Mama Tahé is happy to go to the communal garden where the solar-driven water pump provides the garden with water. Here she can grow vegetables for her family and even sell some of the surplus and get money for school fees and other expenses. Mama lives in the delta of the Inner Niger river where overgrazing and dense population taxes severly on the landscape. The garden is part of an initiative to enhance their resilience climate change.
As the blistering sun beats down on the dry arid land of the Mopti region in Mali,Tahé Konta, who prefers to be called Mama, wipes her soil-ridden hand across her forehead. With the dripping beads of sweat that were trickling onto her eyelids removed, Mama sets back to a fast-paced rhythm of delving her fingers deep into the crumbly land to turn the soil. It’s late morning in June; nearly time for the 43 year-old to take shade from the soon approaching midday heat. In a modest tin building located at the far end of the neatly plotted land, she’ll join 49 female co-workers for a weekly meeting to discuss the running of their cooperative garden.
One hectare in size and soon welcoming its second birthday, the square field is one of 19 gardens dotted around the rural most northern part of the country. Set up as a collaboration between various donor organisations and local governments, the intention of these gardens is to ensure that the area’s dwindling natural resources are farmed economically. Simultaneously, potentially vulnerable women can earn a sustainable income in a safe working environment.
“The garden came just at the right time” smiles Mama, as she hoists the youngest of her 6 children further onto her back in order to more comfortably kneel down and pull the weeds from the newly sprouting cucumber plants. Like nearly all people living in this desolate rural area, Mama has always relied entirely on natural resources to feed her family. “Me and many of the women now working here in this garden would canoe daily down the river to catch fish to sell at the market, but recently there were none to catch”.
The Niger River Mama talks of, is home to some of the world’s greatest wildlife, hippos and crocodiles to name just a few, but the problem of over-farming resources typifies the central challenge plaguing the vastly expanding communities of this area. With an average birth rate of 6.4 children per woman, Mali has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and quite simply, there is not enough supply to meet increasing demands.
Some collapse or faint, because of the journey and heat
Perpetuating this situation is the lack of formal infrastructure or planning to ensure resources are managed economically. Consequently, people are forced to go to desperate measures to find something, anything, to eat or sell. Mama’s eldest daughter Miriam, 13 years old, talks of friends, many of whom are younger than herself, walking dangerously long distances alone to collect firewood.
The dangers of decreasing natural resources are not limited to simply the distances people face in reaching them; a state of panic is sweeping the region whereby people are so despairing for resources, disruptive behaviour such as land-grabbing is becoming commonplace. This mindset of increased individualism, whereby little thought is given to the survival of communities as a whole, is particularly affecting the safety of women. Ultimately, as their husbands spend more time seeking employment in the big cities (a long journey from the rural north of the country), it is the females that are left to compete to find the agricultural work, and often, to fall victim to any violence associated with disputes over it.
Secured with a high fence, the garden not only offers a safe working environment for women of the Londena village, but also enables them to optimise output by managing crops together.
“Of course we have disputes here in the garden. But we always take the time to discuss the problems and come to a solution as a group,” exclaims Mama as she fills a plastic cup of water from a small well located to the side of the meeting hut. “The produce you own depends on how much you have worked”explains Mama.
In order to maintain the garden and cover running costs including investments for equipment and seeds, women give 6% of their produce back to the garden. This produce is then sold at the local market.
“Then what we harvest first goes to feeding our own families and whatever is left over, we individually sell to make money,” explains Mama as she crosses her legs to sit down and take her place at the weekly meeting in the hut.
Lead by a chairwoman, on the agenda for today’s meeting is water. Just over a year and a half ago, donor organisations helped fund a water tower that, powered by solar power, pumps water to various points across the garden, making it easier to access the water and hydrate the crops. Today, some women are passionately voicing that they should invest in more water points around the garden, as this would speed up their work considerably.
“One of the things that makes me happiest is coming into the garden and knowing there’s water,”exclaims Mama proudly. The large light blue water tower at the far end of the garden, has not only made a difference to the gardener’s professional lives but also their personal: “our families are able to drink safe water because of this water tower too” notes Mama.
After the issue has been discussed at length, the women move on to inform each other of the key events in their home lives.
“This garden is how we find out what’s going on for one another,” says Mama as she leaves the meeting with women varying from 15 to 70 years in age.
It’s at these weekly meetings that the women from the cooperative garden also donate money towards any marriages, funerals or celebrations alike, which are going on within the local community. This garden has enabled women to assert autonomy in terms of making their own money and deciding exactly how they’re going to spend it.
This garden has helped pay for school fees
Mama is clear to point out that being able to contribute to the financial running of the household has not only had quality of life consequences, but also contributed to life chances of the younger members of the family. With Mali having one of the highest illiteracy rates world-wide, Mama sees sending her children to school as essential.
“I don’t want my daughter Miriam to have a life like me”.
Miriam, Mama’s eldest living daughter, says she loves nothing more than helping her mother in the garden when she can. Despite still being at school, Miriam spends whatever time she can in the garden.
“I hope this garden grows so that one day it will be able to be left to my daughters,” says Miriam shyly.
It is this spirit of entrepreneurship combined with a genuine respect for their fellow coworkers, which unites all women of the garden regardless of age.
Heavy storm clouds have now begun to loom over the garden, and as women quickly disappear home for lunch, the garden suddenly becomes sparse. As some of the last to go, Mama and Miriam sit at the far left corner. Amid the sound of breaking thunder, their laughter can be heard as they accidently hit each other’s hands whilst trying to get rid of the tiny insects crawling over the budding vegetables. Miriam stands and leans down to give her mother a hand to help her stand.
“Come on now, otherwise we’ll be caught in the storm” smiles Miriam.