The night before our departure I was super excited and had already finished up packing for the next day field trip. We were scheduled to depart at 05.00 AM thus I had set my alarm to 04.00. I went to bed early since I had to wake up early the next morning.
Disaster starts early
All of a sudden I wake up and I felt something wrong, somehow in the dark I found my mobile phone to see the time. I was in for a shock it was 4.45 AM and my alarm did not go off, by mistake I had set my alarm to 4.00 PM. Luckily since the night before I had already packed up my basic thus took just 10 minutes to head out.
At the reception lobby the local organizers instructed us to have a quick bite as breakfast was already served at the hotel itself. Somehow I managed to grab a piece of bread and head to one of the three busses that had been arranged for the trip.
Making new friends
Somehow field trips always help to make better friends. Mr. Zahid Hassan (Bangladesh), Mr. Jun Virola (Philipines) & Ms. Mirgul Amanalieva (Kyrgyzstan) were some of the few participants in the bus and became known from unknown within minutes. There were also Spanish speaking participants from Guatemala, Argentina & El Salvador. From Africa we had participants from Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Senegal. Mr. Ardo Sow was the guide for our bus and luckily he could speak Spanish, English, French and Wolof. Not only was he our guide but later he was like a translator of the history of the region.
The journey starts
The bus was scheduled to depart at 05.00 PM but ultimately started at 05.30 PM. Lunch was provided to us in brown lunch packets before the departure. It was still dark outside when the wheels started rolling and within minutes we reached Autoroute à péage which is a four lane toll high way across the country. It was nice to see Senegal developing an effective road infrastructure.
We get our first break after around two hours of drive at a Gas Station. Some of us took this opportunity to look around the country side and some headed straight to the diner to grab a bite.
Changes in landscape
By now the landscape outside the window has changed dramatically, sitting inside the air conditioned bus we could only see and not feel the heat outside. All we could see were sand and shrubs wherever we looked. Occasionally there were few huts and livestock around some green patches of land. I kept wondering how the local population in this region survive such harsh environment.
We make an unscheduled stop at a rural livestock market. This comes as a good opportunity for us to see the daily life of the local population. Even though we did not understand the language but we were welcomed as a visitor.
We reach our first destination
All of a sudden in the distance I see a green patch of land and the bus takes a left turn. At the entrance we could see the flags of Senegal and South Africa and this announced that we have arrived at our first destination of West Africa Farms.
The moment we stepped outside the bus we could feel the heat of the desert sand all around us. We quickly proceeded towards a large group of men and women who had gathered under a tent. We were guided inside one of the concrete house in-between the farm.
We were then shown a presentation about the development done by West Africa Farms, as the manager was busy attending the naming ceremony of his child. This was also the last harvest day which all the villagers celebrate together along with a grand feast.
The presentation showed how the land which was not much suited for agriculture was transformed by using modern technology and digging a 2.5 KM canal to bring in water for the vegetables that were being grown over there. Refrigeration and packaging stations were also installed which ensured the freshness of the produce. West Africa farms had also helped rebuild the local school with better infrastructure as a part of the community development initiative.
We were taken around the farm in a tractor carriage and we could see the first hand use of modern technology and the result it has shown in this arid desert region.
At the end we were taken to the canal which had helped to bring the much needed water to this farm changing the entire landscape.
The sun was at its peak but we enjoyed the ride around the farm, we could see the vastness of the total project and could only imagine how the entire landscape would look when the entire project area would be complete.
As we proceeded to board our bus to go to our next destination I kept thinking about the future of West Africa Farms. If this project truly delivers back to the local community then this project is a real success in terms of a PPP model.
We proceed to the second destination
We arrive at a village community hall of the Municipality of Ngnith where we were joined by the Mayor and the Manager of the Program. Some village elders also joined in for a discussion and a debate. This place was very near to Lac de Guiers and the lake could be clearly seen beyond the community hall.
Most of the conversation were in Wolof and were subsequently translated into English and Spanish. Things began to heat up as we could clearly see two groups of elders debating over the submission of land towards the project. While the moderators were trying to balance the discussion I could clearly see some opposition of the entire concept.
It was clear that some of them were clearly against the program while others were inspired from the West Africa Farms project and wanted to join up. It was clear to me that the local community were not taken into confidence while this project was being rolled out. While some saw the benefit of it, others saw the negative impact that it will have on the local community.
Some of the village members were discussing about the old contract between West Farm Africa and the local community. It was clear that some of them did not respect that contract. There was an intense argument about this between the opposing groups.
The moderator requested the village elders to limit the arguing in front of the visitors to which they all agreed and we were thanked for the visit. By now it was 03.00 PM and we were very tired by the constant travelling since early morning. We ate our packed lunches which we were handed over in the morning inside the bus. We were told that next we were going to see the villages directly affected by the land grab.
Road to nowhere
After travelling for a while the bus leaves the paved road and starts the journey in the desert sands. We could feel every bump on the surface and felt as if we were in some cross country rally. All we could see were sand and shrubs all around us. After few minutes of driving we came across the land which was a part of the local land grab process.
We reached Niouroukhlene Village which mostly comprised of semi-nomadic herders. We could see goats, cows and other livestock surrounding basic mud style houses. The entire land was very dry and all around I could only see sand and shrubs. Life for these people must be very hard since with very less vegetation managing livestock can be a real challenge. Another challenge for them was the availability of drinking water which I assumed was scarce.
Members of the local village as well as from nearby villages had all gathered up along with the village elders to welcome us. We were introduced to the community leaders and they one by one started to tell us their daily difficulties.
We were told how private security guards prevent them from grazing their goats and often they get injured with the razor wires that surround the vast land that they have taken under their control. Also they have difficulty in accessing water for daily use.
We were told that this land that was in question was a protected land and how lobbyist managed to get the signature of the President declaring this protected land out of the forest area thus making it available for private use. We were told that on the day of the announcement of election results the private firms managed to secure the necessary signatures for this change.
It was very evident that the local community were very much against this land acquisition and this was more like a land grab from the local community. This project was never in favour of the development of the local community and its only main interest was to increase profitability with minimum contribution to the local community.
We were offered milk to drink which was real touching for me since amidst this difficulty and hardship the villagers were very welcoming.
We move on
By the time we finish up it was evening and the sun was about to go below the horizon. All of us were really tired so we all wanted to quickly reach Saint Louis so that we can take a fresh shower and relax. We could hardly imagine how these people in the village could survive for days and months with so little water.
As we were going past the desert roads we came across the acquired land by Senhuile-Senethanol we had to take a short cut to reach the main road leading to Saint Louis but we were stopped by the armed guards. The local team tried to rationalize with the security guards to let us through but they did not allow. They were visibly attentive and could be seen raising their automatic weapons as a sign of domination. Some of us got down from our bus to see what the real issue was but were requested to get back on the bus by the local team just to avoid any direct confrontation.
With no other option we turned back and the bus had to take the long route back to the high way. On our way we passed in front of the Senhuile-Senethanol project site which was visibly large with a substantial presence of security personnel.
St. Louis Finally
By the time we reached St. Louis it was 09.30 PM and all of us just wanted to take some good night’s rest. As luck would have it the hotel which we were supposed to stay was full and not all could be accommodated. I was amongst the lucky eight who did not find a room so we set off to another hotel which was just beside the Senegal River with the most fantastic view of the bridge. I guess this last minute change was a blessings in disguise after all.
After a quick shower we headed for a quick dinner at a restaurant nearby and at the dinner table it was like as if the world had assembled there since we had representation from almost all part of the globe. This was also an opportunity for all of us to discuss over dinner the day’s event. It was good to hear different perspective about the whole experience. We were lucky to have Mr. Ardo with us who happen to do his college from St. Louis and gave us the history of the town.
St. Louis was originally the capital of French West Africa and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I requested Ardo to join some of us for a quick walk around the town next day morning before we depart for Dakar.
Time to head back
Some of us got up early since we wanted to see around St. Louis thus after an early breakfast we went for short walk. We saw up close the local fishing community and the marvellous breath-taking French style buildings.
We left for Dakar at around 9.30 AM from St. Louis and on our way back we stopped at a rural market where we were able to purchase some authentic village souvenirs.
While returning we decided to have some fun and keeping in mind the diversity of the occupants in the bus we decided to sing our national anthem individually. It was real nice feeling to hear national anthems from Bangladesh, Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Guatemala, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Madagascar, Chile and Peru.
Wrapping it all up
For me this outbound trip was a sort of an eye opener. We were out in the open for may be few hours and we had real difficulty in adjusting to the harsh climate whereas the locals were facing the same hardship every single day. They don’t have any high inspirations they just want a piece of land for the livestock to graze and perhaps a few drops of water to drink. State and the society is unable to provide even this basic necessity and we must ensure that.
Since most of the discussions were in Wolof thus I had to rely on the translator to interpret thus there may be some discrepancy since many important facts can be lost in translation. If you see any incorrect facts then please get in touch with me which I shall change accordingly.
Subhadip Mukherjee represented Swadhina (www.swadhina.org.in) as volunteer coordinator at ILC – Global Land Forum 2015 – Dakar, Senegal.
Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org