The land doesn’t lie
- Ndeye Debo Seck
Safi Faye's 1976 film, 'A Farmer's Love Letter,' exposes the gap between the post-colonial state and the concerns of ordinary people.
“I am writing this letter to tell you that I am good. I am alright. This is how letters begin here. This is my family, my village, my farm family.”
Thus begins Kaddu Beykat (Letter from My Village), a film by Safi Faye shot in Fad’jal, in the heart of the Sereer region in Senegal. Fad’jal is the village of her ancestors, located 100 km from Dakar. The film won the George Sadoul Prize in 1975, the year it was released.
Kaddu Beykat tells the story of farmers who see their agricultural endeavors subject to the hazards of the climate and the diktat of groundnut production, introduced during colonization and imposed on Senegal, to the detriment of rice and millet production. The film is a relevant study of real-life farmers, far from the imagined, caricatured depiction of the rural world. Faye dedicated the film to her grandfather, a lifelong farmer, who died just days before the start of production. His words resonate throughout the film: “what is the use of groundnut speculation if it impoverishes us and our land?”
With the choice of the village as the setting of the love story between Ngor and Coumba, Faye makes use of auto-ethnography. She transposes her family history to the economic and social history of the groundnut basin, a living microcosm of the then rural Senegal. For two years, Ngor, a young farmer, has been unable to marry Coumba, his betrothed. Due to the effects of climate change and monoculture, agriculture no longer provides an income for subsistence.
At the time the film was released, the world was gripped by financial and oil crises. Senegal, like other countries in the Sahel, was struggling with devastating droughts. For years the rain was scarce. And the land does not lie. The situation of agriculture was at odds with President Leopold Senghor’s promise of Naatange (socio-economic abundance). The annual income of a farmer was 20,000 francs (around 33$). The Senegalese government sought IMF intervention, and adopted the economic and financial adjustment plan in 1978 and a new agricultural policy in 1985. These plans and policies were far removed from the prosaic concerns of farmers and peasants: survival. So much so that when the schoolmaster reads the newspaper to inform them about new government policies, their answers erupt in a litany of grievances, emphasizing the dissonance between rulers and the governed.
Under the famous baobab of Fad’jal, the village’s palaver tree, a middle-aged man takes the floor first: “we are not concerned by politics. We have not seen the effects of politics; we only know our policy: which is one meal a day for six months.”A second farmer complains “we have no cattle to eat.” A younger one laments: “for my marriage, my father slaughtered a cow, I am not sure I will be able to do the same for my son.” A fourth farmer declares “our politics is that none of our daughters have a dowry, they can’t marry because men have nothing to offer them. Now all our kids go to the city to look for jobs… that’s our politics.”
These grievances illustrate the situation of the main protagonists who can’t marry because of the harsh realities of a ground-nut based rural economy. The film also reveals the temporalities specific to the village. Fad’jal appears as an oasis, organized around gendered and age-based division of labor. Men of different ages are filmed in the farm while women and girls are in the kitchen, taking care of children and washing clothes. There is also gendered division of labor pertaining to food and crop production, with women in charge of growing rice, while men grow millet and groundnuts. This social setting respects the rites of the village as well as the cultural and religious norms around labor at the farm and in households. In the Sereer culture, a farmer sows, plants, grows by invoking the spirits of ancestors, the Pangool, and by making offerings and libations. They also make sure to bury certain roots that have the power to fertilize the soil.
Fad’jal is well sheltered from the turpitudes and charms of Dakar, “the big city,” where Ngor looks for a job to collect a dowry for his marriage (and where Faye herself was born). Kaddu Beykat is thus a film about the rituals and social roles of labor which foster belonging to a community. Yet the value of both work and its outputs is devalued. The old farmers, sitting under the palaver tree of Fad’jal bear witness to this erasure as they offer a kola nut to a shoe-seller who made no sales: xaalis amul (there is no money).
When he arrives at Malick Sy Avenue in Dakar, Ngor carries only a bundle of clothes. He soon finds and does all kinds of jobs, is fired several times, and meets seven roommates, companions of misfortune in his quest for work. Ngor realizes that the city represents everything his village is not, the crowd, the noise, greed, hostility, cunningness. Faye also aptly articulates a critique of the African bourgeoisie who do not respect their workers’ rights and Ngor will eventually find a job at the Société Africaine d’Entreprises Commerciales. This illustrates the important role played by indigenous merchant capital in Saint Louis and Dakar whose economic position allowed it to resist previous agricultural export expansion plans as highlighted in Boubacar Barry, Samir Amin and ’s work. For Ngor, Fad’jal is familiar ground, that’s where his family is. Dakar is unknown, hostile, a jungle. Ngor thus chooses to return to his native land and urges people from his village to shun rural exodus and stay to cultivate their land. Through his plea, we hear the voice of Safi Faye’s grandfather who has chosen the land, the culture and the methods of his ancestors. Because as the saying goes in Fad’jal: “the land doesn’t lie.”
Forty-eight years after the production of Kaddu Beykat, Senegalese farmers are still at odds with their government, which has more or less disengaged from agriculture following structural adjustment policies. Writer Ken Bugul aptly relates this situation in her novel, LeTrio Bleu (2022). Kaddu Beykat puts into perspective issues of economic (including food and agricultural) and political sovereignty. The myth of available and cultivable land while there is no labor has been debunked. As similarly showcased in the film La Noire de… (1966) by Ousmane Sembène, agrarian issues have been shifting between urban and rural mobility, domestic and international movements. Today, the stakes are the growing demand for work, the insufficiency and unavailability of the land.