Friday, March 15, 2013

One Tree at a time: Dangarad’s Story

A huge part of my job is collecting information. Information is one of the key components of the development field. It is used to detail the baseline situation of a community before intervention, used to create proposals for the intervention, track successes and failures and most importantly, to get a first hand perspective. The latter is probably my favorite form of interaction. I like hearing from the people themselves. More importantly, the people should be heard by the government, humanitarian community and each other. This post is dedicated to International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. I am telling this story as people rarely hear about such efforts in Somalia and it is important to share more messages like this to the world.

A few weeks ago, I meet with some women from Badhan that share friendship and a passion for environmental protection. This was not my first time information gathering in Somalia but it certainly impacted me. The first vibe I felt was the impenetrable bond that the women had. A colleague of mine, who I look up too, assisted with translation as my Somali is still at the basic level. The women formed a group called Dangarad, a Somali term that simply stated means humble. Dangarad’s longer meaning refers to a person who knows his interests and keeps after them, and for these women this is certainly true as the women have gone from voiceless to environmental activists. You see these women are amongst Badhan’s most impoverished, all relying on social support. All are in their 40s and 50s and are from multiple clans and marginalized groups. Collaboration across clan lines is uncommon in Somalia, in fact clan conflicts and the inability to collaborate exacerbated the country’s issues in the past. Currently as Somalia is recovering many are attempting to work together, further proving that the Somalia is changing.
Dangarad Members lead the way to the trees they foster, Sanaag, Somalia             
 Dangarad has been watering trees on the outskirts of Badhan for over 5 years now. It is hard to imagine how women that barely have enough to support their families are supporting the little vegetation that remains in Badhan. The charcoal burning industry has resulted in a catastrophic level of deforestation in Somalia. Where an extensive forest once graced the landscape of Badhan now is barren and resembles a desert. Drought has severely affected the livelihoods of Somali’s. The women of Dangarad draw and carry 10 liters of water from makeshift buckets one at a time from the local well and walk around 2 kilometers twice a day just to reach the trees. The women were received humanitarian assistance and were trained in income generating activities which assisted many to create businesses in Badhan’s village center. The businesses help most of the women maintain their basic family needs. All say their lives were improved due to these interventions with many of their children now in school and nutritional status’ significantly improved. 

Member of Dangarad cares for a young tree, Sanaag, Somalia
The trees Dangarad waters were oringinally a part of a tree-planning activity initiated by Adeso. The trees are particularly suitable for the dry arid climate of the region. The women volunteer their time to water the trees yet volunteerism is a concept that is accepted easily in Somali culture. As they were explaining what they did I was simply amazed by their dedication. The women had eventually asked for more trees and where also provisioned wheelbarrows which allowed for 40 liters of water to be carried at one time. Of the 1,000 trees planted, 743 remain and are maintained by the women. While this initiative began as a way to re-green the area, the benefits have helped the trees remain. Somehow this still baffles me just how dedicated they are. Livestock use the trees for shade and feed from the leaves. Over time pastoralists brought their herds for shade and to feed nearby and the women became concerned that the roots of the trees could not withstand the appetites of the herds. Dangarad responded by collecting rocks and tins to create barriers around the roots of the trees, allowing them the chance to regenerate. They also dug canals to improve water absorption. The budding forest has faced many challenges. Some of the trees were cut by charcoal burners. “There are charcoal burners around and we can’t stop them from taking the trees. We can’t protect the trees so we need to convince them,” remarked a member of Dangarad. Aside from the charcoal burners some men from the village began to remove the stones the women placed to protect the roots of the trees. 
The women of Dangarad stand in front of a tree they foster, Sanaag, Somalia
Dangarad is the only group in Badhan working on environmental rehabilitation. They believe there is more incentive now to protect the trees aside from re-greening the town but would like more support in their efforts. After inquiring about their home lives it became clear that the women are struggling. Their children are in school but the school fees are increasing forcing the women to consider removing them. While some have land they lack livestock which could generate income. While the Dangarad women are facing personal hardships they believe the trees are like their children and envision a bright future for them. “In the future they would like to see the land become a forest as it used to be, with a big name that is well known. We want to see our land green again.  As the town is seeing the outcome of our efforts if we continue providing awareness we are hoping we can succeed in our efforts.”

After our conversation I asked if I could take their picture. I wanted to share just how amazing bonds are. This group of women has formed such a strong one that is deeply entrenched in who they are. I was moved to tears but held them until after we parted. I was inspired by their sisterhood and passion for the environment. Above all this, I was inspired by how the women have endured throughout the many hardships they face. I was not expecting to feel such emotions but there are times in Somalia when the survival stories I hear and the current conditions, although improving, just overwhelm me.  Living here, as a westerner, has helped me understand Somalia differently than most westerners. I am evermore appreciative of the stories people, especially Somali women share with me and the hope they have for the future.  

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