TOWARDS TERRA MADRE – Last Minute Trip To Senegal

14 Sep 2004

Five thousand food producers from five continents-farmers, fishermen, shepherds, cheesemakers … – will meet in Turin in October as part of Slow Food’s groundbreaking Terra Madre event. Until then the site will monitor the preparatory journeys of the project’s collaborators.

A sudden and unexpected trip to Dakar in Senegal, with Pietro Jona (jointly responsible with myself and Séverine Petit for the selection of African communities to take part in Terra Madre).

The quest we undertook several months ago to find food communities was anything but simple, especially in Africa where the Slow Food movement is less well-known, for obvious reasons. Our reference points for advice and support consist of winners and jury panel members of the Slow Food Award for Biodiversity, those responsible for the Presidia of Morocco and Madagascar, and the Convivium leaders of South Africa and Ghana.

After weeks spent mapping, investigating and studying African groups and associations we discover almost by chance that the fifth edition of the Fiara is in progress in Dakar. This is an important fair for farm food products and producers from ten West African countries. With great difficulty we discover more information about the event: the official website contains little more than the prices of stands and the location of the fair, which is in Place de l’Obelisque, Dakar.

We are persuaded by a couple of articles in Le Quotidien and a call to the organizers’ office: 250 associations and producers, communities, network representatives, trade unions and local agricultural promotion associations will attend the Fiara. It is a unique opportunity for direct contact with many of these groups, who presumably will need to take part in Terra Madre.
So in perfect last minute style, backpacks and all, we catch the first available flight from Milan to Casablanca and then Dakar.

Dakar nestles on a promontory of the Senegalese coast, opposite the island of Gorée, whence slave-trade ships once sailed. It is a city with a population of two million, so chaotic and polluted that you soon forget you are almost surrounded by the sea. We arrive in the middle of the night and are greeted by dozens of taxi drivers ready to take us to our hotel in the city centre at all costs. This is my official initiation to Africa and my immediate impression is of another world: the aromas of the Kermel market near our hotel soon mix with the humid night air, while the hybrid rhythms of a local band resound from a nearby bar.

Our first day in Dakar begins with a walk though the centre, culminating in a visit (and at least two more will follow) to “Le point d’interrogation”, a restaurant, owned by Madame Bineta Diallo and recommended to us by Madieng Seck, a member of the Slow Food Award jury and head of the Senegalese office of the Syfia news agency, which is very active in the agricultural and environmental sectors.

There is no better example of Senegal’s awareness of the need to recover local food traditions than this simple, sober and discreet restaurant. It offers a selection of traditional dishes: red millet couscous, thiof (“The tastiest local fish”, another patron tells us), and couscous made with fonio, a traditional cereal that is very delicate and suitable for diabetics. All this is served with large bottles of Gazelle, the Senegalese beer par excellence.

Having broken the ice with local foods, we are ready to throw ourselves into the Fiara, hardly realizing this will become practically our only destination for the whole trip.

Place de l’Obelisque is not far from the Médina, the old city, in an area where huts on dirt roads alternate with more accessible residential districts. As we enter the Fiara we soon realise how important an event it is. All the most important local crops are represented by consortia, cooperatives or individual producers. They range from Guinea’s coffee and cacao network, to representatives of the fair trade campaign organised by the local Oxfam office, shea butter and bissap producers from Burkina Faso, fish processors from Mali, the Senegalese poultry-breeders association and the peanut trade. A real African Hall of Taste, with plenty of tastings, products for sale and theme lunches.

The main organisers of the event – Roppa (Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et des Producteurs Agricoles d’Afrique de l’Ouest), Asprodeb (l’Association Sénégalaise pour la Promotion du Développement à la Base) and Cncr (Conseil National de Concertation et de Coopération des Ruraux) – are all associations with strong roots in the area, able to obtain general agreement among producers and emphasize the need for predominance of Senegalese foods at a national and international level, rebuilding from the bottom up. This is in contrast, for example, with the temptation to accept food aid and above all, with Euro-American corn dumping.

Food self-sufficiency is a recurring theme on the stands: Le Sahel peut nourrir le Sahel (Sahel can feed Sahel) is the slogan of Afrique Verte, an association working in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to train young farmers, and in the production and distribution of cereals. The organizers promote the parallel programme L’Afrique Nourricière (Africa feeds itself) which is financed by the FAO and over the coming months should help raise public awareness in Senegal and other neighboring countries to the consumption of cereals and local foods.

During our four-day visit we talked about these and other topics with many of the organizations present, as we tried to identify communities that were interested in – and of interest to – Terra Madre.

As well as meeting directly with the associations and individual producers, we had the chance to present the project on the fringe of two official seminars: one on the importance of communications in promoting and developing rural communities, and the other on the outlook of the growing combined fair trade model which is becoming established. In both cases we attracted attention and enthusiasm and were literally overwhelmed by requests for application forms.

Even as I write this we are still receiving faxes from communities in Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Ugo Vallauri is the Africa area coordinator on the Terra Madre project

Adapted by Ailsa Woods

This is an abridged version of an article which first appeared inSlowfood n° 3.

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