Untold Stories – PCI Community Focus On Positive #ChangeAgent Fernand Banse

By Désiré Banse, Prometheus Computing UAS Innovations Group Lead, Contractor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), member of the PCI Executive Action Board

Fernand Banse was a ChangeAgent is his village of Zabre, in Burkina Faso.

Leading by example and teaching his people how to embrace a new world where technology should be leveraged to have a better life. From Zabre to Reims, France, where he studied, and back to Burkina Faso, he led a life centered on helping men and women succeed in challenging environments. He passed away in July 2013, but his legacy remains through his family and the 3 primary schools and 1 secondary school he helped build in his village.

— Désiré Banse

The story of my father, Fernand Banse is one of a young African who was attached to his values, people and succeeded in achieving the goals he set out to achieve.

His great grades from his admission to the Baccalaureate granted him a ticket to Reims, France starting in 1978. There, he went on to study agronomy. Energized by all he learned, he chose to come back to his village in Burkina Faso (Upper-Volta) at the end of his studies.

Soon after he returned to his village, he witnessed the consequences of Onchocerciasis on his people. Onchocerciasis is an eye and skin disease caused by a filarial worm transmitted by bites of blackflies living close to remote villages near fertile land where people rely on agriculture. The disease usually leads to blindness among the infected people. It played a large in the organisation of the Bissa society. The farmers worked on lands far away from their home in order to avoid the proliferation of blackflies, and to limit the exposure to the flies. Fernand led programs to tackle Onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. Christian Blind Mission (CBM) established Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) programs. This was in the context of the Onchocerciasis Control Program (OCP) from the World Health Organization (WHO) that started in 1974. These programs aimed to further the inclusion and meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all society by removing the barriers to development that people with disabilities face, delivering quality services and programmes and  addressing the causes of disability. In the 1980s, Fernand Banse worked with CBM. He also taught blind men and women to farm.

Later on, in the 1990s, my father left CBM and began working on his farm in Zabre, in the South-East of Burkina Faso. Friends from France would come once a year and work with him to educate farmers in farming techniques. In addition to working on his farm, my father engaged with the catholic mission in various activities, as he was a devout Christian. The Catholic mission in Zabre took over responsibilities of Petit-Zabre which means “Little Zabre”, located 6 kilometers from Zabre, an experiment launched in 1977 by Misereor, an NGO from Germany. Building infrastructure, including water fountains, and buildings for breeding, Misereor turned a once inhabited area to a training center with some amenities. Along with had a catchment basin that attracted elephants every year, and an orchard with mango trees, Petit-Zabre stood as a small village ready to welcome farmers. The trainers would choose a dozen farmers from Zabre and send to Petit-Zabre for 24 months stay, where they would receive training and farm on the lands. Fernand along with the parish priest Dieudonne Bambara, was responsible of the Petit-Zabre training center.

Always seeking to promote improved agricultural techniques, my father participated as a trainer in the Project of Rural Development in Boulgou (PDR/B) started in 1998 with the implication of the local populations in the study of the application of financing micro-projects.

For many years, most people considered farming as the default choice when one could not attend school. Although my dad had an agronomy degree and experience in French agricultural farms, he returned to live the rest of his life in the village in which he was raised. Returning to become a farmer in his village after years spent in France altered the way farmers perceived. Through his constant thirst for innovation, new techniques and technology came to good use for the people of Zabre. One example is a solar panel he installed a solar panel in 1986 that provided electricity to the family compound. Pertaining to agriculture, row planting and spatial arrangement of crops, along with mechanical seeders and tools were demonstrated in his farm. Many neighbors adopted these new farming practices as they increased yields. 

Moreover, my father was responsible for building three primary schools and a high school in Burkina Faso. The government awarded him the title of “Chevalier de l’ordre national du mérite” for distinguished civil achievements in promoting the adoption of improved agricultural technologies.  It was mandatory for his children to attend school. Without his wife and lifetime partner, none of this would happen. Thanks to my father, I went to a graduate school in France and, later came to the USA. That is a feat only children of members of the government with considerable wealth normally are able to do. At his funeral, crowds of people flocked to say one last goodbye and to thank his family. My father continues to live on in the memories of many in our village.

His story bears a striking similarity to that of of Manuel in Masters of the Dew, written by Jacques Roumain in 1938 and published after his death. In the book, Manuel returns to his native village after working on a sugar plantation in Cuba only to discover that it is stricken by a drought and divided by a family feud. Manuel chose to tackle the resignation endemic among his people.  Using his communication skills, he shared with his village the kind of political awareness and solidarity that he learned in Cuba. Roumain illustrated these concepts in a tangible way as the hero of the story found water and brought it to the fields through the collective labor of the villagers. It does talk about the relationship between humans and nature. 

Amadou Hampate Ba, humanist, writer and ethnologist, another great African who represented Mali at the UN and UNESCO, put it in these words: “Humankind was also considered responsible for the balance of the surrounding natural world. It was forbidden to cut a tree without reason, to kill an animal without a valid motive. The land was not the property of humans, but a sacred trust entrusted to them by the Creator and of which they were only the managers.”

Amadou Hampate Ba understood African societies and wrote extensively about the African tradition. Most societies in Africa have an expanded view of what constitutes “family”. For example, my parents had 3 children and yet I remember a time when we were 20 people at home. Extended families are the building blocks of the African community. The fabric of a community is its adherence to a set of values, and having the same culture. Many events play an important role in communities. As an illustration, the local market which happens every three days is a time and place where the entire village gets together. More importantly, everyone greets each other, which often leads to lively discussions and animated conversations about families, upcoming tribal celebrations, and local politics.

Family, community, and communication are the bedrock of the life in the village. One succeeds by helping and being helped. The community looks up to the person who touches many lives in a positive way, and helps make those much better. My father accomplished that, and by doing so he lived contented life.  Foundational to this are his moral compass, his experiences in France, and his love of family. Which had led him to do what he felt ought to be done without being afraid of being judged, or making mistakes. 

As a citizen of the world today, I say thank you to people like my father and others who helped bring good and change in society. We are living in uncertain times, and I can’t help but think that the world can be a better place if more and more people choose to act to bring people-centered values, leadership and change to their local communities, one village at a time.

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