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In Rural Mali, Change Comes in Letters

By Michele Learner
April 2009

The axiom “Teach a person to fish” is a helpful way to think about development, but the real process is rarely so straightforward.

In the case of Mali’s Fulani community, ethnic tensions, land ownership conflicts, and irrigation policies have displaced the people from their own land. In the fishing maxim, they no longer have access to a pond.

The Fulani comprise the world’s largest nomadic society, some 14 million people. But they are scattered as minority communities in six West African countries. In Mali’s Kurmari area, early development projects displaced them, forcing many to work as field hands of rich rice farmers.

Tensions in the region rose again in 2005, when Mali received funding to expand the irrigation systems in Kurmari.

The funding came from Mali’s compact with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC is an innovative development program, funded by U.S. taxpayers, which Bread for the World members helped to establish and now regularly monitor.

The problem was that 20 Fulani villages would be displaced by the project in Kurmari. The initial budget had no money to compensate them. Corrupt officials in the local irrigation office told the project planners that no one lived in the affected areas.

But they did not know that Scott and Mary Crickmore, field workers of the U.S.-based Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), would get involved as advocates. For more than 20 years, they have been helping the Fulani in Kurmari become literate and work against poverty.

The Crickmores helped the villagers start a letter-writing campaign to local and national government offices and the US Embassy. Some people wrote their own letters, others dictated them to literate neighbors. The letters, written in the local language, then had to be translated into French, Mali’s official language.

“It was revealed that the irrigation office staff had actually lied to their own government,” said Mary Crickmore. In the end, the local irrigation office was audited and the corrupt officials were dismissed.

In the United States, CRWRC urged its contacts to stop the release of the MCC funds until the problem was solved.

MCC reacted quickly and the Fulani villagers were invited to participate in planning the expansion of the area’s irrigation system. They contributed a lot of ideas, and the initial plan was significantly modified.

The Fulani communities displaced by the irrigation expansion are being compensated with irrigated rice fields of their own. Their villages are being relocated to higher ground, and provided with brick houses, and schools and health clinics.

“I see now that even an illiterate people can have some power. If everyone agrees to come together, we can do good work,” said local Fulani leader, Nuhu Diall.

“The great point of this whole story is how so many different people and organizations… played their role without knowing how it was all fitting together… and look at the result!” said Peter Vander Meulen, social justice coordinator of the Christian Reformed Church in North America” (Bread Field Focus).

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