Pictured Above: Fatou Thiam, CREATE! Communications Coordinator, enjoys a cup of Cafe Touba as the team stops for a break to meet with community members in Back Samba Dior.

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 well over 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. In the small town of Gossas, trails of cooking smoke float towards the sky in-between stone buildings and huts with dried grass rooftops. Children laugh as they chase a soccer ball together, kicking up the sand as they run. 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 learned from local leaders. As I settle back into my routine in Eugene this week, I can’t help but reflect upon my time in Senegal.

Cups of Café Touba

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. The coffee is named after the Senegalese holy city of Touba, which is about an hour and a half north of CREATE! headquarters in Gossas.

Café Touba was shared amongst community members and CREATE! staff as we sat together discussing programs and goals for the future. While enjoying a fresh cup of sweet, warm, and aromatic coffee, I had the chance to listen to people’s stories in multiple communities. My value is to listen without inserting their own beliefs and emotions into someone else’s story. To learn about the different challenges and goals people face, and to take these lessons with me so that I may communicate CREATE!‘s work in a way that authentically represents the issues and preserves the dignity of those affected by it (Exploitation & Empathy – Caliopy Glaros).

Learning in Mboss: Meeting Nogaye Faye

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 which I use in CREATE!‘s outreach material. About one year ago, they sent me a testimonial about Faye and her work in Mboss. Faye, like many other women in Mboss used to travel to the weekly Gossas market to buy fresh produce for her family. Because of the cost in both time and money, Faye could only travel to the market infrequently. Today, Faye and the other women in Mboss have started their own organic community garden using the training and techniques taught by CREATE!‘s technicians. “Before, I stayed at home without an occupation,” Faye explained. “Now, we are training with the technicians, and I visit the site every day. My children eat fresh vegetables and become healthier because our production is very natural.”

Until this day, I had only seen photos of the hard work that Faye and her cooperative garden group were doing in Mboss. I had no idea that over a year later, I would actually get to meet Faye in person and see her incredible work. 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!

senegaleseculture

Natalie and Faye dance together in Mboss.

Lessons in Development: The Power of Change Begins in the Communities

I picked up a palmful of sand and let the dry grains slip through my fingers. Years of monoculture and desertification have exploited the nutrients of the land. Communities in rural Senegal aren’t just growing crops in poor soil now, they are growing food in the sand. Using solar technology to access clean, abundant water and organic agriculture techniques, communities are able to grow a diverse amount of vegetables in the desert throughout the year. Through their year-round gardens, women are improving their family’s diets and selling the extra produce to neighboring villages. Normally, people are only able to generate income from their villages during the three-month rainy season. After that, men and women will often leave their families to work in the city or abroad for the next nine months. However, through community gardens, women are earning a living from their villages year-round and securing finances through local Voluntary Savings and Lending Assocations (VSLA) that they develop and run themselves.

I was inspired to hear Omar Ndiaye Seck, CREATE!‘s Country Director, speak at each village. 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. As said in Wolof, one of Senegal’s most widely-spoken language: xamxam dafay weey, xaalis dày jeex; knowledge remains, money gets used up. 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”

senegaleseculture

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.

Listening to Local Leaders: The Importance of Paving the Way for the Next Generation

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. I was told that before, the women didn’t normally see each other unless there was a celebration. Now through the community gardens, they collaborate, support, and inspire each other every day.

Miles away from the nearest town, located right off of a sandy dirt road, you’ll see a tall solar panel beyond a metal gate. After the solar panel is rehabilitated well along with a sizeable elevated reservoir for storing water, partly shaded by a large tree often used for community meetings. Here is the village of Wereyane’s community garden. Right now, temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees late in the day. The heat slows down activities in the afternoons and many women will rest before resuming their work in the community garden during the cooler evenings.

sustainablechange

Wereyane was one of the last communities I visited in the northern Louga Region, where I had the chance to meet Arame Diop, the Garden Cooperative President. We stood under the shade of the young papaya trees enjoying cold fruit drinks and talking about her goals for the community. Not only has Arame taking on the position of Cooperative Garden President, but she also supports a family of 12. She explained how always encourages the cooperative garden group to work hard, and she wants her children to be able to support themselves in the village as her generation is doing today. Her goal is to pass on the new knowledge that she is learning from CREATE! to the next generation so that they can continue to sustain themselves and their environment. If they are able to do this, she says, they can build more infrastructure in Wereyane.

I am so inspired by the local leadership, they are paving the way for the next generation and I am grateful to be able to learn from them. 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