Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments.
In one neat volume Camilla Toulmin has documented the deepest historic change that humanity makes; the change from hand-to-mouth diurnal farming to modern agriculture. The book’s story is told through 35 years of one Sahelian village in the north of Mali, Dlonguebougou – DBG as it is called. Here farming is harsh and risky with irregular disasters but life is governed by strong communities guided by the experience and wisdom of the elders. An anthropologist, Toulmin lived and worked there for two years in the early 1980s, returning periodically to track this gradual momentous change.
Such communities still existed until the 1990s. Then you could walk into a village in Africa and count the number of manufactured articles on one hand. Today the tide of modernity has flowed into villages like DBG. The metamorphisis – or schizophrenia – is before your eyes. Toulmin finds change happening at every level.
To attempt an analysis of Toulmin’s on-and-off thirty five years of village life in Mali – as the book is subtitled – I decided to count mentions in the index. So land use, landscape and land tenure get 91 mentions, family matters get 57. Donkeys get 32 references but a donkey cart gets 35. (Apparently getting both is the ultimate valuable trousseau for a prospective bride.) Marriage gets 35 mentions but divorce only two. Considering this is on the edge of the Sahel drought only gets 19. These people know how to survive drought. Aid only gets 12 mentions.
In 1999 the government of Mali declared that all land belonged to the state. At the time that meant nothing to the people of DBG. To them this land is home, shared and cared for throughout the seasons, balancing crops with cattle and manuring communal fields. Bamako is a long way off and few from the village had been there. The concerns of the DBG people are drought and conflict.
By chance as I was reading the book I was watching Michael Wood’s BBC History of England which traced the lives of peasants throughout the ages and changes in a small village in the middle of England. The parallels are striking: in both Britain and Africa the eternal worries for the peasant farmers are drought and floods. In Africa there were locusts too. In Britain flocks of birds destroyed their crops. In Africa family and communal land was held partly by tradition and partly by agreement. Some families owned land for crops, common land was for grazing animals. In Britain the land was stolen by the Normans and ruled brutally forcing the English to the edges. They were not technically slaves but not free to leave. In Africa some parts were socially hierarchical in others the social system was relatively flat. Under French rule slavery was abolished giving everyone a fresh start but poverty still generated virtual slavery.
In the 20th century more and more people began to move into the area around DBG where they were allocated a piece of land. As numbers grew digging, planting and irrigating lowered the water table so the wells began to dry up. This led to disputes but negotiations created solutions that were agreed and ratified. In 2004 a school was built and many young men and women began to get education. Left with nothing but looking after the huts, farming and basket weaving, the young of DBG became attracted to stories of the city and began to drift – like Dick Whittington – to the capital Bamako. Some were successful and returned to the village to build a large house. Others stayed in the capital knowing if they came home they would be asked for money for school fees and gifts. Some never returned. Those that did came with motor bikes – there are now around 80 in the village – TVs, solar panels and sewing machines.
It was not just men who migrated. Girls in DBG began to hear about city life and head to Bamako, the Mali capital, in search of a husband. I was shocked to learn that the bride must pay for the wedding as well as a bed, six chairs, a TV, an armchair, a wardrobe with lots of clothes plus 200,000 CFA (about £35) cash for the prospective husband. Potential young wives had to provide their own trousseau when they married. The ultimate possession was a bed which seems to have given them greater status. But the most useful implement in Africa that the modern world has given places like DBG is the mobile phone. Suddenly families and friends as well as businesses are connected not just to friends in the village but to the world.
As elsewhere in Africa traditional law in Mali clashes with state law. Under the French occupation all land and whatever lay under it were the property of the state. Traditional law allows people who can prove a connection to the village latter – the government and the Loi Foncier – the state owns the land. Traditional ownership versus state law has been a problem all over Africa. Under traditional law if someone can prove a family connection to the village, they can be helped to settle cost free. But the state can simply decree that this or that piece of land is state-owned and can be given away to a Big Man. Usually someone with connections to the government.
In 2010 the Chinese came to DBG with a vast irrigation scheme backed by a 20-year loan to the Mali government for growing sugar. This provided about 600 jobs and 10,000 seasonal jobs but local people seem to have been brushed off with a promise of compensation. By 2019 nothing had been paid and the jobs went to outsiders. A £100 million sugar mill is being built for the extensive new fields of cane. Whether mechanisation will limit the number of jobs remains to be seen.
Toulmin is engaged, observing clinically but never pushing suggestions or urging change. She remains detached, giving us a glimpse of a disappearing African world and the birth of a new and challenging one. Perhaps the biggest change was voiced by an ordinary DBG villager: “In the past the household was rich but the individuals were poor, but now individuals have money and the household is threadbare.”
 Camilla Toulmin FRSE is a British economist and former Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. Her career has focused on policy research about agriculture, land, climate and livelihoods in dryland regions of Africa.