Off Campus

Senegal Sings with joy

We had hit our seventh hour of driving, and the rural Senegalese countryside was a blur rushing past my window. The land was dry and arid, with vast stretches of reddish-orange earth that had hardened and cracked under the heat of relentless sun. Enormous trunks of baobab trees were rooted firmly in the soil, but there were no signs of green—only vast desert land. A smattering of small houses occasionally cropped up in little groups as if they’d fallen from the sky, solitary in the emptiness of their surroundings.

It was 2015, and I was tagging along on a work trip with my father, as I had done for many summers of my childhood. His organization, Root Capital, lends to small farmers in rural Latin America and Africa, and so here we were in Senegal, across the ocean and out in the bush, checking in on current and prospective clients. We toured their facilities, joined them for business meetings, and discussed their current status and aspirations for the future.

When the car passed through a village, the land would come alive. Men and women clad in vividly colorful swaths of fabric and beaded jewelry sold traditional Senegalese clothing, used furniture, papier mâché animals, and fresh mangoes on the roadside, where a patchwork of ramshackle overhangs shielded them from the sun. They marketed their wares in the native tongue.

Children rode on wagons, pulled by mules, carrying barrels of millet, sorghum, and rice—staple grains grown and consumed locally as well as exported across Africa and overseas. These oases sprung up from nothing and disappeared into the distance as we drove away, but they left me in awe. How, in the midst of this sparse desert wasteland, could there be so much life? How could anything grow?

Diaca Sol, a Senegalese native and colleague of my father, explained that the farming co-op we were on our way to visit was entirely run by women. They had created the operation from the ground up, planting, hiring, applying for a loan, and buying equipment independently. In rural Senegal, she explained, it is customary for men to have many wives, and due to a lack of birth control, these women have many children. Most men cannot or will not make the effort to support their families and often die before their youngest children are grown, leaving the women stranded with countless mouths to feed and no source of income or assistance.

Against these odds, a group of these women had banded together, seeking their own employment opportunities. In founding an agricultural co-op, they regained personal agency. Their financial self-sufficiency allowed them to take charge of their lives and the lives of their children and achieve a level of independence—or codependence—with the men of their family.

As our drive drew to a close, we spotted a small warehouse standing alone at the end of a long dirt drive. Outside the building, 15 women milled about chatting with one another in vibrant dresses and matching headscarves. When we arrived, they greeted us with hugs, handshakes, and smiles. The head of the organization, a charismatic, charming old woman, told me to call her Mama Biti. She gave us a tour of their facilities, explaining how their new processor sorted and refined millet so that the women no longer had to separate and husk by hand. She brought us out back to see their new crop of onions, stacked sky-high in bags and stamped with their company’s name in fancy lettering.

Throughout this process, there pulsed an undertone of irrepressible pride. These women had done the impossible: they had coaxed life from the sun-dried, arid ground. They had overcome the boundaries and hardships of their own realities.

As an avid feminist, I marveled at their strength. Their ambition, their limitless drive—it inspired me. Together, they had found a way to maneuver the complexities of the world that they were born into instead of caving to injustice. Extreme poverty and gender imbalance hadn’t stopped them from seeking opportunity. And through it all, they remained kind. These women were angels—they held my hands and spoke to me as if I were their daughter. They joked often and laughed with booming vigor. They were joyful—it spilled from their smiles and their eyes, and I felt welcome.

The next day, as we drove on to another co-op, I saw life everywhere—not only in the villages, but in all the spaces that lay between—because I understood that these people were strong. Resourceful. Each lonely smattering of shacks housed men and women who had made a life for themselves where it seemed that life wasn’t welcome. They had taken their surroundings into their own hands and breathed life into them. Perhaps things could grow in the desert after all.

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