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close this bookThe Courier N° 138 - March - April 1993 Dossier: Africa's New Democracies - Country Reports : Jamaica - Zambia (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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Making a success of life in the village

For the vast majority of Africans from a rural background, a return to the village after a spell in the city means failure. People from the country tend to think that they are born peasants and doomed to a hard life and often a poor one, with none of the modern comforts of the town. All youngsters in villages dream of going to the town, but when they do, the living conditions and problems of finding work dispel their illusions fast. It is a disappointment and it soon becomes clear that living decently means going back to the village. But does that really spell failure?

Issue n° 78 of Agripromo, published by INADES-Formation, which promotes the rural world in Africa, is about making a success of life in the village.

It contains plenty of village success stories, underlines the importance of village economic activity and suggests that peasants do not need to go to the big city to earn a decent living, fulfil themselves and be happy.

Here is a resume of this issue full of ideas, successes and suggestions.

The carpenter

The first article says that village living is indeed hard, but that, in Michel Bahon's experience you can have a better life there than in town'. Michel Bahon is a carpenter who was properly trained and saw his dream of setting up in the capital come true. But look how much it cost! He had to lease a workshop, rent accommodation, pay for transport, pay for gas, pay for water and more -- not to mention look after all his 'brothers' from the village, who came to try their luck in the big city, and who he was honour bound to support. In the end, he had to spend everything he earned, was unable to save and was in no position to go and help his ageing mother back home.

So Mr Bahon decided to wind up his carpentry business in the city and go back and settle in the village. Being a good carpenter with modest prices, he soon had a decent clientele. The only problem was that close relatives who ordered work, took delivery but never paid the bills. So Mr Bahon asked for a downpayment before he started a job and only delivered when he had been paid in full. There were storage problems as a result, but he solved them.

He is now comfortably off. He earns a lot less than he did in the city, but his expenses are far lower in the village. There is always money in the bank, he is near enough to look after his old mother, he is married and he is happy.

Youngsters get organised

Villages are usually full of young people and they often get together and take initiatives of their own. Most of them have already tried their luck in the city and have come home disappointed and bitter, but they are still pleased to be back in the family, with a roof over their heads and plenty to eat every day. But what sort of a life is it without money or entertainment? Above all, what sort of life is it without work?

There were 22 young people like this in K's village. They helped their parents in the fields, of course, but they were very bored and wanted to earn money of their own so as not to depend on their families for everything.

'We decided to form an association to help our parents harvest their crops. We knew that outside labour was expensive at harvest time and had to be paid in cash, furthermore, which made our parents feel that they were being robbed. So we offer to harvest complete fields and the owner feeds us while we get the job done and we get a tub of rice for every hectare harvested at the end of it. We are in great demand, because we are very enthusiastic about the work. We even have a team which comes with us to provide back-up and entertainment.'

The group, which takes all its decisions at regular meetings, stocks the rice it earns and sells it at a profit between seasons and it also has a husker and sells paddy rice for seed.

'We are pleased and our parents are proud of us. In record time, the group has managed to buy sports equipment and we have F 800 000 in the bank. We put into practice what we have learned in our individual fields and our output is going up. Socially, we do a lot too. We clean the village and the water point regularly, for example, and we make financial and physical contributions to village ceremonies and association members' house construction. What we want to do now is set up a village pharmacy fund, which we hope will be both profitable for us and of service to the community.'

The coxers of Guehibly

The coxers are another example of young people forming an association. Guehibly is a village on the Man-Abidjan highway in western Cot'Ivoire. One day, three young people with nothing to do were standing at the roadside watching the cars, and buses go by. Right next to them were five people, travellers, waiting in the hope that a bus driver would be kind enough to stop for them. But this was to no avail, since passengers are supposed to be picked up only at official stops where there is a man from the bus company to sell tickets. So the youngsters, who were keen to help, went and stood in the middle of the road and flagged down a minibus. The people got on and-what a surprise-the driver gave the boys CFAF 500 for each new passenger! This gave them an idea, but... let them tell the story themselves.

'We were pleasantly surprised. We weren't expecting money. We only wanted to help. But we said to ourselves that there was money to be made here under our very noses and we ought to get organised and make the most of it. So we built a papo shed by the side of the road opposite the market and fitted it out with four benches, a chair and a small table and now anyone waiting can sit down in comfort, out of the sun and rain. They can even have a drink or a snack, because girls who sell cakes and sweets and water come right up by our shelter. What we charge depends on where people are going. For Abidjan, for example, it's CFAF 500.'

The coxers offer other services for travellers, organising group trips and locating lost baggage, but the big thing is that they have branched out into other village services.

'We decided that we would mend the village pump and pay for it ourselves and, in return, the village let us look after the management of it. We sell the water so there is enough money to keep the pump operating properly and to give ourselves a bit of income...

We organise dances to liven up the village -we rent a music machine from a school teacher-and adults pay CFAF 100 and young people CFAF 50 to come. Once we have paid our overheads, there is often CFAF 2500-3000 left over for our funds. Then we clean the market and the main streets in the village. When we do the market, we are paid CFAF 20 or 25 for every trader, but the street cleaning is voluntary work and we do it because we are fond of our village. It earns us the esteem of the villagers and the elders too. Lastly, we work a field of rice and maize for our own needs.'

A mine of information

This issue of Agripromo is a mine of information.

There are detailed figures of one man's own project; the experience of a tailor who left the town and went back to his village, continued tailoring and grew rice, yams and maize and raised small animals too. The article lists and gives figures for the many things which this man had to do.

There is a dossier giving a range of possible village activities. People can farm, of course, but they can also be tractor mechanics, sellers of seed and fertiliser, repairers of pumps and mills and so on.

And then there is an article entitled: 'Can a peasant earn more than a civil servant?' The article proves that he can. Whoever would have thought it?

'Genius put off by the smell of rice'

This is the playful title of an article which points out that village traditions have to be taken into account in any return to the land. 'New peasants', encouraged and assisted by the state or NGOs, often try to run projects which have been designed by politicians or technicians who are anxious to help the Africans out of poverty, but know nothing about village life. The following quotation makes a fitting conclusion.

'The villages are poor, but they are at one with nature. Traditional society has its rules and its laws; it has its customs and taboos and failure to take them into account may well destroy projects with undeniable socio-economic advantages. So when ways of developing villages are being investigated, the villagers themselves have to be involved in the process from the outset.'