Somena, Mali, June 9, 1998, Location Scouting
takes us to his home village on a hill over the Niger near Djenné.
We have strenuous days behind us, talking to experts in the capital
and visiting cattle breeders, herdsmen and
farmers in the country. Now, Mohammed, our guide and translator,
wants to introduce us to his family, especially to his grandfather
Boubacar. Boubacar is the Marabout (Eldest of the village) of Somena.
It is oppressively hot in this Peul-village of about 50 quadrilateral
houses, built with dirt bricks. In no time, the whole clan is gathered
around us. We get chairs, while the locals squat on the mats on
the clean swept floor. Nobody speaks French and we look at each
other like cows. One of Mohammed's aunts steps out of the house
with a calabash full of milk. It's the most important gift that
can be offered to a guest. But I know and smell that the milk is
sour, like it is in every African village. I muster up my courage
and decline, pointing helplessly to my stomach. I am aware that
I am committing an affront, and am curious as to how my hosts will
In a few seconds, their confusion is over. Their faces brighten
with the realization that what may seem very ordinary to them,
may appear strange to the foreigners. (One year later, when Hamadoun,
Ly and Mohammed came to Switzerland, they refused as if it were
the most natural thing to do, to eat cheese and several vegetables
- things they don't eat in Mali.)
Practice in Patience
Dori, Burkina Faso, November 20, 1998, start of the shooting.
We are driving from the capital Ouagadougou 300 km (186.41 mi)
north to Dori, the beginning of the shooting and as well towards
a lesson in problem solving the African way. Dori is a small
town out in the wilds, but there is the Hotel Oasis du Sahel.
The modern Motel style for businessmen is a bad investment -
only few businessmen seem to travel the region - but we were
thankful for it reko-Arbeiten in June.
Aboudramane Ouedraogo, the hotel manager, is sitting in his blue
Boubou in the reception and enjoys his special clientele. He reserved
de luxe rooms for us and confirmed this by fax, designing writing
paper with the hotel logo just for the correspondence with Switzerland.
But now, the air-conditioning systems in the reserved rooms are
Ouedraogo handles the calamity better than we do, trying this
this button, and finally shrugs. He
is startled when we ask him why on earth he didn't check the systems
before our arrival. Silence. Then Aboudramane Ouedraogo says with
finality: "There is no point in running after the problems,
because they come to meet you."
Knowledge is Power
Dori, Burkina Faos, End of November 2998, Ly and the APESS.
We came to Dori because Dr. Boubacar Sadou Ly's "Association
for the Promotion and Breeding in the Sahel and the savanna" (APESS)
is holding its yearly assembly. Ly is problem the center, certainly
at the beginning of our project. He is the founder of APESS, which
is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
The goal of APESS is to represent the interests of the cattle breeders
in the Sahel and to guarantee the exchange of experience among
them. But Ly has bigger plans for the association. We met the veterinary,
who had studied in Paris, as a fascinating gespr"chspartener,
who tells a fascinating story about every animal of the region.
Now we get to know an ambiguous side of his character.
The assembly lasts one week and is divided into a <Counsel of
the Elders> and a <World Counsel of cattle breeders>.
The speakers, especially Ly himself, step often and with pleasure
into the circle.
We are shooting, but when Mohammed is translating, we hear clichés
that sound increasingly empty: They swear to the <revolutionary
unity of the cattle breeders> whose goal it is to breed the <positive
planetary cow> (vache positive planétaire), some sort
of an ideal cow, and the secret of the cattle breeders of the Sahel
to be shared with the people of the north. Then there is the rhetoric
about the relationship between <men and cow> und the <cow
as God's expression>. Our role becomes more and more questionable.
Speakers push forward when we are handling the camera. It is difficult
for us to judge the farmers and cattle breeders from Burkina Faso
and Mali, but on the other hand the invited white people from Europe
are transparent: Some of them are alternative farmers who believe
to be one with Africa. Are we filming a productive exchange of
ideas or are we preventing it? Is Ly trying to use us to promote
discussions he becomes transformed. While he interrupts us often
in our conversations,
correcting our "arguments of
a white person" with indications of African and traditions
and wisdom, he does exactly the contrary with his people: He rebukes
them, showing off his extensive knowledge. Ly is a Guru in both
worlds and proud of it. Finally, we break off the shooting and
wait for November 30th, the day of the assembly, when the rounds
of conversation will be stopped and the normal agenda of the APESS
general assembly takes over.
Difficulties with the Authorities
Diafarabé, Mali December 5, 1998, African version of an "Alpaufzug" (Taking
the cows to the alps for the summer)
In Diafarabé, when the Niger lies deep in its bed, it is
now the season to begin the river crossings. The cattle owners
of the region drive their animals to the river and, at a previously
set day across the waters. On the shore across there are peninsulas,
which are used as grazing land during the dry winter months. The
river also cleans the animals.
is early morning and we are at the river where thousands of animals
together. The cattle is restless; we hear the
herdsmen shout, driving the animals back to the herd. We position
the camera, and I make a mistake: I ask a herdsman who will fire
the gun for the start for the crossing. The man calls another and
consults with him, and he then walks away. I have no idea what
is going on. We wait together with the animals - one hour, two
hours. Finally we try to find Monsieur Kader, who had been introduced
to us as the adjunct chief of the village. We find him looking
feverishly for a gun. We now are told that the order to cross the
river is normally given silently. But my question about a starter's
gun was taken as a wish for a more dramatic effect. We put Monsieur
Kader under considerable stress, but we ask him to forget the gun.
We don't want to influence the way of doing things. But we cannot
stop Kader from o telling an old man to position himself at the
bank and shout so that the "order" we wished for happens
at least in this way.
It is not the first time that we upset the hierarchical
order through our requests. But a week before it happened in
we upset thing in Gountouré in Burkina Faso, in the neighborhood
of Dori. We wanted to speak to the women, who play an important
role in the household economics of the cattle breeders: they milk
the cows, watch over the milk and use it in the kitchen. But our
assistant director, Fatoumata Diallo, herself a self-confident
urban women from Ouagadougou, tells us that by the Peul "the
women are not allowed to speak". By the way, neither are men
younger than 40.
African in Bern
Bern, Switzerland, August 1999 and Bobo Dioulasso, Mali, September
Of the two cattle breeders we invited from Mali, Amadou Dicko is
the more unassuming, traditional cattle breeder. The trip to Europe
is his first and nearly everything is strange for him, but he never
looses face. Once, while we were looking at material in our production
rooms in Bern, we asked Amadou to smoke his "Gauloise Bleue" (French
cigarette make) outside. "You go down the stairs to the bottom
and go out into the street" I tell him, and show him the staircase.
Ten minutes later he is back, looking a little confused. But he
tells us only later that he couldn't find the front door because
he went way down into the cellar. When I explained what the cellars
are for he shook his head: "This doesn't exist where I come
Hamadoun Dicko is totally
different. Rich, folding one thousand franc notes and putting
them into his pocked as if they were post
it notes, he is a real farmer but also an entrepreneur and politician,
who shows that he is a well traveled man through his European clothes.
We have one problem with him: He incurs in expenses. The director
of the three star hotel where we put him and Amadou up, warns us
that he ran up a phone bill of 400 francs on his first day. I buy
him a handy and explain that he has to pay for his phone conversations.
In the next days he is non-stop on the phone: in the car, during
the breaks, and heaven knows how much in his hotel room. He directs
his business in Bobo Dioulasso, deals with business partners, and
keeps his family informed. Ten days later, his phone bill is up
to 2,700 francs. Then there is a medical bill for a routine check
("Let's see what your medicine men are capable of", says
Hamadoun Dicko). He avoids a conversation about the money question
and makes it clear that the subject his beneath his dignity. Until
the last shooting days. In the meantime we are back in Burkina
Faos, in Hamadoun's Bobo Dioulasso. We filmed him during work in
the cowshed. Hamadoun is wearing a white Boubou and a gold chain. "We
need to talk about something before we say good bye, "I tell
him. I sit down in his office and show him the receipts. "Hamadoun,
you owe me 3,600 Swiss francs. Silence. Then Hamadoun explains
that he won't pay. "You know," he says, "normally
I fly business class, but I flew coach for you. Normally, I stay
in five star hotels - I checked out the Bellevue in Bern, and under
normal circumstances that's where I would have stayed - but for
you I stayed in a small inn. I accept that, it's OK, but this, "showing
the receipts, "that is my compensation." He only accepts
to pay the phone bill of 400 francs form the first day in the hotel.
with a "Cow Philosopher"
Montezillon, Switzerland, August 25th, 1999, Ly visits Hurter's
Hamadoun Dicko and Amadou Dicko, Boubacar Ly, the veterinary from
Burkina Faso is also visiting Switzerland.
But he is here
in a quasi-official mission, as participant in the congress of
the Conseil Mondial des Eleveurs. But Ly also takes part in our
film. The "pairing" we have in mind is easier than with
the other two. We put Hamadoun Dicko together with Hanspeter Heimberg,
a big farmer from the lower land, and Amadou Dicko is together
with a cheese manufacturer in Gstaad. Boubacar Sadou Ly will meet
Ueli Hurter, biodynamic farmer in the Neuenburg. (Canton in Switzerland)
The difference between the others and Ly and Hurter is in their
heads. Ly is the Africanist, who studied in France. His "V.P.P." - "Vache
Positive Planétaire", the ideal cow, is his symbiosis
of traditional cattle breeding and the reminiscence of the 1968
world revolution. Hurter is an anthroposophist, an open and practical
entrepreneur, who is not afraid of finding gaps in the market and
We didn't prepare anything and simply introduce Hurter
and Ly to each other. That is enough. In the cowshed a lively debate
only to be continued at lunch in the restaurant. Hurter and Ly
are at the same time close and also very distant. For both of them,
the cow has a connection with the cosmos, but while Hurter considers
the cow a species and concedes individuality only to mankind, Ly
comes from a culture, where men is not above nature but one with
nature. Therefore Ly believes that a Peul can understand the "language" of
the cow, and he doesn't want to exclude the possibility that it
can also think.
Amadou goes home
Barabaoulé, Burkina Faso, first week in September 1999.
Our cameraman has a problem. We understood very quickly that the
scenes with the Amadou's stories, as the great traveler returning
from Switzerland and surrounded by curious neighbors might become
the most impressive pictures of our film. But where should the
focus of the camera be? Amadou's favorite anecdote about the Swiss
is "that they all bathe in milk because that's the custom".
(Indeed, during the festival in the cheese factory on the alp in
Gstaad, there were to local tourist taking a bath in the whey,
which would otherwise have been discarded.) Should the camera be
focused on Amadou, showing how he tells and invents stories, or
should we film the public in the circle, listening intently, sometimes
laughing aloud? We have no idea what they say. Mohammed, the interpreter
is standing next to us. But he doesn't have the time to translate.
He concentrates on what is being said and lets us know with thumbs
up that the dialogue meets with his approval.
Bern und Mopti, Mali April 2000
Mohammed is dead. In November 1999, Mohammed, 35, came to Switzerland
for a second time in order to, where necessary, translate the soundtrack
of the finished film. In January he wrote he was sick. We organize
some lab tests in Bamako. The results indicate Hepatitis type B.
On April 12th, he dies, of cancer, they say.