What a lettuce farm in Senegal reveals about climate-driven migration in Africa : NPR

Sadio Konte Dior, 20, at the farm where he works outside of Dakar on October 4. He came to Senegal from Mali. On these small farms just outside the capital, immigrant men and women grow lettuce and other vegetables.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

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Ricci Shryock for NPR

Sadio Konte Dior, 20, at the farm where he works outside of Dakar on October 4. He came to Senegal from Mali. On these small farms just outside the capital, immigrant men and women grow lettuce and other vegetables.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

People from all over West Africa come to Rufisque in western Senegal to work in the lettuce fields – planting seeds and harvesting vegetables.

Here, dragonflies hover over neat rows of green plants. Young field workers gather near a fig tree for their lunch break while sprinklers irrigate the fields.

The farmers in this field could no longer take care of the crops in their own lands. Desertification, short or long rainy seasons or salinity made it impossible.

Hailing from The Gambia, Burkina Faso and Mali, they are among the 80% of Africans who migrate within the continent for social or economic reasons.

They tell NPR about the push factors that prompted them to leave their home countries, as well as the pull factors in Senegal.

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.


When you start drawing a map of where people are moving because of climate change, the arrows can point in many different directions. Take Senegal. For a few days we have been telling stories about Senegalese who are leaving their homes because of climate change. But unpredictable weather patterns across Africa are also sending people to Senegal.

OUSMANE DIOP: I can’t give you an exact number, but I can say that it’s increasing.

SHAPIRO: It’s a scorching hot day and Ousmane Diop is leading us through a lettuce field, or whatever they call it around here…

DIOP: …what we call lettuce.

SHAPIRO: Lettuce?

DIOP: English, here – lettuce. Yes / Yes.

SHAPIRO: Diop works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They help people from all over West Africa who arrive in Senegal. Many come here, just outside Dakar, to a town called Rufisque, to work in the fields, plant seeds and harvest vegetables.

DIOP: So some are from Gambia, from Mali, some Senegalese from upcountry.

SHAPIRO: From the interior – Senegalese are also migrating internally to places like this where farms are more productive. A cement factory looms over us. Trucks rumble by on a road that cuts through the middle of the fields, a reminder of how quickly the outskirts of Dakar are crowding onto these farms.

So we arrive under a large fiddle leaf fig tree and in the shade there are large hoops with people sitting on them, chairs and small stools made from small branches.

About a dozen men seek shelter from the heat. At the foot of the tree is a hut with walls made of corrugated iron. The men outside let us in, laughing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You have a permit?

SHAPIRO: We have permission.

It has a simple sleeping palette inside.

Bags hang on hooks on the wall. It’s cozy and dark. It’s very cool. Yes. Yes.

The men sometimes sleep here so they can water the fields at night when it doesn’t evaporate so quickly. Today, a sprinkler does some of the work for them.


SHAPIRO: Flocks of dragonflies hover over the clean rows of green lettuce. None of the men in this small group are from Senegal. They all grew up in the fields in their home countries. But these farms don’t produce like they used to. Rain is unpredictable. Grain does not grow.

FODE BALDE: (through interpreter) Here in Senegal, the way they grow all this food, if you could have that in neighboring countries, young people wouldn’t go abroad.

SHAPIRO: Fode Balde is 30. He grew up on a farm in The Gambia.

F. BALDE: (through interpreter) The rainy season has been really bad in recent years.

SHAPIRO: Do you think it didn’t rain or it rained too much? What happened?

F BALDE: (through interpreter) I noticed a big difference between then and now. Rain is really rare these days.

SHAPIRO: Does Senegal feel like home now?

F BALDE: (through interpreter) Yes, it really is.

SHAPIRO: So you think you’re staying?

F BALDE: (through interpreter) Yes. We all talk about it. We have hope.

SHAPIRO: Next to him is Sadio Konte from Mali. He wears a black baseball cap with Dior written on it.

SADIO KONTE: (speaks Bambara).

SHAPIRO: He speaks in Bambara, which we translate into Wolof and then into English. He says the deserts in Mali are on the rise.

KONTE: (speaks Bambara).

SHAPIRO: It’s a lot hotter in Mali, where he’s from, he says, which makes farming harder. And he thanks God that he found work here.

The changes these men are observing are consistent with what scientists have predicted would happen in Africa as the Earth warms. Most migrations in Africa look like this. According to the UN, 80% of migrants stay on the continent instead of continuing to Europe. And these men immigrated here legally. You are free to move within West Africa, just as citizens of the European Union are free to cross EU borders. Farmers and herders have always migrated according to weather patterns. But as he walks through the lettuce fields, IOM’s Ousmane Diop tells me things are different now.

DIOP: Seventy percent of the people here in Africa, in West Africa, are engaged in agriculture. And agriculture depends integrally on climatic conditions. Therefore, given the effects of climate change, migration is a coping strategy.

SHAPIRO: A coping strategy – in the face of dramatic weather changes, people find their own solutions to support their families without crossing oceans, without risking their lives to reach lands they colonized in the past.


SHAPIRO: The Muslim call to prayer comes from a mosque behind us. Some of the farm workers unroll prayer rugs and kneel.

Seydu Balde is 29. He came here in 2015, also from The Gambia. Growing up, he knew exactly how to grow vegetables like the lettuce he plants here. But now…

SEYDU BALDE: You know, sometimes we have a lot of problems in the rainy season.

SHAPIRO: Here’s one of those problems. At the beginning of the rainy season, seeds are planted that germinate. But these seeds need more rain. So if there’s an unexpected dry spot…

S. BALDE: Those seeds that have germinated will eventually die.

SHAPIRO: So you have to grow a whole new crop.

S BALDE: You have to transplant again during the season.

SHAPIRO: And the rainy season is short, only three months. So losing time can be devastating.

S BALDE: Example – if it is supposed to weigh 10 kilos, it weighs 5 kilos instead of 10 kilos.

SHAPIRO: So you’re getting half the harvest you normally get.

S BALDE: It will be very easy because the production will be very bad. It’s going to be very bad.

SHAPIRO: He would grow peanuts, corn, millet. When he finally brought in half the harvest he used to, he couldn’t keep up. So he left. And when he gets home, he tells other young men to go too.

S. BALDE: I’ll tell them if there’s no work, you have to move out. Because if you don’t work, you end up stealing. Because right now, when you get caught stealing and you go to jail for two years, it’s a waste of time.

SHAPIRO: Does it make you sad not to be in your home country?

S BALDE: Actually, there is no place like home. No matter what happens, I feel at home.

SHAPIRO: There’s no place like home. These men wished they didn’t have to find a new home. But now the lettuce is growing and it must be picked. Lunch is over and it’s time for these men from across West Africa to return to their fields in Senegal.


SHAPIRO: Although this type of regional migration is much more common within Africa, longer trips to Europe are more dangerous, more politically provocative, and receive more attention. That is why Europe is strengthening its borders with Africa. On the northern edge of the African continent lie two Spanish cities surrounded by fences guarded by men with guns. People have died trying to cross these barriers. As our coverage continues this week, we will visit this land border where Africa meets Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (through interpreter) Melilla is like a bunker today. It’s like living on an island. Melilla is kind of a gateway to Europe.

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