Pictures Above: CREATE!’s U.S. Communications Coordinator, Natalie Deehan-Clark (left), Gagnick Mack’s Cooperative Garden President, Awa Diop (center), and CREATE!’s Communications Coordinator, Fatou Thiam (right).

Welcome to Senegal

Endless blue sky stretches from horizon to horizon. Sun scorches the dry, barren land that is scattered with shrubs and baobab trees offering little shade, withered by dusty Harmattan winds blowing off the Sahara. Temperatures hover around 100 F during the dry season here, a time when cattle and goat herders migrate south in search of better grazing land for their livestock, as the desert encroaches year after year. There is a small, rural town where distant neighboring villages visit each week for the market, arriving by donkey-cart, motorcycle, or occasionally on foot with colorful baskets and buckets for produce. Children run back and forth in the deserted road, laughing and kicking up the sand as they chase a soccer ball and chickens dodge their stomping feet. Trails of cooking smoke float towards the sky between tanned, square building and huts with dried grass rooftops. Women dressed head to toe in gorgeous, colorful dresses walk amongst the buildings, smiling as they greet each other, “asalaam malekum.” Welcome to Senegal.

My CREATE! Story

I’ve been working at CREATE! for over a year from the U.S. office: brainstorming and implementing outreach projects, editing photos from the field, writing narratives from testimonials, and dreaming about one day seeing this impressive work in action. Earlier this October, I had the incredible privilege of traveling to Senegal for the first time. I worked side-by-side with CREATE!’s team, visited our partner communities and projects, and spoke with local leaders. As I settle back into my routine in Eugene this week, I can’t help but reflect upon my time in Senegal. From seeing CREATE!’s projects firsthand to delving into Senegalese culture, it was an experience I will remember forever.

Fatou holds out her cup of Cafe Touba as we stop for a break in Back Samba Dior.

Teranga in Senegalese Culture

Over the course of one week, I visited 13 of CREATE!’s partner communities with the Senegal team. These ranged from graduated villages to communities who were just starting their first projects. In every community, I was greeted with friendly smiles, handshakes, a multitude of questions, and a small cup of Café Touba. Teranga, or hospitality, is a value deeply ingrained in Senegalese culture. As Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam describes in an interview with Anthony Bourdain, “The most important value is what we call teranga. The more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful. It’s not about how much you have, it’s about how much you give.” And indeed, I have felt welcomed everywhere I have visited there.

Between the time change, long travel hours, and extreme heat in Senegal, it’s easy to feel ungrounded, tired, and lost in the unfamiliarity. However, CREATE!‘s team was so welcoming, patient, and kind to me. I understand why everyone says the team feels like a family. One of my favorite and most touching moments, however, happened with Nogaye Faye in the village of Mboss, although my story with Faye started before I traveled to Senegal. As the U.S. Communications Coordinator, I receive photos and testimonials from Fatou Thiam and Fatou Sow, the Senegalese Communications Team. About one year ago, they sent me a testimonial about Nogaye and her work in Mboss. I had no idea that over a year later, I would be visiting Mboss and actually get to meet Faye in person. I recognized her smile immediately. Not only that, but she pulled me off the bench where I was sitting, backpack still on, and got me to dance in front of everyone despite my hesitation!

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Natalie and Faye dance together in Mboss.

From Desert to Oases: Experiencing the Impact of CREATE!

I arrived in Senegal as the rainy season was coming to an end and the land was still green and alive. However, I knew that with the dry season around the corner the ground would be tanned and barren once again for the next nine months. Even throughout the dry season, CREATE!’s partner communities continue to cultivate fruitful gardens that look like lush, green oases in the desert. While touring the garden in Yougouré with CREATE!’s technicians, I picked up a palmful of dry sand and let the grains slip through my fingers. It’s one thing to see photos and read about the agriculture activities in rural Senegal, but it’s another thing to be here and see it with my own eyes. I was continuously amazed.

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The CREATE! team and community members from Yougouré stand around the village’s most recent vegetable harvest. CREATE! and Yougouré are coming up on their one-year anniversary of partnership!

The Power of One Tree

Along with cultivating year-round community gardens, CREATE! partner communities participate in an annual tree-planting campaign every rainy season. These trees provide a variety of benefits from fruit, firewood, medicinal purposes, and environmental benefits. October’s sweltering heat, often hovering around 100 F/ 38 C, can be overwhelming and draining. We escaped the heat in the village of Diabel by sitting under a large tree during the afternoon for one of our meetings. It easily felt at least several degrees cooler there, and I found myself perking up with energy again.

Every village has a dedicated area to host meetings, which were often under a large tree. I was inspired to hear Omar Ndiaye Seck, CREATE!‘s Country Director, speak in each community. He emphasized the participatory approach of our programs, and how the women were working to transform their lives and their village for generations to come. CREATE! is just simply providing the tools and knowledge to do so. It’s so important to put the power of change into the hands of those who need it, to remind them that they are capable. I recalled a quote from one of my favorite books:

“Philanthropists should find innovations that release the energies of people. Individuals don’t want to be taken care of- they need a chance to fulfill their own potential.”
– Jacqueline Novogratz, “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich & Poor in an Interconnected World”

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CREATE!‘s field team meets with community members in Mbossedji to collaborate about future projects and goals together, making sure that CREATE! is meeting the needs of the village.

Learning from Local Leaders

I spoke with multiple cooperative garden leaders across CREATE!’s partner villages and learned how cooperative community gardens not only support food security and income generation, but they also create a sense of community amongst women. In Wereyane, one of the last communities I visited at the end of the week in the northern Louga Region, I met Arame Diop, the Garden Cooperative President. We stood amongst young papaya trees enjoying cold fruit drinks and talking about her goals for the community. Arame said she wants her children to be able to support themselves in the village as her generation is doing today. To support this, her goal is to pass on the new knowledge that she is learning from CREATE! to the next generation so that they can sustain themselves and their environment.

I am so inspired by the local leadership and determination of the women I met. They are working in such harsh conditions to develop their communities today and for future generations to come. I also want to thank the CREATE! team, who I am constantly learning from, for so kindly welcoming me in Senegal. I am certainly coming home with a full heart.

Thank you, jerejef, merci
From, Natalie Deehan-Clark

 

Fatou and Natalie reach for a baobab fruit in Diabel.