The northern reaches of Senegal are hot and dry. With wells far from people’s homes collecting water can occupy a major part of the day for village women. Those with homes near the river would seem to be very fortunate. Strikingly blue, flowing through a brown landscape, the Senegal River seems to promise limitless water.
On the hills overlooking the river in north-eastern Senegal is a village where Fulani and Tukulor herders and Soninke farmers have dwelt for many generations. Each day the river is the focus of their lives. At first glance the scene looks idyllic. A young girl takes a large clay pot, fills it with water, then gracefully balancing her burden on her head, climbs back up the river bank to the village. Groups of friends are bathing together, their bodies covered with soap. Some children are swimming, shouting and splashing each other while their mothers wash clothes and chat together on the river’s edge. Further along, lowing herds of humped Zebu cattle come to drink and stand in the cooling water.
The river, however, also harbours snails carrying worms which bore into the human skin, migrate to the liver and lay thousands of eggs which punch holes, causing the bleeding, weakness and pain of bilharzia. From 20 to 40 per cent of the population of this part of Senegal are afflicted with this debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.
If the river water were pumped to wells in the village, people would be far less likely to catch bilharzia. Unfortunately, building pumps for this purpose is not on the government’s agenda.
Aided by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) the government has other plans for developing the Senegal River region. Unfortunately, these plans run counter to the needs of the villagers. The Senegalese government wants farmers to abandon their traditional food crops of millet and sorghum and grow rice for the sophisticated urban market in the capital of Dakar.
But growing rice conflicts with the traditional flood recession agriculture of the farmers. The irrigated rice demands a regular flow of water; while millet and sorghum require a river that rises and falls naturally with the seasonal rains. As the river recedes at the beginning of the nine-month dry season, the muddy flats left in its wake are ideal for millet or sorghum. After the harvests, these same fields offer crop stubble to feed the animals of the herding peoples who live closer to the desert fringe.
These variations in the river’s height with the changing seasons are an intimate part of the economic life of the Senegalese people who live along its banks. If the government is successful in implementing its plans for building a dam on the Senegal River, this balance of traditional agriculture and herding will be disrupted. Worse still, having been prevented from growing their traditional food, villagers would be forced to buy it with the proceeds of selling their rice. But the government buys rice at a fixed price. And that price is lower than the cost of the millet and sorghum that the villagers eat. It is a familiar story:government and city-dwellers win, villagers lose.
This logic is clear to the villagers, who have developed a healthy skepticism toward their government’s plans. More important, some have organised a peasant’s federation which aims to use the river co-operatively for the benefit of all.
The federation grew out of the experiences of one Soninke villager. After 20 years in the French military and merchant marine he bought a French rototiller and small pump which he brought back to his village, suggesting that families should share the new tools and work together to increase their production.
The villagers discussed his proposal. ‘Will we be working for ourselves, or for the white man?’ they asked. His reply was ‘For us, that’s what development is all about’.
A work group was formed and, using traditional Soninke methods, a successful season of millet, corn, tomatoes, lettuce and onions followed. By 1975, 200 men and 70 women had joined and the idea of collective farming groups organised around small motorised pumps soon spread to other villagers. By 1978 there were 19 co-operatives in the region.
Production is organised through a complex and sophisticated land allocation system involving collective, family, individual, and women’s plots. Land and irrigation canals are laid out according to the most efficient use of available water, rather than irrationally along private property lines. Work groups rotate on a daily basis to maintain and improve the irrigation infrastructure. And when there is a major chore, such as digging a canal, everyone joins in.
But the farmers are acting independently of their government’s wishes. So the Senegalese bureaucracy is trying to undermine their efforts. The federation receives none of USAID’s three million dollars in the region and gets no help from the government. But US funds have paid for the pump given to a local official — an outsider, working alone with the unpaid help of his students.
There is money to be made in the trafficking of rice and important urban votes to be caught by providing it at a low price to city-dwellers. But though government officials have a vested interest in the failure of the federation, the Soninke farmers have shown that with organisation and resourcefulness they can maintain their control of the water that flows past their village and onto their fields.
Richard Franke and Barbara Chasm are both professors at Montclair State College in the US and Authors of ‘Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel’.
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