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The area surrounding the village of Ndem in the Diourbel administrative region of central Senegal is arid. It stays dry except for several weeks during the rainy season, when frogs appear, baobab trees sprout, and grass springs out of the desert sand the morning after the first rains in months. This vegetative memory recalls the region's agricultural past. In the twentieth century alone, though, repeated droughts across the Sahel area added to the area's desertification. Increased land degradation has led to decreased agricultural yield. Families cannot subsist on agriculture for their own food or for income from sales, making it impossible to grow or buy food. Meanwhile, Senegal's current administration has embraced competition on a global food market, resulting in increasingly high prices for staples such as rice, while trying to reduce its reliance on foreign food imports. (1) In this collision of environmental and economic crises, globalization has brought further economic uncertainty instead of prosperity. Without formerly reliable agricultural or other skilled jobs, young people often are compelled to move to nearby cities in the hopes of finding employment. With resulting urban overpopulation, though, even low-income and petty jobs in cities are hard to find. Many rural villages have lost residents who could maintain and even rebuild communities if they could find a way to survive in these home villages. Ndem and surrounding villages were once in the middle of this agricultural region, thriving on business enterprises that included weaving workshops. During the twentieth century's series of droughts, these villages were then almost abandoned, and those who were left became reliant on external cash from family members working in nearby cities.
The story of how Ndem revived its economy and became a viable place in which to live again involves effective sustainable development, but also religious motivations for that development. Its business plan relies on weaving, a craft that has deep historical roots in Senegal, including casted and familial heritages. Ndem's leaders have sound business plans for its grassroots artisanal cooperative, and its nongovernmental organization (NGO) coordinates effectively with international partners and clients, but I argue that its success comes from a community-shared spiritual motivation for the work. Ndem's population is predominantly affiliated with the Murid Sufi order. Its daara, a 300-person intentional spiritual-learning community, is Baay Fall, a suborder of the Muridiyya. (2) Because those in the daara manage the artisanal cooperative, this essay will focus on Murid, and specifically Baay Fall, teachings and historical models that they use as guidance for their work. In addition to teachings specific to this order and suborder, Ndem's residents cite Sufism's call for inward spiritual learning and enlightenment, and Islam's call to alleviate poverty and injustice. After introducing Ndem's historical narrative, I outline the importance of the region's religious life and its agricultural history. I then discuss Ndem's commitments to environmental sustainability, particularly in reviving agricultural practices.
Ndem's Historical Narrative and NGO Status
In the 1980s, a community led by Serin Babacar Mbow, the great-grandson of Ndem's founder, and his wife, Soxna Aissa Cisse, (3) came into being, with the goal of reversing the rural-to-urban migration that had left Ndem close to abandoned. Their plan had two foundations, which are historically relevant to the region. First, Ndem is a spiritual community, founded on Murid and Baay Fall teachings about spirituality and practical applications of faith. The Muridiyya began in central Senegal at the turn of the twentieth century. Because of this history, laboring to build a religious community in an arid climate has resonance for both the Muridiyya and Ndem. Second, Ndem's leaders use weaving and related trades, such as dying and tailoring, as an economic base for their projects, as the region has a history of both growing cotton and weaving.
Weaving is a historically casted trade within the occupational caste known as neeno, which included, for example, blacksmiths. Tamari (1991:223) defines the Wolof ethnicity's castes as specialist groups that created flexible social stratifications within Wolof society. Castes were not rigid, but as recognized cultural categories, they guided social life. The neeno were respected for their skilled trades, yet suffered social discrimination because of their low status within the caste system. Today, weaving continues to be important for familial lineages within several ethnicities, and it is regionally recognized for its historical importance. The prestige that comes from this regionally valued skilled trade, though, does not often include wealth. Weaving workshops throughout central Senegal often struggle for financial sustainability. (4)
Ndem's organization has had moderate financial success, with international financial partners and clients. As of 2006, the artisanal workshops are incorporated into a nongovernmental organization. While the term NGO has a broad range of meanings, as Gill (1997:145-146) explains, one of its definitions is to act as an intermediary between (often external) financial partners and projects benefiting local residents--a description that applies to Ndem's NGO. Gill notes that NGOs can arise from grassroots organizations. Ndem fits this description, as it originated from an artisanal cooperative, starting with weavers and expanding to multiple crafts with historical roots in the area. Today, Ndem's arts-based workshops help fund additional projects in the area, including a health dispensary, local schools, experimental agriculture, a renewable fuel source, and a deep well for clean water. In addition to reviving weaving as a viable craft, Ndem's leaders' plan to reverse their region's emigration includes being environmentally sustainable: they want to rebuild communities in this region, but this goal relies on reviving a degraded environment.
Even with their external funding, the goals of Ndem's NGO remain driven and defined by local visionaries, including Mbow, Cisse, and several other administrators. Their vision for Ndem, in turn, is motivated by teachings taken from their Sufi order and suborder. Several scholars (for example, Labatut 1995; Renders 2002) have noted that too often, studies of development projects in arid regions have focused on external aid groups who work with uneducated local agriculturalists. Instead, they call for a closer look at locally driven microprojects, particularly those organized by religious groups, which address economic and environmental concerns. The importance of faith-based groups that work to alleviate poverty is particularly important to keep in mind for Senegal, with a population that is 94 percent Muslim, 4 percent Roman Catholic and Protestant, and 2 percent practitioners of indigenous religions (U.S. Department of State 2010), and with a religious discourse that is public and omnipresent, in popular song, radio and television shows, neighborhood conversations, and politics. Leaders and lay people from each of these religious groups have told me in interviews how important religious communities are for local economic development projects. This involvement from religious groups becomes salient when looking at the importance of socioreligious institutions in all aspects of Senegalese social life, from religious education to health care and community networking.
One example of such social projects that Labatut gives is of communities planting acacia trees to fence in livestock and farming areas; another is of several villages joining together to organize small-scale irrigation efforts. At the same time, …