The government and aid agencies weren’t consulting the village chiefs.
That’s what three of the Fulani tribal chiefs said, anyway, when I met them in a remote corner of the Senegalese Sahel to discuss the progress of the Great Green Wall tree-planting project by which a band of vegetation is meant to be spread across Africa to halt the Sahara desert.
The chiefs complained that the external powers-that-be only consulted women and children about the cultivation and this made it impossible: only the chiefs knew who should be working and only the chiefs knew how to make them work.
I don’t find their testimony hard to believe.
We may be celebrating International Women’s Day this week, but it’s still a hard question whether it’s ethical to buttress traditional societal structures in providing an aid programme even if those structures seem to foster gender inequality.
When it comes to the planting and maintenance of a Great Green Wall of acacia trees perhaps the more pressing question is what works: Can tribal communities be helped towards a less migratory and more sustainable life-style, with grass for their livestock and education for their children, if they’re not led by their elderly, male village chiefs?
At a guess, no.
The path towards more gender equality should no doubt be trod slowly and carefully.
One of the most impressive people I have met so far on my trip to Senegal was a young woman teacher in a completely isolated school in the Sahel called Mariam Niang.
Recently qualified and a native of the capital, Dakar, she had taken this incredibly remote position in the alien desert world of the Fulani tribe because, as she said, “I want to serve my country.”
“Serving her country” involved tackling the practices which to her mind subordinated girls among the Fulani: the marriage of girls as young as 12 years old and the tattooing of the face at the time of puberty.
“It’s very hard to talk to the parents”, she said. “But I have to do my bit for the cause of women.”
One of the great objectives of the Great Green Wall tree-planting project is to limit “transhumance” among the migratory peoples of the Sahel; they follow their herds towards pastures new, which means that the ground does not recover its grass-cover in this new era of rapid climate change.
It also means the kids are pulled out of school at random. They can’t get an education, which leaves them with very few choices with the girls often having no choice at all except early marriage and too many children, too young, than is good for their health.
Then again, it must be admitted that wide-spread education, particularly of the girls, may yet transform Fulani society as we know it.
Would that be a positive or a negative outcome?
Is there really enough fodder in these days of ecological collapse to sustain the traditional Fulani system of subsistence farming?
Are the tribespeople, who sow and reap at the Great Green Wall, aiding ecological restoration or helping to cause ecological collapse because they have too many animals to allow nature restore itself in the era of climate change?
Driving back towards “civilisation” from the most remote corner of the planet in which I have ever been, I still don’t know the answer to those questions.