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African Famine Grows on Its Fallow Farmlands

March 03, 1985|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is The Times' correspondent in Paris.

PARIS — In the 1960s, the early days of independence in Africa, many people concerned about Africa's future read and reread a book by a French agronomist warning that Africa could be heading toward disaster.

Now, in the face of terrifying famine, the book was clearly prophetic. Prof. Rene Dumont, the author, recalls that he once told a peasant schoolboy in the old French Congo, where the women do most of the farming, "If your sister goes to school, you won't have anything to eat but your fountain pen."

Dumont was not criticizing equality of opportunity for women but railing against the European school systems in Africa that created elitist Africans who turned their backs on agriculture.

For 25 years, the teachings of Dumont in that book, "False Start in Africa," have been praised and quoted throughout the continent. Several African leaders have even asked Dumont to come up with specific recommendations. But his ideas have almost never been put into practice.

African leaders have found it politically impossible to implement policies that would favor the rural countryside and weaken the power of the cities, with their elaborate elite-producing school systems.

"In 1983," Dumont said, "when I delivered a report on Senegal to President Abdou Diouf, he told me, "'Monsieur Professor, you are right. We must re-establish a better balance between the city and the countryside. But I cannot do it, because I do not have the organized political power in the rural areas to counter the organized political power of the urban areas.' "

Dumont, who will be 81 on March 13, has written more than 20 books about development in the Third World; he still spends time traveling through the African bush in search of problems and solutions. His "Stranglehold on Africa" was published in 1980, and another major work, "Starving Africa," is scheduled for September.

Dumont began his work in Indochina in 1929. He has completed research in countries as different as Cuba and Bangladesh, and for several decades after World War II he taught at the prestigious Institute of Political Studies in Paris. In 1974, he ran for president of France on an ecology platform, winning almost 340,000 votes, or a little more than 1% of the total.

In conversation, Dumont, his white hair flowing, is as lively as ever, summing up his own ideas with clarity, shaking his head in disbelief at the stupidities of bureaucrats, European and African, packing his arguments with outrageous examples of foolish decisions and foolish projects. The incessant growth of what he regards as irrelevant formal education still astounds him.

"In Dakar," he said from his crowded apartment not far from the Flea Market in Paris, "we now have 820 Senegalese who have master's degrees but no jobs. . . . You know the shops of the Round Point? At the beginning, you needed a primary certificate for the right to sell bread. . . . In the '50s, you needed a junior high school education. Now you need a high school diploma. Perhaps some day you will need a master's degree to sell bread."

Dumont believes that the present agricultural disaster in Africa comes from the failure of traditional and archaic farming methods trying to cope with the population explosion. But even more important, he believes that little has been done to solve this problem because African political leaders have continually exploited the rural areas for the benefit of the towns.

"Cities are dangerous for politicians," Dumont said. "The cities are filled with the unemployed. The cities are poor, at least for most of the people who live there. Poor cities must be fed with cheap food. The politicians fix prices for cereals from the countryside at too low a level."

The problem is compounded by the incredible pace of urbanization in Africa, drawing people from productive farm work into unproductive cities.

"In Mauritania," Dumont said, "400,000 people--one-quarter of the population--now live in the capital of Nouakchott, a city of no agriculture, of no animal-raising, of no industry. It is an artificially created capital, a city of service, of bureaucrats and businessmen. It has factories that are closed and do not function. There is a possibility that there won't be enough water for the city in 20 years. . . . The cities cannot employ. The cities cannot provide.

"What is needed in the countryside is literacy in the African language, instruction in improved farming techniques, a strategy of food production and organization of farmers into pressure groups. At present, the peasants are not a political force. But the cities do not want them to become one.

"In Mali, there was an excellent program for making peasants literate in their native language. But as soon as the program became large, the government sabotaged it.

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