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Not Just a Desk Job: Women, Rice Cultivation, and the Office du Niger

When the French arrived in West Africa, not only did they manage to build the largest railway span in the region - from Bamako, Mali to Dakar, Senegal - but they also created the largest irrigation works in all West Africa, at the Office du Niger, in Segou. The day before the trekkers' departure on that rail line from Bamako to Dakar, Abeja and I took some time to visit Segou and see the office for ourselves.

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The Office du Niger
When we arrived after a three-hour bus ride from Bamako, the sun was starting to hit its peak heat. Yakare Dagnon welcomed us and led us to the "Office du Niger Direction de l'Amenagement et du Development Rural." Here, Madame Bore Fatim Traore, a specialist in women and development, smiled and greeted us. "Ah-nee-sogamay," she said, greeting us in Bambara. She had us enter and sit in the cool of her air-conditioned office. On the wall behind her was a large quilt with embroidered animals. Each animal had its name in Bambara embroidered next to it.

Madame Traore holds responsibility for five different "production zones" that the Office du Niger oversees: Niono, Molodo, Masina, N'Debougou, and Koupoumari. She says proudly, "I work to help women increase their political activity," and points out different projects such as "microcredit lending" and "group production" that have helped improve women's standard of living. "Before, the women didn't have land of their own to plant. Now they have the rice culture and their own land," she explained. About 10,000 women, roughly 2,000 per village, participate in the group activities, and Madame Traore gets into the field whenever she can get away from the mountain of paperwork in her inbox at the office.

Vocabulary Box

irrigation - the bringing of water to farms by digging water canals or installing sprinklers
status - how well and what a project is doing, or a person's rank of class in society.
arable - able to be farmed
cultivator - a person who does the work for growing crops
predominantly - almost all

Madame Traore keeps in contact with individual women in the villages who have assumed leadership roles in the day-to-day activities. For example, Madame Traore told us about a woman Mary Odeen, the animatrice (leader) in Biwani, which is 55 kilometers away from Segou. Mary Odeen manages the women's group there. She is responsible for handing out information about child nutrition and breastfeeding, the environment, and health which the Office du Niger provides. They're not only interested in crop production, but in the status of the group's living as a whole. Mary presents the information in an easy to understand format. For example, she plays cassette tapes of the native language, Bambara, where a voice explains the topics. Women can listen if they don't know how to read (this is very likely in outlying villages: five years ago, only 23% of the women over the age of 15 could read and write, and the average literacy rate for all Malians was 31%).

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The local textile industry at work
The Office du Niger originally started out as a French colonization company. Mali became a French colony in 1883 and to this day, places like Segou and Mopti still have remnants of French-inspired architecture and the "feel" of French towns. "When the French came, they planted cotton and cereal," explained Madame Traore. In fact, France's main interest in Mali was its labor force and arable land. It wanted to dominate the production of cheap cash crops, like cotton, and export them exclusively to France. Cotton continues to be a large crop in Mali. In Djenne, I saw raw unspun cotton for sale in the market, and a tailor I met created some beautiful cotton cloth skirts for me. Cotton, however, is one of the most labor-intensive crops, and furthermore, cotton production is the single greatest user of pesticides worldwide.

After Independence in 1960, the Office du Niger's focus changed to include sugar cane and maraichage (market gardening), or small-scale vegetable production. But the Office's stars were rice cultivation and the cultivator of rice, who are predominantly women. "Women," says Madame Traore, "are the ones who plant. The men don't ever plant, just because it's not the custom." She continued to explain that the rice is grown primarily for consumption in Mali but some of it is also for export.

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Abeja at the banks of the Niger River
Madame Traore started with the Office du Niger in 1982, moved to the Macina office in 1987 and is now at the newly renovated office in Segou. Advisors from the Netherlands and the Basque Country heavily funded that organizational restructuring. France doesn't seem to have as much interest nowadays in Mali crop production. However, the Office du Niger continues to provide a way for women living near the great Niger River to take advantage of their strength as a group and elevate their status. With the help of Madame Traore, these women take on the mission of cultivating rice, cotton, and sugar cane, harvesting these crops, and bringing their excess to sell at the market. We wish them well!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - French Influence Does Not A Paris Make
Team - Why Have the Gods Deserted Me?!? - The Magic of the Book, Segu
Monica - Keeping Up with the Fulani - Jewelry, Parties, and Romps in the Forest
Kavitha - From Word of Mouth to Word from the Wise
Making a Difference - The Struggle of Women Worldwide

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