out of poverty by growing crops that are not only nutritious, but can be sold to fellow Malians and neighboring countries. One of the projects of this collaboration is the development of seed potatoes in Mali. The potato was once a big export for Mali, but a bacterial wilt disease not only wiped out potato plants across the country, but also scarred the soil, making it unusable for future potato growth. A member of the Mali Agribusiness Center, Madame Aisatta Thera, wrote her master’s thesis on this bacterial wilt, and has made it her goal to create a potato that will be better suited for Mali’s soil.

The potato’s chance of survival depends mostly on the origin of the seed potato from which the plant grew. Farmers in the south of Mali, where potatoes are still grown, buy their seed potatoes from European countries, but pay high prices for a product that may not come during the right season and is not suitable for the Mali’s arid climate.

The village of Borko is an anomaly. Lying about 150 miles south of Timbuktu, and set in a valley, Borko’s abundant water supply makes it something of an oasis in the desert. The reason I know this is the farmers of Borko, probably 50 years ago, stopped planting potatoes. Because they did this, the soil is disease free. The abundance of water and the absence of disease make it an ideal place to put our seed potatoes in the ground.

Despite the village’s natural resources, the residents still live in incredible poverty. Most farmers earn about $1.50 a day, and many suffer from malnutrition. The main cash crop in Borko is garlic, which is usually all sold for money. The main subsistence foods are cereals: rice, millet and sorghum, none of which has all necessary nutrients when eaten alone. These crops all grow well, but the village is missing a crop that can be sold for money, but also eaten for its nutritional value.

My job as a sociology student was to measure the farmers’ interest in seed potatoes, as well as gauge their ability to treat the seed potatoes Madame Therra is cultivating with the care necessary to ensure their survival. I’m part of a four-person team that has interviewed village leaders, farmers and the women of the village. Over the last few days, I’ve heard their hopes and concerns, and told them what I could about the status of the project.

I mentioned before that the village grew garlic, which is full of nutrients. Why then, don’t the villagers eat it? The main reason is because it makes the most money, and therefore needs to be sold. The cereal crops are cheaper to buy, and farmers need to make their money last until the next crop of garlic is ready to sell. But as more and more villages start to grow it, garlic prices have dropped, leaving farmers with much less money to buy their essentials. The hope is that potatoes will allow Borko to diversify their output with a crop that has a less saturated market.

The seed potatoes are still in an incubator just outside of Bamako, Mali’s capital. The villagers often question what is taking so long, and it’s easy to understand why they are so impatient, given their circumstances. It’s very hard to explain to someone who can’t afford food for their children that you can’t help them in a more immediate and direct way. Material aid definitely has a time and place, but in a place like Borko that has all the right tools to be independent, it would seem more like pity.

Still, it is difficult to explain the long-term benefits of our project to people that have such short term needs. I asked Madame Therra why she is so dedicated to something that can seem so full of empty promises to the people of Borko.

“[Their doubt is] normal,” she said. “I think that because I’m educated, I can see things differently. But this also my function, because I’m educated to help them, to let them see what I’m seeing, what they could not see maybe. And if you have a good way to convince them, a good way to show them, that it is important to do that for yourself, I think they will do it.”

Of course, you can’t just drive into a village and start telling people what to do. Doing that would disrespect everything about their abilities; it would just be cultural imperialism. The difference between that and our project is the time and effort we have put into cultivating trusting relationships with residents of the village.

The whole goal of our project is not to give the residents of Borko a truckload of nutritional vegetables to feed their families; it is to share our expertise, skills and ideas. Where material things will one day run out, the ideas we’ve shared with them will last much longer. You can feed people for a week on a truck of potatoes, but to feed their children, and their children’s children, you need to give them more.