Mariema Niang walks through her vegetable garden in Wendou Bosséabe, a refugee camp over 500 kilometers northeast of Senegal’s capital city Dakar. It is late in the afternoon and the prickly midday heat is just started to subside. Niang crouches to the ground, adjusts a couple rocks that are holding down a thin white veil and pulls it taut around the long, narrow plot of soil.
'This veil protects our cucumber seeds,' she indicates in a broken French. She points up to the sun and then motions towards the adjacent rows. They are overflowing with tall, leafy green stalks. Ears of corn are peering from their sedgy stems, and delicate blossoms of red and white hibiscus are poking out from their spindly branches. At the end of each garden are colorful plastic bins. They are piled high with mounds of fresh and dried okra.
Niang is president of this 'super vegetable garden' (SVG), an agricultural project developed by the French organization Jardin Tropical Semences (JTS). The one-hectare area of land here at Wendou Bosséabe holds eighteen vegetable gardens, tended by 100 women – eighteen Senegalese and eighty-two Mauritanian refugees. Niang is from the latter group. Twenty-two years ago, she fled her home, like over 60,000 other black Mauritanians, following ethnic classes with the Mauritanian Moors. Contrary to most, Niang came with her family. But like the vast majority, she arrived in Senegal’s Fouta region with nothing else.
'We came at a time when the Senegalese themselves were having trouble making ends meet,' explains the 43-year old Niang in her native Pulaar. 'We were not getting enough to eat. We were not able to help ourselves when we got sick, and we could hardly afford to send our kids to school. But now, this is all history. We are beginning to integrate more and are getting by.'
In January 2008, the UN Refugee Agency took its first steps in ending one of the world’s most protracted refugee situations. It launched its voluntary repatriation program and an estimated 19,000 Mauritanians returned home. For the remaining 21,000 refugees who have decided to stay in Senegal, the UNHCR is funding income-generating projects, like the SVG’s, which can help them integrate as naturalized Senegalese citizens.
No longer just refugees
Moda Gueye is the director of JTS in Senegal. 'Our agricultural technique aims to feed the world,' says Gueye. 'But more than that, the SVG system allows a refugee to become an agri-businessperson. They move from being someone who required help to someone fully self-sufficient, who can feed themselves, manage a business and generate an income all at the same time.'
The SVG’s were initially developed to help farmers in Sahelian areas, like Senegal where the growing season is very short – sometimes only three months of the year – and where they depend on staple crops, such as peanuts and millet.
'The main advantages of the JTS gardens are the amount and the variety of produce they can grow,' explains Gueye. 'And it is on a very small surface area – only 50 square meters are needed. You can also grow year round and save on water by using a drip irrigation system and underground tarps. Instead of 800 liters a day, you only use 200.'
According to Gueye, a well-functioning SVG can grow 700 kilograms of produce annually, and provide enough food for a family of ten with an extra 300 kilograms a year leftover to sell. When sold for a minimum of fifty cents a kilogram at a local market in Senegal, this represents an annual sum of around $250 – more than enough for Mariema to send her five kids to school.
The set-up of an SVG garden includes a growing kit that comes with a selection of one hundred seeds, soil conditioners, fertilizers, and growing equipment – such as the knit polypropylene veils and black underground tarps. There is also a growing instruction manual and a five-day training program. The overall cost of setting up one JTS garden, including the follow-up visits, is close to $750. Since the projects started this past July, the UN Refugee Agency has funded fifty gardens around the Valley.
Pathé Gueye is a JTS trainer who supervises the three refugee camps where the SVG’s are located. He has helped train 270 women gardeners, 252 of whom are refugees. The training involves an intensive five-day program that teaches everything from setting up the watering system, to tilling and plowing techniques, to using plastic tarps to stop water leaching, and adding pest control substances to fight off harmful insects.
'The most difficult part of the project was getting the women to take charge and to instill a sense of ownership in their gardens,' explains Pathé from inside the garden perimeter at Hamady Ounaré refugee camp, another settlement a couple hundred kilometers from Wendou Bosséabe.
Typically in Senegal, it has been the young men, and mostly those living in the central, rural zones, who have adopted the SVG practice. It has been a way to encourage them into farming rather than moving to the big city centres.
'Among the refugees,' Moda Gueye says, 'the men have not expressed the same level of interest. And generally speaking, women seem to be more diligent at taking care of their gardens.'
While the men are working in the fields or tending to their cattle, the women go out thing in the morning, and then once again just before dusk. Once set up, a single SVG should only require a couple hours work per day.
Forty-eight year old Habi Barro is president of the Hamady Ounaré garden. A former hairstylist back in Mauritania, Barro fled to Senegal with her seven-year old daughter. Since then she has had four more children, but two died of malaria.
'In the beginning, it is true we were not really convinced this project would work. That is because previous gardening projects were starting to kill the land. And then when we first started, it was physically very hard for us,' says Barro holding up the inside of her hand that still shows the calloused blisters from hauling well water. 'We had not been working for awhile, but we soon got used to it. Then we had problems with some insects, which brought our spirits down some, but when Pathé came to help and support us it got better.'
Despite the invasion of termites in the soil at Hamady Ounaré, these fourteen gardens have been the most successful of the SVG’s so far, according to Moda Gueye. After their last harvest the women hauled in 200 kilogram of cucumbers and 300 kilogram of okra.
'The women were not prepared for such massive quantities,' explains Gueye. 'The next step is to help the women commercialize and sell their extra produce.'
The UNHCR plans to cease financial support for all activities in the Valley at the end of 2012. But before that, they expect to add another 300 - 400 more SVG’s. This could potentially affect more than 2,000 people interested in adopting the gardening project.
'There are important social and economic integration aspects involved in this project,' says Gueye. 'If the refugees are going to integrate into Senegal, many needs have to be taken care of, such as health and education. But the UNHCR cannot take care of everything. They can offer them activities though, like the gardens, that will help them earn money. We are here to give them training and to help for a maximum of one year,' he continues, 'but then we will back away and let them do it themselves.'
OFADEC is the Senegalese-based West African aid group that carries out all the UN Refugee Agency activities in the Valley. Ibrahima Thiandoum leads the team and has been working with the refugees for the last two decades.
'It is important for the local Senegalese and Mauritanian communities to mix during this final integration phase,' says Thiandoum. 'When they live and work side-by-side there is less risk of building tensions between the two groups, because the whole community benefits from their projects.'
For women like Mariema Niang and Habi Barro they both say the garden makes them happy because they do not have to borrow money and it has improved her relations with the local community.
'We have always been refugees,' Niang says, 'but before we did not have the same connection to the others. Now we have a common goal and this gives us a sense of pride in our gardening success.'
'I have never had any problems integrating here,' admits Barro. 'Here there is peace. In the beginning, it was the Senegalese women who were always helping us find work, but now we can support and help each other.'
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