Pierre Rabhi of France - For the Sake of Future Generations
Imagine that you were born in Algeria before its independence. Imagine that during your country’s infamous six-year war, you decided to migrate to Europe. Imagine all you found were small jobs in factories and became disillusioned by this materialistic world. Imagine you decided to “move to the countryside, you wo knew absolutely nothing to agriculture. Will you be successful, or will you return to that industrialized society that revolts you so much?
Today, I am inspired by Pierre Rabhi, born in May 1938 in Kenadsa, Algeria. His family was Muslim and at birth, they named him Rabah.
Located more than 1000 km southwest of the capital Algiers and less than 100 km from the Moroccan border, Kenadsa was a small town very quiet until the late nineteenth century. Described a place "conducive to prayer, meditation and meditation", the small town had become over the year an important cultural and religious centre for the area and border towns of the Cherifian kingdom.
That was to change in the early 20th century when it was revealed that the region was rich in mineral resources, or at least one mineral resource in particular. In 1906, a man found the black earth of this area quite bizarre and reported it to the authorities. A sample was tested at the Aïn-Séfra mining analysis laboratory and it was found to be coal. For my friends in Africa who might not know coal, it looks like charcoal (which we call makala or makara at home in Central Africa) and it was precious source of energy in the last century.
In 1917, France – which colonized Algeria since 1830 – gave the concession for the exploitation of the mines to a company called the "Houillères du Sud-Oranais" (HSO) and that completely transformed the local landscape in every possible way! A railway line was even built to connect Kenadsa to Oran, the large port city in north-western part of Algeria and to Morocco.
In short, Kenadsa lost all its provincial appeal to become an industrial hub as there is unfortunately a little too many in the world. The mine was to be exploited for some four decades, but this activity was abandoned in 1962, at the independence of Algeria, because the reserves were not large enough to justify continuing the venture.
It is in this oasis turned coal mining hub that the little Rabah was born and raised. At the time, his father had a small blacksmith shop – a workshop that he would eventually close before he joined the mines – and his mother was a stay at home mom looking after their two children. Unfortunately, when he was only 4 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. Distraught, unable to take care of his two children alone, Pierre and his little brother, his father entrusted the little Rabah to a French couple, an engineer who worked in the coal mines and his wife, a teacher. This couple could not have children and they offered to take-in the child and give him an education.
"My father said to himself: the future is in the hands of Europeans; if my son does not have the secrets of this new civilization, he will not succeed in life. "
Pierre will remember all his life what his father told him when they parted:
"This is your ticket to the new world".
Despite his father’s wish, the boy found himself torn between his roots and this "new world", the doors of which were so suddenly and unexpectedly opened to him by his adoptive family.
In fact, it was a real uprooting! The Koran was replaced a Bible, he learned to eat forbidden dishes like sausages. When he lived home, Fridays were the days of prayer. He loved those days as he would sing songs in Arabic with his father and his brother, songs he found to be very joyous. In his new family, prayers in the direction of Mecca and Muslim religious songs were formally forbidden and on language-wise, it was the language of Molière and nothing else.
"I lived alternately with my adoptive parents and my biologic family, and this paradoxical situation provoked all kinds of contradictions in me. On one side, I was told that you should not eat pork or drink alcohol, on the other, my adoptive mother, a woman from Bourgogne, [the wine capital of France], loved a good drink and good food. On the one hand, I felt very clean, on the other I was never clean enough. I went to French school, but my biologic father insisted that I also go to Koranic school. I took me a quarter of an hour to go from one world to the other. My little brother stayed with the family, as did the children my father had afterwards. I am the only one to have been raised elsewhere. It was a completely split world."
From his biological mother, he does not remember much, except that she loved to dance. To this day, he regrets not having any photos of her and that her memories of her are so limited.
His adoptive family left Kenadsa for Oran when he was a teenager, where he attended high school till he completed school. At the age of sixteen, he decided on his own volition to convert to Catholicism and adopted the name we know today: Pierre.
His biological father will resent him for years for rejecting his Muslim roots. Yet for Pierre – who had finally learned to appreciate the religion of his adoptive parents – it was not a rejection; it was rather, the discovery of a different truth.
"I found in the Gospel something quite different: the proclamation that love can be the only source of energy to save the world. "
He tried in vain to explain his views to his family back home, but it is a subject his father would never let him speak of.
The Algerian war broke out in 1954, increasing in the cruellest way this gulf between the world of his early childhood and the French world he knew through his adopted family.
Pierre was never one to stay silent while injustices are committed, and he would criticize the colonizer, which upset his adoptive father, a Gaullist who did not tolerate any criticism of his motherland. He ended up throwing his son out one day, after they had a heated argument.
“A double rejection” from both his two fathers, as he will later describe it.
It will be with a broken heart that at age 22 years old, while the war in Algeria had reached its peak of violence, that Pierre decided to leave his homeland and move to France. All he had with him was his high school certificate and a few books, including one who is already showing his growing interest in the environment, “Our Plundered Planet” by Fairfield Osborn. Published in 1948, the book predicted environmental destruction by humankind.
The young immigrant with no formal experience found himself doing all sorts of odd jobs as you can imagine. And you can also easily imagine the racism faced by this "Arab" from this country that dared to reject France!
"That's where the idea of our servitude came to me. Slavery had not been abolished; it had just been repackage on the labour market! "
Yet it will thanks to one of these labour jobs that he would meet the woman of his life: in an assembly factory for agricultural machinery in the town of Puteaux. He worked there as a storekeeper while Michèle was an administrative assistant.
They have the same aspirations to "dis-alienate" themselves from the industrial world that forces people to produce, produce, produce, until they no longer have the strength to. The exploitation of mankind by mankind at its worst!
A fortuitous encounter with Dr Pierre Richard, a conservationist and ecologist medical doctor who advocated for the "return to the land". Dr Richard, who was working on the creation of the Cévennes National Park in the south-east of France, convinced them to pursue their dream of living the city. Pierre and Michele went to visit Ardèche, one of the departments that was going to be part of the park, to see for themselves this green paradise described by Dr Richard.
It was love at first sight! This this region bordering the Massif Central, with a river running through it, was simply magnificent!
They return to settle in the Ardèche permanently in 1960, and they got married there the following year. Their dream of returning to the earth had materialized!
The farm had no water or electricity, the land was a bit arid, and neither Pierre nor Michele knew anything about agriculture, but the Rabhis felt as though they were in paradise! It will be in this splendid region, that they will give birth to and raise their five kids, in the middle of goats and other farm animals.
The farm was also to become Pierre’s open air "laboratory", a place where he was going to put into practice the theories that he had in his head since his childhood in Africa. Pierre Rabhi, the agro-ecologist was born, just like that!
The early years were very hard, but instead of being discouraged by repeated failures, his belief that this way of life grew stronger. He was to succeed, although it took them a good fifteen years to manage to live from their farm proceeds. In the meantime, Pierre did some construction work and worked as an agricultural worker for neighbouring farms to make ends meet.
To stay focused, Pierre found inspiration from others who had made this exodus from the cities to the countryside before him. He even met some of them with whom he would build lifelong friendships.
His experiment started being talked about across the country. People were intrigued and seduced by this man who decided to live by such noble life principles. From the end of the 1960s, the Rabhis began to host a growing number of people interested in “migrating” from cities to the countryside and become what was referred to as neo-rurales.
This inspired Pierre to want to not just wait for people to come to him but to go to people and talk to them about his philosophy and share his acquired know-how in agronomy.
Thus, in the early 1980s, Pierre moved to Burkina Faso, where he created a training centre in agroecology. During his stay there, Pierre met the late President Thomas Sankara with whom he will become friends. Unfortunately, his initiative in Burkina is cut short when he is forced to leave the country after the assassination of Sankara on October 15, 1987.
This experience of Burkina will be the first of many such initiatives, in France, in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Maghreb. His main field of interest was issues related to the fertilization of arid lands.
In their first years living in the countryside, Pierre used his free time to write poetry, a little-known fact about his as it is more his prose that we most associate him with. Since the 1980s, Pierre shares his knowledge through books, using a simple language easy to understand, which have ensured him a privileged place in the world of literature.
Yet, his take on agriculture is somehow as much philosophical as it is science based – though I will not go to the extent of calling him a 'Prophet', a superlative often used to describe him – Pierre advocates the "reconciliation" between men and Mother Earth. His writings also show that he was also able to reconcile in himself the two religions that have forged his moral character, Islam and Christianity. Though he doesn’t practice any religion nowadays, his life is guided by what he has learned from both religions and he has incorporated these lessons into his professional life. In his philosophy, spirituality and/or the believing in a divine being are inseparable from a viable agricultural model.
In 1983, he published his autobiography 'From the Sahara to the Cevennes: Journey of a Man at the service of Mother Earth', where he looks back on his Algerian childhood, his migration to France and his settling in Ardèche.
To date, the prolific author has published more than 20 books including one and has even collaborated on the creation of a children's tale based on his life The Desert Child, written by Claire Eggermont.
In 1994, he founded the association Terre & Humanisme (Erath & Humanism), an initiative that will make him be noticed by multilateral institutions dealing with Environmental issues. In 1197, he is invited to participate in the elaboration of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
It was expected that such a journey would lead to activism and that's what happened. A supporter of Alter-globalization, Pierre is a starch advocate for more ethical and sustainable international exchanges. It is in that capacity as an activist that he is often asked to speak in conferences around the world.
You will probably tell me that there is a small distance from activism to politics? Not always, but for Pierre Rabhi it was the case, at least he tried to go that way, though he would never saw himself as a politician, in the conventional sense of the word. In 2002, the activist joined France presidential race, but unsuccessfully as he could not obtain the 500 sponsorships required.
However, he will turn this political failure into a success when, in 2006, he mobilizes all the supporters from his 2002 campaign and cocreate the initiative most associated to him name today: the international movement for land and humanism also known as "Mouvement Colibris” (Hummingbirds’ Movement).
This citizen movement aims to support, inspire and connect citizens engaged in concrete alternatives to design a society capable of responding to the ecological and human emergencies of our time. He will remain at the head of the movement until 2012 and stay on the board as its honorary president until 2016.
You must probably wonder why he gave his movement the name of a bird. Pierre drew this name from an Native American legend he likes to tell.
One day, says the legend, there was a huge forest fire. All animals were terrified, and were petrified, helplessly watching the fire. All except one animal, the hummingbird, this small, long-beaked tropical bird (which he uses to capture the nectar of plants) was busy, fetching a few drops with his beak to throw them on the fire. Their name comes from the fact that they flap their wings so fast (about 80 times per second) that they make a humming noise when they fly.
After a moment, another animal, annoyed by what he thought were a lot of movements that would yield no result, said to the bird:
"Hummingbird, are you sure you're not crazy? It's not with those little drops of water that you'll put out this fire!"
To which the hummingbird answered without stopping to work: "I know it, but I'm doing my share."
At 81, we can say that Pierre has done more than his share.
"There is a kind of unconsciousness, we turned into a blind modernity, in the sense that we are only interested in financial gain. Today there is a decrepitude of the system that has prevailed so far, unemployment is one of the indicators that the system no longer works.
Plus, there is a planetary misunderstanding. On the one hand, the West is seeing this decay that is real, but the others continue to dream of the Western model, it is a tragic global misunderstanding.
Every human being must try to get to know themselves better in order to change themselves in a positive way. The more people will change positively by embracing the most beautiful human values, such as charity, generosity, respect for life, the more chances we’ll have to change society. "
Today, the Rabhi family still lives in the the same farm they moved in almost sixty years ago. These peasants, as they like to be called, have received hundreds of people, including politicians, writers, filmmakers, and ordinary people whom, like them, dream of changing the world. Their children have since grown and are each pursuing their own way in the world. The Hummingbird Movement continues to make its mark in the world, through a network of 130 local groups in France, Belgium and Switzerland and others under creation in the world. The association he created 25 years ago, Terre & Humanisme, has since provided support to more than 10,000 farmers and 160 producer organizations around the world, all interested to transition into agroecological practices.
So, are you convinced that it is possible to become the change you want to see on this planet earth?
Prescription of the agro-ecological doctor: a little bit of charity, a little bit of generosity, a lot of respect for life, three times a day for the rest of your life. No expiry date and no risk of overdose. Who can top that?
Um’Khonde Patrick Habamenshi