TENKODOGO, BURKINA FASO – Some dismiss West African ‘folk wisdom’ or ‘crazy superstition.’ But the traditional beliefs of the indigenous faiths helped ensure the White Volta River flow with integrity and health for thousands of years.

Aaron Aduna discovered the enduring power of such beliefs whenever he ventured into the field. One time, at Osino, he was sent back to Accra because the river could not be approached on Tuesdays. At a natural dam at Abaala, the 500 villagers who used the dam said that it was owned and protected by a spirit they obeyed. Throughout the basin people felt that if you could see the water, you were too close – so back off.

People used to see the river as a sacred place,” he said. “Up here, the perception used to be that you can’t be on your farm and see the river. The implication was that you had to stay far enough away so you can’t pollute or erode it.

Perceptions changed with time and hunger. A rocketing population and drying climate compounded demands on water resources. As the high ground dried up, desperate people at Tenkodogo and elsewhere moved in closer to the moist and fertile soils along the river banks. When the spirits failed to punish those farmers, tens of thousands more followed. 

Change was gradual, and based on short term logic. “Because the upland was poor, people began to push in and push in until went right into the river,” recalled Peter Mbaune, a modern young ZOFA activist who now sees that “if people respected the old beliefs it would be good. It would protect the river. Now we need practical measures.

But what kind of measures? 

Aduna was under pressure from above and below to answer, fast. The banks were eroding. Pollution was growing. Demands were increasing. No one was happy. 

One measure was legal. Ghana and Burkina governments passed legislation to replace the old superstitions, mandating that people must move back from the river banks. The law was ignored, and unenforceable. Without belief and incentives it was no more than paper. 

Another measure was agricultural. The Food and Agricultural Minister wanted, from top-down, to develop a cash crop along the river basin. Sugar is a cash crop. But it is also very thirsty, and has many environmental problems associated. 

A third measure is industrial. The Trade Minister wants, also from the top, to establish the tomato factory and increase tomato production for export. But this too means more impact on the water resources, since the crop would be produced in dry season. 

Instead of telling the people what they should do with the water supply, PAGEV and Aduna tried a radically different approach. They asked stakeholder forums what their communities needed, what they demanded. It turned out that the most practical needs along the river were for fisheries, fuel wood, food, and some commodity to sell. 

Almost all of them had the same idea, which was a stabilizing riverbank plantation,” said Aduna. “It just happened they were operating separately.” The dialogues followed a patter. During meetings people realized the river is in bad shape. So what should we do? Protect it. How protect it? Plant trees. Which kind of trees? Three progressive strip layers:

First: fever trees with root structures to stabilize the banks. Behind it, people planted other acacias that grew fast and provided ample fuel wood. Finally, they cultivated guava and grafted mangoes. “They were given a choice in decision-making,” said Aduna, and this ensured that they owned the outcome and the process over time.”

No one knows what might have happened with tomato or sugar plantations and factories here. But there was a demand, a market, a distribution channel and a factory already in place. The Integrated Tamale Fruits Company needed organic mangoes for a juice it planned to export to Europe. Their collective decision-making may prove far more acute, and sustainable, than industrial or agricultural policy handed down to them from above.

To date, the project has established eight nursery sites of 27, 000 tree seedlings, mostly in Burkina Faso. It has planted 6, 500 grafted mangoes, guavas, and lemon seedlings.  Slowly, a new faith is taking root along the White Volta River banks, based on trust, long-term security and shared incentives. It didn’t happen overnight, but may endure.

You can take any decision very fast and meet the deadline,” said Aduna. “But does it meet the test of time? Nothing last forever, but some longer than others. And what happens in our system is that once you decide ‘this is what I’m supposed to do,’ if anything is happening, you build ownership into it so that people take care of it.”

True, nothing lasts forever. But as the roots sink down, and the trees bear fruit, the ancient spirits may return to guard the river once more.
Written by Jamie Workman