It’s Water! It Comes From the Sky!
For most families in Burkina Faso, why is rain more than just water falling from the sky?
January 14, 2008
I didn’t know how much I could miss rain until I moved to a place where there is no rain for nine months of the year. I had arrived in Burkina Faso to start my training as a Peace Corps volunteer in August, at the peak of the rainy season.
But by the time I arrived at my actual service site, Borguinde, in October, the rains had stopped and wouldn’t start again until the following July.
During the long months in which the earth got progressively harder, the sun hotter, the air drier and the wind dustier, I started to look forward to days when the harmattan — the wind that blows in from the east — was so strong that dust clouded the sky. At least then the sun lost a little of its strength.
The first time there finally was a light drizzle of rain, it had been so long that I just stared up at the sky in shock, until a girl nearby, apparently thinking I’d never seen rain at all, helpfully pointed out, “It’s water! It comes from the sky!”
Once the rains start, however, the real work in Borguinde begins — farming.
Many men leave Borguinde during the dry season in search of paid work elsewhere. For the most part, they dig for gold in the mines down south or dig latrines and swimming pools in the capital, Ouagadougou.
However, everybody comes back during the rainy season, and for a few months all other work takes a back seat to the all-important process of sowing, weeding and harvesting the crops.
If the rain starts early, the school year ends early too and the schools don’t open again until after the rainy season is over because the children are needed to work in the fields.
Even civil servants — people with a steady income — farm their own fields. All other work is put on hold until the farming is over.
During the first rainy season I spent in the village, I accompanied various neighbors and friends to their fields to help them. Most of the time, they were very concerned about whether I was actually capable of physical exertion.
It is a generally acknowledged idea that non-Africans are unable to do anything more strenuous than holding meetings or reading books and going on the occasional morning run — something I tried to do when it wasn’t too hot and which was the subject of much joking and laughter by everybody who saw me.
Thus, the first time I tried to help dig the earth with a hoe, in preparation for planting corn, I was asked repeatedly whether I was tired yet and was told to stop and rest after 15 minutes.
I flattered myself, as I’d been reasonably athletic before I left the States and could last a bit longer than that. I persisted in digging away, until I stopped to drink some water. After turning back around, I found that somebody had grabbed the hoe and hidden it — and nobody would tell me where it was.
This past rainy season I decided to plant my own patch, and so I asked my neighbors whether I could have a bit of land. They clearly thought I was crazy but after some prodding finally agreed to give me a plot which they weren’t intending to farm for themselves.
Very helpfully, they said it would be a very convenient patch because it was right near the village, so I wouldn’t have to walk too far every day and could easily go home for lunch.
This was indeed convenient, since unlike most people, I didn’t have a wife to prepare my midday meal and bring it to the field, so I had to go home to eat and then return in the afternoon.
The inconvenience, at least in my opinion, was that because my field was so near the village, most people passed by on the way to their own fields and so were able to observe me at work.
This was very entertaining for them — and very embarrassing for me — because compared to everybody else, I was incredibly incompetent. I had decided to plant a bigger field of millet and a smaller patch for beans and peanuts.
It took me a while to master the long-handled hoe used to make holes in which to sow millet seeds, although I finally managed this — thanks to neighborly advice.
Eventually, I had my holes and managed to sow a fair amount of millet — but for several fretful days I was convinced that nothing would grow. I visited the field obsessively and was delighted when the first few shoots popped up, until the weeds started to pop up alongside them.
I acquired a short-handled hoe for weeding and started the back-breaking work of digging up an entire field by hand, under the ever-amused eyes of the neighbors, who made helpful comments such as, “Can you really weed all of that by yourself?” and, “If you pay me, I’ll weed that for you!”
It must have been especially funny for them because my field was so tiny compared to theirs — which can measure several hectares and are needed to feed entire families throughout the year.
More than ever, I realized the importance of rain. I worried when it didn’t rain for days on end, turning the earth into cement that I scratched at ineffectively with my hoe. Then it rained too hard, making houses and walls in the village crumble while sweeping away young plants.
I worried for my own field — and more so for my neighbors’ — because although I was trying to prove that I could farm too, I didn’t need the millet. If my field failed, I could still eat rice or pasta or something else.
But my neighbors would sell some millet to make money, save some to bring to weddings — and most importantly, would feed their families with it through the months until the next rainy season. Farming was a pastime for me, but a major part of their livelihood.
While some years the rains have started too late or ended too early, this year we were lucky and had good, regular rains throughout most of the season. The millet grew until it towered over my head, while the beans and peanuts flourished.
One day a group of children accompanied me to my field. We picked all the beans and some of the peanuts, leaving me with the satisfaction of eating something that I’d grown myself.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see the millet ripen, as my service ended shortly before harvest would have begun.
I told my neighbor to harvest my millet for himself. When I called a few weeks later to ask after everyone, I was told that my miniscule plot had somehow produced seven wuulaaji — bundles of millet. I wish I could have seen it.
If the rain starts early, the school year ends early too and the schools don't open again until after the rainy season is over because the children are needed to work in the fields.
It is a generally acknowledged idea that non-Africans are unable to do anything more strenuous than holding meetings or reading books and going on the occasional morning run.
Villagers sold millet to make money, saved some to bring to weddings — and most importantly, fed their families with it through the months until the next rainy season.
Once the rains start, the real work begins — farming. Many men leave Borguinde during the dry season in search of paid work elsewhere.
Peace Corps volunteer Nathalie Boittin is a Peace Corps volunteer working in the new Girls' Education and Empowerment program in a small village in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. She is working with groups of women to start savings and credit groups to fund small enterprise development, and to raise awareness on health and hygiene […]
The Geography of Bliss: Dateline Qatar
January 12, 2008