A few weeks ago, Gérard Bourgou was a happy man.
When he gazed out over his rice field, this is what he saw: thousands of tender shoots as green as freshly printed money. This year would be his year, he thought. This year, he thought, as he admired that expanse of green, like a postcard from Asia, he would break 17 sacks of rice per paddy.
Then the rain came.
It wasn't just any rain, but something biblical. Gérard had never seen anything like it in his 62 years living in Mani, a town in central Burkina Faso. It came down so hard and so fast and for so long that it hissed and fizzed.
The downpour had Gérard reinforcing the mud fence around his house with mud bricks. Then he hustled to a neighbor and rented his donkey cart. He piled it high with millet from his grain house. Then on went the 60 sacks of peanuts. They were his savings account. Last year, when the price crashed, he saved the peanuts to sell this year. If the water got to them, he would lose his financial cushion.
He took all of this to the nearby high school. Then he loaded the cart with mattresses and the kettles and clothes. He took every possession he owned. His last trip, his 10th, he waded through the water on his doorstep. He returned to the school, and sat under the eaves, watching his life's work drown in slow motion.
Too Much Water
Across Gérard's beautiful sea of green rice, Soangré Tindano sat on his heels, soaked to the bone, staring hopelessly at his rice paddy as it filled up like a swimming pool. He watched the water as it climbed, inch by inch, up his rice stalks.
Soangré knows rice. And he knows it loves water. But not when it's been in the ground only 30 days. If water reached the top of the stalk, it would suffocate. His income for the year would be lost. How would he feed his wife and three children? All of this was going to die unless he got off his haunches and did something.
He was especially worried about the rice he called otiano. In the local language, it means foreigner. Catholic Relief Services gave Soangré a voucher with which he bought the rice, along with 50 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, this year. He didn't know where the rice came from, but it was growing well. Now, as he sat there hugging his knees, he couldn't believe his misfortune. The first time in four decades of farming anyone had ever given him a helping hand, and a boiling brown torrent of water was now swallowing it.
Holding Out Hope
To the untrained eye, otiano looks similar to the rest of his rice. But Soangré could feel the difference between his toes. When he pulled on his gaiters (to protect himself from leeches) and waded through the warm paddy water, he could feel the root systems under his feet; they spread wider, producing more secondary roots. That would increase the yield. Next year, he said, he wouldn't bother buying the diakoabi, or small-grain rice, he had used for years. Otiano was the answer.
Otiano is really called NERICA, or New Rice for Africa. It was developed at the West Africa Rice Development Association. Compared to traditional African varieties, NERICA has more grains per head, more protein, and resists drought and pests better.
Up to his knees in water and muck, Soangré set to work scooping mud out of his rice paddy and slapping a handful of it at a time on the barrier that surrounded his plot. But he was losing the race. He couldn't slow the gallons of chocolate-colored water pouring into his paddy.
Gérard, meanwhile, was pacing in a classroom. He and his four boys—his wife died in 2000—and the 10 other relatives who live with him waited and watched the rain. But Gérard couldn't stand by and watch his life's work dissolve in the floodwaters. He waded back to his house. He was relieved to see little damage. Aside from a thunderbolt-shaped crack running down the wall of his son's room, the other buildings on his property were spared.
But what about his rice fields?
"If the water receded in three or four days, I could hope to save something," says Gérard.
But it stayed a week.
"Now I'm done for," he says.
Like many farmers here, he could see his investment rotting in front of his eyes. With the rice and fertilizer CRS had helped him buy, he thinks he could have made a bundle. Each son manages a paddy. Between all of them, they could have made more than $2,000. He lost about 2.25 acres of rice in the floods; only one paddy survived. He'll be lucky if he makes $250.
Soangré was more fortunate. He wasn't able to reinforce his dike fast enough during the flood. But friends and neighbors saw him alone in the driving rain, trying to save his tiny paddy, and they rolled up their pants and got muddy helping him. It worked. The rain stopped just short of the top of the rice.
Now he's back to work in his denim gaiters and booties and mud-splattered white shirt. He's got a lot of weeds to pull.
Help From India
Gérard doesn't even bother going to his rice fields anymore. Today he is sitting under a tree in his green sweatpants, stroking his graying goatee, looking defeated. He's a man out of ideas. And confused. Mother Nature has him baffled. All the advice his father gave him—when to sow, when to harvest—doesn't hold true anymore.
"Ehe!" he says. "[The seasons] are nothing like they used to be. Before there were signs."
His father and grandfather taught him to trust the stars. Gérard knew how to spot a certain star that told him when to start planting. When the stars formed a constellation that looked like a dabba, a short hoe used in Burkina Faso, it meant to stop planting. And when the crescent moon was angled to the right, like a woman winnowing millet, it meant there would be abundance.
But you can't count on the stars anymore, says Gérard. And there's no constellation that predicts flooding.
For the first time in days, Gérard walks out to his rice fields. The rippling green blanket of rice stalks is gone. It stinks like rotting fruit. The stalks are brown, and brittle as blown glass.
"[Going to the rice fields is] like you are going to see someone who's dying," says Emilien Namountougou, a friend of Gérard's who works for CRS' partner TinTua. "You don't have the courage to go near him."
Gérard says he doesn't have any hope of replanting. After all, the water was so high, it even drowned his rice seedlings. He lost about 2.5 acres.
But there's hope. CRS will use $400,000 to help 1,000 rice farmers, including Gérard, who lost their crop. The money will go toward seeds and fertilizer. It will also be used to repair dikes damaged in the floods.
And that's not all. CRS also hopes to work with rice research partners to introduce the farmers to new flood-tolerant rice varieties, which were developed by researchers in India to stand up to monsoon rains.
That's good news for Gérard. It might turn out to be a pretty good year for him after all.
Lane Hartill is the western and central Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.