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Villagers Fight the Rural Exodus in Senegal

  • Amanda Fortier

A small group of villages in Senegal is slowly reversing the migration of workers to urban areas by creating community-driven employment opportunities at home.

In 1988, Yanhobah Sy did the opposite of what hundreds of thousands of other Senegalese were doing.

He left his job working at a newspaper printing shop in Dakar and moved out to a tiny, remote village in one of the hottest and driest parts of the country.

Sy says he was fighting against the rural exodus. People were leaving for Dakar, but not everyone can get a job in the city. The 52-year old father of six moved to the village of Ndem, in the Diourbel region of Senegal.

Diourbel is an area known as much for its harsh living conditions as for its deep religious and historic significance. Over a hundred years ago, it was the birthplace of the founder of the Baye Fall Islamic group - a sect that descends from the Mourides, which is one of the largest Islamic Brotherhoods in Senegal.

When Sy arrived at Ndem there were barely any trees. Crops had long since dried up and almost no one was around.

Sy says he came to Ndem to be close to his spiritual leader, or Marabout. He started out as a volunteer at the local school and then at the small health clinic.

Severe droughts during the 70s and 80s forced most of the men and young people to leave communities like Ndem and head for urban centers looking for better paying work. In most villages in this part of the country, the women and elderly were left behind.

Sy says he came to Ndem to work, to be an example of how he could fight against the rural exodus by making an income and staying close to his family.

Sixty years ago just under 15 percent of the population lived in Senegal's urban centers. Today, nearly one in every two people live in cities. The National Habitat Committee says Senegal has one of the highest rates of urbanization in Africa. And that has consequences for both village and city life.

Amadou Daouda Dia coordinates programs at Senegal's Ministry of Agriculture.

Dia says in countries like Senegal, rural exodus is a result of how little money can be made from agriculture. Just under 60 percent of villagers live off their crops, but with climate changes this is becoming more difficult.

The irony, says Dia, is that the cities don't often have viable work alternatives for these migrants. People try to work in small informal businesses, in transport or artisan. But these jobs offer no benefits. They don't make a lot of money, and they aren't highly skilled jobs.

Sy was able to continue living at Ndem because he could eventually earn an income and learn a business trade.

His Marabout, Babacar Mbow and his French wife Aicha, were making clothes with a single sewing machine and strips of recycled fabric. Over the decades this hobby blossomed into an international Fairtrade company and a non-governmental organization called Maam Samba.

Today the artisan company includes 12 workshops that specialize in metal works, home decor, organic clothing and fabric dyeing and basket weaving. The NGO works on various social and environmental projects. They have developed environmentally friendly combustible balls made of peanut shells and clay, started a drip-irrigation system for an organic garden and planted aloe vera fields for medicinal and beauty purposes.

The entire Maam Samba organization employs over 300 residents from 13 local villages. They are all trained by international experts in the areas of craftsmanship, agriculture, health and education.

Sy heads the main office for Maam Samba finished artisan products. From here their goods are sent to Dakar and then shipped to stores around the world, including Japan, France, Belgium and the US.

The ripple effects from the economic downturn of 2009 were felt in Ndem. Falling product orders at Maam Samba meant salaries, like Sy's, were reduced. His pay went from $185 a month down to just over a $100.

But Sy remains certain that Ndem is still a much better option than living in the city.

In Dakar he says life is very difficult. But he says at least here you can live in your own house and not pay high rent. You pay less electricity and water is cheaper. He says when you go to Dakar you are obliged to pay for a lot. He says in the village we live as a community. Everything is shared. However, he says, in Dakar you have to buy your own food, your family is not with you, but you must still pay to feed them. Here you're family is right in front of you.

Docey Lewis is a design consultant with the U.S.-based nonprofit Aid to Artisans. She teaches new weaving and knitting techniques in Ndem.

"The cotton's grown here, it's spun, carted, woven and dyed here, so you do everything on site and part of what's happening in other villages around the world, but most villages have a hard part with one part or the other. They either can't grow it or can't color it. There are too many problems. So to be able to do it all makes it workable," Lewis said.

Sy says the village of Ndem has been transformed over the last 25 years, revitalizing both the area's natural environment and its sense of community with men and young people returning home and families reunited.