It’s a mildly cool dawn. I can hear the swish swish of our neighbors hand broom as the mother of the house sweeps the dust from her front yard and into the street. Then she sweeps the dust on the street in front of her humble home. Something she does daily. To keep the red dust down and her home neat and tidy.
Children dressed in reddish beige pinafore school dresses, the color of the dust, are emerging with their small backpacks on. Barefoot and ready for school. The bird chorus has begun and the ubiquitous cocks of the continent are crowing. In the distance I can hear the sound of humanity in the town rising, just as our village is rising, to a new dawn. Everyone is rising.
We too are rising from our home in a village on the the outskirts of the town of Abomey, Tongo. Our rising starts with the sound of church bells ringing. Sometimes deep and full and at others there is a clanging, course and raw, sound of metal on metal. It matters not. It’s all the Christian call to prayer. Feels like any faith based hamlet anywhere in the world. Every day starts with the bells. It’s a supremely simple and wholesome tradition. And it is all over Africa. But it is not alone. It stands as the twin brother alongside the Adhan – the Moslem call to prayer that means to listen, be awakened and informed – in the African towns and villages. Somehow neither sounds interferes with the other. And the people simply accept one another’s faith choice. Or so it seems.
We have slept under a single cotton cloth on top of a hard foam mattress, just the way all Africans in equatorial climates do. We have washed with a small bowl, no larger than a grown mans hand, that one uses to scoop splashes of the water from a larger bucket in a washing area. We throw splashes of water all over us and soap up before washing it all off again. Cold refreshing water to combat the heat and sweat of the equatorial climate. Takes barely a few minutes. Then it’s done.
There is no wastage here. Water is scarce. And it’s a daily labour to bring water to the household. We see that everywhere we go. Women and children mostly, and on occasion men on motorcycles, carrying water in containers from the well with their pumps, or from the rivers, to their villages. Every drop collected and used and then replaced. Day by day.
And if it’s not water being carried, then it’s fuel. Large bunches of wood carried on heads or small bags of charcoal. Collected and burnt for fuel everyday, all the time. Fuel for the fire to bake bread or prepare meat or cook flour in oil. And everything else in between. This is the fuel for fires to eat. Not to create warmth. Or even security. Just to eat.
The water, the fuel, the sweeping and eating and singing and rising and sleeping. This is village life. Life so simple and so ordered that one wonders what the consumerist capitalist market offers this organic and complete order. What can be offered to this content and complete community? Nothing at all. Or rather nothing but hell I say. Nothing but hell.
I am conflicted and confused. I know there is no way out for the villagers. And that their dependence on market forces grows almost despite themselves. I used to only see poverty in the village. And I still see that. But less so. Now I see a simplicity and wholeness and quality of life in the day to day doings of the people. It’s clean and good and complete. People are supremely ordered and at peace and content. Seemingly without any aspirations of the trappings that I thought they may want. Resistant even to market forces. Holding on to their traditions and their lifestyle. So much so that we constantly hear stories of locals who refuse to take up the few jobs on offer. Preferring to stay home in the village. Protect the little they have and all that it means to them.
Makes sense to me. There is an alternative economy here. One that needs to be supported in its natural rhythm and way. One that needs to be admired and honored for its value system that says each one holds another and we are who we are through others. I am compelled to search for ways to support and grow this lifestyle organically, as it were. Not by the flood of cheap Asian products which destroys local product and lifestyles. But through enhancing the trade of African products to Africans. Village by village, country by country, across the entire continent. Inside me I feel a nationalism, or continentalism, rising in defense of the African market and way of life. A sense that this needs protection. Admiration even. It’s the future for Africa. And maybe even of humanity in the age of climate change and the era of the anthropocene.
A future where the household basic needs must be placed at the heart of all economic planning and social protection. From the dawn prayer to the sweeping of dust. From the water well to the fuel needs. From trade of one home with another, to one village with another, across cities and countries. This must be the foundations of all economic planning and activity. It requires a protectionist central state, not a developmental state. Knowing that development will come through protecting the home market and the African way. It requires a technology that is appropriate such that the digital revolution is an aid to assist in primary health, education, small scale agriculture and primary production and to facilitate trade of goods to markets. Where African artistry and innovation is protected and respected and admired for its creativity and ingenuity. Whether it’s the way plastic bottles are used and reused to carry ground nuts. we should celebrate that. Or the way hesian bags melted with wax from maas boxes to create patches to fix punctured tyres. we should celebrate that. Or the countless examples of the way Africans live appropriately in the twenty first century. Using and reusing damaged goods. Making useful goods where there once was waste. Leaving scarcely a drop of a carbon footprint behind. Surely this has lessons for all humanity. Surely the future is not the straightjacket of the dependency theorists model and of how this can never be done.
We need to start again. Start from the bottom up. We it’s basic needs of the homestead and the village and the towns. Start with asking how we can use the forces of progress to grow the primary economy and social competence of the people. Through them and not despite them. Use the worlds innovation to protect and grow and enhance the African values and African production and distribution systems. Surely there are lessons here that have value for all the world.
In saying all this I know I will stand accused of being an idealist and romanticist. I know that the devil is in the detail of how to support and grow the African economic future in ways that protect its organic goodness. But for me Africa has opened my eyes to what’s left of its inner goodness. It’s wholeness. It’s community. And it shines. Warmly. And needs to be supported. It has lessons for all of us.