“Danga dof,” is a phrase in the Wolof language that Mariama Ndao heard countless times over her first two years in the Trees for the Future training program as she pulled water from an 80 foot well and carried ten gallon tubs on her head to water her newly planted jujube trees. As Mariama, in her mid 50s, carried over a dozen tubs of water a day, over the length of a football field each time, “you’re crazy!” seemed to the villagers to be a gross understatement. “They are just thorny bushes you can find in the countryside,” they insisted, “why are you tiring yourself in the hot sun to plant them in your field?”
In Kaffrine, Senegal, where Mariama lives, the subsistence way of life does not offer much room for vision. If you struggle to eat today, it is difficult to see ahead to next week, and nearly impossible to see two years ahead. The future for water and trees looked bleak, but Mariama had a vision. In a Trees for the Future workshop she learned to grow and plant 800 thorny, fruit-bearing jujube trees around her two acre plot of eroded farmland. She knew that someday it would become a living fence like examples she had seen in the workshops, providing protection from grazing animals so she can begin to selectively grow more lucrative crops. She continued to carry water to her trees, step-by-step, bucket after bucket because trees need water.
Once covered in trees, the country of Senegal has become a victim of slash and burn farming and the clearing of trees for fences, homes, and fuel wood. By returning tree cover to the agricultural landscape, the roots of Mariama’s trees are beginning to channel water back into the ground. In abundance, these trees will begin to restore groundwater tables and they will increase her village’s water security. There is a great need for this in Senegal, where water tables have fallen more than 60 feet in some areas over the last two decades. The combination of richer soil, shaded ground, and the organic materials from the tree, such as fallen leaves and flowers contributes to retaining the moisture, in turn increasing groundwater levels. Just as trees need water, water needs trees.
Mariama’s need to support her five children and four grandchildren kept her vision alive and forward thinking. She has seen where a lifetime as a cash crop farmer has gotten her, and she wished she had more to leave to her grandchildren than empty fields. As her trees grew, she planted vegetables within her growing living fence. She continued to carry water every day to care for her plants. When the Harmattan winds blow in early March from the Sahara, a great heat descends on the country marking the end of gardening season in Senegal. In Mariama’s second year in the Trees for the Future Forest garden training program in her community, the rainy season came late and ended early, leaving an estimated 20 million rural residents in the Sahel fearing severe hunger in the ensuing months. Food aid organizations are scrambling to get ahead of the crisis, but Mariama is not lining up for bags of rice.
While peanut farmers suffered, her drought-resilient, nitrogen-fixing pigeon peas fruited twice that year, giving her 90lbs of protein-rich beans. She sold half for nearly $50 and her family ate the other half- a welcome boost in food and income that she otherwise would not have had. The extra $50 is a game changer for families like Mariama’s who are struggling to earn more than $1/day.
With the support of her village women’s group and Trees for the Future, Mariama recently installed a water spigot in her field – only the second spigot to be installed in her village. The water line where she sources her water previously passed through her village, as everyone was too poor to afford running water.
Women from Mariama’s women’s group admit they had called her crazy many times. However, now they stand beside her, following her example. Mariama Ndao is a lead farmer in the Trees for the Future training program, helping over 20 other families grow Forest Gardens. If enough people in the community shift from seasonal monocrops to Forest Gardens, their communal water supply will be around for future generations to enjoy.
Singularly, Mariama’s trees will not stop climate change, they will not replenish Senegal’s falling water table, and they will not stop the encroaching Sahara desert. But they have planted seeds of hope, and with that hope, other small farmers are beginning to plant trees. Day after day, like the imperceptible growth of a tree, a movement is forming. Mariama is no longer just one crazy woman with a couple thousand trees on a barren lot. She is the root of a sustainable vision in her community, in which both water and trees are protecting our environment, increasing livelihoods, and providing sustenance for our farmers and their families.