January 20th, 2011 | Posted in Income/Poverty
by Pietronella van den Oever, PRB fellow
Click here to read this post in French.
A member of the Fulani ethnic group, Aly Djiga was not supposed to ever touch iron, let alone make a living as a blacksmith. Forging iron was restricted to a specifc ethnic group, and for a Fulani to engage in that type of activity would be scandalous for the family. Yet, Aly told me yesterday that his exceptional skills in forging iron launched his very successful career. I met Aly first in 1974, when he had just graduated from the Centre d’Apprentissage Agricole (CAA) in Samanko, about 20 kilometers from Bamako. The CAA provided training for agricultural development agents, who were supposed to be integrated in the civil service, and stationed in villages to provide training and advice to mostly illitterate farmers, and to be liaison officers for distribution of agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, herbicides, small tools, and agricultural credit. As a student, Aly was very smart and quick, and always eager to learn new and uncommon skills. That is how he caught the attention of the Canadian specialist blacksmith/instructor, who was teaching at the CAA under the umbrella of an ILO/FAO project. So when Jacques, the Canadian instructor, needed a deputy, he proposed the position to Aly who accepted eagerly in spite of stiff resistence from his social circle.
After a few years it so happened that a Canadian organization was looking for an instructor to go to Rwanda for a few years to teach ironworks and blacksmith’s skills to a small group of local instructors who would subsequently convey their skills to local farmers, with the purpose of advancing from hoe agriculture, where all labor was performed using human muscle. Instead, iron ploughs and carts would be used, pulled by oxen. Aly was selected to go to Rwanda. After manufacturing the first cart, he celebrated his team’s achievement by harnessing the necessary oxen and making the cart’s maiden voyage to the local market, with Aly and two Rwandan instructors sitting in the cart, and a stream of villagers following them, chanting and dancing.
When Aly had achieved his objective of training Rwandan ironworks instructors, he moved back to Mali where he established a model farm at the outskirts of Bamako. When his savings ran out he went back to work in the formal sector, this time as a senior leader of CARE Mali, an international NGO, where he remained until his retirement several years ago. In the meantime he continued to improve his model farm, where he received interns, on an informal basis, from his former alma mater, the CAA in Samanko. Recently, he retired to devote himself entirely to his farm work. In the meantime the CAA proposed to formalize the student internships on his farm and make it a formal assignment, for which students would receive academic credit, with Aly serving as a senior instructor.
Several important lessons can be learned from Aly’s story. First, the “iron law” of culture was not as inflexible as it seemed. Rather, culture is dynamic rather than static, and changes over time. Second, it takes fearless leaders like Aly, who are willing to defy social criticsm and exclusion from their own ethnic group, to make cultural change happen. To conclude, I want to add one more observation. When I asked Aly’s wife what she thought about his behavior, considered subversive at that time, she reassured me that she was totally behind her husband. Hence a third lesson may be that spousal consent and support is an important facilitating factor for social and cultural change. I think that we can draw an important lesson from Aly’s story in designing population programs.