I first knew about Lake Faguibine back in 2009 when I wrote a short creative story showcasing the work that UNEP had done to restore the lake.
‘Lake Fa.. what?!’ I had asked Levis my boss when he told me about this Lake.
Lake Victoria, I knew. Lake Tanganyika, I knew. But Lake Faguibine?!
For several weeks, I dug in and unearthed as many facts as I could about the Lake whose claim to fame is the fact that it dried up. I learnt to my shock that that the lake had dried up in the mid-seventies, before I was born.
What! I wrote in a tiny brown notebook that was always in my breast pocket.
So what causes a lake to just dry up? I wondered. Well, it doesn’t ‘just’ dry up. The people who live near the lake plus those who live near the rivers that pour into the lake are mostly to blame for stifling and strangling the lake.
Recently, seven years after my first encounter with Fagubine, I decided that that it was time to pay this lake a visit again. But when I dusted away the cobwebs that had gathered in my Faguibine notes and contacted Mr Google for several updated answers, I realized that Fagubine was more than facts and statistics narrated by people like me, most of whom are far far away.
Many of the journalists and environmental experts who write about Fagubine may be familiar with the letters (cold data) of the dry lake through the internet and literature reviews, but they definitely don’t know the spirit and soul of Fagubine.
The spirit and soul of Fagubine. Does such a thing even exist? I wrote this question in my brown notebook.
The spirit and soul of Fagubine refers to the Malian people who have lived adjacent to the lake for centuries. They have sapped and fished from its waters. Felt its fresh scent.
As children, they raced along the lake’s shores; as youth, they jumped into sturdy canoes that took them into the deeps of the lake for joyous fishing expeditions; as adults, they continued with the fishing but when their years advanced further, they took great joy in simply gazing at the orange rays of the setting sun.
Moussa Coulibaly is one such person. I met him in one warm morning in Tunis during an event for the World Social Forum in 2015. I had known him for a decade via email but this is the first time that we were meeting in person. We were both members of the Global Independent Media Network (Indymedia), a movement whose revolutionary inclined members definitely know the first name of Che Guevara and the birthday of Thomas Sankara, two icons of revolution.
Moussa was able to unlock for me a little bit of Lake Fagubine’s spirit. As a Malian, he could blow a bit of the Lake’s scent my way so that I could catch its whiff instead of just unearthing its data.
Although his eyes had the calm blaze of the revolutionary in him, his voice was calm as he explained, ‘Le système constitue pour le Mali une immense ressource pour la lutte contre l’insécurité alimentaire. Il regorge d'immenses potentialités agricoles, pastorales, halieutiques et sylvicoles.’
Because he said these words in his calm, slow manner, I was able to understand half of what he was saying. I have an on and off relationship with French despite my regular vows that I will stabilize this relationship.
Basically, Moussa was telling the utter importance of the Lake Faguibine System in such critical matters like food security.
Nodding keenly as I was understanding very word he was saying, I continued listening to him, ‘autrefois le lac était appelé le grenier du septentrion d’autant plus qu’il a servi à nourrir une bonne partie des populations du nord des céréales et du sud des produits de la pêche et de l’élevage. Ces produits étaient même exportés vers certains pays voisins en Mauritanie pour la plupart et en Côte d’ivoire, Burkina et le Ghana.’
For all of you non-French speakers out there, Moussa was saying that at one time, Mali used to export cereals to countries like Ghana, thanks to Lake Faguibine. Then it dried up. The waters fled and took with them the priceless benefits that cling on their wings.
Why did this Lake dry up?
Since I hadn’t been able to ask Moussa this question while in Tunis, I posed it in an email that I sent him a few weeks later.
Although he was from Timbouctou, 80 kilometres east of Lake Fagubine Moussa’s mother was a Touareg from the Lake Fagubine region, so he had visited this area several times.
‘David John!’ Moussa’s response to my email came within an hour, ‘is good to read your email. You can call me on +22376...’ At the end of his brief email were the words, La où s’abat le découragement, s’élève la victoire des persévérants.
After wondering what those words meant, I bought airtime using MPESA, Kenya’s famous mobile money transfer service and dialled the numbers.
‘Is dead’ Coulibally said after the initial awkward pleasantries because my French was as bad as his English.
‘Is dead,’ Coulibaly repeated in response to my question about Lake Fagubine.’
‘I go there last week, and the lake is still dead.’
After a pause, he added louder, in French, ‘le lac est mort,’ the lake is dead.
Coulibaly’s statement summed up the Lake’s soul, spirit and reality much better than Mr Google or the dusty notes in my notebook.
Lake Fagubine was dead. Period. One is either dead, or alive.
Lake Fagubine was not flowing with water, swarming with fish, teeming with biodiversity, rustling with water.. It was dead.
Can the people of Mali in particular and humanity as a whole breathe life back into it?