It is the rainy season in The Gambia and the river had risen up to seize the streets of Basse, making the nearest blocks almost Venice-like as they are only navigable by boat. Tostan Supervisor Lakamay Gaye and I began our journey. Once we get out of Basse and across the river, we climb onto the motorbike; an anxiety-inducing experience. A barely competent bicycle rider, I have never ridden on a motorcycle before and I am terrified by the bumpy, red dirt roads I know lay before us, but I strap on a helmet and throw my leg over the vinyl seat. The bike sputters and starts and we are off, heading towards the Mandinka villages that will constitute the newest participants in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in The Gambia.
The village of Kuraw Kemo feels empty upon our arrival. The alkako (village chief), the record keeper, the head of the women’s kafo (committee)—they are all out working in the community garden. A small boy leads the way and when we approach the group, I am handed a hoe, to everyone’s amusement. After a few minutes of haphazardly hacking at rice, the village decides it has been sufficiently entertained by the agricultural ineptitude of a toubab (foreigner) and we settle beneath a wolo tree to discuss life in Kuraw Kemo.
The surrounding field, they explain, is full of knee-high rice now ready for harvesting and also knee-high mango tree seedlings that are five years away from bearing fruit. The village purchased 141 trees for 75 dalasi (about 3 USD) apiece and they will share the benefits communally, as they plan to do with the rice. Using the same idea, the women’s kafo in the village intends to start a vegetable garden once the rainy season is over.
This community, so proactive about initiating their own development, has already started to feel the impacts of the Tostan program. The neighboring village of Kuraw Arafeng participated from 2007 to 2009 and has shared the knowledge they acquired about the harmful effects of female genital cutting (FGC). Now the community says they have largely abandoned the practice as they found it difficult to continue once they became aware of the consequences.
Photos by Katie Seward: Top- the streets of Kuraw Kemo. Middle- Hawa Konoba in front of the rice and mango fields and community-gathering wolo tree. Below- Ibrahim Danso (right) and Bacary Malang (left), discuss problems in the village
Yet despite the village’s progressive nature, they still face many challenges. It is hard to find a market for the vegetables they grow, they need a fence to protect their rice and mango fields from animals so that all their hard work will not have been in vain, and without proper farming implements, it requires backbreaking labor to cultivate their fields. Considering the last item on the list, one man comments that even if they had the proper implements they do not have the horses or donkeys to make use of them. Another throws up his hands and chuckles: “Ha! This is poverty!” And the community joins him in laughter. I do too, once Lakamay translates, because I don’t know what other response to offer.
“Nyima,” they tell me, calling me by my Gambian name, “we give you the responsibility to find us help.” We all exchange phone numbers then end our time together with a Gambian prayer—palms open and facing towards the sky, eyes cast down, voices rising and falling in unison with words I don’t understand. Afterwards, Lakamay tells me they have asked God to provide for our safe travels and for mutual understanding between us.
Katie Seward is the Assistant to the National Coordinator in The Gambia. She calls Seattle, Washington home and loves eating all kinds of stuff wherever she happens to be.