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Photo: Guy Peterson.
A circus troupe offers hope to Senegal’s street children.

Poor children in Senegal often have a heartbreaking life, but one who rose above years of deprivation figured out a way to help others by sharing something that helped him. Today I’m drawing from three sources about what that was.

The BBC writes, “Every year, thousands of young Senegalese children are sent to the cities to study the Quran, only to find themselves forced into begging for money and food on the streets.”

DW.com reports about help coming from a man who was once one of their number. “In Senegal, circus skills were not really seen as a ‘proper’ or ‘respectable’ job. But that didn’t stop a former street beggar from founding Senegal’s first circus company in 2010. Today, Sencirk teaches circus acts to underprivileged kids. [The kids have even] represented Senegal with their juggling and acrobatic skills on the acclaimed TV show Africa’s Got Talent.”

Guy Peterson expands on the initiative at the Christian Science Monitor. “Under the shade of a dusty canvas tent in the sweltering heat, five men rehearse for a circus tour of France the following week.

“They make up Senegal’s only circus troupe, and each of them took long roads to get here, overcoming difficult childhoods, facing rejection by their families after they escaped abusive religious schools, and living on the street. …

“According to human rights groups, the talibés, as the boys are known, are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse from teachers. Talibés are forced to beg for money each day, and if their quota is not filled, they can be beaten and starved.

“Senegal has seen increasing youth unemployment, which leads many young adults to consider emigration if they can’t find opportunities at home. Sencirk helps them see those opportunities. 

“Modou Touré escaped [and] after taking up circus training in Europe, he returned to Dakar and founded Sencirk in 2006, providing free training to teens who escaped from their schools. The program allows them to work through traumatic experiences and to see paths toward a better future, whether that means working in the circus or reintegrating into society.

“An older performer and teacher at Sencirk, Sammi, explains, ‘We can teach them how to work together, how to grow, to believe in themselves.’ ”

According to the BBC, Sencirk’s founder “trained in Sweden for three months and toured with professional circus troupes around the world, before setting up the Sencirk tent in Dakar.

” ‘Circus is my therapy,’ says Mr Touré, now 31.

“The practice also assists him control his emotions and has the capacity to help others like him, he says.

” ‘It gives them confidence and helps them battle their demons.’ “

One 14-year-old trainee told the BBC, that “he loves everything about the circus: ‘It helps me learn and it makes me aware.’ …

“He hopes to join Sencirk as a full-time performer one day.

“Mr Touré’s troupe conducts regular free workshops at rescue homes for street children and women’s shelters to provide entertainment and identify talent.

” ‘It shows them they can go from the streets to making a living in the circus,’ Mr Touré says.

“Out of both necessity and the desire to preserve what they call the ‘Africanness’ of their shows, Sencirk uses locally found materials to make its equipment, such as trapezes, safety mats and juggling balls.

“Sencirk’s unique approach to circus is to share personal stories that other West Africans can relate to.

“One performance portrays the draws and dangers of clandestine migration to Europe. Another shares the experience of living as a talibé runaway.

“It’s a community built on resilience – a group of people working through shared trauma who are strengthened by their ability to overcome it together.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Dean Paton.
At Sam Wasser’s University of Washington office, maps show where ivory poaching occurs and where the contraband is exported. Dr. Wasser’s DNA work revealed that most ivory comes from east and west-central Africa.

It’s sad to read that gangs with powerful tentacles in every country are deeply embedded in the trafficking of endangered species. But on the other side, you know, environmental warriors have superpowers of their own, powers that go beyond righteous indignation.

Dean Paton writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “When Sam Wasser was a young biologist studying baboons in Tanzania, he never imagined he would one day lead an international force cracking down on the smuggling of illegal goods, from elephant ivory to pangolins and timber.

“Yet fighting transnational criminal organizations, or TCOs in law enforcement parlance, is exactly what he’s doing today, all because of his passion for animals.

“And because he discovered how to extract DNA from elephant poop.

“Today, Dr. Wasser is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. But in 1989 he was observing environmental stresses on baboons when Tanzania launched … a ‘brutal crackdown’ on elephant poaching rings. Tanzania battles a reputation for being among a handful of worst offenders in Asia and Africa that fuel the illegal ivory trade.   

“[The crackdown] had unexpected consequences. ‘All of a sudden our baboons started to be killed by leopards at an incredibly high rate,’ Dr. Wasser says. … The team realized the leopards had mostly ignored the local baboon fare while feasting on the remains of elephants left by poachers, who took only the tusks.  

“The decline in elephant carrion and subsequent decimation of the baboon troops ‘made me realize how significant poaching really was on all levels,’ he says, ‘and on all the other species that were similarly affected by the ecological cascade of events.’

“A self-described ‘animal nerd,’ Dr. Wasser points out that elephants are ‘some of the smartest animals around,’ he says. ‘They can recognize themselves in a mirror. You can put a spot on their forehead, and they’ll look in a mirror and they’ll wipe it off. That’s a high cognitive ability.’ But ‘we lost over 100,000 elephants from 2007 to 2015. There are currently an estimated 415,000 elephants remaining in Africa.’

“Dr. Wasser explains that poachers often go back and kill members of the same elephant families – so frequently that he believes it creates a form of elephant PTSD.

“Elephants also exhibit a strong interest in their dead. ‘They’ll go and they’ll just explore the carcasses of elephants. … It’s just too hard to watch, and the fact that we’re developing ways to potentially stop it – it keeps me going.’

“For the baboon studies, Dr. Wasser used hormones from animal dung to help understand their reproductive successes or failures. That work led Dr. Wasser to think, ‘You know, I could apply these tools to elephants. … You could then go and collect dung samples from elephants across the continent, genotype all the samples, and essentially create a DNA map,’ he explains. ‘And we could then get the DNA from the ivory to match to the map.’ …

“By 1997 Dr. Wasser had cracked the code and published one of the first papers on extracting DNA from elephant feces, and ‘right around the same time we were moving forward to see if we could develop methods to get DNA out of ivory.’

“Dr. Wasser’s team got its first break in 2005: Bill Clark, chair of Interpol’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, asked for help analyzing a shipment of ivory intercepted three years earlier in Singapore. It had been the largest seizure of ivory to date, about 6 tons, which included 40,000 carved hankos – also called chops – small pieces of ivory used throughout Asia to ink one’s name or seal on correspondence. Each would fetch about $200 retail, making the hankos alone worth $8 million.

“Until Dr. Wasser and his colleagues employed their emerging science to analyze that seizure, the biologist says ‘everyone’ believed these tusks were coming from all across Africa. But, using their dung-to-DNA analyses, ‘that’s not what we found.’

“Dr. Wasser’s game-changing work helped law enforcement realize the ivory was coming from a small number of specific areas in east and west-central Africa – yet was being shipped out of ports on either side of the continent. …

” ‘People don’t understand the intricate structure in wildlife crime,’ explains Rod Khattabi, a former homeland security agent who now runs the Justice Initiative for the Grace Farms Foundation, which partners with Dr. Wasser to train law enforcement agencies in Africa. … Wildlife criminals operate like independent cells, which makes arresting disparate elements of the syndicate tougher.

“ ‘That’s why Sam is so critical – because he can connect the dots,’ Mr. Khattabi says. ‘He’ll tell me, “Rod, this stuff is coming from Rwanda” even if it shipped out of Togo. He can almost pinpoint where the elephant got killed.’ …

“Dr. Wasser’s sleuthing has expanded beyond elephants. ‘The work that we were doing with the illegal ivory trade – we realized it was relevant to all of these other species that are all coming out of Africa,’ he says. ‘Same problem: transnational criminals shipping it on containers – and us needing to really get the transnational criminals.’

“In 2021, with funding from the Washington State Legislature, Dr. Wasser and his colleagues formed the Center for Environmental Forensic Science. ‘There were also other tools that other scientists were using that could complement what we’re doing,’ he says. ‘Now we’ve got over 40 scientists from the University of Washington alone that are part of our center’ using an array of synergistic methods including isotopes, chemistry, and handheld DNA detectors to fight a spectrum of crimes.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Annabel Lankai.
Ghanaian Swahili student Annabel Naa Odarley Lankai is advocating to make Swahili the lingua franca of Africa.

The BBC reports on renewed efforts to make Swahili the Esperanto of Africa, the universal language on the continent.

“With more than 200 million speakers, Swahili, which originated in East Africa, is one of the world’s 10 most widely spoken languages and, as Priya Sippy writes, there is a renewed push for it to become the continent’s lingua franca.

” ‘It’s high time we move from the colonizer’s language.’

“This is not part of a rousing speech by a pan-African idealist but rather the sentence is uttered quietly and calmly by Ghanaian Swahili student Annabel Naa Odarley Lankai. … Africa should ‘have something that is of us and for us,’ the 23-year-old adds.

“In its heartland, Swahili and its dialects stretch from parts of Somalia down to Mozambique and across to the western parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But Ms Lankai’s classroom at the University of Ghana in the capital, Accra, is some 4,500km (2,800 miles) west of Swahili’s birthplace – coastal Kenya and Tanzania. The distance could be seen as a measure of the spread of the language and its growing appeal. …

“Swahili, which takes around 40% of its vocabulary directly from Arabic, was initially spread by Arab traders along East Africa’s coast. It was then formalized under the German and British colonial regimes in the region in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as a language of administration and education. …

“At its recent heads of state meeting, the African Union (AU) adopted Swahili as an official working language. It is also the official language of the East African Community (EAC), which DR Congo is poised to join.

“In 2019, Swahili became the only African language to be recognized by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Shortly after, it was introduced in classrooms across South Africa and Botswana. Most recently, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University announced it would start teaching Swahili. …

“Tom Jelpke, a researcher of Swahili at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, argues that as connections grow across the continent, people will want a common way to communicate. He believes that its closeness to other languages in east and central Africa will cement its position there. But beyond those regions there may also be an ideological element. …

“Says Ally Khalfan, a lecturer at the State University of Zanzibar … ‘It is about our property and our identity as Africans.’ …

“Currently, English is the official or second language in 27 out of the 54 countries in Africa, and French is the official language in 21 of them.

” ‘English is still the language of power,’ says Chege Githiora, a linguistics professor in Kenya, in recognition of the political and economic reality. He advocates what he calls ‘fluent multilingualism,’ where people are comfortable speaking more than one trans-national language. …

“But whereas Swahili has an appeal in east, central and southern Africa, it has more competition in the west and the north. Arabic is dominant in the north, but in the west there are African languages – such as Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – which could vie for the status of lingua franca.

“If Swahili is to become truly pan-African it will take political will, an economic imperative and financial investment to reach all regions.”

More at the BBC, here. No firewall.

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Photo: David Levene/The Guardian.
Francis Kéré, outside his Serpentine pavilion in London, is the most recent recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture.

There’s a 7-year-old girl in my family who has been designing buildings this week, complete with elevators, staircases, rooftop playgrounds, and two kinds of dining rooms. With flowers. I can’t help wondering if this is the kind of childhood interest that leads to a career like the one in today’s story.

Oliver Wainwright reports at the Guardian, “Few architects have experienced such a meteoric rise, against such odds, as Francis Kéré. Born in a remote village in Burkina Faso without running water or electricity, he began his career by building a mud-brick school for his community, before being selected to design the country’s national parliament less than 15 years later. Now he continues his unparalleled trajectory, named as the winner of the 2022 Pritzker prize, architecture’s highest international accolade.

“ ‘It is unbelievable,” said Kéré, speaking from his office in Berlin. “I don’t know how this all happened. First of all I am happy and overwhelmed, but the prize also brings a great sense of responsibility. My life is not going to be easier.’

“He is the first black architect to be recognized in the [award’s] 43-year history, reflecting the profession’s overwhelmingly white, male, middle-class bias. …

“ ‘I don’t want to talk about racism directly,’ he said, ‘but this is a field where you need a lot of resources. You really need to be strong and be lucky, as competitions are not always so open. I hope that young people in Africa will see me and know that this is a possible path for them too.’

“Kéré has made a name for himself with a series of schools and medical facilities in Africa that appear grown out of their context, built by local communities with the bare minimum of resources. Often featuring walls of clay-earth bricks, shaded by large, overhanging corrugated metal roofs, his buildings are elegantly tuned to their arid climate – whether in Mali, Togo, Kenya, Mozambique or Sudan – using natural cooling to avoid the need for air conditioning.

” ‘Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place,’ said the Pritzker jury, chaired this year by Chilean activist-architect Alejandro Aravena. ‘His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters. They have presence without pretence and an impact shaped by grace.’

“Born in Gando in 1965, Kéré was … the first in his community to attend school, sent away at the age of seven, after which he won a scholarship to study woodwork in Germany. He saw slim prospects for a career in carpentry in a country that had little wood, so he switched to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin. For his final project he designed a primary school for his home village – and set about fundraising and mobilising friends and family to see it built. It was realized in 2001, for about [$26,000]. …

“Kéré’s Gando primary school set out the basic principles that would go on to define his work, using earth bricks made on site, topped with a perforated ceiling crowned by a thin ‘flying roof.’ …

“Kéré suspended his metal canopy above the classrooms to encourage stack ventilation, drawing cool air in through the building’s side windows and releasing hot air through the holes in the ceiling. The whole village was involved in construction: children gathered stones for the foundations while women brought water for the brick production, beginning a collaborative model of practice that he has continued ever since. The school won an Aga Khan award in 2004, catapulting Kéré to international fame and prompting him to found his practice in Berlin the following year. …

“International commissions including the Serpentine pavilion in 2017, and an installation for the Coachella music festival in 2019, have continued to help him raise funds and awareness of his work in Africa. …

“His biggest project so far, for the national assembly of Benin, is currently under construction, rising out of the ground in the capital, Porto-Novo, in the form of a majestic palaver tree. ‘The site is next to a botanic garden,’ he said, ‘so we proposed to extend the garden and place the biggest tree in the centre, with a debate hall beneath the figurative tree canopy – reflecting how democracy has always been conducted in west Africa.’

“His equivalent project back home, for the national assembly of Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, is now hanging in the balance, after the president was removed by a military coup in January. Kéré was commissioned in 2015, following a national uprising when the parliament was torched and the then-president hounded out of the country. …

“ ‘I want the people to take ownership over the parliament building,’ he said, ‘so that, one day, when the next revolution comes, they will protect it as their own.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Obinna Obioma via BBC.
Nigerian photographer Obinna Obioma using creative ways to display an iconic West African plastic bag.

Suzanne liked a recent plastic-recycling article in the New York Times, and we thought you would like it, too. (The Times blocks people from sharing photos, so the one above is from the BBC. You can also check out fashions made of plastic at the Guardian, here.)

Times reporter Ruth Maclean writes from Senegal, “A crowd of people holding curved metal spikes jumped on trash spilling out of a dump truck in Senegal’s biggest landfill, hacking at the garbage to find valuable plastic.

“Nearby, sleeves rolled up, suds up to their elbows, women washed plastic jerrycans in rainbow colors, cut into pieces. Around them, piles of broken toys, plastic mayonnaise jars and hundreds of discarded synthetic wigs stretched as far as the eye could see, all ready to be sold and recycled.

“Plastic waste is exploding in Senegal, as in many countries, as populations and incomes grow and with them, demand for packaged, mass-produced products.

“This has given rise to a growing industry built around recycling plastic waste, by businesses and citizens alike.

From Chinese traders to furniture makers and avant-garde fashion designers, many in Senegal make use of the constant stream of plastic waste.

“Mbeubeuss — the dump site serving Senegal’s seaside capital of Dakar — is where it all begins. More than 2,000 trash pickers, as well as scrubbers, choppers, haulers on horse-drawn carts, middlemen and wholesalers make a living by finding, preparing and transporting the waste for recycling. It adds up to a huge informal economy that supports thousands of families.

“Over more than 50 years at the dump, Pape Ndiaye, the doyen of waste pickers, has watched the community that lives off the dump grow, and seen them turn to plastic — a material that 20 years ago the pickers considered worthless.

“ ‘We’re the people protecting the environment,’ said Mr. Ndiaye, 76, looking out at the plastic scattered over Gouye Gui, his corner of the dump. ‘Everything that pollutes it, we take to industries, and they transform it.’

“Despite all of the efforts to recycle, much of Senegal’s waste never makes it to landfills, instead littering the landscape. Knockoff Adidas sandals and containers that once held a local version of Nutella block drains. Thin plastic bags that once contained drinking water meander back and forth in the Senegalese surf, like jellyfish. Plastic shopping bags burn in residential neighborhoods, sending clouds of chemical-smelling smoke into the hazy air.

“Senegal is just one of many countries trying to clean up, formalize the waste disposal system and embrace recycling on a bigger scale. By 2023, the African Union says, the goal is that 50 percent of the waste used in African cities should be recycled. …

“The recycled plastic makes it to enterprises of all stripes across Senegal, which has one of the most robust economies in West Africa.

“At a factory in Thies, an inland city known for its tapestry industry to the east of Dakar, recycled plastic pellets are spun out into long skeins, which are then woven into the colorful plastic mats used in almost every Senegalese household.

“Custom-made mats from this factory lined the catwalk at Dakar Fashion Week in December, focused this time on sustainability and held in a baobab forest. Signs were constructed out of old water bottles. Tables and chairs were made of melted down plastic.

“The trend has changed the focus of the waste pickers who have worked the dump for decades, gleaning anything of value. …

“The government says that in a few years, the giant landfill will close, replaced by much smaller sorting and composting centers as part of a joint project with the World Bank.

“Then, most of the money made from plastic waste will go into government coffers. The waste pickers worry about their livelihoods.” More at the Times, here.

As great as it is to keep reusing plastic, it would be best not to make it at all for most purposes. It eventually breaks down and ends up in the ocean and our bodies. When I read “plastic mayonnaise jars” in the article, I wanted to remind you that, at least in the US, there are lots of things you can buy in glass if you look: glass mayonnaise jars, glass olive oil jars, glass mustard jars, glass pasta sauce jars, glass lemon juice bottles, and more. I even get milk in glass bottles. Glass is better than plastic. And you can get both laundry and dishwasher detergent in cardboard.

Check out my 2019 post on Cambodian fashion made from recyclables, here.

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Photo: Vanessa Nakate.
Vanessa Nakate’s book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis recounts her journey as an environmental justice activist.

I continue to be impressed that people college age and younger are taking the lead on the critical issues of our time — gun control, climate change, inequality, everything. It is probably wrong to put pressure on them, but I do think they’re more likely to have answers — often because they don’t know what’s “impossible.” Older folks tend to believe things that have never been done are impossible. Young ones don’t.

At Living on Earth, Steve Curwood talks to a young Ugandan activist who has become a leader in fighting climate change.

“STEVE CURWOOD: Greta Thunberg started the Fridays For the Future climate strikes by sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament, and millions of people around the world ultimately joined her cause. One of them was Vanessa Nakate of Kampala, Uganda, who was just getting out of college at the time.

“Teenaged girls in Uganda don’t typically have the same social freedoms as many in the Global North have to be out on their own picketing and demonstrating. But at age 22 Vanessa Nakate could, as college age women have a lot more freedoms in her culture. And in the face of climate change, intensified floods and droughts that ravaged Uganda at the time, Vanessa was inspired by Greta to organize and start holding climate strike signs herself in front of the Ugandan Parliament.

“Greta Thunberg soon heard of Vanessa through social media and in January of 2020 Vanessa was invited to join Greta for a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But the Associated Press cropped Vanessa, the only black woman, out of a widely circulated photo that included Greta Thunberg and three other white European activists. Comments citing that editorial decision as racist soon went viral. And since that incident Vanessa has used her visibility to bring light to climate struggles in the Global South. In her book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, Vanessa points to how climate change is impacting Africa and the short shrift that she and other people and nations of color receive at the UN climate talks. … [Vanessa] what kind of climate change effects are going on in Uganda? …

“VANESSA NAKATE: Uganda as a country heavily depends on agriculture for survival for many communities, especially those in the rural areas. But with the rising global temperatures, many people are threatened with floods, droughts and landslides, causing massive destruction, massive loss of lives, loss of homes, farms and businesses. … In the western part of the country in areas of Kasese, because of the rising global temperatures, many people have been displaced and still are living in camps because of extreme flooding.

“CURWOOD: Please tell me a story of a particular recent climate related incident. …

“NAKATE: I can talk about one that happened last year. During the pandemic in 2020. The water levels of Lake Victoria rose as a result of extreme rainfall. And many people were displaced from their homes at a time when they had to stay at home to keep themselves safe. And with the rise in the water levels. Not only were farms destroyed, but even toilets were submerged, causing contamination of water sources and threatening the livelihoods of very many people.

“CURWOOD: Now, you join Friday’s for the Future in your 20s Vanessa. And that movement was made up of well, mostly teenagers and younger folks, why did you choose to join? …

“NAKATE: This is a challenge for some of my friends, because most of them were just finished in college and in their 20s. So, we all had this feeling that this movement was a movement for teenagers. But to me, that wasn’t the issue. … I just wanted to demand for climate justice and to talk about the challenges that the people in my country were facing because of the climate crisis.

“CURWOOD: Vanessa, tell me about some of the projects that you’re working on now.

“NAKATE: In 2019, I started school project Vash Green Schools Project. [It] involves the installation of solar panels and ecofriendly cookstoves in schools. I started this project to help drive a transition to renewable energy in schools in Uganda, and also for the clean cooking stoves to reduce the firewood that schools were using for preparation of foods. Almost all the schools in my country use firewood for food preparation. But with these ecofriendly stoves, the number that is used is greatly cut. … So far we’ve done installations in 13 schools.

“CURWOOD: You write in your book that when you came actually to the UN, a couple of [bad] things happened. …

“NAKATE: One of the people was a part of the Ugandan delegation [who] asked if I can meet him and talk about my activism. [I met] members of parliament, and I remember one of them actually recognizing me and saying that I’ve seen you on TV, you’re the girl who strikes every Friday. And at that moment, I’m like, wait, you’ve seen me. And you haven’t even said anything about the activism that I’m doing. …

“For the UN Youth Climate Summit … I was told that I would have a speaking role. I worked on my speech. And I was just really happy to talk about the experiences of the people in my country. [Then] I’m told that, well, you’re actually not going to speak but you will just be able to, you know, be like in discussions with other young activists. And at that point, it was really a disappointment before I left and I couldn’t tell my family or my friends because they were very excited.

“[And after the Davos incident] I felt like everything that I said at the press conference … didn’t matter, like it just went into the air and immediately disappeared, and no one was really paying attention. …

“It’s important for people to know that, historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions. And yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts of the climate crisis. It’s also important to know that while Africa, while the global south, is on the frontlines of the climate crisis, it is not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. And it’s also important to know that there are a number of activists in the African continent in the global south who are speaking up, who are demanding for justice from leaders, from governments, from corporations. … We want climate action from the leaders and our voices will not be silenced.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: Aloha Feels Chocolate.
Many boutique candy companies are determined to do more than the giants about child labor. “There are over 27 million slaves in the world today. Of them, over 9 million are children,” says slavefreechocolate.org.

I’m sure you know I’m not going to focus on the dark side of anything, so as we dig out from Halloween chocolate created by name brands that have failed to end child labor, let’s start by mentioning companies that are more careful about sourcing.

I, too, buy the mini Trick-or-Treat bars available in the supermarket. But I also have a friend who loves getting chocolate on her birthday, and that is when I really focus on ethical brands. There’s a long list here. Taza is one I know. It’s headquartered in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The problem with chocolate seems to be that even companies seeking Fair Trade labels are often bamboozled by chocolate growers or aggregators on the ground. No doubt, it’s hard to get to the bottom of things unless you work directly with a grower.

In a February article from the Guardian, we learn that several young men who were once child slaves in Africa were hoping for a hearing in US courts. After all, big companies like Cargill, Mars, and Hershey are based here.

Oliver Balch writes, “Eight children who claim they were used as slave labour on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast have launched legal action against the world’s biggest chocolate companies. They accuse the corporations of aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of ‘thousands’ of children on cocoa farms in their supply chains.

“Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey and Mondelēz have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by the human rights firm International Rights Advocates (IRA), on behalf of eight former child slaves who say they were forced to work without pay on cocoa plantations in the west African country.

“The plaintiffs, all of whom are originally from Mali and are now young adults, are seeking damages for forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“It is the first time that a class action of this kind has been filed against the cocoa industry in a US court. Citing research by the US state department, the International Labour Organization and Unicef, among others, the court documents allege that the plaintiffs’ experience of child slavery is mirrored by that of thousands of other minors.

“Ivory Coast produces about 45% of the global supply of cocoa, a core ingredient in chocolate. The production of cocoa in west Africa has long been linked to human rights abuses, structural poverty, low pay and child labour.

“A central allegation of the lawsuit is that the defendants, despite not owning the cocoa farms in question, ‘knowingly profited’ from the illegal work of children. According to the submissions, the defendants’ contracted suppliers were able to provide lower prices than if they had employed adult workers with proper protective equipment.

“The lawsuit also accuses the companies – whose industry body is the World Cocoa Foundation – of actively misleading the public in the voluntary 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, characterized by the complainants as promising to phase out some child labour (‘the worst forms,’ in the protocol’s words). …

“In the legal claim, all eight plaintiffs describe being recruited in Mali through trickery and deception, before being trafficked across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. There, they were forced to work – often for several years or more – with no pay, no travel documents and no clear idea of where they were or how to get back to their families.” More at the Guardian, here.

Alas, at the Washington Post, here, you can read that the former child slaves were not granted standing by the courts, although the plaintiffs sued confidently “under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal district courts to hear ‘any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.’ ”

Robert Barnes and Peter Whoriskey reported in June, “The Supreme Court on Thursday said U.S. chocolate companies cannot be sued for child slavery on the African farms from which they buy most of their cocoa. But the court stopped short of saying such a lawsuit could never go forward.

“The court’s splintered decision was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented from the decision, saying it was premature to dismiss the suit.”

Alito, for goodness sake! This is why I don’t like blanket assumptions about what Supreme Court justices are thinking. You can say what position they are likely to take, but you can’t really know. And besides, it’s too depressing to assume you know.

Anyway, we’re back to Square One with chocolate and child labor.

Except that informed consumers can do their part: start asking themselves the right questions and paying a few more cents to be sure no children are harmed. After all, more chocolate-buying holidays are fast approaching.

Photo: jbdodane/Alamy
A sign warns against child labor in cocoa production in Ghana.

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Photo: Ars Technica.
A recently published study suggests coastal Africa didn’t have a monopoly on innovation.

More Americans are starting to recognize the pernicious effects of coastal attitudes about the majority of US states. Sarah Smarsh’s wonderful memoir of growing up in Kansas, Heartland, was one thing that helped me understand that a derisive phrase some people use — “flyover country” — is both ignorant and dangerous.

Today’s story shows that there has been a similar attitude in African archaeology, where the only civilizations thought to be creative and innovative were on the coasts. The latest discoveries in the southern Kalahari reveal a different story.

Kiona N. Smith writes at Ars Techninca, “Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people began to do some very modern things: collecting small objects for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and possibly even food in containers. The oldest known sites with evidence of those behaviors are along the coastline of southern Africa. …

“And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about that way of life enabled those early people — or maybe pushed them — to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea supposedly lagged behind the cultural times.

But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.

“At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there’s a layer of sediment dating back to 105,000 years ago and scattered with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and her colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and striated on two sides, as if it had been used as pigment. The rock shelter also held a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which hadn’t been worked or used as tools; it looked as if someone had gathered up the crystals simply for the sake of having them, or maybe as a ritual offering. Several broken, burned pieces of ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may once have held stores of water.

“The Ga-Mohana Hill artifacts are roughly the same age as the oldest similar finds on the coast, according to optically stimulated luminescence dating, which measures when quartz grains in the sediment were last exposed to light — in this case, about 105,000 years ago. That’s around the same time that people along the coast of southern Africa started collecting seashells for no apparent practical purpose, while people at Diepkloof Rockshelter in South Africa stored their water in the oldest known ostrich eggshell containers.

“It sounds like an almost laughably simple idea to a 21st century human: if you put some stuff inside a larger thing, you can carry it more easily and store it for later. But we’ve had the benefit of at least 200,000 years of figuring out how to do things. At one point in our distant prehistory, containers were an amazing new idea. It would have been, as Wilkins and her colleagues put it, ‘a crucial innovation for early humans.’

“The conclusion from these finds is that people in the African interior weren’t lagging behind coastal cultures at all. Some of the most important innovations in human prehistory happened in multiple areas of the continent at around the same time.

“If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem obvious that people living inland could be just as innovative as people living on the coast, but all the evidence archaeologists had until now told a different story. The oldest traces of a whole suite of new (at the time) human behaviors have all been found at sites relatively close to the coastline. …

“That has more to do with geology than with what people were actually doing in the distant past. ‘Stratified Late Pleistocene sites with good preservation and robust chronologies are rare in the interior of southern Africa,’ [the research team] wrote in their recent paper. The result is what they describe as a ‘strong bias towards coastal sites that marginalizes the role of inland populations.’ …

“Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter [tells] us something important about our past: lots of people, in lots of different environments, found similar solutions to problems.”

More here.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Malian musician Oumou Sangaré in Madrid, Spain, 2018.

On my first day at the Boston Fed in 2005, I attended orientation with two other new hires, one an immigrant from Mali. In the years since, especially after Mamoudou returned to Africa, I’ve read with alarm about the many tragedies his country has suffered. How do people live through great upheaval and keep their sense of self and their spirits intact?

Anastasia Tsioulcas has some thoughts at National Public Radio.

“The northwestern African country of Mali is one of the world’s musical cradles. Its rich traditions helped give birth to American blues and jazz, traditions brought by enslaved Africans to these shores. But today, Mali is in turmoil. The country has suffered a long civil war spurred by Islamist insurgents (whose attacks are still ongoing), and the government fell to a coup in August. The country is also trying, like the rest of the world, to cope with the coronavirus.

“Despite all of those challenges, however, Malian musicians are still creating amid the chaos — and have some important lessons to share about how to get through tough times.

“The band Songhoy Blues plays rollicking music of resistance against the political and social threats its country is facing.

“These Malian musicians came together in 2012 after attacks by local and foreign jihadists forced people to flee the country’s northern cities and towns as well as its vast Saharan desert. …

” ‘When the civil war start in Mali, when they banned music, all the people from the north of Mali has to move to the south just to be safe at that moment,’ explains Aliou Touré. He’s the lead singer of Songhoy Blues. …

” ‘When you come far away from your hometown and you meet each other,’ Touré explains. ‘you speak the same language. It’s kind of like a satisfaction of nostalgia when you meet someone who speak your language, who do what you do, who love something that you love.’ …

“The Malian musicians are a thoroughly modern band, but they’re also walking in the footsteps of some of their country’s most revered musicians, like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita.

“And like those other artists, the music of Songhoy Blues is born of struggle — and not just political. When I spoke to Aliou Touré (no relation to Ali Farka) by phone in Bamako, he had just recovered from a bout of malaria. And, like so many other places in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has shut down his country. He says enduring each hurdle is like surfing.

‘As every single band in the world during now,’ [Aliou Touré] says, ‘we just keep surfing on the waves — see what’s gonna happen next day, what’s gonna happen next day, next month.’

“The pandemic shutdown, though, has created some interesting creative opportunities for artists. … The pandemic has also provided a respite for one of the country’s most beloved singers, Oumou Sangare.

“Sangare spent much of the coronavirus shutdown in the U.S. — first in New York, and then in Baltimore. She’s since returned to her home in Bamako. She says the isolation was actually nourishing.

” ‘I rejoiced in my confinement,’ she says in French. ‘I’ve never had the chance to rest like that in the 30 years of my career.’ …

“That period of reflection gave Sangare the creative energy to start work on a new album herself. Sangare also acknowledges that Mali’s ongoing civil strife has taken a severe toll across the nation — across ethnic and geographic boundaries. …

” ‘The whole country is suffering. I think that the Malians must unite. That’s my point of view: It is unity that makes strength.’

“For years, musicians have been at the forefront of urging the country to stay united and to stand for peace. Their voices are now again in the lead — trying to bolster the country’s courage.

“Songhoy Blues decided to name its latest album Optimisme — ‘optimism.’

“Lead singer Aliou Touré says that he’s learned that it’s the only way forward. ‘That’s the only thing keeping us, keeping people smiling, and that’s the only, only way to give ourselves a hope,’ he says. ‘It’s the best way to keep yourself alive. To be optimist, I think, is the biggest message ever that the whole world need to hear right now.’ “

As Bonnie Johnson at WICN jazz radio says, “Stay Positive. Test negative.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: UWisc
Ugandan Bobi Wine and Nubian Li. perform a coronavirus alert.

When pandemic restrictions caused the cancellation of African musicians’ concerts, many took the coronavirus battle into their own hands, without having to be asked by any government to create a public service announcement.

Public Radio International’s The World reports on the wave of Covid-19 songs giving Africans reliable information and warning against fake health news on social media.

“When graduate student Dipo Oyeleye heard the song ‘We Go Win (Corona)‘ by Cobhams Asuquo, a Nigerian singer-songwriter,” the radio show reported in September, “he knew what his next research project would be: a study of the myriad coronavirus songs that flourished in Africa at the pandemic’s onset on the continent. …

” ‘I love artists using the moment to create music that actually helps to disseminate the right information to the general public,’ Oyeleye told The World.

“Originally from Nigeria himself, Oyeleye studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he is now researching COVID-19 songs from Nigeria to Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo to Ghana, among many other places across the continent. Oyelele has been able to compile and track the impact of at least 50 songs from various African artists.

“Unlike the US, where very few artists have taken on COVID-19 as a subject in songs, African musicians quickly turned to their songwriting as a form of communication and to disseminate crucial public health information: social distancing, washing hands and staying home during lockdowns. 

” ‘This is a major [pandemic that] directly affects everybody, including the musicians. Some of them had to cancel their shows. I think the personal became political,’ Oyeleye explained. 

“Having battled epidemics such as the Ebola virus, most Africans are used to governments that call on musicians to produce ‘edutainment,’ or songs with a message to sensitize the public. 

“But Oleyele says that what makes the coronavirus songs different is that it was not ‘necessarily initiated by the governments. It’s just, you know, individuals lending their voices to help prevent the spread of the virus.’ 

“Some artists took a direct public health approach, while others used humor or religion to ease fears and connect with various communities. And some songs were specifically meant for people who could only communicate in local languages. There’s really something for everyone. …  

” ‘Wash your hands / love each other / we go win o,’ [Asuquo] croons at the piano.

“In [a] reggae-inspired song, Bobi Wine opens with the bad news that ‘everyone is a potential victim’ of the virus, but also a potential solution … and calls it ‘patriotic’ to social distance and isolate if sick with possible virus symptoms.” More at PRI’s The World, here. Extra details at the Washington Post, here.

I’m impressed with these musicians. Will we get songs to slow the spread here, too?

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Photo: Cité Internationale des Arts
Emmanuel Sogbadji is one of the African artists whose work is shown at the new Togo museum, Palais de Lomé.        

Sometimes when I’ve been volunteering in ESL classes, I’ve caught the echo of African colonialism from languages that students try out on me because I don’t understand their native tongue. Somali and Eritrean students may know a little Italian, countries like Uganda and Zimbabwe speak English, people from such countries as Mali, Togo, and Congo know French.

Although multilingualism can be helpful in refugee language classes, I can’t help thinking the students wouldn’t have had to be refugees in the first place if the colonial powers hadn’t plundered Africa. I suppose that down the road, when the US starts welcoming refugees again, we’ll be getting people from Burkina Faso who know a little Chinese.

Anyway, because I had an English student from Togo who spoke French, I was not surprised to learn from today’s feature that Togo’s new national museum has French connections and a French name, Palais de Lomé.

Rebecca Anne Proctor writes at Frieze, “Festive scenes unfolded in Lomé’s botanical park in late November [2019], as drummers and colourfully clad moko jumbies, or stilt walkers, entertained guests – including President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé and artist Kehinde Wiley – at the inauguration of the Palais de Lomé, Togo’s first major contemporary art museum and the only entirely state-funded arts institution in Africa.

“This is a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest countries, where almost 70 percent of the rural population lives below the global poverty line, according to a 2015 World Bank report. The new museum is also an unexpected signal of cultural openness by the historically repressive Togolese government. …

“The museum is housed in the colonial Governor’s Palace, constructed in 1905, which served as a base for the Togolese state after the country gained its independence from France in 1960. For the past 20 years, however, it sat empty, until an extensive restoration project – costing [$3.6 million] – was completed in November 2019.

“Occupying the palace’s stately banquet halls and residential quarters, the new institution is large enough to accommodate five simultaneous exhibitions and abuts an 11-hectare garden, displaying works by Togolese sculptors such as Amouzou Amouzou-Glikpa and Sadikou Oukpedjo – another first in West Africa.

” ‘Three Borders’, the most contemporary of these shows, delves openly into the turbulent history of the region. In Togolese artist Emmanuel Sogbadji’s painting ‘The Intercessor’ (2006), a tall, semi-abstract figure holds a long knife. Flanked by two men, he appears defiant in the face of an interrogation. …

“As Claude Grunitzky, a New York-based Togolese editor, told me: ‘Many creatives and artists have begun to return to Togo as “repats”, […] leading interesting projects and ventures in the creative industries.’

” ‘The Palais de Lomé is a newborn child, one we have been awaiting in Togo for so long,’ added Clay Apenouvon, one of the country’s most prominent artists, who protested against the junta in his youth before relocating to Paris in 1992. Apenouvon is setting up a second studio in Lomé, where he now spends several months of the year. Not all are so optimistic, however: a Togolese artist, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear for his safety, told me that the Palais ‘will just be for the state. It won’t help the people.’ …

“The museum’s current comprehensive public funding model distinguishes it from comparable institutions on the continent. … Half of the Palais de Lomé’s government funding is set to expire at the end of its first year, however, so [Sonia Lawson, the Palais de Lomé’s inaugural director, a former luxury goods executive for L’Oréal and LVMH,] intends to form a board of donors of African descent, who she hopes will acquire new works from the continent and its diaspora for the museum’s collection.

“As a state-backed initiative, the Palais de Lomé resembles public arts institutions in the Gulf region – such as the National Museum of Qatar, opened in 2019, and the soon-to-be-completed Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi – which aim to boost cultural capital and foster local arts communities while improving the public image of governments viewed as repressive.

“It remains to be seen whether Lomé’s newest museum will spur substantive change or merely serve a propagandistic function, but the signs thus far seem promising. With ‘Three Borders’, Togo is not only looking outwards – to its neighbours and the international art world – but reflecting inwards on its own difficult history. ”

More here.

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Photo: Yagazie Emezi for the New York Times
“The neighborhood of the Médina in Dakar has welcomed street artists from all over the world to practice their craft in what the founder of the project calls an open sky museum,” writes the
New York Times.

You can’t keep a good artist down. Art will out. It’s a reassuring thought. In the course of history, we’ve seen governments that think they know best, branding cutting-edge art and architecture as “degenerate.” Fortunately, such governments don’t last.

In Senegal, Anemona Hartocollis of the New York Times discovered a vibrant street art community that has grown up almost spontaneously.

She writes, “On one wall, the painting of a marabout, a Muslim holy man, peers out from behind a line hung with laundry. Nearby, a poster of an African woman in a bustle has been pasted to a house. …

“These are the painted houses of the Médina, a poor and working-class neighborhood near downtown Dakar. The neighborhood has welcomed street artists from all over the world to practice their craft in what the founder of the project calls the open sky museum. …

“Artists from not just Senegal but Burkina Faso, Algeria, Morocco, Congo, France and Italy have come to paint on these walls. They in turn have brought art lovers and tourists into a neighborhood where they otherwise might not go, to mingle with people they otherwise might not meet. …

“Street art seems to come naturally to Senegal, where many small shops are adorned with images of what they sell. Paintings of scissors signify tailors; heads with fancy hairstyles advertise barbers; images of cows and bowls of milk herald the ubiquitous sweet milk shops; a drawing of a sheep broadcasts the presence of a vendor serving grilled meat.

“Shop art is commissioned by the shop owners, and sometimes painted by them too. But to paint on a house in the Médina neighborhood, it helps to go through Mamadou Boye Diallo, known as Modboye.

“Mr. Diallo, 31, was born and raised in the Médina, the son of an elevator operator. He dropped out of school at 15 to become a break dancer and rollerblader. He got to know the art scene by working as a messenger, delivering fliers on roller blades for art galleries.

In 2010, he created Yataal Art, a nonprofit arts collective, and painted the first wall in the Médina with friends. The beauty of it is that ‘you don’t have to take a nice shower and wear perfume’ to see the art, Mr. Diallo said. …

“ ‘You have to pass by him in order to work in the Médina,’ one of the street artists, Doline Legrand Diop, said. ‘He functions a bit like a curator.’ …

“In the beginning, it was not always easy to convince homeowners to let people paint on their walls.

“ ‘They wanted money,’ Mr. Diallo said. But as the project caught on, they wanted to keep up with their neighbors. …

“The painted-houses project has gotten so big that this year, Delphine Buysse, a Belgian curator, has arranged for artists in residence to live at a luxury hotel in Dakar, the Pullman, for a week, while painting in the Médina.

“One of the most recent wall paintings was a collaboration between Kouka Ntadi, a Congolese-French artist, and Barkinado Bocoum, a Senegalese artist. Mr. Ntadi painted abstract portraits in black-and-white, and Mr. Bocoum added folksier portraits in bright colors.

” Mr. Ntadi loved sharing the neighborhood with the commercial artists of the barbershops and the milk stores.

“ ‘I would say there is not really a border between the two in Africa,’ he said. ‘It’s not like in France or the U.S. where there is a snobbism about art, and you can’t be in marketing. So for sure, we can still be an artist and make a design for a bottle of milk or a side of beef.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Kudra Maliro
Regina works at the Ebola treatment center in Beni, Congo, where she was once a patient. She often tells other patients, “I had this horrible thing, too, and look at me now. You can’t give up.”

When people recover from a natural disaster or a disease that loved ones did not survive, rather than feeling elated to be alive, they may feel only darkness about their losses. Some have learned to try healing their spirits a bit by helping others in similar situations.

Ryan Lenora Brown writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “When Regina Kavira Mbangamuke’s toddler son fell sick late last year, she did what any mother would. She pressed his feverish body to hers. She wiped away his tears and his sweat. She whispered tiny comforts in his ear. Don’t be afraid, my baby.

“And when he died, she fell into a sadness so deep and physical it took a week for her to realize there might be something else wrong.

“Ebola can be like that, Ms. Mbangamuke knows now. First it tries to take the people you love most in the world. And then it tries to kill you too.

“But as she tells her story to her patients at the Ebola treatment center in this city in eastern Congo, where she now works as a nursing assistant, it has a more hopeful postscript.

‘I say, my brother, my sister, I had this horrible thing too, and look at me now,’ she says. ‘You cannot give up.’

“Like nearly every one of the 1,000 people who have survived Ebola in eastern Congo in the past 15 months, Ms. Mbangamuke’s survival is interlaced with profound loss.

“But Ebola also affords les guéris – the cured – with an unusual opportunity. They are considered likely immune to the disease, and so also to the cruel distance it demands. They don’t need to wear the spacesuit-like protective gear that other Ebola responders don to avoid touching the sick. They can hold hands and rock babies. They can hug and clean and console. And in a place where trust in outsiders is in short supply, the hundreds of survivors who now work in the Ebola response provide something else: familiarity.

“ ‘This work helps the response, but it also helps the people doing it,’ says Solange Kahambu Kamuha, a psychologist with UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, in Beni. …

“[A] young man in bed shakes his head weakly. No, he says, he won’t go. He heard that everyone who goes into an Ebola treatment center dies. From the outside, rumors like this can sound fanciful. The disease was invented by the rich to make money. The disease was brought in to kill the political opposition. Hospitals inject their patients with Ebola to keep the outbreak going.

“But each outlandish-seeming rumor contains a kernel of truth. … Even the idea that patients are being infected in hospitals is rooted in the truth that many have gotten sick after visiting one. …

“There is simply little reason to believe that outsiders ever have their best interests at heart, says [Dr. Maurice Kakule Mutsunga, the chair of the local Ebola survivors organization]. ‘All around, people see tanks and U.N. soldiers, and still our war doesn’t end,’ he points out, referring to the decades of civil war that have roiled this part of Congo. Why should Ebola, and its new army of outsiders, be any different?

“Ms. Mbangamuke sees the skepticism, and to her too, it makes sense. Ebola has broken all of society’s rules.

“ ‘Here in the Congo, to take care of people is the normal thing, but in times of Ebola people cannot do the normal thing’ for their own families, she says.

“For her, it is still nearly impossible to make sense of a world that would take her child and spare her. The camaraderie she feels with her colleagues, their unspoken understanding, the easy laughter that passes between them as they mix sugary cups of tea in the break area, none of it gives meaning to her son’s death. But it is a way for her to try to restore some measure of balance.

“ ‘Every old woman I see [in the treatment center], she becomes like my own mother. Every baby, it’s like my own baby.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Noah Nasiali-Kadima
Noah Nasiali-Kadima, foreground, takes a selfie with members of the Africa Farmers Group during a tour of a member’s farm in Machakos County, Kenya. 

I was reading in the Boston Globe yesterday about a guy who, after surviving a life-threatening brain aneurysm that his doctor misdiagnosed, launched a new career as an activist for aneurysm patients. You have to hand it to such people.

In another example, see what Diane Cole of National Public Radio (NPR) learned when she interviewed an African farmer who turned a major cabbage liability into something much bigger than cabbages.

“Making lemonade out of life’s lemons is one thing. But what could Kenyan IT consultant-turned-farmer Noah Nasiali-Kadima do with the 75,000 fresh cabbages he had been stuck with?

“That was the dilemma he faced in 2016, when the buyer with whom he had a contract simply walked out on him, refusing to pay and leaving him with six acres of ripe cabbages that had cost most of his savings to produce.

“He was uncertain how to proceed, to whom he could turn for help or whether to give up altogether. So he came up with a different idea: That year, he started a Facebook group so that he and other farmers — including new ones like himself, and experienced farm veterans — could discuss and come up with solutions to problems just like this.

“The Africa Farmers Group now has 138,000 online members in Kenya and throughout Africa. He has also organized in-person educational seminars in countries across the continent including South Africa, Nigeria, Somalia and Zambia. The goal is to help farmers learn the skills they need to succeed, by providing forums in which they can share their own stories of success and failure, and offer their peers empathy, encouragement and practical tips. In recognition of his work, in September 2018, Facebook awarded him $1 million as part of its Facebook Community Leadership Program. …

“We spoke to him as he was preparing to participate as a speaker at the Food Tank New York City Summit, a two-day conference sponsored by the sustainable agriculture advocacy group Food Tank. … This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

“First of all, whatever happened to those 75,000 cabbages?
“I sold some, and some went bad on the farm. I gave some away to schools.

“Drought has left almost 3 million people there facing acute food insecurity. How can local farmers be a part of the solution?
“We have a lot of food shortages and food waste. There is a disconnect between the farmers producing the food and then getting it to market and to the people. No one is consulting the farmers themselves about, ‘How much can you produce, what do you need to help you to produce more?’ …

“You started out in technology in 2001, in programming and network management. How did agriculture come into the picture?
“I started out just to make some extra money since the tech space had become saturated. My father is a sugar farmer, and my father-in-law is a tomato farmer. One day in 2007, I was with my wife and my father-in-law and I said to him, ‘I want to be a farmer.’ He looked at me, like, ‘Are you really serious?’ And I said yes. He gave me and my wife a small piece of land, one-quarter of an acre, near his own farm, which is about an hour away from Nairobi. …

“At first this was a side career, a way to make an extra coin. … We started with green bell peppers, switched to tomatoes and watermelons and other crops, one of them cabbages.

“Then you faced the cabbage fiasco in 2016. Was that a turning point for you?
“I thought, this shouldn’t happen to any farmer. How come I can’t sell this produce? I did not know how to market or pitch what I had, or explain the particular quality or type of cabbage I had. …

“I saw how farmers were suffering. We have very many NGOs and very many tech solutions being funded but none that involve the farmers. I also wanted to make a difference, to see if I can start a group with farmers around me where we can talk about problems, who is buying what, what they are doing that is working and what is not. And I just opened a group on Facebook.

“The target was to sign up 3,000 farmers in three months. By the end of those three months, we had 16,000 farmers from across Africa. Some said, ‘Please post in English because I cannot speak Swahili!’

“It was a venue where farmers could talk to each other. I set up weekly online conversations with expert farmers from different regions who have worked with different kinds of soil and crops. Farmers listen to other farmers, so people could ask, ‘What were the challenges, how can we learn from you?’

“Now we have 138,000 members and growing. We also have more than 100,000 offline members in areas where internet connectivity is a challenge. Our motto is sharing is caring.

I have seen farmers who had given up. Then they hear from other farmers who have been through similar experiences. They see what they can do different.

“They learn they can contact this agronomist for more information about this problem, or try a different crop at this time of year, or maybe a particular variety that will do better in a particular climate, or maybe the soil is not right. These are success stories. They learn how to keep going or start again.”

Read more on how the initiative has grown and flourished, here.

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Photo: Stockholm Resilience Centre
Discussing the Great Wall of Africa among drought-resistant plants in the village of Koyli Alpha in Senegal. Reforestation efforts include providing fodder for livestock.

Sometimes the places with the biggest needs are the places with the biggest innovations. Consider the greening initiative that Africa is taking on to fight drought.

Aryn Bakerwrites for Time magazine, “The seedlings are ready. One hundred and fifty thousand shoots of drought-resistant acacia, hardy baobab and Moringa spill out of their black plastic casings. The ground has been prepared with scores of kilometer-long furrows leading to a horizon studded with skeletal thorn trees. It’s early August, and in less than a week, 399 volunteers from 27 countries will arrive in this remote corner of northern Senegal to participate in one of the world’s most audacious efforts to combat the effects of climate change: an $8 billion plan to reforest 247 million acres of degraded land across the width of Africa, stretching from Dakar to Djibouti.

“The Great Green Wall project, spearheaded by the African Union and funded by the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations, was launched in 2007 to halt the expansion of the Sahara by planting a barrier of trees running 4,815 miles along its southern edge. Now, as concerns mount about the impact of climate change on the Sahel, the semiarid band of grassland south of the Sahara that is already one of the most impoverished regions on earth, the Great Green Wall is filling a new role. The goal now, say its designers, is to transform the lives of millions living on the front line of climate change by restoring agricultural land ruined by decades of overuse; when done, it should provide food, stem conflict and discourage migration. When the project is completed in 2030, the restored land is expected to absorb some 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the equivalent of keeping all of California’s cars parked for 3½ years. …

“When people think of potential fixes for global warming, they tend to focus on big projects. But if human activity is at the root of climate change, whether it be the carbon emissions of the industrialized world or the overgrazing of the Sahel, then that is where the solution lies as well. Environmentalists celebrate the Great Green Wall for its epic territorial ambition, but its biggest impact will come from allowing people to meet their needs without destroying nature in the process.

“The Sahara isn’t expanding so much as the Sahel is shrinking, destroyed by decades of overgrazing, climate-change-induced drought and poor farming practices that have stripped the once lush grasslands of the fertile topsoil needed to regenerate. … Planting trees not only reduces carbon on a global scale—research in the journal Science estimates planting more than 2 billion acres of trees could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that human activity has pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution­—it also recharges the water table and creates micro­climates that increase local rainfall. … Though it may not sound like much, the solution to climate change in the Sahel starts with getting grass to grow.

“ ‘If we can solve people’s problems by improving their living conditions now,’ says Goudiaby, ‘they will be able to help themselves by protecting the trees that protect their future.’

After all, stopping global warming isn’t about saving the planet. … It’s about saving humanity. One way to do that is by helping those who are most vulnerable to what chaos we have already created.

“Just 25 miles south of Mbar Toubab, near the village of Koyli Alpha, 50-year-old Dienaba Aka pulls her heavily laden donkey cart to the side of the road. She and her extended family have spent the day cutting grass in a ‘forage bank’ managed by the national Great Green Wall agency. … Now herders pay $1.70 a day to harvest the waist-high grass for their cattle until the rains bring new grazing opportunities. For Aka, the idea of a grass ‘bank’ is a radical departure from an itinerant childhood spent following the family herd in search of forage. Now she can feed her cattle in the lean season without stripping trees.

“Aka, like women from many villages in the region, has been planting trees for the GGW project since 2012. She earns $96 during the six-week planting season. It’s good money, she says, but most women do it because they have been told it will bring back the rain, which in turn brings the grass that feeds their livestock.

“There is another advantage to forage banking, Aka says, gazing proudly at her two 10-year-old nieces perched atop several bags of recently cut grass. ‘Before­ the Great Green Wall, the kids had to go with us when we took the cattle to graze. Now they can stay in school.’ ” More here.

Hat tip: UN Environment Programme on Twitter

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