Senegal: How Gardening Is Helping Ex-Offenders Reintegrate Into Society


In Senegal, social activism and hip hop are being cultivated in a center run by rapper Fou Malade. Here he has been rehabilitating ex-offenders through a series of workshops including music, graffiti and gardening.

Oblivious to the red dust kicked up by his trainers and sticking to the hem of his jeans, Aliou -- scissors in one hand -- paces between the heads of lettuce and chili peppers to prune some mint from wooden planters on the ground. He's a green volunteer at Guediawaye Hip Hop, a cultural center with a strong focus on teaching urban arts and skills. The various courses on offer have proved a lifeline to many here, Aliou explains.

"There was a time in my life when I wasn't on the right path," he says. "I used to steal, I drank, I sniffed solvents. But I got caught by the police and I did three months in prison. When I got out, G Hip Hop had just opened. A friend took me there and I met people who gave me options of what I could do, to get some work."

The 34-year-old threw himself into all sorts of activities -- from rap, to DJing, photography and even graffiti art. He found that hands-on projects like the vegetable plot were an instant hit. It's not what you might expect from a hip hop academy, but it is one of the most popular activities here because it offers a practical skill to develop one's own livelihood.

"Hip hop and gardening are interchangeable, for me they go together," says Aliou. "I never imagined that I'd be farming vegetables one day. Now that I know what I know, I've found my way and tomorrow will be OK."

Finding a purpose

As the midday sun starts to sting, Aliou and his friends -- a group of boys decked out in typical hip hop attire: oversized T-shirts, caps and baggy jeans -- take a break and sit together around a small stove waiting for their mint tea to bubble and froth. Music plays in the background.

Guediawaye Hip Hop was opened in 2013 by one of the heavyweights of Senegalese rap: Fou Malade, aka Malal Talla. He's a native of Guediawaye, a dusty Dakar suburb. He's also a social activist, rapper and role model who helps young people find their way in a country where high unemployment too often leads to delinquency.

Pretrial detentions can sometimes extend up to five or six years before the trial even starts. When they come out, former detainees need support and structure, says Malade: "When a person leaves prison, going back to their family is not enough. It's important that this person has some structure. They need some space like here where they can meet and talk to people who have been through similar things while they get their bearings and find their place again in society."

Working positively

Beyond music, dance or writing, which provides an artistic outlet, Guediawaye Hip Hop also aims to impart positivity, collaboration and a mindset that if you want something, you need to work for it. And that is exactly what the Green Volunteers, the group who found their way in the center's gardens, are doing. These activities do not just provide a purpose for the young men who come here, but also for the local community. Sendeye lives in the neighborhood: with her purse tucked into her long skirt, she comes to buy her produce from the Green Volunteers every day.

"It was a bit difficult because petty crime used to reign in this area, in this neighborhood," she says. "But since they've arrived here, now it's more peaceful. I've gotten to know them [through] speaking over the garden fence. They're nice!" she exclaims.

The improvements in the area haven't gone unnoticed. Babacar Gueye is head of the nearby college and passes by the center daily. "It's green, there's oxygen; I encourage this rather than abusive behavior," she says. "I congratulate them and have even requested they set up something similar on the other side of the college."

Getting back to his roots

Despite being busy around-the-clock with album releases and concerts, Fou Malade still makes time for the people in his neighborhood.

"Today people talk about social reintegration. I don't like this expression because young people have never been included. They've always been outcasts. They've been in conflict with society because some stole, killed or wounded others to take what they had."

Fou Malade wanted to provide a safe place for young people in his neighborhood to meet and put their energy to better use. "They begin to understand and open up to the world, while remaining proud of where they come from," he says. "And proud of what they are. We try to help them better understand the world around them, and to become valuable to society and not a burden."

What may have started out as an urban cultural arts center for disenfranchised kids has evolved into the heart -- beating to homegrown hip hop -- of an entire community.

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