Abdoulaye Badji is a farmer living in Sindian village, Casamance province, Senegal. In this interview with Fatou Goudiaby of Radio FM Awagna, he discusses issues of rural poverty, superstition and fatalism.
Fatou Goudiaby: Can you introduce yourself?
Abdoulaye Badji: I am Oustaz (title given to someone who has studied the Qur’an) Abdoulaye Badji, I live in Sindian. I teach the Qur’an to kids, but in reality I am a peasant and I work the land for a living. I was born here in Sindian. I am a Jola, my father is Aladji Djifouladj Badji who was also born here in Sindian and my mother is Djimadjira Sané also born in Sindian. Sindian is a nice village. Its inhabitants are essentially peasants, I mean people who make a living out of the land. It is also the head village of a rural council.
Why the title Oustaz? What does it mean?
It designates a person who teaches the Qur’an to kids. But I don’t do it any more. Still I hold the title and I work as a volunteer for the local community radio, producing religious programmes. But my livelihood is agriculture. That’s what I rely on to sustain myself and feed my family.
And where did you learn the Qur’an?
I started it here in Sindian. Then I went to the village of Badiouré, then to Bignona, and then I went to The Gambia. When I came back, I started teaching kids for two years. But there was absolutely no income in it so I had to stop because I needed to work and provide for our family. There was no one else to do it.
What do you mean when you say there was no else to provide for the family?
Well, my brothers, with whom I grew up, all left the village and went each his own way to look for how to make a living. One has been gone for 15 years out of the country and has never been back. We sometimes talk on the phone. He cannot get out of the country where he is because he won’t be able to go in again for a lack of papers. The others don’t come back here anymore. So there was no one to look after the young kids at home. So I had no choice but to go back to work on the fields.
So you gave up teaching the Qur’an because that didn’t bring enough revenue?
No. It didn’t bring enough revenue. It is an important activity but I need an income.
But don’t those who give their children to be taught pay for your services?
They do. But it’s nothing really. Each child was paying 2000 CFA (4.36 US$1) for the whole year. And some actually never pay, and you can do nothing about it. You see that I couldn’t live on that.
Who was bringing their children here?
Anyone who wanted his child to learn the Qur’an. But they were not learning the Qur’an only. They would go first to Western school and then come after that to me.
Those who didn’t pay, what did you do?
They said that it was difficult to find the money. But I know it is a question of will, and priority. There was nothing I could do about it.
Let’s come back to when you were young. Did you go to school, I mean to Western school, when you were young?
They did not take me to school. It is later that I was taken to Qur’anic school. I went on to a school in The Gambia and passed my baccalaureate. We were then promised that they would take us to Arabic countries to study further. But that did not materialise. When I came home I got bogged down with problems of survival. My father divided his children into two groups. One went to Western school, and the other one waited. There were two of us who later went to Qur’anic school. I wished I had studied on both sides. I know religion now and it is important. But I wish I knew more of the Western world.
You say you’re a peasant. What do you grow, and what do you work with?
I grow a lot of crops. You know, here, you cannot grow just one crop. If it doesn’t work, you will be in an impossible situation for that year. So I grow millet, groundnuts, maize, beans, and sorghum. I also grow rice because I go to rice fields to help my wife.
How many wives do you have?
Only one. I have only one wife.
How did you get married?
It is my own relatives who suggested I should marry her. In fact my wife and I are related. She is my cousin.
Are your children enrolled at school?
Both of them are. The older one is going to Western as well as Qur’anic school. The other one is too young and is still in kindergarten.
And your children will follow both types of school up to high school?
I would like them to. You never know what is best for them: the Western system or the Arabic system.
You obviously have had children rather late. Are those two the only ones you will have or do you think you will have more?
My wish is to have a lot of children. In fact right now my wife is pregnant and we all pray that we will have another child, and even more children in the future. A lot of children will help with work at home. And when they grow up they can all go to try their luck somewhere else and maybe bring help to the house.
They should, you say, but do they do it?
I am afraid they don’t always do it here in this village. When they get jobs and their parents ask them to help, they reply that they have even more problems in town. And they want to settle their own problems first before the problems of their parents and their younger brothers and sisters who are in the village. Take enrolling children at school for instance. A lot of families in the village sometimes find it hard to do it, or are late doing it because all their hopes are on the money that will be sent from town and it doesn’t necessarily come.
What about you yourself, how do you manage to enrol your children?
I know now that if I wait for help it may not come. So I usually take my axe and go to the bush where I collect dead wood and sell it. Often I get enough money to pay the fees for my children and those of my brothers.
You don’t cut trees to get the wood?
No. I don’t have to. You know after the rainy season you have a lot dry grass. That grass catches fire and burns part of the forest. Some trees die and you can cut them. I can thus put up the 6000CFA needed for the fees of one child. And wood sells very fast here.
Does that mean that if the forest doesn’t catch fire you will be unhappy?
I won’t mind because it is not only the fire that gives you dead wood. Some trees die naturally. Moreover, fire always burns up small branches that you could have collected easily. So if there is fire, you are obliged to cut trees killed by the fire. And it is more work.
Let’s come back to your work in the fields, what do you till the soil with?
In Sindian, there are a lot of people who work the land. And they do it with cattle, or edonkotong (Mandinka tilling tool or kadiandou (Jola tilling tool). But really people are not properly equipped to plough efficiently. There are not enough carts going around. Some people wait till the neighbour is through and then they rent his cart. It is sometimes too late. But there is nothing they can do since they can’t afford a cart and a pair of cattle.
And what do you think is the solution to this situation?
If there could be enough cattle to work with in the village that would be good. People did have cattle, but throughout these difficult years they have sold all to sustain their families. For instance, we are approaching eid, and some people are selling their cattle to face it. But the real way forward is to have motorised equipment. It would change people’s lives.
There was a rumour that it is because peasants make cattle suffer in the fields that God is punishing them by reducing rain. What do you think about that?
Well, everyone has his own beliefs. I personally think that God gave us cattle to relieve us, to be useful to us. We may kill them and eat them to survive, or make them do the hard work for us. I think rain depends on God and has nothing to do with whether or not we use cattle to work.
Can it get so difficult in the house that you need to go out and borrow?
We do that. But it is a source of problems for the times that follow. I can tell you that throughout the rainy season, we live on debts. We have to borrow to buy food. And it is not always easy to find someone willing to lend to you, because they know that come the harvesting season, your crops will not be enough to feed your family and pay your debts.
What happens when you can’t pay back?
It happens indeed that some people can’t pay back. It is normal because they think first of keeping or buying food for the family, before paying the debt. And that brings a lot of quarrels.
And how do you solve that type of quarrels?
In sheer despair some people even sell their ploughing equipment and pay their debts. Others sell whatever they have in the house that can be sold. For those the future is very grim because they rely on the compassion of others who will eventually help.
Oustaz, there was a lot of solidarity amongst the Jolas. Does it still exist?
It hasn’t disappeared completely, but it has gone down seriously.
What did they do before?
In the extended family, they would have sometimes set up a common granary. And when the head of the family notices that one member is short, he takes from that granary and gives it to him. There were also cases when other people would come and help discretely. No one else would know. But today this practice is disappearing essentially. There is no more discretion in the way it is done and that hurts the recipient’s pride.
Oustaz, are there days when there is absolutely nothing to eat at home?
Oh yes it happens. Especially during the rainy season. What we do is try hard to have something to eat at noon. In the evening, it is dark, no one will know that you have nothing to eat. There is more sutura (discretion). But women are very resourceful. There is a fruit the powder of which they keep in bags. They put the bags over the fireplace so that the powder doesn’t go bad. When there is nothing to eat, they prepare the powder by mixing it with water and give it to the children. Grown-ups often go to bed with their bellies empty. That of course diminishes your capacity to work. Because you often wake up and go to work also without breakfast. Traditionally the Jolas share their dinner with anybody who is in the house when dinner is ready. But nowadays it is sometimes a source of embarrassment, especially during the rainy season.
You’ve described a difficult life, so how do you see your future and that of the likes of you?
We pray God to give us more rain. And maybe help from outside our community. Otherwise it will be difficult to survive. If we don’t have the proper equipment to work the land, the future is indeed rather threatening. You see you can do very little with what you get out of the land. You can’t buy shoes for your children, or do anything else. That’s why after [leaving] school, children who should help with work during the rainy season all go to Dakar so that they can get clothes from their relatives there. So you are usually left alone with the work and you can’t cope with everything. In the end the yield is small. What we need is for children to cooperate, and we also need a system of retaining water longer, and maybe you can dream of a good life here.
Oustaz, can you come back for me on the causes of poverty in Sindian?
For me the first cause is the lack of rain. We should pray for more rain. Secondly, we need good seeds. That is really a problem here. We also need equipment. It will help here.
Can you tell me the moments in your life that you remember as the happiest?
Not much really. Maybe the happy moments for me are when I go to religious conferences. There we talk to people on how to live by our religion.
Do you sometimes have cattle stolen here?
Oh yes, and that is a big problem! Most people even refrain from raising cattle because they are afraid they might get stolen. And you know raising cattle is hard work. So you struggle all along, only for a thief to take away your cow. That’s also one cause of poverty.
Thank you very much Oustaz.]]>