INTERVIEW: Mamadou Ndiaye & Toby Green
A Senegalese peanut farmer speaks to CG’s Toby Green about life in rural Senegal during COVID-19
Mamadou Ndiaye is a Senegalese peanut farmer from the southern Casamance region of the country. He recently cleared a small piece of his family’s land to establish his farm. Before the Covid lockdowns, he had a small business transporting fish from the coast to his nearest town.
Collateral Global’s Toby Green caught up with him to learn more about everyday life in rural Senegal since the onset of COVID-19.
CG: Can you tell people about the work you were doing before the lockdowns began last year?
“Before the lockdown, I had a good fish business. Everyone was working, and they had the money to buy things. There was no sense of anything being forbidden, but during the lockdowns, many people lost their work, and everyone was limited. Even if you had fish to sell, there was no one who could buy anything. The only people who were able to move around were people working for the government. People here are very poor. If you work and are able to earn something, you are the support of the whole extended family. I have a big family, and all our parents’ generation is now dead. So there’s just us, and it’s impossible to save anything. We have to help each other.”
CG: How did the lockdowns transform your work?
“At the moment, I have been forced to turn to doing a little groundnut farming and producing maize to sell locally to reduce daily costs as much as I can. The fish business has gone because no one can afford any luxuries – even a little fish. At least now we can travel about as we need to.”
CG: Did the state offer aid to people to alleviate the effects of the lockdowns – and if so, was the level of what was offered exaggerated by the government?
“The Senegalese State released a large amount of money through loan programmes to deal with COVID. All they did was to distribute some rice, sugar and oil, and even what that did give out was not nearly enough for most families. No one can say what happened to the rest of the money. It was just a way to divert the money from the people. There are certainly people who have become rich off this, but the money was not enough for the poor.”
CG: Was COVID-19 serious in Casamance?
“At the start, there was very little of it in Casamance. COVID was imported to Dakar from France by tourists. Then some traders came by sea from Dakar and brought the infection, and some students brought it also. But COVID is not nearly as serious in Casamance as it is in Dakar. In the villages, no one talks of COVID-19. There’s no illness there. All people can see is that the villages are empty because all the young people have gone, because of the economic crisis.”
CG: How many people do you know who have had COVID-19 or who have died from it?
“I know a few people who have been infected. The wife of a friend and my oldest brother Tidiane caught it badly, and his whole family was put in quarantine. Opposite our family home in Ziguinchor, there is a carpenter’s workshop, and they caught it and were put in quarantine. In fact, some members of our family were also quarantined because they used to drink tea together. In terms of deaths, the only person I know who died of COVID-19 is the father-in-law of this carpenter.”
CG: Do you think that the COVID-19 mortality figures are accurate?
“Not at the start, but the state is now exaggerating the number of COVID cases. In Senegal, if you are ill, and once you are at hospital, they say it is COVID. This is discouraging people from going to hospital. If you are ill now, you seek traditional medicine.”
CG: What are the impacts of the COVID programmes on other health programmes?
“Now there is a tendency for officials to pretend there is no other disease, only COVID. Nothing else gets any attention. I find it very suspicious.”
CG: If people had never talked of COVID, would anyone have thought there was a serious problem in Senegal?
“Not at all. There would never have been a problem because it has not been serious here. If someone got sick, they would have cured themselves, and it would have been finished. Sadly, bigger interests have got behind all of this, and that has been our big problem.”
CG: Has the State used this crisis to increase their power?
“There’s no democracy in Senegal anymore, even though Senegal was always singled out before as a strong African democracy. If you are one of them, you can do what you want. There’s no justice. It’s only in Africa that you can find a state official making millions.”
CG: If you make a comparison between your work before the lockdowns and now, how can you describe the changes in your life?
“The truth is that you cannot live in Africa without the help of your family. Even if you have a good job, you have to share what you have with your family, who has nothing. Poverty is extreme in Senegal, and that has got worse this year.”
CG: How have the lockdowns changed the situation for young people?
“Lockdowns have impoverished the poor. There is no work. Nothing is working. You know it’s impossible in Africa if you make it illegal to meet up in people’s homes. Usually, there are 10 or 20 people everywhere sharing food so that they can eat. And that was made impossible.”
CG: How many young people do you know who have left to try to get to Europe by sea after COVID? Were they pushed to do this by hunger and economic crisis?
“I know many young people who have left to go to Europe. In Africa, all those who try to reach Europe by sea do so because of poverty, and there is no work, and that has got worse this year. There are times I look around my village and think that all the young people have left. There are many young people here in Casamance who have died at sea. Here in my small town, I know quite a number of young people who have died at sea.”
CG: Have any of those who left returned, or are they still away?
“None of those who left have returned. They have either stayed illegally or managed to get some official papers, or they have died at sea.”
Toby Green is Professor of Precolonial and Lusophone African History and Culture at King’s College London and a member of Collateral Global’s Scientific Advisory Board.
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