Farming has long been the way of life in Senegal. Despite the harsh and arid landscape, this communal tradition has been passed down from generation to generation, and is still very much alive today. Nearly 77 percent of Senegalese are subsistence farmers. Although farming has always been a difficult practice, in recent years it has become even more so.
Climate change has hit Senegal hard. The National Weather Bureau estimates that between 1950 and 2015, the average temperature rose 2 degrees Celsius as rainfall averages have declined by 50 millimeters (nearly 2 inches). The effects of such change are noticeable all throughout the country.
The day after Counterpart and local partners launched a new Food for Education and Child Nutrition program in Senegal, the renowned columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about Senegal in The New York Times and the impacts of climate change on farming and family life.
Friedman quoted the Ndiamaguene village chief, Ndiougua Ndiaye: “When I was young, everyone in the family was together… The mother would be in the house and the man would go to the farm. And everyone stayed within their family, now it is not what it used to be. I’m afraid of losing my community.”
Climate change is forcing men to leave their villages in search of other opportunities. Those that remain struggle to generate enough food to feed their families.
Today, 26 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished because of poor diet and sanitation practices. High malnutrition and poverty also have negative effects on school enrollment. School attendance is low and of those who do attend many drop out. Teachers, for their part, also struggle to attend. Often having little formal training, there is little consistency in education outside of the capital region. Going to school quickly becomes a secondary priority to finding ways to help buy or grow food.
Since 2001, Counterpart International, with generous funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been addressing food security, child health and nutrition, and access to education through the Food for Education Program in Senegal. Our most recent program in the Matam region, helped increase school attendance, improved nutrition and created 70 school-based community gardens.
On April 19, Counterpart officially launched a new Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program in the St. Louis Region.
Launched in Mbilor Village, this three-year program sponsored by USDA works to engage St. Louis’ parents, residents and children in their own communal education and health. More than 1,000 community members attended the ceremony, as well as Mr. Serigne Mbaye Thiam, Minister of National Education, and Mrs. Sandra Clark, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy in Dakar. Other attendees included the Governor of the Saint Louis Region, and the USDA Regional Attaché.
As a first step, Counterpart International will provide meals to 270 participating pre-schools and primary schools in the St. Louis region.
For Fatou Gaye, a student at Mbilor School, the purpose of the program is clear: “The… Food for Education Project… allows us to better study and spend more time in school; as the proverb says: empty stomach has no ears.”
Although an incredibly important first step, Counterpart wants to build Senegalese capacity by creating sustainable infrastructure to supplement the program. In 20 communities in which schools are participating, Counterpart is also organizing community gardens.
Maintained by the Parent Teacher Associations of those schools, Counterpart will provide each community with customized agricultural training and technical assistance, as well as small-scale farming equipment. Garden managers will also be trained in proper food storage and sanitation practices.
To Derek Hodkey, Chief Operating Officer of Counterpart, this is all a part of a larger empowerment vision. Attending the launch of this new program in Senegal, Derek offered up to the teachers and school management committees Counterpart’s vision of success when he said, “We will be glad to hear that the skills you have learned from this project are helping to positively change lives and attitudes about the value of education in your community. We look forward to hearing that the project has permanently raised the nutritional status, not only of the preschools and primary school children but of everyone in the St. Louis Region.”
The residents of villages like Mbilor, will now be supported in their efforts to improve their lives and build more durable futures for their children. And although climate change will continue in St. Louis, the community will be better prepared.
Friedman wonders at the end of his editorial how to stop the farmers from leaving Senegal and their families. Will it be “gardens or walls?” He concludes, “It’s really not a choice. We have to help them fix their gardens because no walls will keep them home.”
And gardens it will be – and healthier and better educated children — thanks to the new Counterpart program in St. Louis, Senegal.
The Senegal program is funded by USDA through the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.