From the monthly archives:

December 2009

A Country on the Move

by Kate on December 29, 2009

Title: Ouagadougou to Niamey

Dates: 18th to 23rd Dec GPS:

Distance: 575 km Total Distance: 4133 km

Roads: 495km tarmac; 80km gravel, sand

Weather: mid’s 30’s during the day, cooler evenings, constant east-NE headwinds

3b. With teacher and class - younger years
My first impressions of Burkina Faso were the friendly, slightly more understated and reserved nature of the people we met in the towns and villages as we passed through. People greeted us with a two-handed wave (rather than the usual single hand wave) which is rather difficult to reciprocate from over the handlebars! They generally seemed happy and content. Even though there is obvious poverty – Burkina is rated as the second poorest country in the world – there seemed to be construction of new roads and buildings going on just about everywhere. Burkina has benefitted from political stability since their government was democratically elected in 1987. They were one of the first Sub-Saharan countries to prepare their Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper which qualifies them for debt relief. This means they have an effective donor coordination strategy and an environment more conducive to foreign investors. In Ouagadougou we were guests of one of our sponsors, Gryphon Minerals, who themselves have been attracted by the stable economic conditions and the prospect of mining gold tenements in the Banfora region in the south west of the country. A big thank you goes to Isabelle Guirma, Pascal, Alice and Martin who took care of us in Ouagadougou.

My main focus however in Burkina Faso was to look at the state of women’s and girls’ education by visiting one of Plan International’s projects in the Samentenga region approximately 100km to the north east of the capital. Traditionally in Burkina, as with most of the Sahelian countries, boys have been given priority for education – girls are expected to work, marry at an extremely young age and produce a large family. The country also sits at the bottom of the table as far as illiteracy is concerned. In 2007, 29% of adults over 15 years are able to read and write. As I discovered, some very promising sustainable changes are being made, particularly cultural changes.

Plan International of Australia connected me with Plan Burkina and our visit was hosted by Ms Francoise Kabore and the director, Mr Oumarou Koala (And yes, we had the obligatory joke about the relevance of the director’s name to Australia). Once in Kaya, the regional capital, the three of us and a cameraman drove out to a small village where I was to be shown the new BRIGHT school. (John and Dan had stayed back in Ouagadougou to collect our visas which had needed to be extended. Paddy has gone home to Australia for Christmas.) BRIGHT stands for Burkinabe Response to Improve Girls’ Chances to Succeed. The project was initially set up by a US organisation called the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Launched in 2006, Plan International is the major stakeholder. Since then 132 BRIGHT schools have been built educating over 17,000 new primary students; more than half of which are girls.

4a. Mr Koala and head teacher
We arrived outside the school to find many of the villagers waiting to greet us. Mr Koala asked for permission from the community before we could take photos. We all introduced ourselves; Francoise translating for me. After formalities were over and we were accepted, the elders selected a group containing a representative cross section of the community to meet, answer my questions and discuss their thoughts about education and how it affects their lives. Women with their babies, elders and community members of all ages filled the largest of three classrooms. Francoise, Oumarou and I sat out the front. Here’s a summary of what we discussed:

How has the village changed in the three years since the school was built? What was it like before?

‘The school brings the community together; it gives hope for the future. Now our children have opportunities which we never had.’

3a Student outside his school One of the more outspoken men explained that he had never had the chance of education – he can’t read or write (but I complemented him on his ability to speak – he was very articulate). He said now girls are no longer expected to marry and have children when they are very young. Now they are encouraged to go to school for formal and non-formal classes. This is a big change. More girls than boys attend school here and their results are marginally better overall. (Hearing the man explain this new attitude really touched me – this is such an important cultural change)

How have they encouraged more girls to attend school?

Initially partners of the BRIGHT Project educated the community leaders who in turn individually spoke to each family to explain the importance of attending school. School lunches were provided for those who attend as incentive. These people are very poor and this ensures the kids get at a good meal every day.

(To the three teachers) What can be done to improve the quality of their work? What do they need? The young headmaster read out the class sizes – average of 55 students per class. Currently there are three classrooms and teachers are expected to teach two years. Their dream would be to have a classroom for each year level. Another request was really simple – ‘We need electricity so the school can have light.’ Teachers are restricted to daylight hours to prepare lessons. If there were lights, the school could then be the focus for community event after dark and students could also do their homework. A normal school day would entail starting at 7.30am, working through to lunch (I think this was 11.30am). Then they break before resuming at 3pm for the two hour afternoon session.

What are the main types of non-formal education?

5a. Entertainment for all agesThere is a special program for young mothers to improve literacy as well as give practical lessons such as in agriculture. With young better educated mothers, this ensures their children have the support and encouragement they need to attend school every day.

(To the women) What changes and improvements would you like to see in the village over the next five years?

Water is the main issue. The village only has one well and there is just enough water for drinking (not growing things). A man who had walked from a neighbouring village said that often young girls don’t arrive at school until about 10.30am because they have to queue to collect water, then carry it some distance. Here they can only grow millet (like in much of the Sahel) because it does well in dry conditions and only has a four month growing cycle.

Another woman piped up to say that the other outstanding need is a health centre. Now they have to walk many kilometres to get medical help. She said education is good for preventing health issues, including delaying child birth until the mothers are older (and their frames ready for pregnancy and birth), but they need a health centre.

These were the main topics we discussed. We took plenty of photos after which the teachers introduced me to their students. This visit has given me much more insight into how the whole community is affected by the new school. The community is obviously very poor, but the spirit is so positive and their ideas constructive. I think, as was mentioned initially, the community is inspired by the progress made since 2006.

3a. Younger students
John and Daniel arrived in the early evening with visas and joined me the following morning when Francoise and Oumarou took us to another larger village to be a part of a special educational gathering being presented by a group of senior students from the secondary school. Hundreds of kids of all ages, the teachers and a few others gathered around where the young leaders were to perform and deliver their messages. Facilitated by Plan Burkina, this was designed to be a fun way to get important messages across and was a great example of child-centred development. The main message of the day was to stop violence in schools. A group of approximately twelve students, each having a few lines to say, delivered the messages, starting with (roughly) “Education is a basic human right, everyone has the right to receive an education”… If students are afraid to go to school because of violence, then this affects their learning, health, the community… On the backs of their t-shirts I could see important messages about stopping violence, dental health and education. After the main messages were performed (and this was really well done), the students invited first their teachers to individually join them the dance a little. Next there was a question and answer session where students from the audience, primary and secondary levels were asked questions. If they gave the right answer they received a little gift. At times the gift giving got a little out of control with over-enthusiastic kids and the teachers had to calm the audience down. More dancing. The second time round we all in turn were invited up – even I had to take part! To finish Mr Koala rounded everything up, also introducing me and the expedition in two languages (French and then Mossi, the local language). I was invited to say a few words which he translated.

After it was all over, I met the English teacher, Zongo Karime and encouraged him to get involved in the BTC education program. He would like to but obtaining access to the internet is difficult and expensive for him. Zongo also explained how difficult it was for him to work in the secondary school. There is effectively only one decent classroom and he has to teach classes of 130 children! Not surprisingly, he said he is burnt out. We had lunch with the teachers before saying goodbye to Francoise and Oumarou, two very impressive people, and moved on.

The region around Kaya is quite attractive, with a few ancient rocky hills – good for camping. The road to Dori was obviously brand new with regular small villages along it. I pushed on into a steady headwind as usual. Dan’s knee isn’t right yet, so he’s manning the camera. Bani is a town of note with seven small mosque ruins built on the hill overlooking the village. It was obvious that as we headed north the people, land and climate were changing. We were back into an Islamic dominated region, whereas around Ouagadougou it was mostly Christian.

3b. Same track near border
The 90km route from Dori (Burkina Faso) to Tera (Niger) crossed a little-used border. We had major difficulties even finding the track out of Dori. We were told by a couple of people to follow a good gravel road towards Sebba, then there would be a sign and we should turn left after about 4km. I set off leaving John and Dan to refill and filter our water containers, cycled past the 4km sign and thought the directions must be wrong. I asked a couple of people and they sent me back to town. At the turn off I met Dan and John heading in the same direction and so we asked a few more people – all of whom all sent us down the same road. This time I’d done 6km down the Sebba road only to have to turn around again. A motorcyclist eventually set us on the right path, 4km from town. No wonder we missed it. The sign was about something completely different, not a road sign, and the inconspicuous track was marked with a small piece of tape! I’d added another 15km for nothing. Not quite what we expected for a road leading to a border crossing! The track was sandy at times, and like back on the Mauritania-Mali border, there were no road signs. It was just a case of cycling from village to village asking for directions to the village of Sitenga on the border. As these people rarely see white people, if I did stop to ask for directions the whole village would appear and it was difficult to explain that I had to keep moving on to get to Tera. This little section was another highlight.

Times are about to change in this region though. A brand new road is being pushed through – on the Niger side, 40km from Tera, the newly metalled road starts. Much of it is still under construction, forbidden for vehicles to use it yet, but they didn’t seem to mind me creeping quietly over the new surface. I did another huge 100-mile day into the wind to get within reach of Niamey, Niger’s capital. At Farie we crossed the River Niger at dusk. John got there a little before me and was able to put the Land Rover on the boat, which only crosses when it is full. Dan waited behind for me. Eventually Dan and I took a pirogue across the river at last light. Ali, our main contact and fixer from another sponsor, NGM Resources, was waiting for us at Farie. There was little there, certainly no place to stay, so Ali led us down to Niamey where we have some very comfortable accommodation. The following morning we drove back to Farie and I cycled the final 60km, this time into a cruel headwind. John and Dan accompanied me for about 20km each; Dan just testing out his knee. John likes to get on the bike when possible to get some exercise – and it’s good to have his company.

4d. Traditional vs communication age, note dust in air from wind
So it’s Niamey for Christmas. Ali just arranged for us to see the wild giraffes about 70km south of the city. There are about 200 which co-exist with villagers in the region. Apart from a few monkeys and vultures, the giraffes are the first wildlife we’ve really seen. Over the years, the human population has grown to levels unsustainable in the Sahel and the loss of habitat has pushed out most of the wild animals.


Where Towns Have Great Names

by Kate on December 26, 2009

Title: Timbuktu to Ouagadougou

Dates: 6th – 14th Dec GPS:

Distance: 445km Total Distance: 3558km

Roads: 200km gravel, 245km tarmac

Weather: Cooler nights, daily temperatures – low 30’s

2a. 1st morningTimbuktu to Ouagadougou 012
This last section started with a two day journey on a pirogue up the River Niger from Timbuktu to Mopti rejoining the cycling line at Sevare, then pushing on to the Dogon Country where we stayed in a village called Djiguibombo (pronounced Jiggiboombo). From there I cycled across the border into Burkina Faso, staying in the town of Ouahigouya before a final 190km monster day into Ouagadougou!

A visit to Timbuktu would not be complete without visiting the library, mosque and markets. In keeping with the same themes of importance as Oualata and Djenne, Timbuktu exists as a centre for Saharan trade. The Touareg (people of the desert) settled at Timbuktu as it is well placed at the most northerly point of the River Niger, where it flows through desert sands. Here desert traders can meet river traders. Camping beside the river the first settlers noticed they suffered much illness, so Timbuktu is set 18km north of the river in the dry desert sands. To find out more click on link: Timbuktu’s wonderful history.

The library benefits from contributions worldwide. Compared to Oualata, the main library is beautifully kept; the manuscripts well displayed and protected in a climate controlled atmosphere away from direct light in glass cabinets. Great efforts are being made to preserve manuscripts some of which are up to 1000 years old. One of the more interesting books I thought was a 16th century manuscript outlining the rights of Islamic women – that all Islamic women have the right to spend time to make themselves more beautiful. The world’s oldest book is also on display. They don’t really know it’s age but it was rediscovered in the 11th Century. It had been stolen by the Moroccans many years before and buried underground. Timbuktu attracted some of the greatest scholars of the day, and so many manuscripts were written there as well as brought over the desert from as far away as Iraq and the Middle East. I started to wonder about whether there could be some sort of partnership formed with Oualata to preserve their treasures. I understand that the doors are open for anyone from Oualata to visit and learn about how to catalogue and preserve their books, but they need to approach Timbuktu.

3b. Our pirogue attached to pinnace.Timbuktu to Ouagadougou 039 Paddy and I took a pirogue back down from Timbuktu to Mopti. Paddy had been ill so we were quarantined on the pirogue which was towed beside a larger public pinnace. John and Dan drove the vehicle back to Sevare. This was an opportunity to take a different look at life on the river and how all those who live near it rely on the Niger for everything; food, transport, water… The river is massive, often a kilometre or two wide. About 100km north of Mopti the waters disperse into Lake Beda where the normally calm waters became a little choppy. Next we entered a sea of reeds which normally lined the banks. The boats cut through a maze of channels through which we wondered how the captain navigated at night.

The only downside of the two day trip was that I ended up with another gastro after being served the same sauce for three meals. I was over the worst of it quickly but it did have a lasting effect for another week or so, until after Ouagadougou.

5b. Life on the Niger.Timbuktu to Ouagadougou 082
John had to do some work on the vehicle which meant we did not set out from Sevare until 3pm the following day. Our destination was the Dogon Country, Mali’s biggest tourism draw card. We knocked off the first 60km to Bandiagara in daylight. The next 21km however to Djiguibombo was in the dark; Dan and I cycling on our own for the first ten, feeling a little vulnerable without light in a strange place. Djiguibombo is set at the top of the Falaise de Bandiagara (cliff face which extends 150km, all the way up to Douentza which we visited en route to Timbuktu). It was a wonderful sight overlooking the tipi-like thatched rooftops and labyrinth of mud-walled houses in the early morning light. Dan and I coasted down to the bottom of the falaise on a spectacular 9km ride to Kani Kombole where we left our bikes and vehicle for a two day diversion on foot with our Dogon guide, Moumimi (Momo). This was the final stage of looking at the cultures of the Niger River region. Two days is just long enough to get a taste of the complex and elaborate culture. To really do it justice you could easily spend a week or two walking all the way to Douentza.

Passing a rather beautiful little mosque (mini Djenne architecture) Momo explained that Islam and Christianity (late comers in the scheme of Dogon history) co-exist with more traditional Dogon animism. Everyone respects each others’ religion bit they do not intermarry. We made a simple 4km walk to Teli. From a distance we could see a series of boxes and dwellings built into the cliff. After lunch we climbed up to explore. The boxes were an extensive series of 2c. Ancient GranariesTimbuktu to Ouagadougou 120 granary stores. Most grains these days are stored in the village at ground level and these elevated stores are only used to hold millet, sorghum and beans after a very good year. Built into the rock and in higher positions were tiny houses. Momo described these people as pygmies; the guide book calls them the Tellem people. These were the original inhabitants who lived off the fruits of the forest below. Living high up would have given them a great vantage point to defend themselves and stay safe from large predators. The Dogon believed that the Tellem could fly and had magic powers to reach them. The Tellem also used to bury the dead in their little houses. It seems more plausible that the climate a few hundred years ago was wetter and the Tellem used overhanging vines to climb to their houses. The Dogon and Bozo people arrived in the region roughly 300 years ago. The Bozo are the traditional fishermen who chose to inhabit the banks of the Niger (and still do). The Dogon arrived in the region and pushed out the Tellem so they retreated east. The Dogon cut down the forest for firewood, cultivated fields and raised animals. They basically destroyed the Tellem habitat so they could find nothing to eat. From high up the landscape is typically dry and bare and studded by regular, compact villages. Up in the cliff is the home of the Hogon, the spiritual leader. The Teli Hogon died about ten years ago. Aparently they have chosen a new one, but he is not yet ready to assume the mantle. Hogons are usually old wise men.

We walked on to Ende, Momo’s home town (population approximately 3000) where we stopped for the night. Ende has similar architecture set in the cliff face above the town. On day two we put in a decent distance; walking along the base of the escarpment, then climbed a natural chasm to Begnimato at the top. Compared to the kind of day I’d usually put in on the bike, walking 20-odd kilometres was a doddle on the cardiovascular side, but feet and knees, especially on the downhill, weren’t used to it. The slope was lush and green with overhanging vines and ficus trees. Views from the head of the chasm were spectacular. Begnimato’s setting amongst the rocks, with three individual villages (animist, Christian, Muslim) was special. After a long lunch break we started to make our way back, along the top of the escarpment to Indelou, the most amazing village we visited, then via a series of steps and laddersdown another chasm. Indelou was animist only – there was no mosque. I had the impression that of the villages we had seen, this was the most pristine – most like the original Dogon culture. In Begnimato and Indelou you can see how people use the rooves of their houses to store much of their food. It makes for an interesting and colourful patchwork.

Over the last couple of weeks we have visited Mali’s trifecta of World Heritage sites; Djenne, Timbuktu and the Dogon Country. The region is probably West Africa’s biggest attraction and the fact that they are in reasonable proximity means tourism is the major source of income. Timbuktu is obviously being hit by the security alert and the fact that the French have pulled their expats from the area. I felt tourism is being managed reasonably (I have seen much worse management). All walkers pretty much travel with a Dogon guide to get the best of the region. This is also a safeguard that groups remain small and the paths were not full of litter. Each visitor also pays a tourist tax for every village they explore so that this can help them preserve their heritage and sustain their income. Djenne also had better infrastructure, such as drains and ongoing maintenance of the mosque and streets.

5b. Shows desertification by Dogon people. Timbuktu to Ouagadougou 196
The following day we said goodbye to Momo and set off towards Bankass, Koro and the Burkina Faso border. After about 40km, Dan could cycle no longer; his knee had become sore on the ride into Djiguibombo. He had kept it pretty quiet hoping he could work through it, but for quite some time he had been basically cycling with one leg. I cycled on alone – 162km that day on gravel road, all the way to Ouahigouya, then 189km the following day to reach Ouagadougou. I had to keep my wits about me and find a little more in my tired legs to negotiate peak hour traffic entering the city. Two crazy days, but it did allow us to catch up a day and give more time to organise the next complicated stages of the journey.

Of all the African cities so far, Ouagadougou seems a bit more low key and better organised. There are even cycle/motorcycle lanes which allow the traffic to flow a little better. There somehow seemed to be less pressure, yet nothing particularly remarkable to see.

In Ouagadougou we have been looked after so very well by Gryphon Minerals, one of our mining sponsors. A special thank you must go to Isabelle, Pascal, Alice and Martin for taking care of us.

Next we’re heading to Kaya and the Samentenga region north east of Ouagadougou to visit a couple of Plan International projects, concentrating on education, and in particular girls’ education.

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The Road to Timbuktu

by Kate on December 14, 2009

Title: Segou to Timbuktu (Tombouctou)

Dates: 28th Nov-5th Dec GPS:

Distance: 812km Total Distance: 3113km

Roads: 200km of rough dirt road

Weather: Approximately 30 degrees, cool nights, usual headwinds

10d. Sunset near Timbuktu
We left Segou energised and ready to appreciate some better road surfaces. We had wanted to take a short cut closer to the River Niger all the way to Djenne, but there was no guarantee that the road was free from flooding, so we opted for the main road via Bla and San (80km longer). For the first time on the expedition I felt like we were starting to get a good rhythm and cover the distances to which I am usually accustomed – consistently 130-140km, even with a constant north easterly wind. The main road skirts the Niger River floodplain. The terrain was so flat all the way to Djenne that perhaps the highest landmarks were the giant termite mounds! Our goal was to reach the ancient town in time for the famous Monday market set in front of the Grande Mosque. After two long days in the saddle we were slightly short of the town (as we expected), marked the GPS coordinates and drove to Djenne, set on an island in the Bano River, a large tributary of the Niger.

1 Djenne Mosque
Djenne, a town of roughly 20,000 people is most famous for its mosque, the world’s largest mud building and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Djenne is a similar age and exists for similar reasons as Timbuktu; trade and education. The town is one of Mali’s premier tourist sites. We were all up early the following day in readiness to capture the Monday market as it evolved with the morning light. We had not realised that the national holiday on Saturday continued into Monday and the bustling market never eventuated. This, of course was a little disappointing, however once I found Amadou, a very good guide, we were able to spend a good couple of hours learning about the town, the mosque and its history.

The world’s largest mud building is constantly being renovated. Before the Wet season the whole community gathers to repair the walls, adding a layer of fine mud render where required. Year after year of adding to the thickness of the walls eventually means they are too thick, absorb too much weight after the rains and collapse in places. Therefore some of the walls are being reduced in size to keep the balance. Mud for the render is mixed with rice husks to make a smooth surface whereas mud for the core of the walls is combined with straw. 2b. Guide, Amadou explains about history Even though we had offers to enter the building (for a decent price) we respected the wishes of the Limam (head of the Mosque) and local community and elected to stay outside. Some tourists abused the privilege a few years ago so now entry is reserved for all local men and local women who have visited Mecca. Women can only enter the mosque via a special entrance around the back of the building and once inside are not permitted to even see men.

Like Oualata and Timbuktu, Djenne has a strong tradition of education with 22 Q’uranic schools (where they are schooled in rote learning the Q’uran), many Madrassas and now government schools. A library houses ancient manuscripts.

We retraced our route to where we had stopped cycling, camped and resumed our journey towards Sevare (near Mopti). I noticed that the floodplain was more fertile and much more was being grown. A feature of the many villages was rows of grain storehouses where their staple foods are kept for use or sale. The dinky little mud huts are built off the ground to prevent moisture seeping into the grains (usually millet, rice, sorghum). They are such a contrast to how we store grains in bulk in Australia.

Sevare, a gateway to the Dogon country (more about this when we visit the unique cultural region after Timbuktu) is very well set up for tourism, with good amenities. The write up given to Mac’s Refuge by a number of guide books is well-justified and help keep Mac ahead of the competition. We have not found better food or service to date in Africa. Cycling after Mac’s special breakfast was a real challenge. My metabolism has suitably cranked up now the process obscene amounts of food. Breakfast here included: two huge buckwheat pancakes (made from millet flour) soaked in honey, numerous pieces of French toast, a large bowl of amazing homemade muesli, two helpings of fruit salad, juice and coffee.

I cycled the 400km from Sevare to Timbuktu alone. Dan took over the filming for a couple of days as Paddy wanted some days off. The first day and a half, from Sevare to Douenza was an amazing, almost continuous procession of nomadic herders driving their stock, usually goats, sheep or cattle beside the road. Donkeys are real beasts of burden, hauling massive loads of firewood, grains, goats, people – just about anything. From about 50km before Douenza, the scenery on both sides of the road was special, my favourite of the journey so far. The hills which form the Falaise de Bandiagara to the south and near Douenza, a spectacular mountain range with sheer cliff faces rising to over a thousand metres.

5b. 15km from Douenza looking north east
We had heard all sorts of unfavourable reports about the road to Timbuktu from Douenza and I was up for a tussle with larger tracts of sand within the 200km. Apart from some large sand patches in the final 30km before the River Niger, the road was heavily corrugated (in fact I was shaken to bits) but manageable. I conquered the road, which had definitely been upgraded, in two days. On the second night we stayed beside a nomadic farmer, who brought us firewood and swept some ground for us to camp. We in return gave them some food – basics they probably didn’t have much of, such as sugar, potatoes, onions, rice and some tinned food.

7a. 30km from Douenza on Timbuktu roadI was amazed at the size of the Niger, Africa’s third largest river. We took the barge across, which I guess to be about two kilometres. After that there were just 18km of tarmac to reach Timbuktu. I remember my grandmother often saying “from here to Timbuktu” referring to a place which was a long or inaccessible distance away. Nowadays people can fly, drive, take a boat, walk, ride a camel…but not too many people cycle to the ancient, mystical city of approximately 50,000. Europeans didn’t make to Timbuktu until the mid-1800’s. A number were killed trying. As I arrived at the hotel where we had chosen to stay I was suddenly surrounded by press, a well-known Mali media personality and a TV camera. It took me by complete surprise. Recent kidnapping incidents in Gao, 400km away and in western Mauritania have rocked the local economy, which relies heavily on tourism. They wanted to demonstrate to the public on national and African TV that Timbuktu is safe – even a woman on a bicycle can arrive safely only experiencing friendly, helpful people (completely true). Of course we had read the alerts but also have some very reliable Touareg contacts who advised that our route is safe. John knows these people, has worked with them before and has complete faith in their advice.

Tomorrow Paddy and I will take a classic pirogue boat on a three day, two night trip back down to Mopti to obtain a more in depth look at life on the River Niger, the lifeline for all those who live beside it. John and Dan will drive back to Sevare, 12km from Mopti. There we will rejoin the line continuing the journey through the Dogon country and on to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso.


Millennium Village, Segou

by Kate on December 6, 2009

Title: Millennium Village, Segou

Dates: 25th-27th November GPS:

9a. being shown the 6 hectare vege garden I have been very fortunate to spend two days visiting the Millennium Villages of Tiby – a cluster of 11 villages near Segou. I have been looked after by Dr Bocary Kaya, team leader and science coordinator. I also spent time with Severin Omar, an MBA graduate working for The Millennium Promise organisation. On the first day, Bocary asked me to sit in on the annual planning meeting where the direction of the project was presented to the Millennium Village community leaders and employees to be discussed and implemented.

The next day Paddy and I travelled out to the villages with Sev this time to deliver onion seeds to the women working a six hectare market garden. After listening and learning for the last two days I am confident that sustainable changes are occurring and that we will not have another “Oualata situation” in Segou. Like in Potou (Senegal) this initiative has only been going for three years, however within that time there have been dramatic positive changes.

The Millennium Villages are supported and funded by a number of international organisations, however in Segou it seems that the program is being largely implemented by The Millennium Promise, an American organisation based in New York and the UN Development Program. It is also important to note that there are many stakeholders, often a number for each project which comes from international, national and local organisations and governments. While they provide funding for specific projects and control the overall direction, I find it most impressive that the whole project is being implemented and run by local Malian people; leaders, scientists, professionals.

8d. Village women collect their seeds
The purpose of the Millennium Village program across Africa is to implement strategies in villages in selected vulnerable zones to ensure the Millennium Development Goals are achieved by 2015. Dr Kaya explained that while this is also the plan in Segou, they are looking at the development of the region as a whole, using advancements in science and business development to make changes sustainable. Dr Kaya has studied for his masters’ degree in Bedford, UK and earned his PhD in the US. While he could have had a successful life living and working in the US or UK, he has realised and is motivated to make more of a difference in his homeland, Mali where his education, skills and experience are so much in demand.

The meeting took place in Dioro, the largest village (approximately 20,000 people), on the banks of the Niger River, 60km north of Segou. Over about four hours the development strategy for the next year was presented by different specialists, led and facilitated by Dr Kaya. The meeting was in French, but I could get the gist of it all, made notes and was able to clarify the main details with Bocary afterwards. Infrastructure was first. Details were outlined for the improvement of roads, irrigation banks, transport, street lighting and importantly communications. In the next year there will be improvements in mobile phone reception and internet connections; communications being key to sustainable development. Food security is a big issue here with unreliable rainfall and climatic conditions not too dissimilar to what we experience in much of Australia. The river is the lifeline here for just about everything; food production (irrigation, fishing), transport, forestry. Presented were detailed plans for use of fertilisers (urea, di-ammonia phosphate) for staple crops such as millet, sorghum, rice. An artificial insemination program is being introduced to improve the standard of the herds for milk and meat production. New specifically designed milking machines will also be introduced which can process 1000 litres a day, pasteurise, pack into one litre bags, and control the temperature for storage.

9f. A brighter future The changes in the education system have been startling. Levels of literacy have increased dramatically in the region. Three years ago the average rate of literacy was around 46%, as low as 33% in some pockets. With a marked improvement in access to primary education (MDG 2 being universal primary education for all), an improved teacher to student ratio and an improved program of teacher support, literacy levels have increased to around 80%, 85% in some cases. There have traditionally been three different forms of education; government backed basic primary education (core subjects – reading, writing, arithmetic, etc.), Medersas teaching Islamic subjects and Koranic learning (rote learning of the Qur’an). Now there is a more integrated approach using these various forms of learning.

I learned that much is being done to improve the standard of health care. Malaria has been a serious issue but now people have free access to medication. They are also able to reduce the morbidity rates for HIV/AIDS (2% in Mali), TB and childbirth. There is an education program to change the cultural practice of FGM (female genital mutilation) which is widely still practiced in many African countries. Much is being done for reproductive health care; baby kits to assist home births, medical attention for fistulas.

The last main presentation I heard was about community governance and the empowerment of women/women’s issues. My notes are by no means complete, but I learned a fair amount in one day listening to presentations in French!

Over the first three years of this Millennium Village initiative attention has been paid to all the major development topics. Now these are taking shape they are moving into the next level of development; improving science and business. I learned much from Sev the next day when we visited another smaller village to distribute onion seeds to the 243 women who work the vegetable garden. A number of different NGO’s and organisations have had a go at aiding development of the 6 hectares over the last 30 years, but all have ended up a bit like in Oualata – unsustainable. The Millennium Promise received a $US20,000 grant to change the situation, make a sustainable model which can be replicated to at least eight other viable village gardens in the area.

Sev has spent the last eight months developing the project along with his own community relations. This was the day that he finally got to distribute the seeds. Why onions you might ask? They are a vegetable which has a long storage life and as the seasonal market fluctuates the villagers can learn to store some of the produce to be sold later in the season when market prices are much higher, therefore making a reasonable profit. During the course of the year, when stocks are low, villagers are normally forced to sell off some of their staple crops (rice, millet, sorghum) to make ends meet so that by about August they are running very short on food and go hungry. By growing the onions and making more of a profit, they will not be forced to sell their staple produce and therefore avoid hunger. The initial investment involved fixing the fence and irrigation system and providing the right variety of seeds. It is important to note that the seeds are not a hand out. Once the crop is produced, the women are expected to pay back the costs with the profit. Education is given in how to maintain the economic viability – keeping the books, trading – even how to “fix the pump”. In fact, while all these initiatives are subsidised, farmers and villagers are all expected to pay it back, or at least pay for a percentage of what they receive. (everything from the milking machines to the artificial insemination program).

Believe it or not, this is just a quick overview of what I found at Tiby. These projects are such a positive contrast to what I found at Oualata, the key I think being that they are being taught the practical and business skills necessary to ensure these advancements are sustained long after the assistance has ended.

The purpose of the next phase of the expedition is to follow the course of the Niger River from Segou to Timbuktu; the river being a lifeline for the people who live beside it, for culture and development.