by Pietronella van den Oever, PRB fellow
Click here to read this post in French.
The Women’s Banks, featured in my previous blog post, emerged largely thanks to Mariam Ndiaye, my counterpart while I was working in Mali, and my friend for life. Mariam was born in 1942, when French colonization was still firmly established throughout Africa. When she went to primary school, at age seven, Malian children were sitting in the back of the classroom, while the children of the French butcher, baker, and hairdresser occupied the front rows. Students of both groups considered that this was the “normal” societal order. However, the Malian children that made it to school, especially the girls, were usually descendants of forward-looking and highly motivated families who encouraged their children to learn as much as they could to help their society change for the better. As a consequence, they were the children who were consistently on the honor roll. Already at a young age, Mariam liked the “hard sciences” such as physics and biology. After completing secondary school, during the period that Mali became independent in 1960, Mariam enrolled at the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENSUP) in Bamako. After obtaining her first degree, she was admitted to graduate school at ENSUP, section biology, as the first Malian woman in science.
Mariam and I met in 1973, when she was looking for a position to combine her academic specialty in biology with her desire to be actively engaged in the development of her country, and I was looking for a Malian counterpart who would be able to take over the position I occupied at the Ministry of Agriculture in Mali upon completion of the FAO/ILO project in which I worked. Our meeting was a match made in heaven. We were young and energetic, and brimming with enthusiasm and boundless optimism. We could move mountains –- we thought – and we were going to change Mali for good. Although I had never been obliged to sit in the back of the classroom because of my nationality, I had gained notoriety in my native village in Holland because I talked back when the headmaster made condescending remarks, especially about girls who were too smart for their own good. Mariam had gained quite a reputation when she was in high school and went, armed with a big stick, after a couple of boys who were bothering her and her girlfriends. In other words, we were a pair of strong-headed women, the perfect pair to face the formidable obstacles that were awaiting us. First, we needed to obtain Mariam’s transfer from her teaching position at a high school in Bamako to the Ministry of Agriculture. This process took almost a year of convincing reluctant bureaucrats and a lot of red tape to be cut through. Second, there were no examples in Mali or in other countries of the type of capacity building programs on small-scale economic activities for women, combined with community organization activities that we wanted to establish. Third, there were no formally trained female agricultural development agents, although there was a cadre of young men who had completed education in that area at the Centres d’Apprentissage Agricole (CAA). However, our male colleagues, both Malian and foreign, were extremely supportive of what we were trying to do. For instance, as soon as Mariam’s transfer to the Ministry of Agriculture was finalized, we recruited and provided training on an ad hoc basis to a small group of women with varying degrees of primary education. Our male colleagues helped us integrate this group officially in the Fonction Publique as Monitrices Rurales. As such they joined the official cadre of Moniteurs d’Agriculture who were trained in the Centres d’Apprentissage Agricole. We designed the training program content and pedagogy mostly from scratch, with the help of several people from FAO Headquarters under whose umbrella I worked.
Now, about 37 years after we met, Mali has changed significantly, but not because of our interventions. However, Mariam has continued the initiatives that we began in the early 1907s, and we are proud to say that we are able to share three results that are direct products of our initial work. First, when we started, there was not a single girl in any of the formal institutions for agricultural education. From the onset, we made plans for adapting the Institut Polytechnique Rurale (school of agricultural engineering) in Katibougou, and the three Centres d’Apprentissage Agricole (schools for agricultural development agents), to make them suitable for women. This involved adding courses to the curriculum that would cater to women’s special interests, such as transforming agricultural products, adapted agricultural economics, and elements of community organization, as well as adapting the schools’ infrastructure by creating designated dormitories for women. Legally, there was no real obstacle for girls to attend these schools, but neither the infrastructure nor the program seemed to be very inviting to women, and it was simply not a part of the Malian culture. Our insistence on creating women-friendly agricultural schools greatly precipitated the entry of women. As a result, a first group of 10 women entered the engineering school in 1975. This group included a number who now hold high government positions, for example, Mrs. Lansry, the present Chief of the National Commissariat for Food Security. She admitted in an interview that she was extremely proud to be a member of the first group of female students who entered Katibougou and became agricultural engineers. One year later, a group of girls entered the CAA, the schools for agricultural development agents. A second important achievement was the creation of women’s groups around economic activities, with the Women’s Bank introduced in my previous post as the central activity. Mariam has mainly been responsible for developing the concept to begin with, and continuously adapting and improving the program. As of 2011, there are 112 groups affiliated with the “Association d’Entraide et de Developpement” (AED), an NGO created especially for this purpose by Mariam and a group of colleagues. As a third concrete result, we have traced back all the people with whom we have worked at one point or another, and who had attended our ad hoc training program. All of them have continued to create their own women’s networks (these include many men as well, by the way), and pursue economic as well as social activities with these groups. Three of these women will be featured in the next blog post.
In the meantime, Mariam and I have become mature ladies. We are no longer bothering headmasters with smartalecky remarks, or wielding a stick to beat up high school boys, but we have demonstrated that carefully conceived programs built upon locally expressed needs, combined with long-term engagement, pay off in the long-term.