Early on a windless afternoon—a brutal July day when the heat breaks 120 degrees—I’m sitting against a prosopis tree at longitude four degrees north and latitude 13 degrees west, a few miles east of the dwindling inland delta of the Niger River in Mali, West Africa. This point is about 200 miles southwest, as the river goes, of the ancient market and university town of Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara, and a few yards from the white Toyota pickup that has arrived with supplies and water. The tree’s thorny branches reach out a few feet and bend to the ground, providing space and shade for me and three other men, including Oumar Badini, a soil scientist who sits beside me, holding a global positioning unit in his hand as he makes notes on a yellow pad.

Beyond the prosopis canopy lies a world of reddish, iron-rich laterite soil amidst patches of sand–all of it flat and hard. This ground radiates solar heat that makes the afternoon air difficult to breathe. Morning winds have scoured those places where topsoil is still for the taking, leaving the sky milky white. Water from the summer monsoon and constant wind long ago took the best soil from this ground. Grass doesn’t grow here, but there are still a few acacia trees, the occasional 600-year-old baobab, two species of prosopis, milkweed bushes, as well as some tamarind, balanite, and ficus trees. And it is this seemingly cursed ground that has brought us to this shade, where we take water and food and consider the four or five hours of work that remain. Over two days we’ve walked more than 20 miles, laying out soil study plots so that Oumar and his extended research team of extension agents, biologists, hydro-geologists, and agricultural economists can look at this ground and decide what might be done so that decades from now, animals might graze here and farmers might harvest crops.

What supports this work is a bureaucratic mouthful–the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (SANREM) Collaborative Research Support Program–that brings American universities and developing countries together to tackle agricultural problems. The U.S. Agency for International Development set up the program in 1992.

This plot, one of many Oumar is laying out, is a 260-acre patch of the planet no farmer or herder will touch. We know the broader dimensions, because some 30 miles above an infrared camera mounted on a NASA satellite orbiting the earth has mapped this site. In three colors, the map shows degrees of vegetation density and soil moisture. The plot shows up mostly orange, revealing what is obvious here–this ground is devastated, plundered by unchecked farming and grazing, deforestation, and wind and water.

We are doing what Oumar calls “ground-truthing,” the work of studying what the satellite can’t pick up, like soil chemistry, the types of plants that grow here, and how wind and water shape the land’s battered surface. Oumar is developing a chemical profile of the soil to better understand what type of agriculture–kinds of crops and planting programs, as well as livestock grazing–this land can sustain in drought, and during the short periods of heavy and often destructive monsoon rains that plague this region. On foot, we mark these plots roughly every half kilometer with a splash of white paint on a rock or on the trunk of this tree that shelters us. Oumar and two government extension agents, Albadi and Diallo, dig a six-inch hole in the hard ground with a pick ax and shovel, and scoop soil, clumps of gravel mostly, into plastic sandwich bags. Oumar labels each with masking tape on which he writes the GPS coordinates. Meanwhile, Seydou, the pickup driver, meets us every five kilometers with fresh water.

I first saw this countryside in 1988 as a journalist, reporting on drought in the Sahel, a narrow region that stretches from Senegal to Somalia. The Sahel seems to be in unstoppable ecological decline under the force of the Sahara and a drought begun in the late 1960s and that has never really ended. I’d come to West Africa three years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, which borders Mali in the northeast. I taught junior high school English for two years and stayed on to write for Western news organizations from a base in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. When I went back to West Africa to research a book in 1992, I was struck by the change in landscape in many countries. Areas of savanna I knew to be rich in grass and forest had been laid bare, not only by the desert, but also by a population with a voracious need for new farmland and wood to burn and build. The roots of the remaining baobab trees around the village in Niger where I once lived were exposed three feet above ground, revealing the depth of soil lost.

Last May I returned to Mali with an optimist, Oumar Badini, a native of Burkina Faso, Mali’s neighbor to the east, and a research associate in soil science in Washington State University’s Office of International Programs. He is 44 years old, soft-spoken, lean, and balding, with a thin mustache. In the field he wears cargo pants, an old blue Polo shirt and a sweaty, dust-stained “WSU Cougars” ball cap. He has walked every one of us into the ground. Even in this heat, Oumar shows little sign of fatigue.

“Trust me,” Oumar says as we begin walking early that morning. “If we can learn more, we can make better decisions about how to use this land.” He raises his hands in a gesture to the land. “This is the environment, and it’s something we can’t control. But we can manage what we have and live on it forever. I am convinced of this. The idea is to find ways to make grazing sustainable so it does not degrade the soil, or so it is even a plus.”

When the study is finished, in two years, Oumar’s team will prescribe a recovery plan. This may involve new grazing and cultivation patterns. On some lands herders and farmers may work together, so that cattle fertilize the land with manure as they graze while farmers plant nitrogen-fixing legumes, such as beans. Any plan will need monitoring, with special rotation patterns between crops and animals.

In this shade with the sun directly above, only Oumar is still working, scratching away with his pen. Albadi and Diallo drink deeply from water bottles and stretch mats on the ground to prepare for the mid-day Muslim prayer. I am resting my head back against the tree trunk and holding a water bottle on my lap between my hands as if somehow I might lose it. Oumar looks up from his notes and grins at me.

He whispers, “Are you having fun?”

Oumar says, “You know, in Africa so many people want to come to the United States to work and live, and me, I am trying so desperately to find a way back to Africa.” He smiles. “People think I’m crazy.”

His life runs on a four-month cycle: Three months in Pullman, pulling together his research, and three weeks in Mali digging into the problems of agriculture and survival on the land. Right now, as we talk in late April 2002, he is at the end of a Pullman phase, less than a month before we return to Mali together. He folds his hands beneath his chin as a spring snow falls heavy and wet outside his office window in Bryan Hall. He wonders about the cost of what he does for a living, bouncing back and forth between a world where people barely get by on the land, and the United States, where people take food and shelter for granted. He wonders about the cost to himself and his wife, Kadija, and two children, Rachid, 13 and Mounira, 8, who were born in Burkina Faso but know little of their parents’ native land or life in the Sahel.

“Kadija and I try to speak French to them,” Oumar says, smiling. “But they complain. They want us to speak English.” He leans back in his chair and folds his arms. “I am trying to get the best of both worlds, but sometimes … I don’t know,” he says. “I am a scientist, I love my work, but this life is hard, very hard.”

Over the past year, Oumar and I have been talking about his work in weekly meetings in a local café and at my home, but mostly in his office. There, I find him at his computer, his desk piled with field notebooks, soil and weather charts, maps and reports. He dresses impeccably in pressed long-sleeve collared shirts and khaki or corduroy slacks and polished leather shoes.

Oumar remembers the day he left his wife and young children in Burkina Faso to study in the U.S.–August 23, 1991. He lived four months in Lewiston, Idaho, learning English at Lewis-Clark State College. Two years later, when he finished his master’s degree in environmental science at WSU, he brought his family to Pullman. Oumar finished a Ph.D. in soil science and worked his way to a position as a WSU research associate on the SANREM project, working with three other American universities. Oumar also works with the Center for Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems in Burkina Faso, a private venture founded by Patrice Sanou, one of West Africa’s leading agricultural geographers and a friend and countryman of Oumar’s. Both men hope the center will one day make it unnecessary for West Africans to travel abroad for education in geography and remote sensing technology–the type of satellite technology used to map Oumar’s study plots in Mali.

The point of Oumar’s work in Mali and Burkina Faso is simple, he says. It’s about independence, not just the ability of a region to feed itself, but to believe in itself. That work is Oumar’s way back to Africa. “I want to repay what I have taken for my education. I want to be useful to my country,” he says. “I want to be seen as a man of good, as someone who can make something happen. In Africa to make a difference is so important.”

“You are hopeless,” Oumar tells me, rubbing his hand over his face. I have just asked him, for the third time in as many days, to explain how teams are ranked in the World Cup and then matched in play. He shrugs and smiles. “But you’re American,” he says, “You care nothing about soccer.”

It is May 30, and we are sitting in the shade of a high mud wall in the compound of Diallo’s mud banco house in Madiama, a remote village near Oumar’s research site in Mali. We are listening to a radio broadcast of the World Cup Football Championships underway in Japan and South Korea. Madiama is the center of a district of 10 villages where farmers and herders have asked the Malian government to study the failure of local grazing lands, which is where Oumar and his team come in. We parked the Toyota outside this house that Diallo shares with his wife and two children. We drink sweet, strong Chinese green tea and eat millet biscuits, trying to work up the fortitude to go back into the bush and heat to finish the mapping project.

Seydou, the driver, sits on a stool, making tea in a small pot resting on coals in a standing wire stove shaped like a martini glass. He boils water and packs tealeaves and sugar in the pot for round after round of tea. Once the tea is ready, he raises the pot high and tilts it so the tea falls in hot ropes of steaming brown into shot glasses set on a metal tray. He offers Oumar and me a glass each, and we slurp loudly in appreciation.

Oumar licks his lips. “Seydou,” he says, “You are a master!”

Then he claps his hands and shouts in French, “Hey, we’ve got to go.” He looks around and taps his watch. “Albadi, Diallo, come on, the sun is rising, we have work to do.” Between the five of us, we are one native speaker of English, one of Mossi, and three of Bambara, but we all know French, the colonial language that is the bridge between us.

Diallo’s three-year old daughter, Kumba, wearing a long red T-shirt, wanders sleepily out of the house and into the compound, shyly staring at us. Oumar shouts, “Kummbaaaaaaaaa,” and scoops her up, the two of them laughing.

Minutes later we are driving east on a sandy track that takes us five miles to Mali’s great north-south road, the country’s main highway that connects the capital, Bamako, to the vast savanna and desert of the north. This is a six-meter-wide ribbon of pavement that wanders north from Bamako across the country and into the Sahara and eventually Algeria. We cross the pavement continuing east. The track turns to laterite, mostly flat with few ruts and potholes, allowing us to speed across the bush another five miles at 70 miles an hour until Oumar, GPS in hand, tells us to stop. We begin every morning this way: Tea, biscuits, the World Cup, and the dash to our walking point in the heat.

When Oumar Badini was eight years old, his mother took him into the bush to gather wood and show him that he could eat the leaves off a balanite tree, a deep-rooted tree that grows across the Sahel and is known for its tiny, five-petaled, light green flowers. Balanite leaves are a common food and often boiled and mixed with other vegetables or meat. But Oumar had never seen them eaten straight from the tree. Mother and son gathered and chopped up dead branches with homemade hand axes, and then he saw her walk up to a tree and pluck the small oval green leaves from a branch and eat them. So Oumar grabbed hold of a branch and took a fistful of leaves that were thick and milky green under a film of gray dust. He tasted them with his lips and tongue, and then bit one and found it bitter.

This is important because of the year, 1966, and the place, northern Burkina Faso. And because, Oumar says, the act of eating leaves off the tree signaled hard times, a drought that persists to this day. This was the beginning of six years of no rain over the Sahel. Most livestock died, grasses vanished, and wind took the topsoil, whipping up dust storms and revealing what lay beneath–laterite the texture of a vast parking lot. In 1973, when Oumar was 14, the Niger River, one of the world’s largest watercourses, dried up. This was also a time of coups d’etat across the West African Sahel, when untested army officers in Mali, Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta), and Niger tried to govern a region that was in deep desperation. As if they⁠—as if anyone⁠—knew what to do.

“It was shocking,” Oumar says. “Everything just collapsed.” What had “collapsed” was his childhood playground and workplace, the bush, where he spent his days around the town of Ouahigouya, where his wife, Kadija, was also born. He helped his cousins and older brothers watch the family’s goats and cows and tend crops during the summer rains. He would walk the bush barefoot in a dirty T-shirt and shorts. He carried a water bottle and nuts or dried couscous, clucking his tongue at his bovine charges and striking strays with a branch to keep them in line. Some days Oumar and his animals covered five miles and other days as many as 15. In those years the family had to slaughter most of the herd only to find that few people in the marketplaces had the means to buy the meat.

“The land,” he says, “had nothing left to give, and all of that, everything that I saw is the basis of what I know and do now. It was the beginning of my life as a scientist and pastoralist.”

Oumar’s life flows as if from that first fistful of balanite leaves. He speaks Mossi, his native tongue. He also speaks fluent French and some Bambara and Fulani, languages he grew up with. He has a degree in biology and animal science from the national university in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. Not long after that morning in the bush with his mother, his family sent him, the youngest son, to primary school in Ouahigouya. In 1973, he left home to attend junior high school in the southeast of the country and then lycée in Ouagadougou. In 1980, he entered university. By 1986, after the drought had eased, he was in a government job in the south, near the borders with Ivory Coast and Ghana, working with villagers to manage livestock and grazing lands in a region where population needs were greater than the land could provide. He traveled in a beat-up Land Rover with an agricultural economist and a geographer, his friend, Patrice Sanou, to work with farmers who were raising only enough animals and growing enough grain to survive.

“The farmers live on the land,” Oumar says. “They know what the probl
ems are, and it’s important to respect that. Our job is to fill in the gaps with science.”

What Oumar’s work is leading to is the idea that the Sahel’s problems must be solved by the people who live there. This the point of Oumar’s and Patrice Sanou’s risky side project in Burkina Faso, their geographic research and training center. The two men, and their Burkinabe colleagues, have been slowly working to develop contacts while holding down their jobs, Oumar in the U.S., and Patrice at Burkina Faso’s government geography institute. So far, the center has won a few mapping jobs with the Burkinabe government, as well as contracts to train government officials and students at the national university. But the center hopes to broaden its work across the Sahel.

“The risks are great,” says Oumar. “We have to build credibility with governments in the region.” That is hard to do when the competition includes agencies and universities of Western countries that have long been the major players in African development. “With the training we offer,” Oumar says, “We can do this job [of developing Africa] ourselves.”

This trajectory brings us to back to the Sahel and this hardpan laterite in Mali. Here, plants dig desperately for the means to stay alive, sending roots deep to feed on water and nutrients. The roots of the prosopis tree, known as mesquite in the American Southwest, can penetrate 30 feet, many times the height of the tree above ground. Such plant behavior is evidence of the resilience that Oumar believes will save this land that is only 100 miles from where he grew up.

This is Oumar’s land.

Listen to Oumar talk about his work in Africa, and you can hear the fuel that drives him.

“There is almost no state in Africa that can survive three months without money from the outside,” he says. We are in his office and he leans forward in his chair, his hands folded. He does not gesture. “You have these kind of artificial states where the first thing a new African leader must do when he takes office is fly off to Paris to pledge allegiance and see what France can do for them.” He pauses, and his palms fly outward in exasperation. “That is the government economic program.”

Really, this is all about dependence, which Oumar hates. What motivates him is the hope that the Sahel be able to feed itself. Mali is twice the size of Texas, and 80 percent of its 11 million people depend on subsistence farming or fishing. Per capita income is $280, and more than 65 percent of the land space is desert or semi-desert. Seventy percent of the $730 million national budget comes from foreign aid. Mali owes $3 billion to Western governments, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. In Burkina Faso, a country the size of Colorado with a population of 12 million, the situation is little better. These are two of 15 African countries the Europeans left cut off from the sea when they withdrew from most of Africa between 1958 and 1961.

The dependence Oumar speaks of is the legacy of French rule over the Sahel from 1870 to 1961, a colonial curse, though he is too polite to say that. “We are fighting this idea that [Africans] can do nothing on their own without knowledge and expertise from the outside. This has been taught and encouraged and embedded in the minds of most Africans. If you can’t provide for yourself, what real independence do you have?” He pauses and smiles. “I don’t like bosses,” he says. “I want to work for myself.”

“This is not good,” says Seydou. Together we are standing in the bed of the pickup, hoping to catch a glimpse of Oumar, Albadi, and Diallo, hoping to see a baseball cap bobbing above the bushes or hear an answer to our shouts. They are an hour overdue. Seydou jumps to the ground and reaches in through the driver’s side window to beep the horn. It is past 5 p.m., and darkness will soon fall. “I may have gotten our position wrong,” he says. “They could be lost.”

I say, “They can’t have much water left.”

Early that afternoon I had opted out of following Oumar the rest of this, our last day in the bush. The heat had exhausted me.

“I surrender,” I told him. “I’m going to sit and make my notes.”

So around 2 p.m. Seydou and I left Oumar, Albadi, and Diallo under the shade of a tree and drove to the next rendezvous point three miles away. Seydou parked the car beneath the canopy of a large baobab, and we waited. He lay on a woven plastic mat under the tree, and I sat in the shade of the truck, against a wheel, and worked until I nodded off. The air was still, leaving us in the silence of a place where my heartbeat seemed like an audible sound. Even the flies had gone. A quarter mile away three cows crossed the laterite on their way to better pickings, hooves clicking and scraping and cracking against the ground. Three hours passed.

But now, standing in the back of the truck, we hear the steady crunch of wheels as a farmer appears out of the shimmering heat on an old bicycle. He wears a dusty robe and white skullcap. Slung across his back is an old handmade black powder rifle. The old man stops and raises his fist in greeting. “Salaam alekum,” he says, using the Arabic expression of peace while staring at our truck. Seydou speaks to him in Bambara, and I struggle to understand while staring at his bicycle. The wheel rims have been patched in many places with strips of heated metal still black from the hot fire used to soften them. The strips were wound tightly around cracks in the rim, where they more or less melted in place. Seydou agrees to take the farmer to his village when we leave.

The sun is a sharp orange ball over the horizon, and Seydou looks at me and shakes his head. He says, “It will be dark in half an hour.” He again mounts the truck bed, and I wander across the laterite, careful to keep the truck in sight. Alternately, we shout Oumar’s name. Seydou blasts the truck’s horn.

Just after six, as the sun begins to dip beneath the horizon, we hear loud voices. Three men emerge from a thicket of bushes a quarter mile off, waving and shouting, “Whoooaa, whoooaa, nous sommes la.”

Seydou runs to meet them with water bottles. The farmer sits in the truck bed with his bike, watching. Minutes later, at the truck, Oumar drinks deeply and then leans against the cab with both hands, his head hanging between his outstretched arms as if he’d just finished a marathon. He looks at me sideways. “We’re done,” he says between deep breaths. “It wasn’t bad, we got a little lost.”

Oumar is far from done. Two days later, back in Bamako, he catches a flight to Burkina Faso to meet with Patrice Sanou and work on the next phase of his independence project.


Peter Chilson, assistant professor of English at WSU, is author of Riding the Demon: On the Road in West