Landowners & legacies
Part I - Kundam
Kundam is a village and a word.
The village is a small community of about 500 Mandinka and Fulani people in the small West African nation of The Gambia. Most everyone there is a peanut farmer. There are a few blacksmiths, some hunters and some fisherman on the Gambia River a few miles north. There was one marabout (a Muslim religious leader and teacher) and one tailor.
Each Gambian subsists on less than $1.20 day. There is no electricity, no running water and food insecurity is a reality.
Kundam, the word, is seldom spoken and is part of the village’s oral history. At its most basic, Kundam means: “The place of everything good, and the place of everything bad.”
No one seemed to understand Kundam — the village and the word — more than Alhajie Samura.
Alhajie Samura was born and raised there, as was his father and his father’s father. Alhajie, a small man with a distinctive intensity about him, was the first Samura to leave Kundam and attempt life beyond the village.
When he was 20, he headed for the Gambian coast hoping to earn money to send to his mother and ailing father.
Alhajie found little opportunity on the coast, at first, but eventually was able to send back what little money he could. With his father’s health declining, Alhajie knew one day he would become the head of the household. Unfortunately, that day came sooner than expected when Alhajie received word of a conflict back home.
Capitalizing on the father’s weakness and the son’s absence, a more powerful neighbor encroached on and claimed a sizeable chunk of Alhajie’s family’s compound as their own — promptly building a wall to seize it. Alhajie saved what he could, traveled back and settled there to protect what was left.
Soon after, his father passed.
Then he learned that not only was a portion of his family’s compound taken but the Samura peanut, bean and rice fields were taken; and his pleas to the village chief to ameliorate the losses went nowhere.
Alhajie began to ‘lease’ some land from neighbors, but the costs made the farming he managed to do each rainy season more costly than begging. Begging was always a brutally difficult decision. And asking for help from those who stole from you is demeaning.
Part II - Tenkung Kunda
I’m riding on a tractor in rural Wisconsin when my cellphone vibrates. It is my parents calling. I kill the engine, pick up and hear, “The Gambia! You’re going to The Gambia!”
This was the culmination of 10 months of waiting for a letter telling me where I was going to serve. I applied for the Peace Corps back in January 2011, and it was now October.
Two months later, I’m on a plane heading to The Gambia and thinking of all the things that have led me to this point — and mostly giving thanks to the immense privilege I’ve been afforded:
• a youth guided and supported by excellent parents
• an exceptional collegiate experience at Western Michigan University (majoring in Environmental Studies and International Studies)
• apprenticeships that took me to Wisconsin, North Carolina, the UK and more.
Now I’m hoping my time in The Gambia will be a chance to give back. After eight weeks of cultural sensitivity and language training, the Peace Corps deems me suitable to be dropped into the real deal and assume my responsibilities as a volunteer.
It is a brutally hot day.
Alhajie Samura heard rumors of a Tubab (white man) coming to live in Kundam but didn’t believe it would happen. He’d spent time on the coast in the capital and saw the tourists that came to wander the Gambian beaches and frequent the bars, so he was sure no Tubab would ever abandon all that for “the place of everything good and everything bad.”
Even so, Alhajie is the first to shake my hand. He speaks a little English he picked up during his odd jobs in the capital.
“You good, sir?” he would repeat, and “Thank you, sir!” if I acknowledged him.
It is a few days before I really realize how often Alhajie is coming to my mud hut. Many people pass through and greet or welcome me, but it is some time before I realize the man who came a dozen times a day saying, “You good, sir?” was Alhajie Samura.
Peace Corps tells you to take it easy your first few months in village: Learn the language, take some deep breaths, spend time with your host family, mill about your community, take more deep breaths — which is my plan. But that all changes with Alhajie.
After the first village meeting I attended my purpose became clear: I am here to help with agriculture and agroforestry. Anyone interested in working on improving their soils, growing fruit trees or timber trees should get in touch with me. It is an open invitation Alhajie took seriously.
For the next year, Alhajie comes to my door at 7 a.m. every morning. Without fail. While I have every intention to take it slowly, Alhajie has every intention to utilize me as a resource.
I am initially hesitant to work with him. There are lots of other people in the village, but I’ve been terrible at moving slowly my entire life, so I just jump in.
The result of a year’s work with Alhajie will be the most memorable of my life.
Toiling in the place of serenity
He wants to reclaim his lost land. If not the same land that was lost, some new piece. This is no simple task. The hurdles he has to surmount to reclaim land were hard enough, but add to it that The Gambia has very little (if any) property boundary laws means everything is up in the air in terms of land tenure and ownership. There are no legal protections for him, his land or his legacy.
But, Alhajie assures me this isn’t a problem for two reasons:
One, he believes that with my help and pull as the Tubab in Kundam, I could easily convince the village chief to reallocate some village land in the bush to be used for our future efforts.
Two, in many parts of West Africa a traditional form of laying claim to your land is still used: If you plants trees, the land is yours.
This was the big plan. I would put in a good word with the chief, and then we’d work day in and day out to get as many trees on the land as we could to make sure his claim was evident and couldn’t be contested.
It didn’t take long for me to negotiate a deal with the village chief. I said Alhajie needed land, and that it was for a project we were working on together. I said that while Alhajie would own the land the chief gifts him, Alhajie would share what he could from the land, especially the skills and knowledge he develops, benefiting more of the people of Kundam. I asked him to think of Alhajie like a seed, and if he were given the soil to work and call his own, he could grow and bear fruit for all of Kundam.
Suddenly, with a handshake and a smile, the village chief offered Alhajie a large piece of land north of the village, with modest soils and lots of potential.
Over the next year, I planted 250 cashew trees, more than 1,000 moringa trees, hardwoods like gmelina and ironwood, mango trees and more. Amid our burgeoning orchard and woodlot, we had nine beehives I helped Alhajie build and manage.
We named it “Tenkung Kunda” — the place of serenity. The name plays off Kundam. Just north of all the good and just north of all the bad, there is a place that escapes it all, and everything is just a little bit more simple — Tenkung Kunda.
A wink and a smile
This was the most rewarding year of my life, albeit difficult, including:
Pouring buckets of water on myself throughout the night to stay cool. The terrible boney fish peanut stews I could hardly stomach. The painful aloneness, at times. The intolerable company of strangers at other times. The cuts, bruises and aches of all the labor. Not to mention all the dozens upon dozens of bee stings that came with the nature of beekeeping in West Africa.
After a last evening walk in Tenkung Kunda, watering some of the struggling cashews but otherwise enjoying the sight of a thriving ecosystem and orchard, I said goodbye to Alhajie and told him I’d be back after my vacation in a couple of weeks.
When I returned, I grabbed my cellphone and called Alhajie to tell him I had arrived and would be back to Kundam in a couple days.
He picked up screaming, “They burned it! They burned it all!”
I could hardly get him to slow his Mandinka language to where I could make out what he was saying. After almost 20 minutes, I finally understood:
The village had been waiting for me to leave. What was a handshake and a smile from the village chief was really a vastness of discomfort and frustration I hadn’t understood.
The Samura family was poor. The social structure of the village had never known differently. In their minds, the Samura family had to remain poor.
The village watched Alhajie and I spend a year cultivating Tenkung Kunda. And it was the kindling of their rage that burst into flames when I left.
When I returned, I walked straight to Tenkung Kunda. They burned down the orchard (“fun” fact: cashew leaves ignite like kerosene) and destroyed the hives — if not by the fire, then by hand and machete.
The story of the Samura family, of Kundam and of Tenkung Kunda may sound sad or frustrating. And, in a very real way it is. There is no getting around it. But, Kundam is the place of everything bad and everything good.
By the time the rains came and washed away the loss of Tenkung Kunda, Alhajie had already set up a new tree nursery in his home compound. Cashew trees, mango trees, gmelina and more.
Somehow, after all the chaos, the village chief worked it out so that Alhajie, at the very least, could have a parcel of his original family’s farmland restored. Alhajie, of course still not the most popular guy in the village, accepted gracefully and now sets about his business a little more carefully, quietly and focused.
Last I knew, he was working hard to transfer the trees from the nursery to his farmland and plant them. He was beginning the process of making a long-term investment on the land, as opposed to annual crops. He was laying his stake and hoping the benefit would one day be fruits for his children.
His persistence, even after all the bad luck and the oppression, is beyond inspiring. It’s a testament to the human will. No matter how much bad you’re burdened with, moving onward and not giving up are what make us great. And while Alhajie may be a poor man, he is a great man.
His persistence even makes me question the reality of Kundam. In the scheme of things, it is a young village, probably only 300 years old. For now, I can believe it is the place of everything good and everything bad.
But, I think Kundam also is evolving. The kind of spirit that Alhajie has will eventually win; and one day, the meaning of Kundam might become “the place where good overcame bad.”
Part III - Legacy
While I can’t change the Gambian system to provide increased protections for landowners and legacies, my Peace Corps experienced launched me forward into finding out what I could do for landowners back home.
I went back for a master’s degree in Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Michigan; and for the last two years, I have had the privilege of working for Legacy Land Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to the permanent conservation of land in Southern Michigan.
As a land protection specialist, I work with landowners to develop permanent legal protections for their land, which helps to conserve Southeast Michigan’s most precious resources. These permanent legal protections assure both the preservation of the critical habitats that surround us as well as our rural livelihoods and economies.
Without experiencing the saga of the Samura family’s struggle to work the land, I never would have developed the deep sense of service I feel now in my work.
Being a landowner is a profoundly intimate experience. They are the stewards of that land. The land provides for them, and they work to listen to its needs.
Protecting that relationship in perpetuity is a struggle. There are many forces that contribute to the loss of our natural spaces and farms. But, in the end, I think we’re on the same evolutionary path as Kundam. We’re getting better.