Thierno Maadjou Bah, one of the Slow Food Award 2001 winners, died on Wednesday July 10. Thierno was traveling to work in Mamou, a town not far from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, when he was involved in a tragic car accident. We will all greatly miss the enthusiasm and good-natured industry of Thierno, who recently converted a room in his house into a Slow Food office and who, in partnership with the co-winner of last year’s award, Mamadou Muchtar Sow, was busy setting up a Slow Food Convivium in Conakry. Sadly, all we are left with is the legacy of his projects and commitment. Our heartfelt condolences go to his family and colleagues.
Thierno Maadjou Bah, born in 1944, and Mamadou Mouctar Sow, born in 1952, are both originally from the Futah Djallon region, which sprawls across Mali and Guinea. They belong to the Peulh ethnic group and come from farming families of average means who own vegetable plots, banana plantations, or small arable or livestock farms.
During early childhood, they witnessed the exploitation of colonial administration, which forced their parents to give the state all their harvested crops (rubber, néré, pepper) and animal produce (milk, eggs, livestock and so on). They were profoundly affected by that difficult period, and their family upbringing made them aware of their socio-economic and cultural environment, so they quickly recognized the vital importance of the néré tree (Parkia biglobosa), which has pharmacological properties and numerous applications as a food. Many parts of the tree are used, from roots to leaves, bark, flowers and seeds, from which a traditional seasoning ingredient called soumbara is obtained.
With the hope of one day being able to help improve the rural population’s difficult living conditions, the two finished their studies, Thierno in agricultural economics and Mamadou in agriculture. They remained aware of the importance of conservation and became the main coordinators of an action plan to protect the néré tree, a symbol of biodiversity and key to survival for the peoples of Futah Djallon.
Thierno Maadjou Bah won a scholarship to study journalism in the German Democratic Republic after graduating in Conakry. He specialized in economics and also undertook a work experience program at Radio Berlin International.
After returning to Guinea in 1973, Thierno Maadjou was taken on as a staff writer at the Ministry of Information but to escape the repressive regime, he asked to be transferred to the Ministry of Rural Development at Labé.
This was finally an opportunity to get involved in agriculture and communication in a rural area. The economist became a farmer and set up, amongst other things, composting projects that relieved the town of Labé of organic waste disposal problems. In addition, he organized a scheme to spread cultivation of potatoes, maize, beans and manioc without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which resulted in increased yields.
In 1990, Thierno Maadjou was appointed manager of the radio station Radio Rurale de la Moyenne Guinée and inspired the first broadcasts on how to farm using modern methods, at the same time educating listeners about conservation and fire prevention on the savanna. He also energetically campaigned against the use of néré wood as a fuel for brick ovens.
Mamadou Mouctar Sow studied agronomy at the University of Conakry after completing his high school diploma in agriculture and animal husbandry. From 1975 al 1979, he continued his studies at the University of Santa Clara in Cuba, where he graduated in livestock engineering.
After returning to Guinea he worked at the Bureau d’Etudes du Ministère de la Pêche et de l’Elevage (Research Center of the Ministry of Fisheries and Animal Husbandry), studying feed for ruminant animals. He then moved to the Ferme Agricole de Kolaboui (Kolaboui Agricultural Farm) at Boké, where he had worked on problems concerning the nutrition of poultry and pigs, and improving the protein level of animal feed in general. He experimented with various locally available products, including the yellow néré powder. He is a researcher in the field of animal nutrition, a member of the Comité National Ramsar for the protection of endangered species and carries out, working with farmers, experiments to safeguard plants used as fodder and the néré tree.
The néré tree
Parkia biglobosa is a tree that can reach 20 meters in height, grows in sandy soils, has an umbrella-shaped crown, and a long, flat, slightly curved fruit pod. The tree is now threatened by indiscriminate felling for firewood, or deforestation by farmers seeking land for planting.
The néré tree has outstanding food value as well as pharmacological properties. The flesh of the fruit is rich in carbohydrates (80 percent), minerals (calcium, phosphorus) and vitamins (A and C). Its seeds – rich in protein, fats and carbohydrates – are used as a condiment or seasoning. In the past, they were used as a substitute for coffee. Various parts of the tree, well-known for its properties as a diuretic, laxative and vermifuge, are used to treat illnesses such as dysentery, intestinal parasitosis, bronchitis, asthma, ulcers, rickets, toothache, sore throat and dermatitis. It can also be used as a dye. The dried seeds are used as fodder for animals. When boiled, fermented and ground to a paste, called soumbara, they constitute the basic seasoning ingredient for the local cuisine. Their fundamental role in nutrition derives from their high content of protein, vitamins of the B group, minerals and trace elements. Finally, the tree also improves the quality of the soil.
Soumbara versus Maggi stock cubes
Soumbara, the néré seasoning, is made by first fermenting and then roasting, grinding and sieving the tree’s seeds. The resulting paste is kneaded and divided into small balls. It is nutritious, with a high protein and energy content.
Guinea is the third poorest country in the world, despite having abundant agricultural and food resources. Biodiversity in the area is still almost intact and the people have a natural tendency to preserve their traditions. Unfortunately, poverty and the struggle for survival, on top of economic pressure from foreign multinationals, are causing some traditional locally grown food produce to disappear. This is further impoverishing the farming community whose existence is inseparably linked to these products.
In particular, Nestlé, the producer of Maggi stock cubes, is causing significant problems. Maggi cubes have swamped the market all over Guinea. They are sold very cheaply and are available everywhere so the consumption of soumbara has dropped dramatically. But people do not choose Maggi cubes because of the price. Although very cheap, it is not competitive with the traditional seasoning ingredient, but other social and cultural factors come into play.
To promote Maggi stock cubes, Nestlé has adopted various strategies supported by massive advertising. Every day, radio, local television and newspapers carry commercials translated into the three national languages. At weekly markets, girls with bullhorns shout slogans advertising Maggi cubes, handing out T-shirts and tote bags to ram home the message. The best salesgirls can even win a trip to Mecca. Nestlé also makes modest donations towards the building of schools, health clinics and mosques. Opinion polls have recently been carried out among the population. Although consumption of Maggi cubes has increased – there are cubes for every taste – at the expense of soumbara, even for making traditional rice-based dishes like lafidi or foutti. In other cases, rural residents continue to use both soumbara and other, more natural and cheaper, traditional ingredients. As a rule, however, it seems to be old people who use it. Soumbara is considered a food ‘for poor people’, whereas Maggi cubes are ‘modern’.
Owing to Maggi monopoly, the economy of rural communities is changing. Women who used to collect néré fruit and make soumbara have had to start growing vegetables. But this earns much less money than soumbara used to when it was widely used in the community.
Women at work
From the moment they first met, the two experts understood each other for both feel passionately about the same problems. One tradition of the Peulh people is for members of the same family to gather and discuss their plans for farming. It was during one of these family meetings that Bah and Sow met and while looking round the fields, they discovered that all the biggest trees, including neré trees, had been cut down, even though the including neré trees were protected in their village. They began to think about this problem and also talked about it on the radio in agriculture and ecology broadcasts. In 1996, the two set up a reforestation program to protect trees that were valuable for humans, such as the neré, and for animals, such as fig trees. Figs produce a very small fruit in Guinea because of the lack of water. Their fruit is dried, ground and then mixed with other animal fodder. More than 3,000 trees growing in fields of the cereal crop, fonio, (Digitaria exilis), have been saved and protected in the last five years. The project covers an area of about 10 hectares in the district of Ley Miro, in the prefecture of Pita. A further 100 hectares in the same region has been declared a protected area.
Thierno and Mamadou have also founded an NGO, the Association des Jeunes Volontaires pour le Développement de Timbi (Association of Young Volunteers for the Development of Timbi). Timbi is the flat zone in the region of Futah Djallon, where a tree nursery with 20,000 saplings has been set up.
At the same time, the two have carried out education and information programs on soumbara. Over the past two years, they have met women’s organizations interested in processing neré seeds into soumbara and selling it. Thanks to this program of information and education, soumbara production has recovered and as many as seven groups of women are once more involved in this traditional occupation. In the year 2000, they put seven tons of neré seeds onto the market, some of it already processed to soumbara.
Motives for the Slow Food Award
In isolation and without resources, Mamadou and Thierno have created a project that protects and recovers a basic feature of the culture, traditions and economy of the third-poorest country in the world, in competition with a model of multinational capitalism like Nestlé. The Slow Food Award will help the two to emerge from the isolation in which they have worked so far, enabling them to further develop their project.
Claire Panzer is one of the international vice-presidents of Slow Food