Standing between rows of bright green bean sprouts, Berthe Nekarbaye dunks her watering can beneath the surface of a shallow well, filling it for what might be the hundredth time that day.
It’s 109 degrees in the sun in Ngondong, a small village, miles from the nearest paved road in the savannah of southern Chad. In spite of the relentless heat, small green garden plots pepper the soil, crawling over the low rolling hills just east of the brick and grass huts of the community.
Their lush appearance is the result of the dedicated work of Nekarbaye and around two dozen women who make up Ngondong’s gardening team.
“We have maize, beans, watermelon, carrots, lettuce…,” says Nekarbaye. “Our favorite is beans because beans grow faster — everything’s done in three weeks and then we can sell it.”
Each and every day of the dry winter season, Ngondong’s gardening team, many of them grandmothers, trek 20 minutes to their gardens and spend the daylight hours dutifully watering and caring for their crops.
Nekarbaye and her team were trained by MCC partner Baobab, a short-form name for Bureau d’Appui aux Organisations de Base that references the tree common in Africa. Baobab provides agricultural training and equipment to rural farmers like Nekarbaye and helps them raise healthier livestock, farm more sustainably and find new opportunities to earn an income from their land.
Another goal of Baobab’s training is to empower women in Ngondong and similar villages to break the cultural perception of what women like Nekarbaye can offer to their communities.
“At first, everybody saw us — and we saw ourselves — as ‘old women’ because there was no activity for us to do,” says Nekarbaye. “Now that Baobab came, discovered us and put us to work, we’re working, so we realize we have strength. We used to be ‘old women’ but now we’re ladies, beautiful ladies, and we can work!”
“Now that Baobab came, discovered us and put us to work, we’re working, so we realize we have strength. We used to be ‘old women’ but now we’re ladies, beautiful ladies, and we can work!”
- Berthe Nekarbaye
On the other side of the village, another group of women has been trained in raising poultry and producing marketable items like soap or lotion from the byproducts of their crops.
Lucienne Panoudji is the leader of another all-female team and says the skills she’s learned have been valuable in more ways than one.
“The chickens are more valuable to sell than to eat,” says Panoudji. “One of our women has a daughter who was 3 months old and got very sick in her lungs. She could easily sell her chickens right away to make money to buy medicine and now her girl is healthy again.”
In addition to having an income source for health care or school fees, Panoudji says team members also learned to be more intentional about how they eat what they produce.
“We were always eating exactly the same thing every day for a whole year. Baobab came in and taught us to eat with more variation, to eat different things, and it’s improved our health,” she says.
As the rainy summer season encroaches on southern Chad, gardening efforts halt, but the women of Ngondong continue to look ahead to how they can use their new skills to improve their lives.
Soapmaking training was introduced earlier this year and there hasn’t been enough made to bring to market. But once the peanut and shea crops that flourish in the rainy season are harvested, Panoudji says they’ll be able to make enough soaps and lotions to sell in nearby towns.
Nekarbaye’s next goal is to build a hedge fence around the garden area to prevent livestock from wandering in and devouring all their hard work — an unfortunate reoccurrence due to nomadic cattle in the region, she says.
That step becomes more important as the women’s gardening efforts expand.
Before Baobab’s training, there were only small home gardens. Women and their families would eat whatever they grew. They were not able to set aside anything to sell, store or use as seeds for the next growing season.
Now, with seeds and farming tools from Baobab and training in topics like how to better care for the soil and what plants grow well together, the scale of the women’s gardens has grown exponentially — with plants stretching across the hillside and bringing new opportunities for Nekarbaye and the other gardeners.
“We can sell from these gardens, eat from them and get money from them and then help children to go to school or to the hospital,” Nekarbaye says.