Papa Aladji has alot of Baobab trees, and their fruits are of the best quality. I’ve also known him since 1992, when we started planting orchards and utility trees on his mountain farm. It is a forest now, and is hard evidence of our close friendship. Aladji is also a rather peculiar guy. He has always wanted to be at the forefront of projects, field trials and progressive development… and he wants everyone to know that. He indeed does derive status from his actions, but likes to try and use it to supercede others in his village and the region.
The Otammari people of northern Benin are naturally and staunchly democratic in their traditional governance. Village chiefs and counselors are elected, and there has never been a king. Women have a big voice. Aladji’s visions of grandeur and influence are rather out of step with all that, and everybody knows that, too. He has a temper, and flies off the handle when he doesn’t get his way. Sure enough, he’s a peculiar guy. And I love the old curmudgeon nonetheless.
It is the season for Baobab harvest right now. Atacora’s agents (myself included), are in the remote villages all day every day buying Baobab fruit at small, temporary market places that we have organized. This takes a lot of planning, and the transactions have to be perfectly organized and well documented. The market are abuzz with producers, workers weighing, bagging and loading fruit and other extraneous hangers on. It’s kind of stressful to be in charge, really.
Yesterday was a prime example of mad hubbub. There were two Atacora teams in the field. Jacob headed the first, with the small truck, and ran the Kounadogou and Kounacogou marketplaces. I was with the big truck, dealing with two collectives in Koucointiégou. The fact that Masta, my intrepid driver, was able to navigate the beast over footpaths and through gullies in the middle of bloody nowhere was miraculous in and of itself!
The first collective went relatively smoothly, and we completely filled the truck. One producer sold over a metric tonne! Toward the end, a young guy named Kouagou (Aladji’s son) started making a fuss over who knows what. He’s not even a part of that collective. Seems he and Dad have their own issues with our relay agent Celestin. Remember, Aladji likes power, and in this case he is not in charge. I was so busy writing receipts, paying producers, sewing bags, etc, that I did not pay attention. Just another loudmouth.
We set off through the bush to the next collective. Along the way, we noticed a whole bunch of sacks of Baobab by the side of the path, but not where the market was supposed to be. Kouagou flagged us down and said we had to buy here first, as these were Aladji’s sacks. I told him the truck needed to go and unload, and would be back, and in the meantime, the rest of us would be dealing with the intended marketplace, and would come back for Aladji’s production. No problem, right? WRONG! Kouagou threw a fit, emptied the sacks and threw them at us, saying Aladji would not be selling to Atacora if he were not the first. Reason was not an operative principle here. Aladji finally came along as we were in the midst of our market, to the same effect.
Mind you, Aladji probably had a good tonne of Baobab fruit, and we want to buy it; but what really bothered me was that we are really old friends and collaborators, and such rancor makes me feel really bad. Not to mention that other producers might be soured by the issue. Didn’t sleep so well.
Jacob and I headed out on a motorbike at dawn to try and straighten out the situation. We had a big sit down where we all, in turn, aired our grievances and concerns. Aladji said that had we not come when we did, his consideration of us as brave men would have been damaged. We expressed that problems were the last thing we were after, and that our longstanding relationship with him, with his whole family, the village, the people and the region counted on us coming to respectful terms here and now.
Fortunately, each endeavored to be diplomatic and see the other side of the issue. Our friendship, business relationship and future collaboration were preserved, by virtue of empathy and cultural understanding. I know doing business can be uncomfortable at times. Our Fair Partnership approach would never allow the typical American response of simply not communicating, or reacting with anger or spite. Atacora’s relationships with people all the way along the supply chain are what make us who we are. They distinguish us from the rest, and they must always be delicately nurtured. Confronting and resolving conflicts such as this successfully make me love my job all the more!