Norfolk man's poignant TV film

An African peasant farmer has managed what so many others failed to do - transform the lives of thousands of people by making the desert bloom again.

An African peasant farmer has managed what so many others failed to do - transform the lives of thousands of people by making the desert bloom again.

Now award-winning Norfolk film maker, Mark Dodd, has brought the extraordinary 20-year struggle of Yacouba Sawadogo to the big screen but not without his own sacrifices, as TARA GREAVES reports.

With the country plunging into the gloom of recession, Mark Dodd could have been forgiven for hanging on to his job as a respected BBC cameraman.

Based in Norfolk, he had travelled extensively while working on established programmes such as Matter of Fact and Inside Out as well as one off specials but, while visiting a friend in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world, his life changed forever.

'My friend Ashley Norton , who is from Norfolk but was living in Burkina Faso, told me I should meet a farmer he knew called Yacouba Sawadogo who had an interesting story,' said Mark.

Most Read

'We went there and the chap showed us around his fields and forests and then I sat down and interviewed him under a tree in the midday heat. After he started talking, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I knew then that I had to make his story into a film.'

Mark, who is engaged to Donna Talby, joined the BBC as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, having studied at Dereham Boys School and City College, Norwich.

For more than two decades, he revelled his work, including filming a documentary about Tenneh Cole, a little girl who was shot by rebels in her native Sierra Leone and, thanks to an EDP campaign, was brought to Norwich to have an operation to remove a bullet from her head.

But by 2007 he was becoming increasingly unhappy with changes in the industry and was considering his next move when he went to visit his friend in Africa.

What he did not know then was that he would end up leaving his stable job of 22 years, at perhaps the worst time possible, to follow a dream.

'Yacouba, who must be in his early 60s now, told me he was sent away when he was a young boy to study at a Koranic school in neighbouring Mali. I say school but it was really a few huts in a compound where all they did was learn the Koran for hours each day,' said Mark.

'They had to beg for food and work hard in the fields. He was there from the age of seven and he had a very rough time and didn't get on well. He was one of the smallest and was bullied.'

Yacouba was eventually taken to see a spiritual leader and told him about his problems.

'The leader, known as a sheikh, said to him 'do not worry, one day you will become a leader of men' but Yacouba, as part of a caste society, knew that would never be possible,' said Mark.

When he left the school and returned home he started a market stall selling motorbike parts which eventually became very successful but Yacouba felt he wanted to do something 'more worthy'.

'He left the market shortly before all the other traders were locked up by police after a dispute with the government and went back to the land,' said Mark, 45.

The area was in drought with any remaining trees being chopped down for fire wood, making the situation worse.

Thousands of people left in search of a better life on the Ivory Coast but Yacouba decided to stay and resurrect an ancient planting technique known as Zai , which uses traditional planting pits.

'He hacked into the hard baked earth and filled the pits with compost but what he was doing went against local tradition and he came up against angry resistance from local land chiefs,' said Mark.

At one point, while he was away in the city, his jealous neighbours burnt down Yacouba's newly planted forest and millet fields - he could see the smoke from the fire as he travelled back and knew what they had done.

He was forced to start again, perfecting his technique, and eventually, over time, people began to take him seriously and even return to the area.

'It was such an extraordinary story that when I returned home I wanted to check it was true. I got in contact with a top scientist at the University of Amsterdam who not only confirmed it, he added to it detailing exactly how amazing Yacouba was,' said Mark, who lives in south Norfolk.

In the region, tens of thousands of hectares of land that was completely unproductive has been made fertile again thanks to the techniques of Yacouba.

He has reversed the process of desertification in the Sahel - a belt up to 1,000km wide, spanning Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

Mark immediately started pitching the idea to retell the story to bosses at the BBC but to no avail so, knowing that it was something he needed to do, he started pulling together his own money to fund a trailer.

'I was just about to go using my own money when the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association agreed to give me a small bursary to make the trailer,' said Mark, a father of three.

He flew back to Burkina Faso in the spring of 2008 but immediately ran into a problem.

'Air France lost all our filming kit, more than �50,000 worth,' he said.

'The next flight was the following evening but it came in early so we missed the kit coming off the belt. We were told that it was back on the plane on its way back to France but this turned out false. The customs people impounded the kit but we didn't know where. That night we eventually tracked it down to a remote building at the end of a track far away from the airport. It was shut.

'Ashley, who can speak French and a colleague spent the next morning begging the customs officials to get our kit back. We finally left at midday, we had lost a valuable filming day, but we had all our kit back.'

Telling Yacouba's story was also problematic as the translator spoke the local language and French and then it required Ashley to change it from French to English.

None of the people in the trailer or the film are actors, in fact one of Yacouba's sons portrayed him when he was younger.

On his return to England, a Suffolk production company, Bruiser Productions, agreed to edit the trailer for free and Mark promised that if it was picked up they would be paid to edit the film.

Knowing how passionately he felt about it, he made the huge decision to resign from the BBC and concentrate on getting the film funded.

He formed 1080 Film and Television and worked freelance for corporate clients to pay the bills while searching for someone to help make his dream a reality.

'Some people have said it was brave of me to resign but to me it was a no brainer,' said Mark.

'I was put in touch with a London-based company which has a charitable fund supporting environmental work in the Sahel. I think they knew I was serious about it because I had given up a secure job to make it happen.'

In a plot which would also make a good film, Mark's dream came true when the company said they would fund the hour-long film and soon he was off back to Burkina for a five-day shoot using locals to dramatise certain situations, including the market traders being arrested by police.

'Although I had been a cameraman for a long time, it was the first time I had produced anything of this length. I have picked up bits from people I worked with along the way,' he said.

Once filming was completed, Mark returned and made good on his promise to the Suffolk production company and they were paid to edit the High Definition documentary.

It was premiered at Cinema City in Norwich for an invited audience last month and now Mark is looking to get it distributed so more people can see it.

He also wants to show it at a local cinema in Burkina Faso so that Yacouba, who has only seen the trailer, and the others who helped make the film can see it.

For Yacouba, who is now a respected member of society, winning the admiration of his countrymen it is not the end of the story as all his hard work is now being threatened by urban expansion and Mark is keen raise awareness of his plight.

He said: 'I want people to watch it. It's a really good news story. It's not about foreign agencies coming in and sorting the problem but people doing it for themselves.'

A screening of the The Man Who Stopped the Desert is on June 2 at Cinema City in Norwich with a question and answer session with Mark afterwards.