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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

The Growing Challenge In Senegal

Africa, Senegal

Peace Corps Volunteers Cory Owens and Clare Major show how they worked alongside farmers in Senegal to improve their yield and help them organize. Cory was a graduate student in the Peace Corps Master's International program when she served in West Africa.


A snapshot of indigenous soil knowledge in Gourel Yoba, Senegal

Narrated by Peace Corps Volunteer Cory Owens

Since 1961, over 187,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 countries around the world. For over 43 of those years, Volunteers in the West African country of Senegal have been active in areas ranging from small business development to agriculture and natural resources extension.

Though enjoying long periods of political stability, Senegal still ranks among the least developed countries in the world, with a huge divide between urban and rural populations. Made up of around 12 million people of five main ethnic groups, 70 percent of the Senegalese are agriculturalists who for the last four decades have faced increasing challenges due to drought and desertification.

I served from 2004 to 2006 in Gourel Yoba, a typical rural village in southeastern Senegal, home to about 250 Pulaar and Mandinke speakers whose principal activity is subsistence farming. The Peace Corps Sustainable Agriculture program has been working with the people of Gourel Yoba for the last six years. Projects include improving food security through seed extension and dry season gardening, and facilitating community organization through the establishment of a women’s cooperative.

The current system of subsistence, rain-fed farming in rural Senegal has remained relatively unchanged since the successful introduction of animal traction in the 1970s. The government owns all village lands, for which farmers must pay a small annual tax. Land is passed down through families, though trading and borrowing of fields is a common practice. Crops include millet, sorghum, and beans for food, as well as cotton and peanuts as cash crops.

Gourel Yoba’s staple crop is corn, grown in the rainy season from late May through early October. During the rest of the year, fields are left fallow for the dry season. During this time, livestock forages on whatever crop residue is palatable. At night, farmers tie livestock on fields selected for a high concentration of manure.

Madi Soumare #1: If it’s time to seed, you plow. If you plow, then you seed. But before I plow, I take the cows to lie over there. If they stay for three or four days, then I move them. I plow there, I seed. That’s what I do. Then all the corn that you plant, it’ll be strong.

PCV Cory Owens: That’s true.

Madi Soumare: It’ll be strong.

In April farmers begin to rake and burn whatever plant residue is left on the fields. This clears the fields for plowing. With the first rains, farmers plow their fields using horses, donkeys, or cattle. When there has been sufficient rainfall, usually in June or July, the majority of fields are planted using mechanical seeders. Some fields, primarily those cultivated by women, are planted by hand.

Fields are normally weeded two or three times, at least once with a machine weeder and at least once by hand. Depending on availability and allocation, additional amendments such as fertilizer and pesticides are used.

Once a crop has completed its life cycle, it is harvested by hand. During the post-harvest processing, foods are prepared for storage, and seed is selected to save for the next year.

There are many factors that influence the success of a particular growing season. The amount and timing of rain, wind storms, availability of amendments, labor allocation, and the health of working animals are just some of the factors that affect whether or not a family is able to grow enough to meet its food and income needs for the upcoming year.

To better understand the management decisions and constraints that the farmers of Gourel Yoba annually face, an investigation into local knowledge of the soil resource was undertaken. To facilitate this investigation, a Day for Soil, or Naande fii Leydi, was celebrated in the village. Peace Corps staff and Volunteers met with the male farmers of Gourel Yoba and walked a transect of the village’s main agricultural fields discussing the types of soils, their names, what characteristics are used to distinguish them, and how they are managed. This discussion continued back in the village, where the women of Gourel Yoba were also interviewed.

Fanta Conte #1: If you teach a child: “Soil!" You show them: “Baleeri soil is here. Kenyeri soil is here. If you drop baleeri soil in the wind, it all goes. Kenyeri soil, though, some will stay." That’s how they’ll know it’s seeno [kenyeri]. Tell them that’s seeno, that’s baleeri.

Based on these breaks, the crops most suited to each soil are recognized.

Ibrahima Soumare: Baleeri soil, what’s good to plant in it?

Kumba Soumare: Baleeri soil? If you plant, plant sorghum. If you plant sorghum, it’ll do well. You plant cotton, it’ll do well.

Knowledge about each soil type influences how farmers make their management decisions, including when and where to plant each crop, managing risk associated with rainfall patterns, and balancing food versus cash crop needs.

Fanta Conte: You know baleeri soil? It’s heavy [it holds water]. Kenyeri soil isn’t heavy. If rains comes right now, you can farm kenyeri. But if it’s baleeri soil and it rains today, you’ll farm tomorrow. You can’t farm yet because the soil’s heavy.

Farmers in Gourel Yoba recognize the effects of soil degradation and climate change in Senegal. Villagers use simple, short-term management strategies to combat degradation, including adding extra amendments and allowing short periods of fallow when possible.

PCV Cory Owens: If you have a field, and your field is bad—it doesn’t sprout, it doesn’t do anything—what would you do?

Madi Dumba: If it doesn’t sprout, if you seed and it doesn’t sprout? If it was me, if I had a field that didn’t sprout? I’d leave it and go find another one.

PCV Cory Owens: You wouldn’t do anything?

Madi Dumba: You wouldn’t do anything because if you go, you leave it. Because for us here, there’s lots of land.

PCV Cory Owens: But if land is scarce?

Madi Dumba: If land is scarce? If land is scarce, if you don’t have fertilizer you’ll get manure.

PCV Cory Owens: If you don’t have manure, what do you do?

Madi Dumba: If you don’t have manure, you go find cows. If you want manure, you pick it up, then you bring it to your field.

Climate change is recognized in Senegal as a documented drop in rainfall that has occurred over the last 40 years. In addition to this long-term decrease in precipitation, cyclical periods of extreme drought have prompted farmers to make major management changes.

PC/Senegal Ag program director Famara Massaly: ’75 to ’79—that’s where they slowly stopped growing rice.

Farmers in Gourel Yoba are very knowledgeable about their soil resource. Every year, they make farm management decisions to try to meet their food and income needs. These decisions are often counter to what they know are the best uses of their soils. This is due to risk management behaviors and the uncertain availability of resources. Farmers work hard to maximize production by balancing these short-term constraints with the long-term problems of soil degradation and global climate change.

Written by Cory Owens and Clare Major. Shot and edited by Clare Major. Narrated by Cory Owens.
Thank you to: the Master's International Program, University of California—Davis.
Thank you to: our fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, our villages, Famara Massaly.
Clare Major and Cory Owens, 2007