A Forest in the Desert
by Cassandra Heller
Imagine water rising from desert ground, trees scenting the dry air, sand turning into fresh earth, producing abundant crops—created out of a land previously struggling with starvation and death. Now imagine that Christians and Muslims worked side by side to pump water into the desert, grow trees, and cultivate crops. This small miracle happened in Africa, in a place called the Gambia region of western Senegal—home of the Senegal Project.
The Senegal Project was born after a five-year drought in the 1970s that spread from the Sahara Desert southward to the western region of Senegal. During the drought, a million head of cattle and about 200,000 people perished from thirst and famine in Senegal alone. The drought added further suffering to a population already encumbered by illiteracy, health and water problems, high rates of unemployment, and a lack of school programs.
In response to the drought, OFADEC (Office for Development and Cooperation in Africa) was established in 1977, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) stepped up to offer its support to aid the people of the region. Over the last 30 years, the two organizations turned a barren desert into acres of productive farmland, which provided much of the income necessary to advance the region out of starvation and into the modern marketplace.
The aid that OFADEC and UMCOR provided did not stop there. They decided to take an integrated approach to a variety of problems in the Gambia region. OFADEC used the income earned from the crops to restructure more than 20 villages. Now more than 1500 families have access to clinics, schools, farming education, and agricultural skills training.
Phase I: The Beginning
At first, some experts believed Carbonare’s project would fail. The US State Department agronomists had told Harry Haines, chief executive officer of UMCOR (1966-1986), that Carbonare’s dream of growing food in the desert would be difficult, if not impossible. “But Carbonare,” wrote Harry Haines, “had a conviction that the impossible could be achieved if one inspired enough people to believe it and then do it.” (New World Outlook, Jan.-Feb. 1999, p. 23)
With the tremendous relief efforts sponsored by various governments, the United Nations, and ecumenical agencies such as Church World Service and the World Council of Churches, a diesel-fuel water pump was installed in a 200-meter well near the Gambia River.
By March 1985, in a small village called Mafre in northern Senegal, gallons of water were pumped into the desert earth. In only four months, village people were able to plant seedlings, plow farming plots, and begin herdsmen-training programs to enhance the villagers’ ability to raise animals.
In 1985, 314 families enrolled in the program and 2500 acres of former desert land were under cultivation, reclaiming a total of seven villages. Local villagers, encouraged by the process, joined the program enthusiastically. Knowing the feasibility of banana production and the potential for income generation from banana crops in the region, the local villagers decided that bananas would provide the income they needed to reverse poverty.
OFADEC and UMCOR implemented a project that would not only focus on income from agricultural production but also help set up health clinics, hire teachers, and start job-training courses.
Ten years after Carbonare’s vision, 444 acres of working banana crop land produced bananas for Senegal’s urban areas. United Methodist Rev. Deane Williams, who has visited the program every two years for the past 12, recalls the reaction to the first shipment of banana crops to urban areas: “The high point of the trip was the festival to celebrate the banana harvest. Most of the crops had been shipped to the market. Dancing, costumes, and hearty foods were served to the visitors and the community. The success of the project was evident in the well-being of the community.”
Phase II: A New Life
By 1986, 1493 farmers (including 716 women) were producing 2611 tons of bananas per year, 30 percent of Senegal’s banana consumption. Rev. Williams recalled that during his 2004 visit to Dakar, Senegal, near the banana farms, village women kept their own garden plots of vegetables and fruits. Gardens were designed to improve the daily rations of families and also to provide extra income from sales at the local market. The large growing area was divided so that each family could grow enough extra food to pay for irrigation water and garden supplies. Each family could also contribute to funds for community improvements such as schools, clinics, and wells that produced water for home use.
Because of improved conditions in the community, more people were able to work, and the annual income per household increased from $200 to $600. To battle illiteracy, 10 schools were built. New health centers helped reduce malnutrition in the region from 47 percent to 1.5 percent, and 1075 children received immunizations for the first time.
In July of 1991, the entire management of the project was transferred to the local farmers. Independent of any organizational aid, the local participants formed a group they called the “Federation of Farmers.” A year later, the federation independently reached a yearly production of 4000 tons of bananas per year.
The diesel fuel pump had turned a small garden into productive crop land capable of competing with other large markets. “The little project we visited in 1985 had just a few farmers,” said Rev. Williams, “but now there are many towns with small villages nearby.”
Phase III: Independence
Today, local residents take responsibility for implementing their own projects. Each week, community councils convene to discuss major projects. They assign residents who volunteer their time and resources to complete the projects that are needed. In this way, community leaders organize people to work together, ensuring that the desert does not return to its previous state of 30 years ago.
“Our return trip in 2004 was an opportunity to see the desert bloom,” Rev. Williams wrote. “Tilled land covered many hundreds of acres of vegetables, bananas, rice, and millet, and other crops were abundant.”
Currently, eight working schools provide up to eight years of education. “Education was not known when we arrived in the area; there were no schools at all,” Ndiaye stated. “But we built schools, sent kids to school, and started literacy training for adults.” In addition to basic education, agricultural techniques and marketing management classes were added to training programs for farmers.
Because of the training programs and independent federation, the Gambia region of Senegal has become prosperous. “At the end of 1999, we withdrew from the project,” Ndiaye stated, “and the Federation of Farmers conducts the program. They are increasing the surface they cultivate and their production and revenues.”
Ndaiye sees continued improvement in health and education revenues. The Senegal Project supports schools that teach local residents how to become community nurses. They can now take care of their own community health needs rather than relying on outside sources.
The Senegal Project turned the Gambia region around from importing 100 percent of bananas consumed to producing 80 percent of Senegal’s banana crop. Because dreamers from UMCOR and OFADEC kept their faith in the project over the past 30 years, the lives of 1500 families are better and 20 villages are stronger. The Senegal Project has saved thousands of people from starvation and will enable the Senegalese people to forge a better way of life for generations to come.
For more information on OFADEC, contact:
Date posted: Sep 06, 2005