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Drop by drop, of wisdom

Alex James of Blur
Alex James went to Burkina Faso for Christian Aid

Blur bassist Alex James has swapped a life of carousing in bars for composting in Oxfordshire. But a recent trip to Burkina Faso taught him some important lessons about working the soil that are as relevant to gardeners in Britain as farmers in Africa.

Burkina is a country that doesn't have weather in the sense we have weather. It has a climate - very hot and dry for half the year, and then very hot and wet.

The effects of climate change are already being felt out on the plain. It's gradually getting hotter and the wet season is getting shorter. Practically everyone is a subsistence farmer, and because they've been forced to adapt, they're leading the way in sustainable practices.

Burkina Faso garden
Each plant has a soil wall to keep water close to the roots, topped with mulch to stop evaporation

We have had only a taste of this with hosepipe bans in the hottest and driest of summers. Water butts and drought-resistant plants sold like hot cakes in 2006, but last summer much of the UK had more water than it knew what to do with.

So what can we learn from the people who farm on the parched plains of West Africa?

Burkina Faso ranks 174 out of 177 on the UN's developing nations index, about as poor as a country can be. So I'm not ready for the devastating beauty of the place when I visit with Christian Aid. Sure, it's awful too - I see a dead body lying in the road and what can be worse than that?

At Zongou, I see a new reservoir, built by the townspeople, that has transformed 100 acres of savannah into an idyllic market garden.

Successful farms in the West do emanate a certain grandiose majesty. There is something beautiful about the scale of intensive farms, the way that a skyscraper is beautiful - slightly austere, but magnificent. The human scale of the succession of tiny, precious gardens sprouting rice, bananas, aubergine, cabbages is of a different order, the closest thing to paradise I've seen. But it's as close to paradise as it is to ruin.

Alex and Alli
Meeting Alli, whose compost contains "weapons-grade" goodness

Allie, 78, shows me his compost. He's dug two swimming pool-sized pits with a pick axe and a shovel, and filled them with a gigantic terrine of layers of animal dung, straw and vegetable waste to produce a weapons-grade organic fertiliser. I've made a smaller version at home in Oxfordshire, but instead of digging a pit, I've built a big box.

But plants need water more than anything else, and Alli also shows me how to make a demi-lune, a semi-circular vegetable bed with soil in a ridge around the edge to help trap the rain when it arrives.

Hosepipe ban

Demi-lunes are but one technique to make the most of decreasing rainfall, and one which allotment holders in the UK may try next time water shortages bite. Another is a system known as "drop by drop" to deliver water directly to the roots of their plants - a trick I plan to repeat as the summer heats up in the UK.

Dry stone wall in Burkina Faso
Stone walls prevent water run-off and erosion

In another settlement, I help the tribeswomen construct low dry-stone walls to stop the rainwater from running away.

When we finish, the women start singing, shuffling their feet rhythmically. They are a handsome race: tall and slender with the perfect poise that develops from carrying heavy things on their heads.

It's an enchanting scene, a cacophony of bright overlapping sounds and colours. The heat, nudging 45C, makes everything seem even less realistic. "They are saying they want to make you a chief," says the interpreter.

I fetch my guitar and sing the first two verses of The Windmill in Old Amsterdam, which they like. "You must come back," they tell me, and I promise I will.

What strikes me as most useful is the attitude the Burkinabe have to the land. They don't waste anything. Even water is seen as a crop to be nurtured and used respectfully. A far cry from the secret watering and neighbourhood fallouts we see during a hosepipe ban.

Later Allie and I plant some peanut seeds, tiny little drops in the huge landscape with its huge weather conditions. As we eke Allie's compost out over the peanuts, I hear myself saying a prayer.

Christian Aid's garden at the Royal Show
Christian Aid's Farming for a Future garden, showcasing techniques the Burkinabe use, is at the Royal Show, Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, 3-6 July




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