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 and a cluster of mud-brick homes.
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. Temperatures now regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), and less rain means the river water is drying up.
In the centre of the village is a small adobe mosque and a square with a large Acacia tree, which offers shade during the hottest hours. The low-lying houses are surrounded by walls that protect them from nocturnal snakes and hippos that occasionally wander in from the river.
The tributary that provides villagers with enough water to drink and to nourish the fields is called Moyo in the local dialect, Pular, and life here revolves around it. It is where ancient generations first spotted foreigners coming from unknown, distant lands. During the dry season, little water remains and people cross it by foot to trade with the Mauritanians.
Now, more and more, the desert is encroaching. The change has been slow and gradual, yet constant over time: Cracks appearing on the walls of homes with greater regularity; market days becoming less busy; children asking the women where their fathers have gone.
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.
“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.”
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.
Inside her house, surrounded by fences to guard the goats, Sarr feeds her granddaughter in a large, blue room buzzing with old, rickety fans. A loud television holds the attention of a group of children lying in a corner, while women chat on the colourful sofas surrounding the room.
Sarr lives in the mud-brick building with 22 other people, 16 of whom are women. Each bedroom houses as many as five people. It is a common arrangement, with the village’s 400 men making up just a third of the total population.
After sharing a large bowl of thieboudienne, the Senegalese national dish of fish, rice and fresh vegetables, Sarr sips on a sugary ataya tea.
“Being the wife of a migrant is very difficult. Love is missing, physical affection is missing,” Sarr says.
“Sometimes we talk on WhatsApp and see each other on video calls, but often the line doesn’t work and we need to walk to other villages [to find a signal], and it’s hard to get phone credit.”
During the day, the heat forces life in the villages to move at a slow pace, measured only by the muezzin sounding the Muslim call to prayer five times a day. At night, the perfect silence and the starry sky blur together.
“When it’s so hot, you can’t live,” says Sarr. “The kids look sick and they stop playing.”
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.
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.
‘Life is really hard here’
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.
Coumba Diallo is strong and beautiful. She is in her 40s but says she does not know her exact age. She studied in the capital, Dakar, before moving to the village when she got married in 1991. But her husband has since left.
“When we got married, my husband was always here and we were happy,” says Diallo. “But money was too little, so he decided to emigrate, first to the Ivory Coast, then to Gabon.”
Since he left 10 years ago, she has had to till their field alone. She does not have children, but helps her sister-in-law with her four children. One of them was born with cerebral palsy, and so the mother must constantly tend to him, leaving Diallo alone in the fields.
Every morning Diallo wakes up at dawn. After eating a slice of buttered bread and carrying out religious ablutions, she takes a large, colourful basket filled with tools and heads towards the fields that stand along the river. But for years she has struggled to produce enough food to support herself and the rest of the family.
“Life is really hard here,” she says. “Especially after my husband told me he didn’t have money to send us food any more. That’s why we started to work more and more on the fields.”
She is now involved in every stage of the agricultural process, working the land with the use of new technologies and going to regional markets to sell her produce – mainly tomatoes, onions, aubergines, and rice.
“Since solar panels have been installed in my field and provide energy for water pumps, I don’t need to spend all my savings to collect water for irrigation,” she says.
The income is divided into a portion for herself and the family, and a portion for the community. The rest covers maintenance costs and the purchase of new machinery.
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.
But even 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 who moved thousands of miles to Matam from Gabon to follow her husband, who in turn left for the United States five years ago.
“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.”
Niang lives on her own with her five-year-old daughter, far from her original family, and further from her husband. But she hopes to join him soon. “He left, but I needed him here, with me,” she says.
“Hopefully, what happened to me won’t happen to my daughter,” Niang says. “I’ll let her finish school. And all the men who want to marry her will have to wait for her to finish, for her to find a good job. Only then can they marry her.”
But 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 old ways
Back when most of their husbands moved away, and with the threat of desertification literally at their doorsteps, 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 five years ago in the form of renewable energy. Desperate and eager for change, dozens of women from the villages joined forces. With the support of the NGO Green Cross, they launched the project Energy to Stay. 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. Green Cross estimates this change has led to a water-saving of 70 percent.
“We stayed and decided to learn solar engineering to irrigate the fields,” says Mame Yaye Pam, the president of the village Koundel, 45km (28 miles) south of Sinthiou Diam Dior. Solar panels allow them to reduce gasoline consumption by 2,700 litres a year, she says.
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.
“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.”
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, President Yaye Pam says.
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.
The Energy to Stay project is, in a small way, an attempt to reverse Senegal’s societal norms. 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.
“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.”
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 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.
It is midnight and Diallo, Sarr and Niang are getting ready to join the other women on the rooftop of a house near the mosque.
The women are all wearing traditional, wax-print dresses with beautiful patterns and fancy jewellery. Taking turns they reach the middle of the rooftop and dance for about 30 seconds, in a climax of energy and rhythm.
The village is celebrating the wedding of a young couple who, thanks to their parents’ money, are studying in the capital Dakar, some 500km (310 miles) away. They have returned home to celebrate their union.
But they are not the only ones who have come back.
Some men, fathers, cousins, friends, childhood companions, are also present at the wedding. They are sitting on the floor and offering money and gifts to the groom, who, according to tradition, must be at a separate celebration for the men only.
Some of the men are here to visit their families, spend a few months in the village, and leave again for Gabon, France, Italy, Germany. But others, many of them, have decided to stay after seeing the transformation of village life.
“I heard things were getting better here,” says one of the husbands, who two weeks earlier returned home after more than 10 years in Gabon. “My wife is so happy that I decided to come back and help her with the field.”
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.
“The problem is why we were leaving: it wasn’t a choice,” says the husband.
“But since there’s more money in the family, we live better now. And if we live better, we’ll be less and less under pressure to seek better luck elsewhere.”
“A little is enough to gain the freedom of having a choice again.”