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The Book of Genesis: Why scarcity isn’t new

NOW there was a famine in the land ….So Isaac went to the valley of Gerar and dwelt there…. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of springing water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s servants, saying, “The water is ours”.

So he called the well Esek, Contention, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over it also; so he called it Sitnah, Enmity.

• The Book of Genesis 26: 1, 17-21 The Book of Genesis is a vivid reminder that fights over water, or the Green War in environmentspeak, isn’t new.

The Qur’an also offers an equally powerful picture of concern over natural resources. One of its verses can even be interpreted as encouraging the people to overthrow rulers who ignore environmental degradation, according to The Poets XXV1: 151- 2: “Obey not the command of the wasteful who spread corruption on the earth.”

In modern times, we now talk of climate change (Shhhhh, but not about bringing down regimes!) in the face of mounting worries over environmental decay all around us – even in areas we least suspect are suffering from bouts of ecological decay. It always starts small, with everyone almost at harmony.

In Chad, Lake Fitri was once the site of a Garden of Eden-type legend, where pastoralists and farmers co-existed peacefully. The sultan would ask his farmers to prepare corridors for the herders’ animals to pass along, on their way to the lakeside grass. In return, the herders respected the customary authorities and traditions of the lakeside farmers.

In Senegal, too, the herders “live in symbiosis”.

In Burkina Faso, the head of a women’s group tells how “in our grandparents’ time there was an abundance here, and people from different villages tried to outdo each other in kindness. Today it is different, because there isn’t enough rain, the harvests are bad and the men are less kind”.

Yet the real picture wasn’t all that of a community at peace all times. Around Lake Fitri it was “impossible to control the cows completely when they went through those lush (maize) fields; sometimes an animal would break loose away from the herd and pull out some leaves or stems”, which would provide an ideal excuse for farmers to demand compensation.

Behind such scenes, it was equally clear that across the Sahel the situation had since deteriorated. What were once isolated incidents of hostility had become commonplace.

Bouki the hyena, the resourceful character in many Wolof stories in Senegal says: “The greediest one of all is the poor man.” How come, you might ask? “Ask him for something, he is bound to say no.’

And when the Sahelian poor are forced “to say no” it is the first indication that social and political mechanisms are failing, and that insecurity is eroding traditional means of containing and defusing competition over resources.

And as the region sinks deeper into environmental bankruptcy, the poor are increasingly being “forced to say no”. Across the Sahel, the law was often used to defend the wealthy. Pastoralists, in particular – known as men without land – often lost out in land disputes: their way of life didn’t fit in with the demands of the modern state.

Women, too, frequently found land-tenure codes and traditions weighing heavily against them; they are often the last to be given access to a plot in the family landholdings and what they do have is rarely of good quality. Again, this is not new, nor unique to the Sahel.

As one Mauritanian proverb goes: “Land is a father who does not recognise his daughters.” But as social disruption spread across the Sahel, leaving increasing numbers of women as heads of households, their need for land to grow food became ever more acute.

Successive governments across the Sahel have exacerbated than relieved pressures on fragile lands. Cases of state intervention in favour of one particular ethnic group in west Sudan, for example, are rife elsewhere; of the economic sector in Mauritania and in favour of large-scale, mechanical farming in west Sudan.

“Our land is lost to the owners of farms,” says a wealthy former pastoralist, now a ‘guest’ at a resettlement camp.

In Tanzania today, we still live in peaceful co-existence across ethnic divides.

Once when filling out some immigration forms in a neighbouring state, I willfully filled in a provision asking me to state my tribe with “Tanzanian”, to which the supervising official wasn’t amused, and demanded that I state what ‘tribe’ I belonged to back home.

“Listen,” I tried to reason lamely, “… my father is a crossbreed between two tribes … so is my mother … what does make me?”. “Fill in your dad’s tribe,” the immigration guy retorted, almost fighting an urge to roar at me.

Chagga – that’s the tribe I scribbled, involuntarily. “Yes,” the official said, triumphantly, “… and you look every inch like them….”

The nearest I ever went – in my whole short life – of being a near- Chagga tribesman was when I befriended one of their daughters; if it weren’t for an abrupt transfer, I would have probably ended up marrying her; but it was to transpire, fell out due to increasing “distance challenges” as people would put it these days.

Not because we belonged to different tribes, though! Next time you find yourself at cross-purposes over a communal well, think twice before evoking tribal sentiments.

For a sheer statistical ‘dose of sanity’ some sanity, over 40 per cent of young people below 40 years today do not speak vernaculars – because there aren’t any ‘mother tongues’ these days.

Even fewer are the wells of springing waters like the one at biblical Gerar. Time to think conservation, not unmitigated consumption..

Cell: 0712122128 Email: shanimpinga@gmail.com

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Author: James Mpinga

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