By Bill Abrams
I have a suggestion for the U.N. Next September, when the General Assembly begins its session, don’t meet in Manhattan. Instead, go to Persuguié, Mali.
If you want to inspire the world to take dramatic and courageous action to cut global poverty in half, as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aspire to do, you need the world to see poverty where it happens. Conferences, Presidential speeches, studies, celebrities, frameworks, press conferences, panels, blogs – the stuff of this year’s UN focus on the MDGs – all have their place. But there’s no place better to talk about poverty than Persuguié.
I’ve just come back from 10 days in Mali, the fifth poorest on the UN Human Development Index of 182 nations. Only 46 percent of the population over 15 can read and write. More than one-third of its 13.4 million people live in poverty. Life expectancy there is about 50 for men and 53 for women.
Persuguié is a village with about 400 residents. When I arrived, I was introduced to the village chief, who is said to be 114 years old. When he founded the village in 1950, nearby tribesmen warned that the area was cursed with too many “djiin” – bad spirits – but he was undiscouraged.
Trickle Up, which helps women start or expand businesses as a way out of extreme poverty, will begin work in Persuguié soon; we will be the only NGO (non-government organization) present. I came here for a look at the “before” part of the Trickle Up story. A number of children had swollen bellies and copper-colored hair, often a sign of serious malnutrition. People sustained themselves by growing millet, herding goats and cattle, harvesting a mango-like fruit called sebe, and/or cutting firewood and then walking 2-3 hours to Sévaré to sell it at about 60 cents per bundle. (I write “and/or” because people usually have to have several livelihood activities in order to make a living.)
I sat on the ground with a group of about 50 villagers (curious children watching from the perimeter), as they spoke of several years of drought and their hope for a better harvest this year, their lack of money to send their children to school, of lives of poverty that repeated the lives of their parents and grandparents. The stories were similar to the ones I’ve heard, during my five years at Trickle Up, in dozens of villages in Africa, India and Central America.
We also talked about the local “hungry season,” the months leading up to the harvest, when there is little income, often coupled with higher food prices, and so people simply can’t get enough to eat every day. Just to survive, they eat one meal a day instead of two or three (and on some days have only sugared water to give their children), can be forced to migrate to distant factories, brick kilns and large-scale farms, or take on debt that can crush them.
But I’d never heard a hungry season experience like the one described in Persuguié. When food is scarce and even inexpensive millet is hard to come by, the villagers have discovered a secret store of grain. They follow the ants that have collected small mounds of millet that have fallen on the ground through the year during storage or milling. The ants store the grain underground; by discovering their hiding places, the villagers are able to recover some millet and eat another day.
No humans should ever have to live like that. And, if the world would come spend a day in Persuguié, they wouldn’t.
Bill Abrams is the president of Trickle Up, which is based in New York and works in West Africa, India and Central America. A new 18-minute documentary on Trickle Up’s work in India is featured at www.trickleup.org. This blog post is written for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which has been observed every October 17th since 1987.