Episode 18

Reviving the Sahel with Dr Ousmane Pame

Published on: 15th September, 2021

Dr Ouzmane Pame is the founder and director of a network of eco-villages in the Sahel (the area stretching from Senegal on the west coast of Africa to Eritrea on the east, and bordered to the north by the Sahara Desert and to the south by rich savanna land). The previously verdant land of parts of the Sahel has suffered desertification through decades of poor agricultural practices, and Dr Pame is one of many people now working to revive the region to the lush and abundant habitat it once was.

In this interview, Dr Pam explains:

  • what factors led to the ecological and socio-economic disaster in the region
  • how to reach young people with the important message of caring for nature
  • the need to balance African cultures and traditions with modern Western practices
  • how the eco-village project came about and what an eco-village looks like
  • the importance of local women as leaders in education and wealth-creation

Find out more about the REDES Ecovillages at redes-ecovillages.org

This is the Teachers for Schools website: t4s.info 

The book mentioned in this episode is “Oneness vs the 1%” by Vandana Shiva. It’s available from many sources (simply do an online search). This interview and write-up gives a good summary of the book’s contents.


Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan


So hello Ousmane and thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us for our podcast AudaciousNess. Let's get straight into it, by you telling us something about the audacious work that you do. Please go ahead.


Thanks, Helen. It's a pleasure to be here. And I think we are engaged in something huge and extremely big. We’re trying to reverse the Sahara Desert on the Senegalese and Mauritanian side, together with villages. It's a huge task and we’re having also some successes, but we still have a long way to go.


What do you mean about reverse the Sahara desert? Can you explain that a little bit more?


A few decades ago, the part of the land I live in, in northern Senegal, was a forest, with the lions, with the hippos, with crocodiles, with a diversity of animals. And my grandmother, you know, who passed away about six years ago, who lived in this beautiful area paradise, used to tell us how it was when she was young, because she lived quite for some time, a century and nine years, and she was mentally alert till the very last minute. And she fed us with stories of how it was when she was young, when she gave birth to my father, and then I realised that, you know, this was just like a paradise, it was just like, you know, because today when you compare the situation to what my grandmother tells us, it's a complete barren place. It's like a lunarscape, you know, landscape with no trees. It's very hot in May, June, July, with extreme temperatures, close to 50 degrees Celsius, with wind storms, animals having less food to eat, and humans also facing the same challenges. And in addition to this, people are leaving these places to go to cities, urban centres like Dakar, to find better living conditions. And this is also a very important historic place because it was the kingdom of the Futa Toro, with lots of institutions, that's the place where slavery was forbidden. You know, in 1760, there was a Toro revolution in 1776, that's coincided with the independence of America. And at that time the religious leaders, political leaders got together and had a Chart of transparency, leadership, of also forbidding human slavery, and really trying to promote human rights, but this is not known in the outside world. And this region is extremely important in also the spreading of peaceful Islam throughout West Africa. And this is my heritage. And now we're trying to reconnect the dots, trying also to bring back this cultural wealth, trying to bring back wellbeing, welfare, among the communities, this is the task we're facing at the moment.


Wow, I mean, that sounds like a paradise indeed, what you were explaining there and it obviously sustained people, if your grandmother lived until she was over 100, then obviously it sustained people in this area too. I'm curious as to what were the reasons why it's degraded from this paradise to what you describe now in such a short period of time. Can you shed a little light on that?


It’s a combination of different factors. Up to the 70s we had complete organic food, organic farming, no pesticides, no chemicals. But at some stage, our national government was convinced by international financial organisations like the IMF, the World Bank and all these international partners, they persuaded our governments, Mauritanian government, Senegalese government and Mali, who shared this river, to put dams on the river. And because it costs a lot, and they also wanted to develop cash crops to pay back all these debts. And one of the conditions was to clear the forest and start agriculture. And we are very close to the desert, and being close to the desert with all the degradation that is brought by desertification itself and all these bad agricultural policies, which also use a lot of chemicals, a lot of pesticides, which pollute the rivers and so this has resulted in a complete ecological and socio-economic disaster in the region. And also, it was a time when people thought everything that our national government decided was the right thing to go. And today, I think all the people in this area have realised what a big mistake it was to clear the forest, destroy the resources and depend on

rea, which was created in the:


Definitely. And it sounds like, or my understanding is that a similar story is being played out in other parts of the world. We spoke on this podcast earlier, to somebody from India, who explained something quite similar happening. But yeah, I mean, for us to then say, right, okay, we need to change this, that's obviously from the grassroots level, is a huge task against all of these multinational organisations. So, how are you going about doing that? What are you doing to reverse this?


I think also using the same channels that these international, these multinationals use, like education, like influencing decision-makers, like using TVs, radios, etc, going to the villages, organising a number of events that will raise the awareness of the people, for example, I'll just give you an example of the southern part of my country, in Casamance. For example, in Casamance we have the last sacred forests in the country, where, in sacred forests, because when people are dead, they are buried with seeds and the seeds, when they grow up, they are seen as the reincarnation of the souls of the dead people. And then it creates real sacred areas, like temples, natural temples, where people go for their initiations, when there is a crisis in the community, that's the place where they go and discuss honestly, it's the place where they connect with the ancestors. To a foreigner, you know, this is just like wood, it's nothing, it's a wood. So when they see this, they see how much paper they can make out of it, how much of industrial product they can get. I mean for us, when we see this we see ancestors, we see our culture, we see our balance with nature, we see a number of things that other people don't necessarily see. So it's important to remind the younger generations, how important the wildlife, how important the forests are, to our culture, to our balance, and also telling them that also, this notion of wellbeing that the West in general sells to Africa, is not totally appropriate. Of course, we will not close ourselves to the best part in the Western cultures and other cultures. We would like also at the same time combining these best parts with also the best parts of our tradition. But also we are very clear that not everything also in our traditions were absolutely best. So we are trying to put something delicate together, like the best parts of our local cultures and traditions with also what the best that the West offers, so that we can move forward. I think this is the delicate balance that we as communities, we as local governments, as leaders also need to design so that it's widely adopted. And then this will be the seeds of change, real change, sustainable change and provision.


Wow, that sounds like a big enterprise that you're doing. And that you're Yes, moving forward. Ousmane, you just use the word seeds. And that reminded me of, I want to think of the origins because I'm always interested in that. I can imagine that you've listened through all your childhood and growing up and becoming a man to the storytellings of your grandmother. But then, at some point, something must have happened, that something changed, something clicked. What was it that gave you this inspiration to start this work?


Well, as I've told you, my grandmother was a real university, to me, and to my brothers and sisters, also, because she had a large herd of cows. And during the summer vacations, I would, like my brothers and sisters also, go and help her look after her cattle. So we would go far away from the village, like five kilometres, six kilometres, and then we would stay the whole day, looking at the animals grazing. When it's very hot, we get under the shade of a tree. And that's the time when my grandmother shared all these stories. I think that was absolutely fascinating opening so many windows, so many doors in our small brains. And so she told us, you know, all the different kinds of trees, the medicinal use of some herbs, etc. So, of course, when we were far away from the village, we had no water, we had no food, but I mean, we were fully fed and nourished with all these stories. And in addition also to this, because, you know, we made so many things happen at the same time, in my village, where, you know, rice agriculture was started first, we have realised that our lands are dead. And when you scratch the land up to the level of the water, you will not see any worms, which is a sign of vitality of the earth, because the land has been receiving so many poisons, it’s completely dead. And my village was seen as a model really, because it was the first village to have electricity in the region. And of course, at night, this small village with all these electricity bulbs, was like a spacecraft of aliens in the middle of nowhere, everywhere else was dark. And this was also made by the Chinese. They also showed us, you know, films, Chinese films, of course, relating Mao Tse-tung’s sagas and stories. So they were Chinese films in subtitles with English. We didn't understand much because we spoke no English, no Chinese, but it was already magic for us to see movies, and people from other villages used to come. And also my village was a place where people could come and learn new jobs like mechanics. And, you know, so the yields were very important. And then at a moment, we realised that all the yields were just going down, people were getting into debt, the crisis was so deep that the government left us and that coincides also with the time when the IMF, the World Bank, told our local governments don't invest in non-productive sectors like agriculture, health, education, and also that was the time then when also the Chinese left us so we were all left. We were left alone. And we decided at some time to come together as a village. So all the students, teachers, herders, farmers, we got together for three days and they were called Reflection Days, Community Reflection Days. And we came up with a document that says, Okay, if you want to develop farming, this is what needs to happen. If you want to develop health education, this is what needs to be developed. So I took an active part in all this in the village. And we were searching for some, you know, sustainable solutions. And I also made my first steps into the village movement as a teacher, as an educator. And finally, I was responsible for the academic programme of an American programme called Living Roots in Senegal. So we would go to villages and help with micro projects and all this. So I think this all, this was just raising, was also helping build some new ideas and a new vision. And at some point in my life, I went to Oroville in India, where I attended a course on eco-village design education. And back to my village, where also this movement was, to my country where this movement was also emerging. Because in Senegal in 2002, that was the first eco-village network was registered. And as I was working with them, I also brought a programme in my village. And then we explained to the villagers what an eco-village is, and how to go about it and all the strategies. And then we got into this. And a few years later, for the first time in the history of my village, we were promoted commune and I was elected mayor. That was really the first time that the village had a mayor, and all I had to offer my village was to transition into an eco-village. And we developed some projects here and there. And of course, I think the hardest part was really to change the mental and cultural paradigm so that everyone is geared to action and to sustainable practices. And of course, we succeeded part of this, and other parts are still a challenge to the community. And I think all these conquered to really maybe give me the ideas, the vision I have for, you know, to include also surrounding communities and even now work with our neighbouring country Mauritania, and we’re working together with communities and leaders and our vision is now to create a trans border, eco-village hub, which combines 50 villages in Mauritania and 50 villages in Senegal, so that we can really start fighting, you know, work to reverse desertification and also reinvent our present and our future.


I wonder, Ousmane, if you could describe what one of these eco-villages look like. Could you paint a picture for us as to what an eco-village is and how it's different to another village?


I'll give you an example. The example of Liboru(?). In 2004 Liboru, which is a small Mauritanian village of 900 inhabitants was affected as very much as all the other villages. I mean all this scenario I described earlier - dryness, sandstorms, high temperatures, people living because they have no food, people living because, you know, they don't see a better future for themselves and especially the youth. And at some point under the leadership of a local village chief who is a retired educator, they decided to give one part of their land and then fence it. So the investment here is the fencing, which is very minimal. And about 10 years later, because there are no animals that overgraze and kill and eat and destroy, this has become a real dense forest with local trees. And when you get into this, it's at least 15 degrees less in terms of temperatures, and this has become also an animal sanctuary. All the other animals like boars, like rabbits have used this like a sanctuary, a safe place. And bees are back. They use the honey to make medicine, to eat and all year round the animals have food. And also women are organised in cooperatives, they work together, they share the wealth they produce in this village. And at the same time, they have also a band of traditional singers called griots here, and then the griots, they are totally different from the other kinds of griots you will see in West Africa. Because here most of their production is about the preservation of the environment, about how to make a much better life, how to revive our legends, our stories, etc. When I listen to the songs, I really have goosebumps because it just talks to me directly, deeper. And so I think that also helping the communities outside also better understand the necessity of really trying to preserve their natural resources. So today, when you go to this village, at any time of the year, you know, you will find food, people are very open, very welcoming. We have a number of international also visitors who come. It's so peaceful. I think what makes it really different from the other villages, I think it's the level of awareness of the importance of how to create and design ways that will produce wealth, that will produce peace. And also they're so generous, they also, I think they're educating also surrounding villages. So we want to use this as an engine, this community as an engine to really pull all the surrounding villages and so get inspired, what's happening there, both on the Mauritanian side and Senegalese side. And in Senegal, also, we have a couple of villages that you know, have a similar trajectory. So for us, these progress made by the people, ordinary people, I think, are wonderful, powerful stories to be shared in this region. So that other people also, other villages can also say, oh, why can't we do the same thing? Why can't we. and they go to these villages, which are really open laboratories, where they learn and I think one of the roles of REDES which is my organisation, that stands for network for eco-village emergence and development in the Sahel region, is also to connect all these energies and then make them also known throughout the region. So that in the next 10 years, we hope, you know, to have a green, verdant, prosperous also region. I think we are already in the right direction. And I would like also to take advantage of this and also thank all our international partners really, that have been very understanding and supporting, like Teachers4Schools that has already supported with a well, where we have a Community Training Centre, we’re developing a food forest, and at the moment, we are developing a nursery for 200,000 plants, which is huge, and this will be planted in 20 villages. So if this can be repeated on a permanent basis, I think in the next decade we will come to fantastic results everyone will be happy about. I think also one of the problems in Sahel region is water. In the past two years, we have, with the support of our international partners, dug 32 wells in 32 different villages. And when we say water, it also gives birth to a number of other projects. Like, for example in Arivelle(?), we gave them a well, which by the way, the water is fantastic. So it tastes so delicious, myself, I've drank from it, and the water and the quality of the water was absolutely amazing. And so the village had water to drink and also their cattle and at the same time they develop around this well, they develop a community orchard where they produce a number of vegetables they can also eat and sell in the market. And recently we have also brought them a number of seeds and bags so that they can also develop a nursery, a plant nursery. And I think all this combined really helps raise the level of the living standards in the villages. It creates hope. And it federates people around what is really essential, and how to live a good life. And this is absolutely uplifting.


Wow, you're so inspiring, Ousmane. You are a very inspiring leader, I have to say. And while listening to you describe what you have done, and all the things that have happened already, I was thinking, this is not about sustainable living. This was just the start. It’s about so much more. I loved what you said before: “reinvent our present and our future”. What are all the implications? Can you tell us a little bit about it, I mean, you've said it already, but it's about, you mentioned the culture, about how living a happy life is not just sustainable, or sustainability?


Yeah, I think it's a combination of all this at the same time, because I think it's not very sustainable if our notion of joy, of wellbeing is imposed on us by other people. You know, there's no such thing where people can say, okay, for your joy, for your happiness, for your way of life, you need to do this and this and this and this, like, you know, big gurus, I think really we are at a time when we need to stop all this. And we as local community think about all the things and for ourselves, and also see how we can also develop our connections with our own environment, and with the people around us. I think it's an active laboratory, where we also try to reinvent, you know, what is friendship, what is fraternity across borders, what it means, you know, to live a safe, peaceful, productive life. And I think all these things come into consideration at the same time. So, in the past, we were educated, you know, by our grandmothers, by our mothers, by the way, women play a very important role in our communities. They are the really, the main actors, they are the educators, they are the wealth producers. And then, with the Western schools, all this change, you know, because when people started to go to schools, a new administration was born and then I think it completely upset the traditional organisations in our local culture. So women are natural leaders, natural educators. I think we need also to restore this in our communities. And we are beginning to lose our legends, our stories, because we feel completely overwhelmed by what's happening on internet, on all these international media. And at the same time, we realise that these international media are creating some very thick, invisible walls of fears between people. When someone in England wants to go to the Gambia or to Africa, there is oh, disease, oh, danger, no security, Ebola in all this, I think the reality is much wider than this. Of course, we all have challenges,whether in England or here in Senegal, I mean, there are challenges all over the world. But I think we need at some point really to destroy these invisible psychological walls that prevent people from interacting, from being friends, from developing fraternal bonds. So I think it's all this at the same time. We need, as our first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was also a poet, said, we need to be deeply rooted in our cultures, and at the same time open to the rest of the world. I think this is really a driving force for many people of my generation and also in Africa. So I think we have a troubled past - slavery - and slavery is not over yet, it's still a present day thing. Because what's happening today in Africa, in all over the world, our resources are being taken away. People are triggering some wars between people so that they can take diamonds, they can take a number of other minerals. And I think greed is really destroying not only African communities, but also European communities. I think the same forces that are destroying Africa are also undermining Europeans, also undermining other people in other places of the world. So it's not the North against the South or the West against the East, I think it's the same dark forces that are really like, you know, that are just taking people's energy, people's resources. And the resources are being, the wealth is being concentrated in less than 1% of the global population. And the 90 other percent are dying of disease, or lack of food. I think this is not rational, it's just like a pyramid standing on the top. So we needed to find a way to get the pyramid, you know, perhaps the other way around. If this is not a good example, we need to create a circle of friendship where people can, no matter what their races are, no matter where they live, where we can really hold hands, and together reinvent a new planet, a new life across borders. But again, we need to clearly identify these forces that send us toxic energy that exploit us, that really keep our hope and our positive energy down. So I think in every country, in every place, region in the world, such forces exist, and I think it requires a lot of energy for local leaders, local people, ordinary people to come together and identify those and try to change the current situation.


Yeah, I completely agree Ousmane, we all have a large challenge on our hands at the moment. I'd like to end with a positive note, if we may, and I'm gonna ask you our final question, which we always ask to our guests at the end of our interviews, and that is to do with the name of our podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to the work that you're doing, which is clearly audacious in all of these eco-villages that you're starting up.The word ‘ness’ relates to a piece of land, a spit of land, which juts out into the sea, and remains standing, no matter what the sea is throwing at it in all kinds of weathers. So our final question to you is, what is it that gives you the solid grounding to keep on standing, no matter what life and its challenges are throwing at you?


Thank you for the question. And I believe all these local wisdoms that I learned from my grandmother, from the community and from my education in the French school system, etc. I think this gives me perhaps a unique perspective on things. And one is there is a very important proverb in Wolof - Wolof is a local culture here - that says [...?], which means a person is another person's medicine. And this is absolutely central to our own vision here. I think what's important is, if we want to find out who we are, we need to be at the service of other people all the time. And of course we may be at the heart of our tempers, we may be surrounded by dark forces, etc. But I think what's really important is to keep faith in humanity, to keep faith that we're still growing together as humans. And hopefully, we'll get there you know, I think we are on a journey and we’re facing so many challenges. I guess our children, though they may have bigger ecological challenges, I think they've got bigger chances really to have, to connect with other youth in the world. So that, you know, they can also live together in much better conditions than we do today. So, yes, I think there's hope. Hope is here, and it's just like, of course, this flame in the wind, but it's resisting and we hope also there will be more candles around, and then people can really start thinking about how to reinvent our fraternity and live like brothers and sisters all around the world. This is their fate. We’re also trying to get some of the youth also understand. And I think more and more people are also under understanding this. I see the meaning of the people who have taken part in our different programmes are already starting their own centres, their own actions. And this is really spreading, whether in southern Mauritania, whether in northern rural Senegal, there are a number of actions and initiatives that are connecting, and that are also really going in the right direction.


That's beautiful. Thank you so much, Ousmane, it's been such a pleasure talking to you and finding out about your work there. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.




Thank you very much indeed. That was very inspiring.


Thank you, Helen. Thank you, Maribel. It's a pleasure. And also I'd like to thank Jen Taylor for connecting us together and it's really an inspiring moment, sharing with you and hopefully you will also help spread all this, and many more people will also connect to this and then we can create a positive global energy that will help change our global situation much faster.

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About the Podcast

A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.