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Vegetable gardens grow opportunities for refugees in Senegal

 Street News Service 14 November 2019

What does a woman need to survive as a refugee in one of the poorest countries on earth? Food handouts, tent shelter, emergency aid? For the short term, maybe. But in the long run there are better solutions, like the vegetable gardens in Northern Senegal. (1260 Words) - By Amanda Fortier


EU_Senegal_Children and women inside garden at Wendou Bosseabe refugee camp, Senegal

Children and women inside garden at Wendou Bosseabe refugee camp.Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_Refugee garden at Wendou Bosseabe

Refugee garden at Wendou Bosseabe refugee camp.Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_Gardeners at work in Wendou Bosseabe

Gardeners at work in Wendou Bosseabe.Photo: Amanda Fortier

Senegal_Fetching water to water the plants at the garden project

Fetching water to water the plants at the garden project.Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_Examining the harvest at Wendou Bosseabe

Examining the harvest at Wendou Bosseabe (Portrait picture - Download to see full image).Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_End of the work day at Wendo Bosseabe gardens

End of the work day at Wendo Bosseabe gardens.Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_Community gathers inside garden at Wendou Bosseabe refufee camp

Community gathers inside garden at Wendou Bosseabe refufee camp.Photo: Amanda Fortier

EU_Senegal_Vegetables harvested at Wendou Bosseabe garden refugee camp

Vegetables harvested at Wendou Bosseabe garden refugee camp.Photo: Amanda Fortier

Athia Diop takes a large key out from under her light blue and yellow boubou, rustles with the gate's padlock then heaves her small frame against the wrought iron bars. The doors fling open and a flood of smiling women march through. They are balancing large plastic buckets and watering cans on their veiled-covered heads, totting hoes and shovels over their shoulders and carrying young babies strapped to their backs. The women have come for their late afternoon gardening session here at the Hamady Ounare refugee camp, over 700 kilometers northeast of Senegal's capital city Dakar.

Amidst the pack is forty-eight year old Habi Barro. She is a refugee from Mauritania, who like more than 65,000 others fled her country in 1989 following ethnic clashes between the Mauritanian black and Moor populations. Barro came with her seven-year old daughter.She has decided to remain in Senegal, even though the UN Refugee Agency began its voluntary repatriation program over three years ago and 20,190 have opted to return home.

Barro is president of her gardening group.It is a team of 50 women - five local Senegalese, including Athia Diop, and 45 Mauritanian refugees - who have been tending to their communal crops of cucumbers, tomatoes, okra and watermelon since this past July. The project is known as "super vegetable gardens" (SVG). The concept was developed by the French organization Jardin Tropical Semences (JTS) to help growers in Sahelian areas, like Senegal, where the growing season is very short - sometimes only three months of the year - and where they typically depend on staple crops, such as peanuts and millet.

The Hamady Ounare garden holds fourteen individual SVG's, and is one of three camps here in Senegal's Fouta region where the UNHCR has funded the gardening project as part of their refugee integration activities. The setup of a single SVG costs $750 and includes a growing kit - with a selection of seeds, soil conditioners, fertilizers, and growing equipment - an instruction manual and a five-day training program.

"The main advantages of the JTS gardens are the amount and the variety of produce they can grow," explains Moda Gueye, the director of JTS Senegal. "And it is on a very small surface area- only 50 square meters are needed. You can also grow year round and save on water by using a drip irrigation system and underground tarps. Instead of 800 liters a day, you only use 200."

A well-functioning SVG grows more than two kilograms of produce a day. This can easily feed a family of ten with extras leftover to sell at the market. Sold at fifty cents a kilogram, these profits represent a valuable sum in this part of the country - an area where annual school fees are less than $5 and a doctor's consultation is a couple dollars.

"In the beginning, it was the Senegalese women who were always helping us find work, but now we can support and help each other"

According to Moda Gueye, the Hamady Ounare gardens have had the most success of all 50 gardens planted across the three camps. After their last harvest the women hauled in 200 kilogram of cucumbers and 300 kilogram of okra.

Pathé Gueye is one of the JTS trainers who helped train 270 women gardeners, 252 of whom are Mauritanian refugees. He stands inside the garden perimeter at Hamady Ounaré, holding a young baby whose mother is watering a new crop of carrots.

Pathé explains that the most difficult part of the project was getting the women to take charge of the project and to instill a sense of ownership in their gardens.

"But now," he says looking around at the group of women hauling water from the well, pulling down gardening veils, and tilling the soil, "now you can see they are all hard workers."

Typically in Senegal, it has been the young men from the countryside who have adopted the SVG practice as a way to generate income and avoid the rural exodus.

Moda Gueye says that among the refugees, the men have simply not expressed the same level of interest in the SVG's. But he also admits that, in general, women seem to be more diligent at taking care of their gardens.

Habi Barro crouches down to the soil and nudges herself between two rows overflowing with leafy green crops of okra. Athia Diop and the rest of the women gather round with their young children and babies to listen in.

"My experience in Senegal assures me it is better than going back to Mauritania," Barro calmly explains in her native Pulaar. "I have never had any problems integrating here. Here there is peace. In the beginning, it was the Senegalese women who were always helping us find work, but now we can support and help each other."


The Mauritanian refugee situation in Senegal was considered one of the World's most protracted, until repatriation efforts began in January 2008. Voluntary repatriation for the tens of thousands who fled 19 years earlier only became possible after Mauritania's (then) President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the country's first democratically elected leader, called for its citizens to return home in 2007. But just two years later, operations suspended until a tripartite meeting between the two governments and the UNHCR was eventually established. Finally, in October 2010, repatriation efforts resumed and over 20, 000 refugees are in the final stages, or have already, gone home.

The Super Vegetable Garden project is one of several activities underway to help those refugees who have decided to stay in Senegal as naturalized citizens. The Senegalese-based West African aid group OFADEC carries out all the UN Refugee Agency activities along this 600-kilometer stretch of valley that borders Mauritania and Mali. Their activities include equipping health clinics with medical equipment, providing schools with new toilets, building better irrigation facilities for rice plantations and adding at least 300 to 400 more SVG's.

Ibrahima Thiandoum leads the OFADEC team working in the Valley. He say says their agricultural projects are among the best examples of social integration between the two groups.

"It is important for the local Senegalese and Mauritanian communities to mix during this final phase," explains Thiandoum. "When they live and work side-by-side there is less risk of building tensions between the two groups, because the whole community benefits from their projects."

Penda Ndiaye, the local integration and livelihoods associate with UNHCR in Senegal, admits the refugee situation in Senegal differs from other refugee situations on the continent in some fundamental ways.

"The Mauritanian refugees are well-integrated here, because they share the same customs, language and cultural practices as the local population. They live in the same types of houses and evolve in similar living conditions. They also like reminding people that they might be two separate nations, but (historically) they are one single and unique group of people. This is unlike other refugee situations in Africa, such as the Burundi in Tanzania for example, where they had greatly reduced mobility. Here in Senegal we cannot tell the difference between a local or a refugee, whether in the city or the country."

For the refugees who have opted to remain in Senegal, there are still some juridical hurdles to overcome. Issues of land ownership and distribution of identity cards remain pressing concerns.

Ndiaye says that both issues are the responsibility of the Senegalese government, but the UNHCR is helping facilitate the processes to ensure identity cards are handed out before the end of this year and access to land can be made possible in certain areas. The UNHCR and OFADEC are currently planning their final activities for 2012, after which the integration process for the Mauritanian refugees will be considered complete.

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