The following ‘tale’ is of two contrasting ‘visions’: one full of hope, aspiration, and confidence; the other a categorical absence of same. Although what follows is allegorical in character, this story should neither be construed as a fairy-tale nor in any way fictitious. Both of these ‘visions’ not only actually exist in the present moment but they foretell what both the individual and collective future may hold.
Formidable disparities not only exist in and between individuals within most societies but in the collective life and environment of their societies and cultures. Although socioeconomic polarization has been ever-present throughout the recorded history of man, it would seem to be more virulent (pervasive, vigorous, extensive, prominent) than ever before. Such appearance could be attributable to relative proximity in time, perhaps to the rapid advances in information exchange technologies, but may also be the result of a genuine expansion in absolute terms of the magnitude and extent of the separation existing between distinct individual realities as the global population rapidly expands
One of these ’visions’ of daily reality in the lives of individuals is shared in common among untold millions of human lives on this planet – the inhabitants of the so-called ‘Lesser-Developed Countries’. Their ‘world’ is typically portrayed by us of the West as harsh, and often brutally primitive and a cruel reality, yet to us it remains unreal – merely images as may be seen on television Nevertheless, this ‘story’ could well be told of untold thousands of like villages in Africa and of perhaps billions of human lives throughout the “Third World”. The alternative ‘vision’ is one that is suggested and which could arrest or even supplant the former if the affluent societies of the globe (‘civilization’) would but act as opposed to engaging in an endless debate as to cause, incessant speculation about cost:benefit of potential corrections, and chronically rejoining and exacerbating situational crises, etc. The developed world must find not only compassion and conviction but wisdom and the will to act in concert. What is needed in order to effect such a transition is in itself a ‘vision’- a vision to establish an expedient, efficient, and effective delivery mechanism to actually provide appropriate assistance.
The Village of ‘A’nguish
The sun rises on a village of sorrow and despair. Another dawn to illuminate the trials concomitant to the persistent struggle of gleaning life’s necessities. Scare fuel for the cooking and none for warmth, fetid water to drink or worse- none to be had at all, never mind fit for human consumption. Surviving children, their minds barren save for an awareness of the need for nourishment and love, are offered hollow reassurances from parents still mourning the loss of siblings executed by malnutrition and ancillary disease. Any assurance of survival remains exclusively with/to/in? antiquity, hope long-ago overcome by the repetition of loss, the constancy of travail and distress. Security for the aged, and a plausible opportunity for the maturation of successive generations, are a similar but distant memory. Hope no longer remains for the ‘living’ of this world: as with their ancestors – long ago buried and decayed – a memory persists yet has no vitality. Is this what it means to be alive? Yes, for much of mankind! (‘Mankind’- such an oxymoron this word is- the only species on Earth that knowingly, willingly, even eagerly brings harm to its members and upon itself).
Each day is rout; mere repetition of the challenge – a struggle for existence- to survive as each can. The women toil with the sun and into the night, in the household and the fields, to provide as they might. Young girls search far and wide for dry dung, prized wood; trekking for hours to find water wherever they could. Young boys lead the herds in a vain search for green pasture but may come to dry grass or sometimes disaster. Some of the children can still play in their bliss though they are seldom ignorant of the weakness created by the meals they have missed. The men gather each day to discuss their plight: that the pain of their families has but one end in sight- the certain fate common to cattle, to locust and vulture, to all. In good seasons, each labors long to coerce grain from sparse fields, in bad they will realize absolutely no yields. Not one is confident that tomorrow they shall eat, yet each clings to life as they contribute and seek. As the sun’s zenith is met, the more fortunate may sup, a few precious kernels of sorghum, termites, or nuts [a kola nut]. Shade from thatched roofs may bring relief at midday but only the weariest and aged shall lay. In the afternoon, the girls return bearing burdens of slight fortune as the boys start the trek home with the family wealth. The evening is pleasant and welcoming, full of stories and good song, though few may have ingested as much energy as has gone [been expended]. As night closes in, shadow renews fear that the children will suffer pained sleep, or worse, may no longer be among them when the sun has returned.
In the darkness somewhere each night, an exhausted mother consoles her remaining children in plight. She cradles her youngest infant who is too weak to cry, holds it closer than ever for she knows it shall soon die. Providing solace and succour, try as she might, she can supply no relief- it is a very long night. The family can provide only witness as another life slowly wanes, and ‘welcome’ the release of expiration, for each it will be the same. None has known peace, nor joy in this life with no gain. The child succumbs, maternal wails are plain. No tears can she shed, her fluids are vital for the sweat she will give in undertaking the burial and to provide comfort to those who remain. As the new day returns, she will walk to the fields; the aged who survive, await their release as they share in her grief.
There is no possibility of overstatement in describing such a world, only the simple fact that one shall either find what one needs to maintain the pain or one shall find the comfort of death having known little but the misery. The sum of experience in such an existent is an accumulation of the past tragedies, the pain of the present, and the uncertainty of the future. It is inconceivable to us of the West – or of the privileged classes – to grasp either the immediacy or the severity of such existence, nor to even remotely comprehend the pervasiveness of this most human reality.
The Village of ‘B’elief
The earth revolves on its course bringing light to a village of healing and hope. Dawn is renewal as it brings forth the growth which provides for security and not bare subsistence. The crops are attended with faith in good measure; harvests are gathered gladly to be shared with each other. Potable water, cherished for growth and in sustaining good health; the people are wise and value such wealth. The children are strong and have health in true measure; the parents are happy for their lives filled with such treasure. So much to be done from the vigour of life: infants to nurture, children to praise, marriages to feast, the infirm to support, wise elders to seek, each other to embrace.
Like the previous village, these people live in a region with soils generally considered to be non‑productive and subject to highly variable and inadequate rainfall. Despite these limitations, the people cultivate lush gardens of vitamin-rich vegetables year-round and they have a small pond from which they regularly harvest fish. They have been shown effective techniques for the provision of reliable, abundant harvests. In essence, they cultivate fish that are fed with crop residues and other gleaned resources to yield protein, and their vegetable crops are nourished solely by the water‑borne fish wastes. Both crops grow rapidly, each symbiotically flourishing in the presence of the other and result in sustainable production. The composite aerobic metabolism of various bacteria, alga, and plants biologically transform the ‘wastes’ generated by the fish into chemical forms which are taken up by the plants. Thereby, food is produced in abundance as the water is ‘purified’ and returned to the fish pond thus permitting repeated utilization. The people are unaware of the specifics in the ‘sciences’ involved in a detailed description as to ‘how’ their life‑giving ‘technique’ chemically functions – or is it in any way necessary for them to do so. Such information is no more required for successful production than a biochemical appreciation of the symbiotic association existing between Rhizobium (bacteria) and legume root-nodules is to the cultivation of groundnuts (peanuts) or of knowledge of the source of phosphates in the Nile’s fertile water was to the rise and maintenance of the high-civilization that was ancient Egypt. Even in the most resource-limited of regions, sufficient water and nutrient sources may be gleaned by which to sustain the productive operation of the symbiotic co-culture system.
With security and an abundance of food, the children are healthy and therefore they are receptive to and capable of learning. Information is continuously exchanged, vital knowledge is gained, each day builds their faith and gives strength to their name. This village society has vitality and hope, indeed their unique culture is maintained intact. The tribulations of life still exist and are met forthrightly from a position of faith and strength- the capacity to adapt has been learned- they remain.
Analysis (causality in the divergence of ‘vision’)
The vast difference between the lives in and of these two envisioned villages (realities) is not because of the degree of effort applied on the part of the residents. Neither does it derive from the ‘level’ of formal education received; nor due to the inherent fertility of their soils, not attributable to infestations of pests or indigenous pathogens, nor to variability in or quantity of precipitation received. It is mainly due to informed opportunity – or the specific lack of same – attributable to access to appropriate information and the skills and ‘tools’ by which to make an effectual response (remedy). It is derived from the capacity to anticipate and the capability to respond to circumstances with an appropriate solution when an immediate situational crisis is visited upon a populus.
Historically drought in Africa [as elsewhere] is of a recurrent, cyclical nature. It usually occurs in regular, predictable, distinct patterns in various regions on this vast, diverse continent. Human civilizations have thrived in Africa for much more than a few millennia by having developed an adroitness in adapting to these patterns and the effects of drought. However, the recent frequency and severity of drought in Africa, and its unprecedented persistence, has been physically caused by man’s meddling in the sensitive and complex mechanisms which determine local and global meteorological patterns. The African peoples have repeatedly demonstrated over the past several hundred years (not to mention prior to recorded history) a willingness and ability to accommodate change, and an eagerness to improve their living standards. All the diverse cultures of Africa once had an established capability to respond to changing environmental and economic climates. Witness Africa’s many nomadic cultures which have evolved because of and were built upon changing environmental conditions. Witness the continued cultural diversity and the relative social integrity that remains despite slave traders, plantation owners, and other colonial inputs. However, today many venerable cultures of Africa no longer have the ancestral knowledge, and therefore have not the resources and tools to by which to survive.
As the European countries ‘colonized’ (euphemism for invade, rape, and destroy) Africa, their activities disrupted highly developed and sustainable farming, herding, and social systems which had evolved over many millennia in response to fluctuating (short- and long-term) environmental conditions. Ecologically balanced food systems were systematically undermined by the European invasions; the most suitable (desirable) agricultural lands were seized for growing coffee, tea, sugar cane, cocoa, and other export crops that benefited the tastes and coffers of Europe while the soils were mined of their nutrients and stripped of their taxonomies. Other export crops such as cotton, peanuts, and tobacco also absorbed the vital nutrients from the soils of Africa and after each harvest, the soil was left bare and unprotected from the effects of mechanical and sheet erosion. Colonial crops and production techniques have denuded and plundered the soil, reducing large areas to desert and semidesert; a condition which has created [resulted in] the self-driving engine of continental-scale desiccation. Many millions of acres of brush and trees were, and continue to be, cleared for export as well as for cooking fuel and for warmth. Regardless of the usage of the forest’s materials, this process has robbed the thin forest soils of a capacity for replenishment of organic nutrients and has decimated both the diversity of and a capacity to sustain life.
Seizure of the most fertile land by the colonial and neo-colonial ‘interests’ for cash export crops has not only degraded the environment but has also robbed the indigenous populations of the ability to feed themselves. It forced many native peoples to either work on the plantations or to crowd into squalid settlements around the cities to seek some potential for employment and survival. This provided to (and continues to give) the plantation owners and other commercial interests a large labour force that was (and is) paid virtual ‘slave’ wages, thus ensuring high profits and encouraging continued destructive practices. Private and government investments were institutionalized for the development of these cash crops, while food production for the poor majority was neglected entirely.
Many so-called development “experts” fail to recognize that the world’s ‘free’-market economy is perhaps Africa’s true worst enemy and not drought, population growth, AIDs, the collapse of communism, etc. as difficult as these problems are or their consequences to overcome. Presently, and not by mere accident, most African economies are extremely economically dependent on exporting mineral resources in one form or another (as ore, forests, and the soil in the form of agricultural products). As their dependency has grown (was developed by force and coercion) the world market prices they receive for these raw materials have been driven (manipulated) continuously downward (in constant dollars) while the costs for imported manufactured goods has consistently ratcheted ever upward. As prices paid for food commodities fell, and a few giant transnational corporations such as Archer-Daniels-Midland, Nestle, and General Foods- together controlling over 50 per cent of the Western market – reap the benefits. For a current example, the European community of nations (EEC) subsidizes its livestock industries to the tune of 354 billion U.S. dollars (during 1993) which directly stimulated overproduction. The Europeans then reduce their annual surpluses by ‘dumping’ the poorest quality meat in Africa, thereby undercutting the African pastoralist’s economic viability and to knowingly, directly devastating the livelihoods of even more of the rural poor. The world financial system (which obviously includes the instruments of warfare) is a far greater cause of hunger in Africa than is any drought that we have seen (to date).
“Free-market” economics allocate food according to the ‘rule’ of monetary wealth, not nutritional need. The six largest multinational food corporations- which together control nearly 85 per cent of world grain distribution – are concerned only with profits. Notwithstanding clever advertising campaigns /slogans and publicity stunts to the contrary, they are not in the slightest bit concerned by global environmental degradation, human suffering, or mass starvation at all. The small farmer is victimized by both private and corporate speculators alike. These traders, both domestic (local) and international (global), buy up food crops at harvest time when plentiful supplies push prices down. Later in the year, during what is termed “the hungry season”, small farmers run out of both food and “savings” and are forced to borrow at astronomical interest rates from local financiers just to survive until the next harvest- if there is one – by whatever means they might (or might not). Meanwhile, Western commodity exchanges and ‘free’ markets manipulate the supply and demand of foodstuffs to cause the unit-price paid to the farmers to lower and lower levels, They do this intentionally, with complete knowledge of the result, for the sole purpose of causing their stockholders and board members to become even wealthier still.
With self-reinforcing destructive consequences to soils, human health, economic systems and numerous human cultures, the environmental disruptions in Africa have directly intensified the suffering of hunger. But it is primarily the categorical (absolute) poverty imposed – the deliberate removal of capability, of resources and the denial of alternatives or opportunity – that is the true and genuine cause of poverty, famine and that drives further social and ecological degeneration. It mainly is those who are in the most impoverished circumstance as created by externally applied interventions who are the ones that are stripped of hope and continue to suffer and die from the effects of man-made drought. The chronic impoverishment that permeates much if not all of Africa today has been several hundred years in the making.
Poor rainfall is troublesome for farmers throughout the world and can push people to the brink of famine. Where farmers and pastoralists have been made vulnerable by economic and political structures and large-scale ecological disruption, the majority are forced into chronic poverty while the few are further enriched. The deathscapes of Africa are real but largely, even resolutely, man-made; created first by the colonial interventions and sustained to the present day through the maintenance of a total and complete lack of remedial opportunity on the part of those afflicted to provide for their sustenance. The situation is also maintained, and is often willingly exacerbated, by the lack of sufficiently adequate understanding on the part of both those who purport [claimed attempt] to assist them, as well as by those who don’t want to care about what happens on Earth other than what immediately happens directly to them.
To the critical, principle difference of ‘life’ in the previous ‘visions”: first, as is well-understood, the absolute availability of and effective utilization of water resources and the abundance of accessible nutrients in the soils are the principal limiting factors to a capacity of both individuals and civilizations to grow their food (provide for their sustenance). Where there is water, there is life. Where there is the wise, purposeful use of water by man, there is found man with a capacity for wisdom and societies with hope for a secure future for themselves and their children. By utilizing a given (available) volume (quantity) of water more than once before its ‘release back to nature’, one would in so doing, effectively multiply the water available for a purpose. Secondly, organic ‘wastes’ products from one process/organism (agricultural production system) may be utilized effectively as the primary or sole nutrient input from which to effect the cultivation of a subsequent organism or system. Third, biological processes (actions of organisms in successive trophic levels making up an ecosystem) extract such nutrients as they may require (assimilate elements and organic compounds) from their immediate environment which includes assimilation of previous generated ‘waste-products’ from water which they encounter/receive. Through this process, freshwater is caused to become ‘untainted’; it is conserved, renewed, remains intact. In effect, through sequential trophic (ecological) succession, organically-contaminated water is ‘purified’ as it is purged of prior ‘contaminants’. This results in ‘clean’ water; a fresh supply; a ‘new’ beginning for yet another life-giving ‘cycle’: more water with which the resourceful, adaptive human organism may meet the challenge of providing for expanding human needs.
There is substantial (abundant) historical evidence that indicates it is not only possible but highly desirable to use a given volume of water over and over again (or at least for several purposes) in the pursuit of agricultural production. This suggests that environmentally sustainable production of animal proteins (i.e. fish) can be achieved with minimal volumetric requirements of freshwater. There is also abundant evidence that vegetables can be intensively cultivated when provided with adequate and complete nutritional requirements as can be derived from organic ‘waste’ sources, and thus eliminates a ‘necessity’ to import or otherwise have access to expensive inorganic fertilizers by expending hard currency. It asserts and affirms that it is not only possible but practical to symbiotically cultivate fish and vegetable crops, year‑round, regardless of the extent of or the timing of the rainfall received in a given region, season, or interval.
Conclusion (or Contemplation of Consequence )
Life evolved over millions of years as interlocking systems of mutual dependence- with each organism dependent on the life (and the death) of many others- with the ‘secret’ of nature’s ‘success’ being two-fold; 1) derived from its diversity as wrought from and by the adaptability of the animals and plant species that have responded to change (evolved) and thus have survived, and 2) that for life’s continuation is a dependence upon the renewal of nature’s substance through in the cycling of elements. As has the survival to the presence of each species on Earth, our (homo sapiens) survival into the future, depends entirely upon sustaining the biophysical systems that connect us all, as well as upon the informed, effective actions of each other. Nature favours only the healthy, the agile, the intelligent, the adaptable – nature makes no exceptions.
We must learn to use increasingly limited water far more wisely such as employing it repeatedly in every way and everywhere we can. We need to actively recycle organic ‘wastes’ by directly coupling appropriate trophic levels and by incorporating gleaned agronomic by-products and other renewable nutrient sources into food yielding systems in sustainable and environmentally benign ways. We must establish technical and economic systems that will give back control of household nutrition (food-security) to the farmers so they can be healthy and sustainable and; thereby, to continue to feed us all. We must ensure the protection of the Earth, of all environmental resources and ecological systems, and a good way to start would be to return to the small farmers, where ever they may be, the ability to continue in perpetuity the husbandry of the Earth.
One hundred years ago, Africa was among, if not the most diverse and abundant assembly of interdependent ecosystems on the planet: less than one per cent of that remains today. Reversing Africa’s decline, and ultimately the survival of mankind itself will require a persistent, consistent commitment to learning, to teach, to apply and to assist the information and skills necessary for sustainable self-sufficient societies to develop and to thrive.
“It is essential to strip away the niceties of economic parlance and say that what is happening is simply an outrage against a large section of humanity. … Allowing world economic problems to be taken out on the growing minds and bodies of young children is the antithesis of all civilized behaviour. Nothing can justify it. And it shames and diminishes [and will destroy] us all.” (UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 1989.)
If Africa, with its rich diversity, still sufficient resources, and the lowest population density of any continent on Earth, cannot be steered from its present course (‘vision’) there is little reason for optimism about the human future of this planet. The condition of the African landscape and of the cultures it supports has become a barometer of our own destiny. What is painfully obvious is that there is little time left for choosing our fate.
“De te fabula narratur.” (It is of you [each of us] that this story is told.) Karl Marx. Capital., 1906.