Christian Anasse Belemkaogba recalled with a deep smile the predrought days of plenty during his not-so-far-off Sahelian childhood when the rains' June arrival meant verdant grass fields, tall grain stalks of red sorghum and well-fed cattle.
What cattle the great drought of 1968-1974 did not kill--maybe six of 50 are left--now graze in the better grasslands farther south toward the Togo border. The sorghum has sprouted, but no one is sure if the plants will wither or ripen to their six-foot height in this land slowly turning into desert. There are sparse patches of green grass brought up by today's post-drought erratic winter rains to produce mainly an abundance of anxiety.
"Everyone prays to the Christian God, Allah and the Mossi gods. All of them together may be able to keep the rains going until the October harvest so there will be food again to eat," said Belemkaogba. "The life here is hard, but we try as best we can to live the normal lives we Mossi were once able to live."
"At least, we're surviving," he added.
Yet the memories of the great drought are still haunting here and throughout the other seven countries of Africa's semiarid Sahel belt--Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and the Cape Verde Islands--where the rains have been scattered and inconsistent since 1974. Tens of thousands of people starved during those years as the earth parched, and their plight focused world attention on a long-ignored, poverty stricken area sandwiched between the Sahara Desert to the north and the jungles of central Africa.
The United States and other Western donors, especially the former colonial power of France, as well as many private relief organizations, moved into the Sahel and brought tons of food to help relieve the crisis. Many of these donors have continued feeding programs here and have worked to develop long-term projects, including a multibillion dollar river development program to move water into the fields, to overcome the traditional dependence on the rains for the crops. But many of these programs have fallen behind schedule and some Western relief officials estimate that it may be well into the next century before this region can feed itself.
Meanwhile, the cycle of devastating famine continues in this region where the average life span hovers around 40 and the gross national product per capita usually runs between $100 and $200. Although the countries of the region are not facing a crisis of the same magnitude as the great drought, they have been forced to rely on donations to feed their people since 1974. Much of the region has been targeted by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization for emergency relief.
An FAO report issued in May named Mauritania, Cape Verde, Chad and Senegal as priority countries needing about 135,000 extra tons of food aid following the failure of this year's rains, which has curtailed cereal production throughout the region. It noted that the civil war in Chad, which is flaring again, also has created problems for food distribution there and led to greater hunger problems. Compounding the drought, according to the report, are serious problems in Mali and Mauritania in feeding livestock and obtaining vaccine to control animal diseases such as the current outbreak of rinderpest, a plague that strikes cattle and buffalo.
The United States has pledged 65,000 tons of emergency grain aid to five of the hardest hit nations in the area this year.
While the region lurches from crisis to crisis, U.S. and other western relief officials say there are promising signs for the Sahel. They point to greater efforts to identify problems throughout the region and cooperation among the nations and donor groups to deal with those problems.
One official of the Agency for International Development applauded moves by Niger and Upper Volta to reform agriculture policies and to move away from government interference in the marketplace by allowing the prices of foodstuffs to be determined by a free market rather than set government policy.
Under these new changes, Niger, which once lost much of its agricultural products in black market sales across the border to Nigeria, is now self-sufficient in cereal grain production.
Similar pricing changes are being studied in Mali, which is the world's sixth poorest country, and the country has begun some new partial measures to move toward a more liberalized capitalist economy. Although rainfalls have been low since the end of the great drought, Mali is blessed with some of the Sahel's best farmland and two major river systems, which relief officials say give it an edge in food production over some of the other countries in the region. Yet Mali's peasants, 94 percent of the country's 6.4 million population, farm only 4 percent of the 40 percent of the land that is arable, in silent protest against the government's efforts to monopolize grain purchases at lower than market value.
Neighboring Mauritania has been able to grow only about a third of its annual food needs. Part of the problem stems from the Sahelian drought, which led to a major demographic change. In 1965, 65 percent of the Mauritanians led a self-sufficient, nomadic life. By the end of the drought in 1974, which wiped out entire herds, 65 percent of the population had become crop farmers or had migrated to the cities.
Gambia, a poor country where the annual per capita income is $250, is also suffering from hard economic times. The production of peanuts, the country's major source of export revenue, has fallen from a high of about 130,000 tons per year in the early 1970s to 45,000 tons in the 1980s. With only $60 million in revenues, Gambia spends $12 million a year to import rice, a food staple for its people.
In Senegal since 1980, peanut prices have fallen 50 percent to 9 cents a pound. Economic conditions for peasant farmers, who make up 70 percent of the labor force, have deteriorated, damaging their ability to feed themselves. In a study conducted by AID and the Senegalese government, food development experts predicted that Senegal could not be self-sufficient in all areas of food production until 2010 and then only with massive amounts of financial aid.
And here in Upper Volta, according to a western economist, the great drought has set back the meager economic growth by a decade.
With 18 adults and children here on the Belemkaogba homestead at Kuiriyaoghin village, survival on the parched, overpopulated Mossi people's plateau means that all the young men leave home in their teens to find work in another country. The economic circumstances have made the obligatory migration a modern rite of passage to adulthood. The men return permanently when they are over 40, elderly in terms of life expectancy here.
Belemkaogba and three of his six brothers work all year at low-paying unskilled jobs in neighboring Ivory Coast. None of the seven Belemkaogba brothers has had even a day of schooling.
The rural poverty of Upper Volta is so pervasive and the declining quality of life so widespread that an estimated one-fifth of the country's 7.1 million population, about 1.4 million people, are working in neighboring countries, according to studies by AID. Approximately 80 percent of the migrants, 1.1 million laborers, are working year-round in the tropical humidity of the Ivory Coast to the south.
There, they make up the majority of the cheap, laboring backbone of the Ivory Coast's principal source of affluence--numerous large and small coffee and cocoa plantations.
Belemkaogba and I have discussed the unrelenting poverty of Upper Volta at length. He has worked for the past four years as The Washington Post's night watchman at the newspaper's West Africa bureau in Abidjan, the coastal commercial city of the Ivory Coast. We coincidentally were in Upper Volta at the same time in mid-June--Belemkaogba on his annual month-long vacation and I to cover one of this country's cyclical political upheavals. So he invited me to visit his home. The village is a mile southwest of the town of Koupela which is 94 miles southeast of the Upper Voltan capital, Ouagadougou.
The overall statistics for Upper Volta are depressing and promise little but a bleak future for the Belemkaogbas and many Voltan families like them. The World Bank lists Upper Volta as one of the world's 15 poorest nations. The country's per capita income is $210 and in each of 20 years ending in 1980 its average annual rate of growth was one-tenth of 1 percent. Upper Volta and its neighbor Niger both have the lowest level of literacy in Africa--5 percent of their populations.
Of the Sahel's eight countries, Upper Volta has the highest rate of infant mortality--260 deaths per 1,000 live births--according to a recent Rockefeller Foundation report. With few exploitable natural resources, Upper Volta earns a small $250 million a year in agricultural and livestock exports. About $80 million in annual salary remittances from its migrant nationals to their families here help make up the government's chronic budget deficit. Foreign aid totals $330 million yearly.
With so many young men like the Belemkaogba brothers away from home 11 months of each year, only the old or the very young are left on the family farms to plant and weed the crops. Even with a fair amount of rainfall, the two widely separated age groups are not strong enough to get the maximum production from the land. This causes an even bigger drop in domestic food production, which means that the migrants must send home larger amounts of money so their families can buy increasing amounts of expensive imported foods.
Belemkaogba is a top-grade night watchman and receives the government-mandated monthly salary of $150.
"Without an education, there is not much else I can do," he said while we were looking at the almost exhausted supplies of sorghum grain--the family's food staple--in the mud-walled, thatched-roof storage house. "The food here is almost gone, the harvest, if there is one, won't come until October and there are 18 people here who have to eat."