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A cowherd, with his ever-present portable radio, heads into the field with his cattle. (David Gutnick/CBC)


"I have blood on my hands," Daouda Diarra tells me, "and this week I am going to be editing my radio interviews on your laptop."

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CBC reporter David Gutnick with Lamine Coulibaly, chief of Banankabougou village, Mali. (CBC)

Daouda and I sit facing each other in a sweltering conference room in the Motel des Moulins in Fana, Mali. The Soviet-era air conditioner is on the blink, the rusty air-intake vent is now home to a family of lizards.

Sweat dribbles down our foreheads.

Daouda runs the Banjo radio station in Kayes, a city a few hundred kilometres to the south in this land-locked country in northwestern Africa.

Along with a 20 other radio reporters, a couple of agronomists and a village chief, he's in Fana for a week to take a radio workshop sponsored by Farm Radio International, a Canadian aid group.

I am one of the guest teachers.

It is the first morning and everyone is spending 10 minutes finding out as much as we can about someone else in the room. Then we stand up and talk about what we have found, telling a story.

I am concentrating on Daouda's every word.

'Killing scarred me'

"In December, 1985 I was a gendarme, a policeman, who was conscripted into the army when we went to war with Burkina Faso," Daouda says. "I had to defend Mali against invading troops. I shot and killed one of them.

"I have never forgotten that horrible feeling. I am a devout Muslim — I was up praying this morning before sunrise, before the roosters. I have a houseful of kids and a couple of wives and I have nothing against our neighbouring countries.

David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition . Over the past 20 years he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. Last summer he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

"But I was trained to follow orders and that is what I was doing. But killing scarred me. Now I want to do good."

Why, I ask him, did you become a radio reporter?

"Because it is a way of doing good," says Daouda. "When I go on the radio I try and do my best to tell the truth about what I find out. I try to choose subjects that are important. I think I can help listeners have better lives. "

And there it is in a nutshell, the reason why, in late November, Farm Radio brought broadcasters from five rural radio stations from across Mali together.

It was a chance to hone their craft, to think about how to improve their research and storytelling skills so that they can better serve farmers struggling in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Radios without borders

Farmers here are always looking for ways to get better yields from their millet, peanuts and maize, to get more eggs from their chickens and to raise healthier livestock. Fertilizer is expensive — unaffordable for most — and age-old farming methods can be improved.

The way to do that is through good information. And in Mali, as in most of Africa, radio is the key.

The first morning sound you hear in Fana is the Muslim call to prayer. The second is a wide-awake rooster.

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Malian broadcasters practise with their new MP3 recorders at a Farm Radio tutorial. (CBC)

The third is the wave of talk and music coming from everyone's battery-powered radio as they light the breakfast fires and get ready for the day.

Farmers hang radios around their necks so they can listen while they hoe weeds or herd the cows.

"Thank-you for this," says Lamine Coulibaly. He's turning a matchbook-sized MP3 recorder over and over in his calloused hands, trying to figure out what exactly the gift is.

Coulibaly is 70 years old, ramrod straight and elegant in his sky-blue ankle-length bou-bou. He is the chief of Banankabougou village, one of the most respected elders in the district, a farmer who other farmers come to for advice.

This week his millet is ripe but will not get harvested until the workshop is over.

He wants to follow all our exercises so that he understands how radio gets made.

A time to listen

I show him how he can record voices and sounds by pushing a button. I explain how this can be done anywhere and all a reporter has to do is bring the recorder back and connect it to a computer.

We plug it into my laptop. Up comes the chief's voice, ready to be edited and broadcast. Chief Coulibaly smiles and says that a computer seems like a good thing for radio stations to have, but that learning how to use them is for younger folk.  

What he really wants the broadcasters in the room to understand is that he's their target audience: they had better work harder than they do now to give him the information that he needs so that he can feed his family better and make some extra money for his grandchildren's schooling.      

"I like music," he says. "I like hearing traditional stories." But he also says that he wants to hear experts and farmers talk about their best practices and experiences. "And make sure you broadcast what they say at supper time so that I have the time to listen."

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A Mali farmer with his pile of dried maize, now ready for composting. (David Gutnick/CBC)

How to compost

Everyone soaks up the chiefs words. They take notes. It is so quiet you can hear the lizard run into the air conditioner.

In Mali farmers tend to just pile up and burn their millet and corn stalks. The hot November winds are thick with smoke. It is a tradition. And it is a waste.

So today we are working on a radio broadcast about composting. What do farmers need to know?

And how can we make a radio program so that listeners can start composting on their own?

We talk about how to research and find guests. How to do interviews and decide what fits the show and what does not.

We practice using the MP3 recorders. Chief Coulibaly hands me his earplugs. His melodious voice comes flooding out. I can hear a goat in the background and a woman laughing. Someone is pounding yams into a paste. The chief recorded himself at breakfast time.

Can you play it again?

Five teams head out to local villages to record farmers talking about their composting experiences.

When they come back we practise editing sound on computers. Daouda was right about working on my laptop. He's never touched a keyboard.   The former soldier is almost shaking with nerves but he will not give in. He practises with the mouse after everyone else has gone for supper. Within a day he's got basic sound editing nailed.

Each team puts together a 15-minute program. We listen. We critique.

And then we head back to the villages with the finished programs stored in the MP3 recorders.

It is 8 o'clock in the evening in the village of Bonagobugu. A couple of dozen people are sitting in a circle under the stars. The chief welcomes us. A candle is lit. It has been like this forever.

And then a pair of battery-powered speakers is turned on and a program on composting comes flooding out to fill the village square.

There is music at the beginning followed by an interview with a farmer who says he has never heard of composting. There's an interview with an agronomist explaining why composting works. And more interviews with farmers. More music. And then a practical section where someone demonstrates talks about how to make compost from scratch. Hacking sounds fade to music.

"That was good," says the chief. "I did not know that we needed to dig a pit. How big was that pit again? And how much water? Can you play it again?"

And so we did.