Like the baobabs, cereal banks help Gambians weather hard times

By Coco McCabe

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Part 2 of a 2-part series.

Not far from where the Nyantang Dundula River slips by the village of Dasilami in Gambia, there rises a stand of giant baobab trees. Branches bristle from the tops of their stout trunks and beneath the canopy, pools of shade cool the air and ground. The houses of one of the largest clans in Dasilami once stood here in the stillness of this glade. But now, they cluster near a sun-scorched road, their owners having traded the comforts of the baobabs for the convenience of being close to a major transportation route.

Gambians have a saying about their baobab trees: "If you want to lean, make sure you lean on something strong to avoid being pushed down." It's a bit of wisdom that informs their approach to hard times, too, even as they leave the baobabs behind. What it means is that with some support, people can help themselves overcome hardships.

That's the idea behind a $65,000 grant Oxfam America has provided to help people in 51 villages—including Dasilami—in Gambia's North Bank Division. Here, food shortages are a constant threat as people struggle to manage the delicate balance between their needs and what the environment can provide. Will there be enough rain to allow crops to grow? Will locusts devour whatever villagers manage to coax from their fields?

A simple solution promoted by Oxfam's local partner, Agency for the Development of Women and Children, or ADWAC, takes the edge off those questions: If villagers had a way to save some of their food and seeds at the end of each harvest, they could have a reserve to fall back on during times of shortage. The trick was to get started.

ADWAC's plan called for building and stocking four cereal "banks"—tidy white structures the size of small houses which can hold up to 30 metric tons of cereals—located at strategic points around the communities. Villagers then formed committees to manage the stored supplies. Those who borrow from the storehouse during a food shortage are obliged to repay the loan and tack on a little extra, too, so that the project can grow.

Now, if drought should shrivel their crops or pests consume them, villagers can turn to that bank of grain, avoiding the need to eke what they can—as the woodcutters in Janack do—from an overstrained environment. The bank will help them weather tough times.

Inside the Dasilami storehouse one recent day, the sweetness of harvested grains fills the hot dry air. Heavy sacks—they weigh just under 200 pounds—stuffed with corn and millet are stacked nearly to the ceiling. Outside, in the shade of a tree laden with mangoes, Nyima Filly Fofana, a mother of nine children and an organizer for one of the cereal bank management committees, talks about what it was like one year recently when both locusts and drought hit the area.

"We experienced a very bitter time," she says. "The family was hungry." In times of food shortages, Fofana's family manages by selling the salt she harvests from mud flats near her home and by eating whatever vegetables they can grow in their garden. But if such trouble should strike again, this time Dasilami has the seeds of a solution—one that can now spread to other villages, too.

"Our worries will be temporarily solved," says Fofana, clapping her hands at the thought of the white building gleaming there in the sun, stocked with grain. "We'll have food. Therefore our families will not cry. Our stomachs will no longer go empty."