Rodale Institute intern offers perspective on values, culture and priorities following Peace Corps stint in Mali.

By Natalie Sevin

editor's NOTE:

The Rodale Institute interns take turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

--NF Editors

Natalie Sevin

August 9, 2007: Before the end of my Peace Corps service in Mali, I received the news that I had been accepted into a research internship position at the Rodale Institute. Immediately, I was excited about the prospect of postponing the job search for another eight months. After an introduction to agriculture through subsistence farming, this internship would give me the opportunity to learn more: how and why things grow, how they can be grown sustainably, and how to understand and interpret data from fields where there are so many variables at play. Most of all, I was excited to work outside with my hands.

This last point is most important to me because I like to feel I’ve earned my paycheck, something I don’t get from sitting in front of a computer hour after hour. It just doesn’t seem right to me, especially after having witnessed men in the village fields of Tchinchinome working in anticipation of the rainy season for a meager reward. If they were lucky enough to find work, they might get $2 for the day after sweating over a few acres of land with a guru beeri (literally, big iron—a hand-crafted hoe) instead of the usual exchange of labor for a few shots of green tea and a lunch of rice and sauce.

Living with subsistence farmers makes everything else seem pretty unreal and abstract. How can we work without really working? How can our economy function and boom on the reshuffling of information and the buying and selling of intangible and inane objects? I suppose in the end, it’s all about what you and your community value. In the region of Gao, in Mali, where I lived, these values were concrete and could easily be seen in the local language. In Songhai (the language spoken in the Gao region), the word for money and value, alman, is the same as the word for cattle and livestock. The term also means significance in everyday use; something’s “significance” can be directly translated as its “almana.”

Here at the Rodale Institute, much attention is focused on the importance of cover crops in organic systems. Cover crops and compost contribute nutrients and organic matter to the soil and feed the microbes which, in turn, enrich the soil and maximize the crops’ yield. This is very important, but what immediately comes to mind is that not only is buying and eating organic food a luxury, but using cover crops to grow them is as well.

Appropriate "technology"

Where I was living in Mali neither chemical fertilizers, fungicides, nor cover crops were used. Integrating cover crops would be challenging, as water and financial resources are the limiting factors in the area. With only three seasons—hot, rainy and
dry—the ideal (and only) time to plant your crops is right after the first rains. Sure, there are limited dry-season crops, like beans and hibiscus, which are planted in the moist ground of the cold season, but they, too, must wait about five months for the rains to bring them to harvest.

Furthermore, the cattle-powered plow, not introduced in the area until the 1980s, is not a baby stroller you can push around the park. Adding a cover crop means many more back-breaking days devoted to plowing, and at $5 a day paid to the plow owner, most can’t afford the luxury. It means paying the cost of the cover crops in addition to the approximately 23 cents a pound for seed rice (which is already expensive for the ground they must cover), and $5 for the lunch and tea preparations for the additional laborers per each day in the field. Then there is the issue of irrigation, not only for the rice, sorghum, or millet, but for the cover crop, which most likely means paying fuel, labor and lunch for whoever owns the “motopump” to come from the bigger village to your field with his donkey cart to pump water from a shallow hand-dug well (which is quite possibly dry).

Even if all these obstacles were surmounted and a cover crop were grown, it would immediately attract all the squirrels, birds, cattle, goats and sheep in the neighborhood, since it would be the only green crop around. To prevent disaster the farmer would need to be in his fields daily to make sure the roaming livestock and wildlife didn’t cause any problems, preventing him from supplementing his income elsewhere. Or, a guardian would have to be found (and paid).

The land itself seems to be very fertile—even without the benefits of cover crops—due, in large part, to the flooding of the Niger River and the nutrients it provides. In May 2006, all the field owners with land in the larger central field of my village came together to renovate a canal that hadn’t been communally worked in 10 years, so that the water wouldn’t flood out any one person’s field. This was done during the dry season, which is the best time for this type of work, since people are not busy in their fields. The temperatures were well up into the 100s, but this did not stop the work from being done.

It seemed that every Saturday when the canal work was being done, I would periodically hear shouts of “Gongoto!” The kids would gather around the spot and pull a slimy, twisted thing out of the wall or bottom of the bone-dry canal. It was a live fish. When the waters recede these fish curl up, stick their tails in their mouths and hibernate until the next flooding of the Niger when they are free to turn into “normal” fish again. These African lungfish, as they are commonly known, are from the genus Protopteridae. The fish’s protein waste is converted from ammonia to a less toxic urea—a natural fertilizer. It is truly amazing how living things adapt to their environment.

Deferring reality

It seems Americans don't notice the impact we make on our surroundings in our daily lives. The neighborhoods in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where I grew up, look the same as they always have. Sure, there are landfills and power plants and water treatment plants but we don’t have to see them. We have a good infrastructure that comes to clear our wastes away once a week, and so week by week, our plate is cleared of debris. On the other hand, in a 400- to 500-person village, the effects of even a single person are almost immediately visible. Every day, the women must go farther and farther to collect firewood for cooking and palm reeds for mat-making. Trash stays put and becomes a part of the local environment; thin black plastic bags fill the thorns of the acacia trees like leaves, and trash heaps become a child’s treasure trove.

This example from Mali only takes into consideration a small number of people. So why aren't there more visible signs that America is such a wasteful society? Seeing how things work in Mali highlights what our tax dollars, extensive infrastructure and wealth are doing in America. It makes me realize just how lucky we are to live where we do. Although, upon my return, I realized there are a lot of areas in which we are deficient: We don’t know who lives across the street because we seal ourselves up in our houses; our families are spread all over the country; and technology offers us convenience, but not connections, not like those I saw and experienced in Africa.

There are a lot of things between these two countries which can’t be compared, but the question is always in the back of my mind: “How would this work in Mali?”

One night in Gao, my friends and I met a National Geographic writer for drinks. This veteran reporter, who’d covered government coups and everything else under the Africa sun for something like 17 years, summed it up best. “The North and South have been talking past each other for a long time,” he said. Generally speaking, a major divide exists between North and South, East and West, developed and developing nations, First World and Third World. It’s as if each side talks while the other is talking, or simply says what the other wants to hear, or completely misunderstands.

Lessons in sustainablity

Back in America, I’m loving the open skies of Pennsylvania and learning what role microbes play in agriculture. There’s a message which plays over and over again, whether it’s in a field of beans growing with 300mm of water a year, in the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and crops, in a cutworm’s attraction to a freshly planted corn field, or in an African gongoto living in the cracked dry clay: Nature is truly amazing and offers an endless supply of lessons. We can either alter the environment to support ourselves and our value system, or we can learn from our environment – changing our values and ourselves to adapt to it.

This is true regardless of who we are or where we live. Adopting sustainable agricultural practices, like those being researched here at The Rodale Institute, is a plank in the bridge between consumer-based American culture and the type of third-world subsistence life evident in the villages of Gao, Mali. Instead of always adding to our abundance, we Westerners must learn, like the Malian villagers, to make the most out of what we already have. Only when we cease to increase our demand can we begin to reduce our collective footprint and start down the path of living a globally sustainable lifestyle.