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‘Eco kids’ lead the way to a greener future for Africa

 Street News Service 14 December 2019

As delegates from around the world wrapped up the COP 17 conference in South Africa, a group of young eco-kids in Senegal have been quietly going about their own business, getting their hands dirty for the benefit of their environment. (844 Words) - By Amanda Fortier

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Students tear paper before making paper briquettes​. Photo: Amanda Fortier

Eleven-year old Hija Aida Kone hovers over a giant plastic bucket filled with paper, peanut shells, sawdust and water. She is wearing a pair of sparkling yellow high heels, a matching skirt and top, and has a black headscarf wrapped neatly around her bright, smiling face. In a moment she is about to get her tiny hands covered in a goopy brown and white paste. And she can hardly wait.

It's not the first time Hija's made this special paper concoction. She is one of 50 students at the Baol Environment center, a local environmental club here in Diourbel, a few hours northeast of Dakar and in one of the hottest and driest parts of Senegal. Every Saturday morning, this group of boys and girls - selected among the best in their schools - dedicate an entire morning to learning the in's and out's of environmental education. Today they are making paper briquettes. It's a small project with big plans to make a lasting difference in the lives of the local population and their surrounding environment.

"I think what makes this project unique is that we're trying to combine a lot of elements and make it a holistic approach to environmental work," explains

April Muniz, a Peace Corps volunteer who helps lead the paper briquette project.

Muniz is sitting under the shade of the leafy-green trees inside Baol Environment's courtyard. Outside, whirling gusts of dust and sand whip by, and the midday sun is just starting to beam its prickly razes.

"(This project) covers the issue of trash in our environment, the importance of recycling, the issue of reforestation. It also covers the issue of alternative fuel sources," says Muniz. "It's a project that has been able to wrap up a lot of the concepts that we have been trying to teach into one very tangible project that kids can get their hands on."

Using old rice bags, the kids collect paper waste from their schools, homes and yards and every week haul them into Baol Environment. Here they follow a three-step recipe. The paper is ripped and shredded into tiny bits, the extra 'ingredients' are added, and a chunky paper stew is formed that is then poured into a metal press and placed in the sun to dry. Once finished, the paper briquettes are used to replace charcoal, gas and wood for cooking. Each brick burns long enough to prepare a local meal of rice and fish, and the total cost of making each one is little more than a few cents. In a part of the country where many people spend the same amount on charcoal as they do on rice, the paper briquettes provide a cost-effective solution that is harmless for the environment.

"Kids look at what is happening around them and they watch how their parents behave and how they live," says Ibrahima Faye, president of Baol Environment who has been living in Diourbel for 35 years. "Their parents have lived through at least 2 or 3 cycles of dry spells that have completely changed customs in the region. This means that these kids have no recollections of what Diourbel was like in the past. And what they have found is an incredible lack of sanitation, disrespect for rules and a vicious level of poverty that has even forced families apart."

In the late 1970's and 80s, massive droughts swept through the region of Diourbel dwindling staple millet and peanut crops and pushing families deeper into poverty. Once the center of Senegal's agricultural basin, Diourbel's land has suffered from the depleting effects of climate change.  There have been marked increases in temperature, estimated at 1.5 degrees, and an overall reduction in rainfall, at roughly 20-30%.  Decades ago the landscape was covered in vegetation. Today, the soil is sandy and brittle. The fields are brown and barren, and littered in trash.

"People here generally do not have a culture of managing garbage," explains Moussa Diallo, a principal at one of the elementary schools in Diourbel who admits even their school didn't have bins. "It is not in (their) mind-set to properly dispose of trash. But even if this did start happening, they are confronted by another problem - how to get rid of it. Today it is actually the poor people who use their wagons and carts to move the garbage out."

Baol Environment plans to introduce the paper briquette project to the over 500 women they collaborate with from surrounding villages. Ibrahima Faye says they have to do this slowly though, because changing habits takes time.

But for the young students, they seem to have caught on quickly.

"I just can't get here fast enough," admits Awa Deme, a young student sitting next to Hija. "Every week I look forward to it, and I'm always in a great rush to get here."

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