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Thursday, July 30, 2020
A village of women in Senegal
In the arid, desolate landscape of northeast Senegal - marked by miles and miles of dust, Saharan sand and solitary Baobab trees - there is a miraculous patch of luscious green. Tall and luxuriant tomato plants sit beside thick, purple aubergines, rows of yellow corn, beds of blooming hibiscus flowers. This oasis on the banks of the River Senegal, along the border with Mauritania, is home to a community of small-scale farmers spread across a handful of villages who for centuries have been channelling the river's water to grow and consume local produce.
But in recent decades, the aridity of the area, which lies at the gateway to the Sahara Desert, has increased dramatically. Arable land has become tougher to find, food production has slowed, livelihoods have worsened, and the men have left in search of work and opportunities abroad.
"The desert is advancing on us," says Fama Sarr, gazing intensely. The elegant 63-year-old is one of the oldest inhabitants of Sinthiou Diam Dior, a village here in the Matam region. "The heat has become so extreme and the rainy season so short, that our agricultural activity has decreased year by year and food insecurity is gaining ground everywhere," she says. "When it's so hot, you can't live," says Sarr. "The kids look sick and they stop playing."
Temperatures now regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), and less rain means the river water is drying up. Now, more and more, the desert is encroaching. The change has been slow and gradual, yet constant over time. But what worries the community of Sinthiou Diam Dior the most, is the shortening of the rainy season - and its effect on their main sources of income: agriculture and farming. Overall, the UN desertification organisation says every year, 12 million hectares (nearly 30 million acres) of productive land around the world are transformed into deserts - an area greater than the size of Portugal. And the pace of land degradation is more than 30 times the speed recorded in the past. UN data also projects that there will be 200 million climate migrants by 2050; northern Senegal is one of the countries that will be affected most severely. In Matam, poverty affects as much as 75 percent of families, and more than a third does not have enough food to eat, making them even more vulnerable to the consequences of desertification - which is rapidly escalating in the area, according to the United Nations.
In Sinthiou Diam Dior, at least one person from every family has emigrated, most of them men. Across Matam, the women remain behind as the lifeblood that animates and nourishes the villages. Abandoned, they are at the core of family life but also the economy of the villages: They have a key role in managing resources, food production, animal husbandry, consumption choices and raising children. When husbands leave, life for women in Matam grows more challenging. Married, but alone, they wait for a visit that often does not happen for years, and for money that sometimes stops coming. They are left in limbo, unable to start a new life.
"It rains once in July and then it stops for a month, so families often lose their crops," Sarr says. "We became so poor that my husband had to emigrate to Gabon and my son to France."
For the men (and few women) who leave home, the conditions are notoriously complicated, with most facing treacherous journeys, racist abuse and violence, along the way. According to the UN, up to four million Senegalese nationals out of the domestic population of 15 million live abroad, ranking it as one of the countries with the highest number of emigres in West Africa.
For those who stay, life is not easy. Left alone by husbands, sons and brothers, women are often forced to leave their studies and take care of the land and children. Many also find themselves marrying younger.
"The women stay. The man marries you, then emigrates and leaves you there," says 35-year-old Dieynaba Niang. "And you, you have to take care of everything, his family, his mother and for this you have to leave school. Once you are married everything you will do is prepare food and take care of your family."
In Senegal, as is the case in many African countries, gender inequality is still very high. Although women represent 70 percent of the continent's agricultural force, produce 80 percent of food and manage 90 percent of its sale, according to the World Bank report on Women and Agriculture in Africa, their rights are not recognised and they have very little decision-making power. Patriarchal society in Senegal prevents most women from directly managing the land they work on, and in most cases there is a man who enjoys the fruits of the labour carried out by women.
"Here are the women who are strong and work in the fields," says Niang. "It is basically the women who do everything."
The women of the villages dedicated all their strength and energy to agriculture.
But their outdated, inefficient equipment and the rising cost of fuel, ratcheted up financial pressures.
"We have always had to pay for the fuel to drain water from the river and irrigate the fields," explains Sarr. "But in recent years, more and more of it was required and we ended up spending most of our money on gasoline."
Then, a beacon of hope appeared. New technologies have since been installed in the villages to draw water from the river and irrigate the fields.
Instead of using expensive gasoline to pump water, solar panels now power a water collection system. The new system also irrigates the fields using pipelines buried in the soil to gradually deliver the water over time, as opposed to the old method called "flooding", whereby the pump released water into channels dug in the ground. This change has led to a water-saving of 70 percent.
In each village, year after year, the solar irrigation system allows the cultivation of more than 60 hectares (148 acres) of land, in turn producing enough fruit and vegetables to feed more than 900 people.
The aim of the operation was to rehabilitate farmland in an environmentally sustainable manner, and in so doing ensure that the local population has a supply of fresh produce they can eat and sell to generate an income, says Alessandra Pierella, the manager of the Green Cross project. "Now the women have learned to use the machinery and manage the fields, becoming entirely independent," Pierella says. "We managed to eliminate the women's expenses and their carbon dioxide emissions are now zero."
Alongside the technology, more sophisticated farming techniques have been developed, such as crop rotation - which reduces waste and optimises production. To help formalise the structure of the operation, a women's association has been formed for the region and in each village, a president, a treasurer, and a secretary has been elected.
"This has been the best year of harvest thanks to solar power," says Diallo, looking at the fields along the river, where green shoots have sprouted in patches that had once turned brown. "This has allowed us to increase our income, thus reducing poverty and having quality vegetable consumption in families. We're doing well, we can feed our children and even save some money by selling at the market."
While there is a lack of female presence in the most important positions in the country, for the first time in this area women not only work, but also take part in decision-making processes and hold positions of responsibility. Within the last five years, in addition to selling agricultural products, travelling to regional markets and taking care of their own business, women have become owners of land parcels.
"The group is very well organised and women are so dynamic," explains Diallo, who is secretary in her village. "Every month members meet to contribute to emergencies, if there is a possible breakdown or if there is something to do."
"The land belongs to the group, but then it is distributed in plots and given to each woman according to the quota she has decided to pay," explains Diallo.
Diallo shares an eight-hectare (19-acre) field with two dozen other people, and works on her own parcel of land every day. She uses part of the harvest for cooking, part for stocks, but the majority she sells. From the money the women earn, each also puts in an amount to pay for expenses such as seeds, the caretaker and the pump. Diallo collects contributions from more than 200 women each month. In this way, year after year, hectare after hectare, the women of the Matam villages have slowly managed to reclaim the deserted lands, improve living conditions and create job opportunities, thus generating an alternative to migration. Improved living conditions and new job opportunities brought on by technology, as well as the hard work of Matam's women, are beginning to halt the climate migration.