Popenguine, Senegal — Wolimata Thiao is a towering, one-woman, tour de force. She has mobilised the women of Popenguine and surrounding villages, north of the Senegalese capital, Dakar, to reclaim and protect nature. It has not been easy. But Thiaos motto is "Please dont give me anything, just teach me."
With a sunny smile and a tenacity that belies her warm welcome, Thiao and the other members of the RFPPN (Regroupement des Femmes de Popenguine pour la Protection de la Nature) womens collective, described how they risked their reputations, and even their marriages, and were dismissed as crazy and 'lazy women.
The 'lazy description was because these women were thought to be wasting time and energy creating a natural reserve for the community, rather than concentrating on the normal domestic duties of Senegalese wives and mothers.
But the dynamic village women of Popenguine, Popenguine Serere, Kiniabour 1 and 2, Guerew, Thiafoura, Soro Hassap and Ndayane, persevered and proved their critics and detractors wrong. Slowly, they won over their husbands, and other villagers, proving that they could regenerate and conserve their environment, encourage eco-tourism, ensure reforestation and the survival of both flora and fauna -- and still fulfil the housework expected of them.
Now, the womens collective has become a byword for sustainable development and environmental preservation in Senegal. And you can sense true community spirit immediately you walk into their midst .
They call their initiative Ker Cupaam (or Keur Thioupam), meaning "Chez Mother Cupaam," and named after the protective local spirit. The Popenguine project is not blessed with a picturesque, luxuriant, enticing, green, forested backdrop by the seaside. The 1,550 women who make up the RFPPN, nature protection collective, have toiled to cultivate mangrove swamps around the Somone lagoon, regenerating the flora and coaxing back the water, despite diminishing rainfall.
Assisted by wardens sent to Popenguine by the Department of National Parks, what ten years ago was in danger of becoming a dried out lagoon is now flourishing. The renewed Somone is now home to all manner of aquatic creatures, fish, crayfish, oysters and thousands of crustaceans and nail-sized crabs. The crabs,with their lopsided gait, run helter-skelter at the approach of the footfalls of a group of visiting journalists, accompanied by their hosts from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which partly funds the project.
Thiao is proud of their achievements and the fruits of their labour although she repeats, smiling ruefully, that their success came at a price. Ker Cupaam also has a plant nursery and villagers have been trained in seed and plant production as well as monitoring techniques.
A one-time local activist , who fought for the rights of residents of the rural community of Ndiass, Thiao thrives on adversity and challenges. "It took some doing, but people now understand that there is nothing you can do without the environment. Nothing. At the beginning it was very difficult, honestly. Some of our marriages were even threatened. We really had to sensitize our fellow villagers. Now, nothing happens in our villages without the support of the Ker Cupaam women."
A credit scheme for the women was also set up, 'a revolving credit bank, as Thiao calls it, where money is lent to women to help them set up their own little businesses and other income-generating activities, outside the work of the collective. But the funds are not available to the men. "Well, the credit system is only for the women of the collective, to motivate them. If we start lending money to the men then, who knows? They could go off and look for other women and even other wives!" said Thiao, prompting loud guffaws from journalists and onlookers.
Ker Cupaam has also run courses, since 2000, and has its own internet website, computer and library rooms, "for the exchange of ideas, debates and for literacy classes". Praising new technology, Thiao proudly sweeps through the study complex, adjacent to the restaurant and overlooking the central courtyard at the centre, where shells, crafts, baskets and other local merchandise made by the women is on sale.
Thiao described Ker Cupaam as a laboratory where everyone can learn something.
"Theory is very important, but it is in the practice that we really learn, that we have learnt. The management of the National Parks is the sea, if you like, and we are the little fish busy swimming in the waters. We work together. The Environment Ministry is a library where everyone is free to learn. Those who dont know anything about how to manage the environment, and why they should, come here to learn. You dont have to go to university. We have learnt so much here."
For Wolimata Thiao, sustainable development means "always being conscious that everything we do will have an effect on our future and on the future of our children and grandchildren. Thats what sustainability is all about. Its the action that we take. We must ensure that there is some continuity, supervision and follow up."
She said the women of Ker Cupaam practise what they preach and, "from the smallest seed to the biggest tree, everything is done with their own hands... theory is for school, the practice is right here on the ground and thats where we are," she repeats.
At the end of the visit, walking barefoot on the beach, the Popenguine women - accompanied by a corps of young village volunteers - proudly show off their work, the lush mangroves and the imminent rising tide of the lagoon, notwithstanding the late rains. A decade ago, the regeneration of the Popenguine and Somone natural reserve was almost a pipe dream.
As she stoops to pick up cockleshells, - some species of which they are hoping to regenerate and propagate, as well as recycle the shells - Thiao muses on what has become her lifes work. "We are planning to cooperate with Wetlands International on this shell project. You know everything is possible if you look after your environment. But you mustnt mix politics with the management of bio-diversity and sustainable development! My priority is the rural community. If people try to drag me into politics, then I cannot concentrate properly on what has become my priority."