Mariama Sonko

Mariama Sonko

Age at interview: 53


The daughter of rural farmers, Mariama was born into agroecology. She learnt the rhythms of the land from her parents, who raised their family by cultivating the land. As a child she watched the food that nourished them grow from the ground. She saw how manure and compost were prepared, how seeds were selected for the next planting season, and how the food was transformed from crops in the field to nourishment on their plates. An attentive Mariama quickly learnt that she had an important role in food production, which started with selection and storage of seed for the next planting season. Her role was one reserved for women within her community. Since those early days she has immersed herself fully into the work of producing food and grieves the loss of communal solidarity, a norm in her early life, used to ensure support for every farmer in the community during planting and harvest periods. Now a mother and a widow, Mariama sustains herself and her children off the land that she inherited from her late husband.

The rural village of Bandjikaky in the South of Senegal is my place of birth. My father is not originally from Bandjikaky. He was from a village called Karongue, a little far from Bandjikaki. I was born while my parents were visiting relatives in Bandjikaky. As a child I lived in Karongue with my parents and then moved back and forth between there and Bandjikaky, where I lived with my sister.

It is possible to recover land

I was raised in a farming family, where my father and mother cultivated the land in order to feed us. What I saw from them were natural ways of fertilising the soil with manure or compost.

My father in law was also a great farmer. When he got married and went to live in the village of Niaguis, he was allocated a piece of land by the elders of the community so that he could settle and cultivate to sustain his family. Unfortunately, the piece of land was very close to the river, where the land was not very good. It was silt[1] land. My father in law was not disheartened by this.

My parents in law and myself would collect dead leaves from mango trees and soil from elsewhere and spread it over the land. We would also collect organic waste from the kitchen compost over three or four months. My mother in law would collect this and spread it over the land. My father in law, on the other hand, used to go to the SONACOS factory of Ziguinchor, which processed peanuts into peanut butter, and he would collect the peanut shells. He would then spread the shells over the land. Lastly, there is a kind of cotton-like material which is biodegradable and that used to be used to make bags. My parents in law would collect these bags and also add them on the land. I am not sure why they used that combination of materials, but all I know is that it worked.

After a period of my parents in law and myself using natural, organic waste to feed and restore that land, it became fertile. My father in law’s actions showed me that it is possible to recover land. What had been barren silt land became a productive field for our family.

The preservers of life

During the harvest period in my community, it is women who take the lead. As a little girl I used to watch my mother meticulously selecting the best seeds first, keeping them aside, and then harvesting the rest of the field for our own consumption.

Back then it puzzled me greatly why my mother would set aside the best grain while we ate the rest. Why would we labour so hard only to set aside the best of what we had produced? Only later did I realise that the best grain was kept for the following season as seed for planting.

In my community, women are the custodians of seeds and are also responsible for the cooking of food. In a sense, women are the preservers of life in the form of seed. The rituals of food do not end with seed preservation and harvesting. They continue into the cooking of food. Our food was traditionally prepared in clay pots, so that even as it was cooked it was cradled by the earth.

While food used to be cooked in clay pots, it’s now being cooked in aluminium and metal pots and I think this has an impact on what we actually end up ingesting when we eat. Change is indeed inevitable, but I worry that this kind of change is doing more harm than good.

Not cruelty but preparation

Where I come from, it is very common to live in many places, as people often move between the homes of parents and other relatives. When I was seven years old, I went to live with my elder sister in her marital home in order to help her take care of her baby. Moving to live with my sister involved a series of changes in my life — quite a lot of changes for a seven-year-old. One of the most significant changes was that of moving into an Islamic household. It was a complicated living arrangement, because while I had been born into and lived in a polygamous household, my sister’s new home was an Islamic polygamous household. She was the fourth wife, and life was completely different from my own birth home.

In addition to my sister being a junior wife in the household, she was also marginalised by the other wives, because of her social background (she was black and from an Arab lineage). In that home she was more of a labourer than a wife, and I suffered along with her. Whatever workload she had, I had to assist her. I remember distinctly one incident [when] my sister and I washed clothes from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. We had to wash our own clothes, those of my sister’s husband, the clothes of the other wives, and [those] of the other people that lived in the household. At some point during the day, my sister developed severe stomach pains and could not do any more work, so I had to continue the work alone. Once I finished with the clothes, I had to go and pound the millet to make couscous for the evening meal before I could go to bed.

It was extremely hard for me, but it was also a learning experience. Once I joined my own husband's house as an adult, the work was similar and the expectations of me were many. But I could handle it due to these early life experiences. It was only when I got married that I realised that living with my sister had prepared me for life and that the training my sister gave me was not cruelty but preparation.

The initiation ceremony, which is part of our traditional way of life and customary practices in our community, is another childhood experience that felt like cruelty. Part of this is about cutting the clitoris and learning how you should behave and understanding your place in the community. But also, part of the initiation process is the circumcision of young girls. I remember my own circumcision, which took place in 1977, when I was 10 years old. It was a shocking and, I guess, difficult event. I remember the deception. Before you go to the forest you are told that you are going on an exciting adventure and that there will be fruit, beautiful gardens, and so on.

Unfortunately, there was nothing good or beautiful about it. You have no idea what is going to happen to you, so I guess there is indeed a surprise. The only problem is that it is not a happy surprise. I remember clearly the moment they covered my eyes as we got close to the place. There is no point talking about the rest.

Very different from our home in the village

Before I was born, my father often went to Dakar because he was a marabou. He was a religious man who at one point needed help with what he believed was a spiritual battle. He was assisted by a woman called Mariama, with whom both he and my mother developed a very close relationship. She was loving towards my parents and showed a lot of consideration for my father and mother, despite them being Diola, an ethnicity that is often looked down upon in Senegal. And so when I was born my father and my mother decided to give me her name. They said that they had a lot of admiration and respect for her because she was not constrained by ethnic divisions.

In the early years after I started school, she requested that my parents send me to her in Dakar during the school holiday. This, then, became the routine during my school holidays. She’d ask that I come with only the clothes I was wearing. My mom also ensured that I carried some gifts like palm oil and other things from my region for Aunty Mariama.

Once I arrived in her home, I would find that she had already bought a lot of new clothes for me. When I went back to my family's house, she would fill a whole suitcase with new clothes for me — and for other members of my family — as well as school material like uniforms and stationery for me.

Aunty Mariama’s home in Dakar was very different from our home in the village. Her home was completely built up and enclosed, while in Bandjikaky our home was in open space with no walls or fences around the compound. Every time you left the home in Dakar you had to lock the doors and gate, which took me some time to get used to. Also, back home we did all of the work ourselves, but in Dakar there were two domestic workers.

I never hesitated to use this strength

Aunty Mariama had a market stall where she sold fish and vegetables, and I often had to go there to bring condiments to the family for the meals. My trips to the market or back were quite an event. Neighbours and other young girls in the neighbourhood would tease me for being a girl of the Diola ethnic group from southern Senegal. There was an insulting song they would sing saying that the Diolas from the south were like dogs and would eat just anything. It was heartbreaking, and I couldn’t stand it. So I would often end up in physical fights with them.

I would then get into trouble with Aunty Mariama for getting into fights, and she would talk and talk about how it was not okay for me to fight. I was a bit of a terrible child. I am physically strong now, and even as a young girl, I was strong and never hesitated to use this strength to fight. When someone would do something that I didn't like, I would not let it go. People around me felt that such behaviour was okay for boys but not for me, and as a result I was often in trouble.

One day, on one of my usual trips to Aunty Mariama’s market stall, one of her sons — who was a chief in the Gendarmerie and whom I would pass on the way to or from the market — realised that the fights and attacks directed against me were being caused by the other children who were teasing me. So he decided to intervene. From that day onward, the kids stopped harassing me. Despite this, I still only left the house to go to the market. I didn’t play outside with the other children in the neighbourhood; I just stayed locked up in the house.

A difficult place to go

Visiting Aunty Mariama introduced me to the city and I looked forward to my holiday visits. During a holiday visit just after completing my primary school exams, my sister’s husband came to fetch me from Aunty Mariama’s house. He said he didn’t think that me spending my holidays in the city was useful and that I should be home studying and getting more useful training. I don’t think my parents had a problem with me spending my holidays in Dakar, but my sister’s husband didn’t want me to go as I was living with them.

There was a serious debate about whether I would go home with my sister’s husband or stay with Aunty Mariama. In the end, the husband of my sister was able to take me forcefully out of Dakar. Three days after I went back home to live with my sister and her husband, we learnt that Aunty Mariama had died of a heart attack.

Many believed that she died because of me, that the heartbreak from how I had been taken away was too hard for her. Even her own children blame me for the death of their mother. I was young at that time, but I still find it difficult when I visit Dakar. Going to the house feels like going home, but knowing that her children feel I am responsible for her death makes it a difficult place to go to.

Difficult to remember, yet impossible to forget

When I was 12, and still living with my sister, my father died. Then [when I was] 16, my sister’s husband also died. At the time of his death, he had 10 wives and my sister was pregnant. She had to go through the difficult grieving process while pregnant and still perform the rituals of a widow, which carry on for a long period after your husband dies. She remained in the marital home until the day of giving birth. It is a day that is emotionally difficult to remember, yet impossible to forget.

My sister gave birth at home, with the help of one of her husband’s other wives. The labour was long and difficult but eventually the baby came. The baby’s umbilical cord had been horribly cut by one of the other wives and it caused the baby to develop a painful infection. The cord had been cut too short and my sister was in such pain to see the new baby struggling for its life that she left her husband’s home. After this incident, my sister moved to the Gambia, where her mother lived. My sister is the eldest daughter of my father’s second wife and her mother had moved to the Gambia, where she had remarried.

When my sister left, I too had to leave that home and return to my parents’ home in Karongue, where my mother was living as a widow. My mother was my father’s first wife, so the custom was that she was to stay in the husband's house, while the other wives return to their families. It was very hard for my mother in that home, because all the children of her husband, including the children of the other wives, were now dependent on her. When I rejoined my mother, I tried to work hard so that I could contribute to the household expenses and make sure that the children were still able to go to school and that they had food and so on.

I no longer had a choice in the matter

When I was about to finish high school, my extended family from my father’s side decided that it was time for me to get married. They found a man, an engineer. They promised me to him in marriage, but I refused. Despite him being wealthy and older, I did not love him at all. However, all my father’s relatives were concerned about was that this man was wealthy and that he could save the family because of that.

I was lucky to have my mother’s support in refusing this marriage, but the family was determined and the pressure on my mother increased. Eventually, my mother told me I had to get married because the family would not stop insisting. Her advice to me was to find a man of my choice and marry him in order to silence the family and to avoid being forced into marrying a man I didn’t love.

I no longer had a choice in the matter, and even though I was in the final year of high school and looking forward to going to university the next year, I had to get married. I got married at the age of 19 to Abdul, who was a teacher. He was not wealthy like the engineer. But I loved him, and he was younger.

My relatives were extremely unhappy. For a short while after the marriage, I stayed with my mother and continued my education, but because of their bitterness, my father’s relatives insisted that I go and live with my husband and his family. At the end of that same year, I moved from my Karongue to live with my husband’s family.

When I joined my husband, I found a big family. His mother was sick. Some of my husband’s sisters were living in the home but were unable to help with taking care of their mother. It became fully my responsibility to take care of my mother-in-law. The household was a popular one with friends and relatives and used to receive a lot of guests, whom I had to attend to. Thanks to the experiences in my sister’s household, I knew how to receive guests, how to cook and take care of large numbers of people. Initially, In order to pursue my studies I tried to register to write some exams and to study in the evening or the afternoon but with all the domestic work I was given I couldn’t cope. I would fall asleep on the table without realising it and my husband, or a member of the family, would wake me up and send me off to bed.

Within my marriage, I had five children. My first daughter, Mame Binta Sambou, is 32 years old. The second daughter, Aramatoulaye, is 28 years old. Four years later came the only boy, Moussa Sambou, who is 24 years old. Moussa was followed two years later by Sire, while the youngest, Fatou Gnandine, came as a bit of a latecomer several years later. She is only 13 years old.

I tried to organise the women

When I first got to my husband’s village there weren’t any woman's group involved in development activities. When my husband went off to his teaching job, I tried to organise the women in the village so that we could create a space for us to dialogue and carry out work as service providers, so that we could contribute to our households. I wanted to ensure that as women we were not completely dependent on our husbands and that we could support each other in the community.

Among the services for a fee, that we initially provided to the community [were] helping farmers who wanted to transport manure to their farms just before the rainy season, and dyeing clothes for weddings, naming ceremonies, and initiation ceremonies, as well as making soap from palm oil. From what we made from those fees, some of us were able to attend a capacity-building programme on processing fruit and vegetables. Once back from the training, we shared that knowledge, and as a group, we started packing vegetables and fruit for selling.

I lost my husband in 1998 because of the conflict in Casamance. At the time of his death I was living with him in Yarang, the village where he worked as a teacher and where I was working for a farmer federation as a coordinator of the village banks in Balantacoundam. After his death I went back to live with my husband’s family [2]. When back in the village of Niaguis, where the parents of my deceased husband lived, I no longer had work, so I went back to the work that I knew, agriculture. I also started working with the peasant women's group in my village, called “10,000,” later called “Niaguis 2”. I was elected the chair of the women's organisation in my district.

In 1999, I was appointed District President of the Niaguis Women's Promotion Groups, a position I still hold today [third term]. In 2001, during the general assembly of the Association of Young Farmers of Casamance, AJAC Lukaal, of which my group is a member, I was appointed Treasurer General. At the same time, I also served as facilitator of meetings focusing on peace, craftsmanship, microcredit and agriculture in the rural world. I was farming at this time; however, I wasn’t practicing agroecology at the time, as we used chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

I radically changed the way I saw the world

In 2005, I went to a community meeting in a place called Oussouye, where they were having a dialogue amongst farmers practising agroecology. During that dialogue process, I realised that the farmers in this village had a lot of rice in their granaries. They had such an abundance of food that they could not finish the rice from the previous harvest before they harvested again the next season.

These farmers were clearly self-sufficient, and the community members were in good health. You would see elders who normally would be sitting at home because of their age in other villages still farming and still actively involved with the community. I was very disappointed because I had thought that people in my home area had a good life, a modern life, but we did not have this kind of abundance of food, sense of community, or health.

I remember talking to an elder at some point during that meeting about the health of the community, and she said “My dear, we are not dying as early as your people because we know all the food we are eating, we grow it and prepare it ourselves in traditional ways. In your community, you are eating everything that is from outside and of those things you are eating most of them are toxic. You don't know what is in the food you are eating.”

That is the day I realised the difference in the quality of life and wellbeing of communities eating food grown through agroecological methods from that of people eating food grown with chemicals. It was at this time that I radically changed the way I saw the world. After this community meeting is when I started to work on and fight for sustainable agriculture.

After I came back from that meeting, I approached the elders of my community for advice about traditional ways of growing food and organic food production. I also approached the women’s group that I was a member of to advocate that we start learning about and practicing agroecology. I have become a leader here in Senegal, as the national coordinator of an agroecology movement called Nous Sommes la Solution [We are the Solution]. Within this movement, we practise agroecology, encourage food sovereignty, preserve farmer seed, and sustain biodiversity, while demanding equitable access to resources for women smallholder farmers.

We are in this together

I am very happy about my life. I'm living in ease. There is no dependence on anyone else, and I feel that I am using my mind to constantly think about how to innovate my agroecological farming practices.

For me, agroecology is just taking care of your environment. I try to be as natural as possible. I use farmers’ seeds and not commercial seeds. I collect my own manure and make my own compost. I am working on producing my own fertiliser.

I have full respect of any living creatures or beings on the earth because I believe that each of them has a certain importance in the ecosystem and rhythm of our lives. When I am trying to deal with pests in the garden, I use natural product to protect the plants without killing the insects. So instead of killing, I repel the insects from my garden.

I have also managed to produce my own seasoning with organic produce, an organic version of Maggi seasoning. [3] I am currently in the process of getting consumers to try out the seasoning before we can start selling it in the market. For me, it’s not just about producing a tasty seasoning. It is also about the nutritious and medicinal properties of the herbs that are in the seasoning.

The women’s association has been a wonderful way of learning together, supporting each other, [and] generating income, but most importantly, building strong communal relationships. We plan together, laugh together, [and] eat together, and during events when we wear our similar clothes, it reminds us that we are in this together.

I have to remind myself of the reality that it’s not my land

I feel that my whole family, both young and old, are well aware of agroecology. On the farm, I work with my children and we grow a lot of things, including rice, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. For the production of rice and vegetables, I dedicate one hectare and a half of land, and for the mango, orange, and cashew nut trees, I have set aside one hectare and a quarter. The land that I grow the fruit and trees on I bought myself and it is close to our home. The land where I grow rice and vegetables I inherited from my late husband. He was the first born, so I was able to continue using it after his death to sustain myself and our children.

I don’t feel full ownership of the land I inherited from my husband, on which I grow the rice and vegetables, because I know that at the end of the day, it is the land of my husband’s family. I have to remind myself of the reality that it’s not my land, especially when I am considering making some sort of investment on the land. I just have access to it.

If I ever wanted to go ahead and do anything, I would need to consult my husband’s family about my idea. This is not an easy thing to do, as some people resist the idea or the process just takes a very long time because of how many people have to be consulted. I feel a kind of powerlessness about this land because of this circumstance, but I don’t let it stop me from using the land and looking after my children. Whenever I interact with the land, I always remind myself that my job is to preserve it for future generations.

Changes in agricultural practices

The way our communities work has shifted significantly. Fields were often too big for one family to manage on their own, so community members would come together and work in groups on one farm at a time during key moments of the growing season.

The type of work you did as part of these communal efforts tended to be split along generational lines. These generational divisions were designed to make the most of the skills and capacities of community members. Instead of the adult women and men having to carry manure from compost piles to the field, it would be the younger, stronger members of the community who carried out such tasks. Unfortunately, this kind of solidarity is no longer very strong. Part of the change is related to changes in agricultural practices.

These days there are a lot of chemical fertilisers, which are easier to transport and to manage than natural fertilisers; therefore farmers have resorted to using these chemical fertilisers. These fertilisers involve a much simpler application process, and the idea of easier work is attractive to farmers. As a result, the number of people still practising organic or ecological farming is dwindling, as more and more farmers favour chemical farming. While this is very sad, it is comforting that there are some farmers who are still working traditionally because they realise the value of healthy, organic food.

Land is like a soul

In general, I think that land is dying. Not just in one place but all around the world. This situation is being worsened on the one hand by those who have no regard for the land and continue to poison it in different ways.

But on the other hand, there are the agroecology practitioners who are resuscitating land with their practices.

I think land is like a soul — it is the truest form of life. When I’m on my farm, I'm alive. I'm surrounded by what I love. I live on the principle of respect, respect for other people, respect for nature and all creatures. While people have the right to be happy and free in how they live, I think we must not ignore the way our own actions affect other people and the world around us. Nothing exists in the world just by chance. Everything has its importance and is interdependent.

Working for the future, not for today

The first person who influenced or guided me in my journey as an activist is my grandfather, the father of my father. He was a man who was always working for the future, not for today. He was someone who wanted to cultivate the land and to plant trees. He had a large orchard and also a fruit tree nursery, so for him, trees were important.

When there was a new birth in the village, he would bring a tree as his gift. He would dig the hole himself, put in all the necessary organic fertiliser, and then plant the tree. Then he’d tell the family to take care of this tree so that when the baby is grown, they will have somewhere to start, either for food or for income.

My own work in the country and in the region is a continuation of the legacy my grandfather started — a legacy of community, nourishment, and preservation of the environment. The challenges of hunger and landlessness will continue if we do not transform food systems away from industrialisation back to agroecological practice. If we utilise the knowledge and practices of local farmers, families and communities will be in a better position to feed themselves.

To this day, when I go to certain villages and people realise that I am a relative of my grandfather, they tell me stories about how helpful and wise he was, and some even show me the trees he planted. [Hearing] these stories about my grandfather, seeing the trees he planted now grown, and eating their fruit keep him alive in my mind.

I'm trying to follow that example as much as I possibly can.

  1. “Sand or soil that is carried along by flowing water and then dropped, especially at a bend in a river or at a river's opening,” according to Cambridge Dictionary.
  2. The rebellions are also referred to as the Casamance conflict, which is a conflict that has persisted since 1982 between the Senegalese government and the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance. In this conflict the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance has been calling for independence of the Casamance region. Between 1992 and 2001, this conflict was at its peak, resulting in over a thousand deaths.
  3. Maggi is an international brand of seasonings, instant soups, and noodles. Maggi cubes form an integral part of the local cuisine.