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The man who defeated the desert

By: Engr. Khaled Qayum

It is a very heartwarming story. It comes from a little known country out of West Africa. The name of the country is Burkina Faso. It is a land locked country surrounded by six countries which includes Niger, Mali, Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast and Togo. The country has a rich history of being hunters – gatherers which can be traced to pre-historic times. The population is around 20 million which is quite large for a small country it’s size. The wildlife includes all the famed African animals including Elephants, lions, Cheetahs etc. The land scape consists of desert as well as tall grassy plains.

It has faced food insecurity and more food insecurity is expected in light of its high population growth rate around 3.6%. People generally speak French as it’s used to be part of the French colonization of Africa. Majority people, roughly 60% believe in Islam. Others follow Christianity and pagan beliefs.

Major part of the economy revolves around farm animals (cows, goats) which people take out for grazing in the grasslands / jungles. Of the recent there had been a change in the weather pattern. Rains were fewer and there was less of water available. Even when there was rain, the water could not be saved. It would just drain away and was absorbed by the parched land. This caused a decrease in the grasses for the animals and thus had a negative effect on the local village economy. The villagers responded by taking the animals further out in the jungle and tall grasses, which again would have a negative effect on the ecology and economy. This spelt nothing but impending disaster.

In all of this the activities of one eccentric person was notable. This person name Yaccuva (or Yaqub in Arabic vernacular). He started doing strange and unheard of things by local standards. He started digging holes in the dry red land which was left barren by over grazing and infrequent rains. These were just pits, not very deep, close to each other. They may have been roughly 2 feet deep, but then, they were many. They were all over the place. People would stop in wonder and look at these pits which apparently were serving no purpose at all, scattered all over the plains. Soon the landscape was all pockmarked and looked like a terrain from some other planet. They would ask him, but he would hardly say anything. And then people just gave up asking him. Everyone blamed it to the eccentricity of Yaccuva, who they believed always had been little strange.

Then one day they noticed something else. Instead of just digging holes he had started to collect dung. He would go around collecting the cattle droppings and make small heaps, which he would later deposit in these holes or pits. Again, this was a strange behavior. Neither of this kind of behavior had been heard or seen. The village elders had never mentioned anything like this when they would gather in the evenings to narrate the heroics of the bygone generations.

The villagers had stopped accosting Yaccuva for long, for the very reason, that one, he would not give a straight answer, and secondly, that he would just mumble away. But they still had enough curiosity to observe his eccentric behavior from a distance. Unknown to them he was also dropping seeds of trees in these holes.

Then the long awaited rains came. As the water washed away the soil, it also filled up the holes which had been dug up by Yaccuva. Previously the water would just wash or drain away and there was no way to capture or contain it. But this time the pits dug up by Yaccuva held the water.

Soon, the seeds which he had so casually dropped in these holes also began to germinate. Little green plants began to sprout. This continued and as some time went by, the area changed from red, barren land to green filled with the trees. As the trees came up, so did the birds which were chirruping in its branches. Other wild animals soon followed the suit and there appeared a jungle full of life, where desert was spreading. The big game animals also came along. This was noticed by the biologists and nature photographers who cover for Nature and National Geographic. What was the logic behind making holes and filling them up with manure? People quizzed.

It appears that Yaccuva knew all along. When the holes were filled with dung, it invited termite. Once the termite had finished with one hole, it made its way to the next adjacent hole through burrowing its way in ground. Soon the whole land was full of underground channels. It had become like a sponge. Now when the rains came the land had capacity to hold the water. It acted just as a sponge would, holding water. The seedlings which Yaccuva had dropped had enough ground water to sustain on and they soon sent shoots up towards the blue sky. The whole land became full of life, where before it was nothing but dead and deserted land.

Once, the villagers had seen the method to the madness of Yaccuva, they treated him like a saint. They also started copying his methods and what once was a stony semi-wasteland began to take shape as verdant crop fields. These simple techniques were easy to copy and the message was easy to spread through the word of mouth. This tiny West African state has rejuvenated vast stretches of scrubby soil over the past 30 odd years, proving that in some cases even the mighty forces of nature, such as desert, can be battled with some success. There is no reason why this model cannot be implemented in Pakistan to achieve similar results.

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