A changing world seen through a rural African lens

In a dry sandy landscape with scattered palm trees, a group of Malian villagers, including their Chief and some young boys, are in the early stages of building a hospital from concrete breeze-blocks.

A new book telling the story of one African village over 35 years shows how shifts in global culture, technology and climate are changing even some of the remoter parts of the planet.

Professor Camilla Toulmin first went to Dlonguébougou, a remote farming community in the dry Sahel region of central Mali, in the early 1980s. She was doing field work for the International Livestock Centre for Africa (now ILRI), spending two years living in a mud hut collecting data and talking to the villagers, while working alongside them in the fields.

She studied the family structure that made up the village, where people live in large households up to 180 strong, farming a communal field together, and filling a big collective granary.

“Faced with multiple risks and uncertainties, these domestic groups offer significant mutual support and social insurance, in exchange for contributions in kind and cash. These large households stand in stark contrast to our own domestic arrangements, where many people live isolated lives,” said Camilla, Professor in Practice at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.

She turned her research into a PhD, and then a book – Cattle Women and Wells: Managing Household Survival in the Sahel (OUP 1992). Since then, she has returned to Dlonguébougou every few years to keep in touch with friends and to find out what was happening in the village, sometimes taking her children with her. 

Two years ago, with funding from the Open Society Foundation, Camilla decided to return to Dlonguébougou once more to do more in depth research on how life has changed. This month she published a book - Land, Investment, and Migration: thirty-five Years of Village Life in Mali (OUP 2020) - charting how the village has evolved, and how this reflects changes in the wider world.

“One of the big changes is a real erosion of collective values. There has been a shift from a strong collective approach to farming to much more individualism. While households still farm a communal field, many individuals now farm a big sesame field alongside. 

“People are more interested in shopping and buying stuff for themselves rather than for the wider group. They have enthusiastically picked up new technology, with lots of mobile phones and over 150 solar panels, generating power for shops, fridges, lighting, music, and a whole variety of other activities.”

The village has also been impacted by the rush by richer nations to buy up land and resources in Africa.

“A Chinese sugar cane plantation has been established 30 km away, evicting hundreds of farmers from their land. These farmers are now pouring into areas around the village looking for places to farm. So Dlonguébougou has gone from being land abundant to facing land scarcity.”

This has altered the balance between cropping and livestock around the village, dramatically reducing soil fertility and crop yields.

“Traditionally, villagers kept soils fertile by bringing livestock onto their fields overnight during the dry season, enriching the soil with dung. But now that pastures have been ploughed up, livestock graze further away from the village and so can’t often get back at night. This shows how a land grab can have major consequences in areas far distant from grab itself.”

Camilla’s research was also affected by what was happening thousands of miles away from Mali. The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in 2011 meant she had to change her plans to spend long periods in the village.

“Many of Gaddafi’s bodyguards were Tuareg from Northern Mali. When he was toppled, they returned home, bringing guns and vehicles with them, in a bid to gain independence for Azawad, the name they give northern Mali,” Camilla explains.

An alliance of jihadist groups conquered Northern Mali and then moved into the central region where the village of Dlonguébougou is situated. Government officials and foreign nationals are a target for these groups, so Camilla had to carry out much of her research at a distance, and rely on her Malian research assistant, Sidiki Diarra, who had helped with her original project 40 years ago.

Climate change has taken its toll across the region. “There is more rain, which is an improvement, but the rainfall is more extreme, often falling in torrents, which cause flooding and is much less useful to crops. So yields are lower and more uncertain.”

And while improved child survival means the population of the village has trebled to 1600 since Camilla’s first visit, many people are now leaving to go to towns and cities, finding life in the village too hard. Those that remain are looking for ways to earn cash to supplement their income from farming.

In her final chapter Camilla discusses what could be done to help villages like Dlonguébougou prosper in an uncertain future, arguing that large, high profile infrastructure projects aren’t necessarily the best option.

“The Malian Government is very modernist, always wanting to build another dam and focus on grand irrigation schemes, but I argue that money could be better spent on helping small scale farmers to improve systems that already exist.

“No village is an isolated entity. The story of Dlonguébougou is both a story of resilience and of the slow collapse of traditional systems under pressures from outside. While the structure of the large domestic group still stands, much of the glue holding it together is thinning, and it is hard to imagine these big groups will survive the next 35 years.”

Camilla is now planning a companion project in the UK studying rural life in the borderlands of North West England over the past 40 years to explore the interplay of population, climate, policy, and technology. 


Land, Investment, and Migration: Thirty-five Years of Village Life in Mali is published by Oxford University Press, which is also republishing Camilla’s original book on life in the village, Cattle, Women and Wells: Managing Household Survival in the Sahel. 

Back to News