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The Big Book of the Scythe – Part 3

Of all the (four) parts of the ‘Big Book‘ initiative, we consider this sub-section of Part 3 the single most important.  General instructional guidelines are, after all, to be found in several books and numerous other sources on the internet, videos included.

What has to date not existed was a source dedicated specifically to the topic of scythe introduction into new regions, and one that can easily be accessed. Well, we are finally beginning to create such a space. Here the stories of  various attempts at introduction, both successful and not, will be profiled, contacts for those involved offered, and experiences shared. We begin with the now somewhat mysterious (see epilogue) story of APESS in West Africa.


A holistic introduction of scythes into Africa; an example
By Peter Vido

One of the most successful introductions of scythes into new regions during the last several decades was a project undertaken by APESS (Association for the Promotion of Livestock in the Sahel and the Savannah). Founded in 1984 in Burkina Faso by Dr. Boubacar Ly, a veterinary surgeon of Fulbe origin, the stated objective of the APESS was “to support a healthy and productive pastoral economy by combining economic and cultural development”. In 1989 the association officially became a Swiss NGO, recognized by the governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Burkina Faso is a Sahelian country in the heart of West Africa with a very dry climate. As with many other regions of this globe, it has long been plagued by a lack of feed for livestock during the rainless season, when pastures are reduced to bits of leftover dry grass containing very little nutritional value.

As in many other regions with similar climatic conditions, thousands of domesticated animals have perished here for this very reason. In parts of the Sahel specifically, the dry period can last up to 9 months. Consequently, the people and animals whose home this environment represents had to learn to survive on what may be only 4 months of productive vegetative growth. The rest of the year they need to wander sometimes long distances to seek the little that nature has still preserved.

Why the concept of storing adequate provisions had not earlier been considered  as an essential survival strategy is difficult for us Westerners to grasp because we have had a long history as cultures of insurance-oriented ‘accumulators’. The antithesis of the accumulators would be the dwindling number of tribes scattered across the globe who choose instead to “live on the edge”, taking only as little as they really need, when they need it, while relying on being highly adaptable.

Of course, in former times the semi-nomadic herders had many more opportunities to ‘flow’ with the challenges of the local climate patterns than they do today. The territory over which they could move unimpeded was considerably larger, and the livestock could weather the droughts in certain niches where survival rations were still available. However, the initial colonization by the Europeans and further exploitation by various resource-hungry nations changed much of that. The former resource base shared by millions of herders shrank considerably, and is shrinking still…  the dying of animals and impoverishment of people continues. On the whole, all of combined Western forms of ‘aid’ is nowhere near an adequate compensation for what has been taken from them, and never will be.

The APESS project represents a crisis measure, so to speak. It was initiated mainly to address the chronic shortages of livestock feed along with resulting challenges, and seems to have accomplished its mandate remarkably well. Furthermore, it proceeded in a manner unique to what we often refer to as “development projects in the Global South”. The organization has been self-managed by Africans, according to their own criteria and cultural values.

As stated above, the objective was to help re-create a “healthy and productive pastoral economy” so far as it is still possible. To clarify what that phrase means in this case, we best consider the philosophy of Dr. Ly, whose wisdom, vision, and dedication was probably indispensable to the special sort of success this project achieved. Right from the start, and during the following years under his role as the ‘foundation rock’, APESS put utmost emphasis on the psycho-cultural aspects of livestock production. To paraphrase his words: “Every Sahelian pastoralist is culturally sensitive to knowledge and beauty; thus if new information can wrap knowledge in beauty, and is then presented to the caretakers of livestock at their doorstep, they will be touched…”

Dr. Ly was not talking of useless glittery ‘beauty’. He undertook the introduction of a holistic system of securing nourishment for his peoples’ livestock. Many cows in the Sahel now produce milk for the greater part of the year; hence calves and children can grow well. Surplus milk and breeding stock can be sold which in turn enhances the the owners’ economic viability.

Yet, Dr. Ly was mindful to avoid trading cultural values for the many of the ‘economic advantages’ offered by Western technology – as all too often has been the case. With him at the helm of the philosophical underpinnings, the people were touched. The APESS activities expanded from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger to other neighboring countries including: Cameroon, Senegal, Chad, Benin, Republic of Central Africa, Mauritania, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Sudan. Beyond its initial intent of introducing the concept of animal fodder production and storage, the association gradually took on a complementary role of an educational institution, offering courses in reading, writing, agricultural economics and the role of women in society. By 2004, APESS had helped more than ten thousand people learn to read and write. To encourage reading and provide useful content, APESS began publishing a magazine (“Jawdi Men”) in 1993, to communicate its vision of “generating among pastoralists [the] attitudes such as courage, perseverance, trust, and consideration for the interests of others”.

Why I profile this story in connection with scythes is because this very tool — which, paradoxically, was invented and centuries ago refined by some among the cultures that have so exploited Africa — is now helping to put a healing salve on at least some of the old wounds. Namely, the scythe was one of the key ingredients, if not the central one, to make the system of livestock feed provision adopted by APESS feasible.

In the Sahel, as in practically all the other regions of the world where forage shortages are a serious issue, the hands willing to work are far more plentiful than the cash for their technological replacement.  Given such a version of ‘reality’, the applications of many useful hand tools — which the developed world has been taking progressively less seriously — makes, in these situations, absolute sense. The APESS founders obviously realized this, in spite of the fact that, theoretically, a number of other approaches to increasing forage production were possible.

According to the contemporary Bottom Line, the way towards development is through the use of modern technology. In line with that approach the APESS founders might have tried to beg for sufficient funds from somewhere in the West, and follow the more typical path —  introducing some semi-modern haymaking equipment. Yet the credit which these days can sometimes be had at a click of a mouse, usually enables a very short-term ‘solution’ and such a path can quickly turn into a chain of pain manifest as another form of slavery. Neocolonialism never sleeps… And all machines eventually break down and/or need (often prohibitively expensive) replacement parts or fuel.

How long APESS manages(given the unceasing onslaught of technologically progressive pressures) to maintain its initial stand on this issue remains to be seen. However, a strong statement on behalf of a more resilient alternative has already been made, and that’s what counts!


A short outline of how the APESS haymaking system operates:

All livestock breeder members of APESS agree to follow certain technical guidelines and in turn receive support by way of training and operation. They all commit to erect an APESS-type hay storage facility, procure scythes along with helpers to mow and spread the grass. They also need a horse-pulled wagon to transport the loose hay in under cover.

The training consists mainly of communicating the most favorable timing (plant species-wise) for the harvest. An organized staggered cutting can lengthen the haymaking season from between 30 to 60 days.

Members are taught the techniques for mowing and conserving the grass so as to keep its nutritional elements as intact as possible. The grass is cut using scythes. It is spread and later turned with wooden rakes. When adequately dry, it is transported on a wagon pulled by the family’s horse and stored in the ‘shed’ to protect it from termites and weather in a well-ventilated environment.

That hay storage shed is a thing of beauty in itself. Constructed by each family using their own means, it is a 4m by 8m structure built upon a raised platform and made completely from local materials (wood and adobe) with grain straw or grass-thatched roof. It has become a symbol representing not only the “APESS membership card” but also “a boldness to embark on new ventures”. Regardless of his social status otherwise, the head of a pastoralist household thereby earns an added respect in local community.

A photo of an APESS shed:


All in all, by 2004 there were “more than 4,000 hay barns built on the initiative of stockbreeders and entirely funded with their own resources”, in 14 countries “from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea”. The livestock feed provisions thereby made available throughout the year enhance the quality and productivity of individual animals, making possible certain herd reductions, which in turn diminish the grazing pressure on the natural vegetation. Research is also being carried out with respect to better management of water resources, using methods and infrastructure that is (likewise) technically and economically accessible to pastoralists.

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We had initially learned of APESS through FAO (2000) book Hay and Straw Conservation for small scale farming and pastoral conditions – an excellent reference on the subject. The APESS initiative is one of thirteen case histories profiled in its 300 pages. From it we gathered that Dr. Ly spent some time practicing veterinary medicine in France and that two French agronomists helped him  introduce the scythe into Burkina Faso.

The above essay was written couple of years ago, and before it came to our attention that the APESS project appears to have been highjacked by some of the multinational corporations and their aids among governments and businesses nearly everywhere across this globe… Africa of course included.

There are no longer any up-to-date references to APESS present activities to be found on the internet. Repeated writing to the former address of the association’s president’s office yielded no response. After a somewhat lengthy attempts to contact his scattered former colleagues and co-workers, we learned that Dr. Ly  has broken his ties to the electronic  world and is only contactable by post mail or a telephone. Our French speaking friend talked to him on the phone; he was, a year ago, still alive and active in politics of Burkina Faso, with the “School of Wisdom” he established many years ago still operating.

We’d be grateful if anyone having more recent and/or detailed information would share with us the update.