Let’s try to close our eyes and imagine we happen to be in West Africa in the 60’s. Colonialism has just come to an end, the French military troupes have left and only African heads of state still have their headquarters in the governmental palaces of the whole region. The inhabitants are glad, they feel like building their future with their own hands, in the way they believe to be the fairest and the most stable. Father Verspieren lives in Mali’s province of Bla, located about 75 miles from S?gou. He is a catholic parson coming from Northern France and passionate about agriculture. Many people know him in Mali. He is a member of White Fathers, his so-called order which has been building a lot of schools and churches in several regions since the early 50’s. When he gets the riverbank of Ban? River (a major affluent of the better-knowned Niger River which draws its waters up in the North nearby the city of Mopti), the Father is going hunting for antelopes. Under the shadow of a ‘cailcedrat’, he stops to rest and meet the local inhabitants. There he is, making friends with a local fisherman, Lamine Somak?, representative of the Somono ethnic group. The place where they meet is fascinating with its high sand dunes which directly plunge into the river waters. The sun at sunrise and sunset seems to rise from and then die into the waters. The vegetation is sparse with few timber trees, most of all are spiny trees. The spot is perfect for a stay, but it is really difficult to live there permanently. Maybe Somono the fisherman and Father Versperien are actually discussing this problem, mentioning these wide but not much fruitful, arid and wild lands reaching the river as to just give it a shifty kiss rather than embracing it and getting soaked with it. But let’s leave aside these new friends getting to know each other for a while…
If we reopen our eyes in January 2011, we can see that the ‘cailcedrat’ still stands on the same riverbank of Ban? River. It has grown – not too much – and has remained almost the same as when Father Versperien was resting and talking with Lamine. It is quite hard to spot it as it’s hidden and covered, though. And yet we remember it as a big tree standing in the middle of nowhere, immersed in a sandy desert whereas now there, a forest of Eucalyptus can be found along with some mangoes here and there and with the more numerous Neem. One can listen to the singing of a thousand kinds of birds through the trees, like a symphony mixing with the one of the wind through the leaves. Many colorful flowers spring up through the flower beds of the brushwood, gathering the ruby red tint of Bissem as well as the orange, the purple, the emerald green, the pea green and the pastel ones. Peacock and Crane can scamper about freely there, going at their luxurious pace – just like models walking on top of the runway of an exceptional fashion show, the unique stylist’s name would be ‘Nature’. For thousands of years, it has always been offering the same ‘clothes’ and these magically never go out of fashion.
‘Welcome to Teriya Bugou’s oasis, the hut of friendship‘ is how the director greets me. His name is Al?. He is a Malian man, a Bambar? native from Timbouctou who grew up in Bamako and decided to leave the city and go back to the land. He is the one who is having me visit the oasis and telling me the whole story.
The visit starts with the hotel, the rooms and bungalows of which were built in typical local style. Their exterior fa?ades resemble attractive huts but inside, they are actually furnished with all conveniences – including air conditioning and hot water. The whole structure overlooks the huge river garden. The landscape gardening, the bar and the swimming pool together make you wish you could stay in that place forever. The restaurant is located in a niche of the main building and offers local and European dishes, according to the menus (either fixed or ‘? la carte’). Children have a recreation ground, a basketball court and a soccer field at their disposal. And those who feel like getting going can choose from a thousand excursions, go in a pirogue on the river fishing with the Bozos, in the millet and sorghum fields with the farmers or else on horseback across the surrounding villages and markets.
‘You don’t feel like you are in a place that is out of the world, for Toubabu only (Toubabu meaning Whites in the local language). Here we are in a Malian structure: managed, organized and programmed by Malian people‘, says the Director, anticipating the answers to the questions going on in my mind. ‘I had you visit the oasis starting with the latest creation : the hotel is the final change made by the slow local development which started years and years ago. The first things you need to get a hotel going are water and current electricity, but here we are very far away from any electricity network and waterworks. I’m going to show you how we managed to get both‘.
Some hundred miles away from the hotel is a warehouse and, getting close to it, we can hear the sound of an engine. Obviously, it is an oscillator and it’s a big one – the kind that could turn on a concert as it actually makes it possible to light up the whole structure. The smell it gives off is very particular, though. It smells like the remains of combustion, a bit like fried food after grandma cooked cutlets, but this isn’t gas oil for sure. And here is the great discovery: the oscillator runs on organic fuel, using seed extract from a plant called Jatropha Curcas. Its oil is used as a combustible fuel source, exactly like the most ‘famous’ colza oil and sugar cane are, but the reason why this plant is more interesting is because it is a lot more respectful to the environment and less invasive than the two others. This means that considering the environment, even if the plant is to be grown intensively, it does help establishing a balance. Thus, the local cultivations such as millet, sorghum and the various homegrown vegetables cannot not get infected but they do keep producing. And this balance is highly visible here in ‘Teriya Bugu’. Big parcels of land are being grown in Jatophra, but right alongside we have small banana trees, mangoes, cereal fields and vegetables and it’s all organic and all in production.
‘I already solved the mystery about current electricity, which is 100% ecological. Now let’s see how it works with regard to water‘. So we go back near the river, crossing the cultivations and nurseries. Two series of solar panels are housed within two different enclosures. Each of them is connected to a pump and both draw water that gets stocked in two separate water tanks. One of the pumps is immersed in a ‘drilling’, collecting quality water – meant for drinking after purification through a filter – in the deep stratum. Part of this water goes through a further tank which is linked to two extra solar panels. This is where hot water for showers is being produced. The second pump is directly immersed into the river and the water it draws is then used to irrigate the fields and water the gardens.
‘Taking a holiday in our oasis isn’t only about relaxing, having fun and enjoying the comfort, set at the heart of nature. Most importantly, it is an act of support to an entire population who can actually live thanks to this structure. As many as 48 employees and thus their families – about 400 people – do live on the activity of our oasis’. Part of the hotel income gets reinvested in order to run the basic services of the village, founded with the help of Teriya Bugu. Therefore, a primary and a secondary school, a drugstore and a free health centre with its maternity and regular staff as well as a steady crop production, a beekeeping and a stable with asses and horses are in service there.
I could tell you what Father Vesperien and Lemine the fisherman were saying to each other in the shadow of the ‘cailcedrat’ so many years ago. I could list the works, projects, bricks that come one after the other – but it’s probably nicer if I let you picture it all the way you like. Being on a trip in Mali, stopping in Teriya Bugu, living a few days within this project is the most natural way one may choose to regenerate and contribute to local development.
Translated from Italian by Pauline Branchereau