Their activities are underreported and their services are hardly celebrated. But women gardeners at Banjulinding Women’s Horticultural Garden have more than two decades been pushing Gambia’s household food and nutrition security.
It started in 1989 as a small community farming association with one hectare piece of land. According to agricultural researcher Olawale F. Olaniyan who did a research about the garden in 2014, an association of 80 members would collectively cultivate either maize or millet in the 80s during the Gambia’s three to four month cropping season.
Today, the garden is not only enhancing the wider agricultural system of the country, but it’s also giving chance to the women to become self-reliant.
Tombong Jarju, 65, has been working in the garden for more than two decades. Her biggest achievement as a gardener is to educate of her children.
“I remember sponsoring my child’s education and now he’s a graduate. At the moment, I am supporting my youngest child’s education from what I earn in this garden and he’ll graduate next year.”
On a good gardening season, Tombong earns a profit of at least D10,000. That’s enough for her to cater for some of her most basic household needs. “Thanks to this garden, poverty and other related hardships on my family are going down.”
Many of the women gardeners are breadwinners in their families. “I used the money I earn here to take care of my family,” says Dalanda Jallow who has been gardening at Banjulinding Women’s Garden for over 24 years.
“I’m responsible for my children’s tuition fees and I support my husband by putting food on the table. I also help other relatives when they need my help.”
In her garden, Aja Lisa Conateh is busy harvesting beans to sell them. She’s been working in the garden for more than two decades. Like her colleagues, she’s been educating her kids from the money she earns from the garden, on top of providing other household needs of her family.
“I have fully and happily sponsored five of my children’s education from this garden, from lower level school to graduation,” she tells The Chronicle.
Aja Lisa’s kids, who look after her, have asked her to quit gardening. But she refused, feeling an emotional attachment with the garden and the soil she has toiled before most of her kids were born.
“They are all working now. They’ve asked me to retire but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. We’ve been here for so long. I’m also worried that if I stop, I might have to struggle physically because working here has been like an exercise for us.”
Despite the gains being made in the garden, the gardeners are feeling the heat of the lack of support from the authorities. Among the most urgent needs are steady water supply and construction of perimeter fences to protect the crops.
“Because there is no fence, the garden is exposed not only to animals but also thieves,” says Tombong. “They’ve stolen half of our solar panels which we used to supply water. This has resulted to us not having adequate water and we still continue to struggle with that.”
“We are seriously operating in the midst of water crisis. We now buy cash power each day for D500 to ease water problem because the remaining solar panels are no longer powerful enough to pump water.”
Dalanda wants the government to help fence the garden for protection.
“As you can see we have put sticks as perimeter fences, and these cannot stop cattle, goats and sheep from entering. This is a huge problem because we cannot protect our products.”
For Yama Badjie, another gardener, her biggest challenge is the lack of a storage facility for the gardeners. “Right now we are experiencing a shortage of tomato. When people were harvesting, it was everywhere and the pricing was extremely poor due to its high quantity in the market. If we have had a storage facility that is accessible, we could have kept some tomatoes for the off-season. But we don’t have it and it all perished.”
Banjulinding Women’s Horticultural Garden was once a male-dominated ground before 1992 when it suffered a set-back following the cut of exportation of beans due to the Gulf war. In 1996, the government of Taiwan sponsored the garden leading to its revival, with women becoming the dominant force in its golden era.
However, the severing of diplomatic ties between The Gambia and Taiwan during the regime of Yahya Jammeh threw the project into uncertainty. Though Taiwan turned its back on the garden and the rest of the country, the women gardeners used what they had to keep their activities going.
As they continue to battle with limited assistance, they want President Adama Barrow to make their efforts his priority, and at least visit the garden.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, horticulture sector contribution to country’s GDP directly accounts for four percent while providing employment to thousands of Gambians.
Food and Agricultural Development (FAO) says Gambian women account for 50 percent of the country’s total labour force.