In September 2009, four pairs of students enrolled in Dutch universities started a six month internship in Africa. This life changing experience will provide them with a unique opportunity to experience the realities of humanitarian aid first hand, thanks to the TNT Global Experience Programme (TNT GEP).
The programme, launched in 2005, is a collaboration between the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), TNT - one of our leading private sector partners and AIESEC - the international student association. For more information about the programme, visit: http://www.movingtheworld.org/
Starting today we will follow the adventures of Guido and Marieke in Madagascar, Brechtje and Robert in Tanzania, Sonja and Tim in Zambia and Elise and Darko in Gambia. Check it out…
Written by Elise Muijzert
I’ve been in the Gambia for only 2 weeks now and I don’t know where to start in describing my experiences so far. After our WFP onboarding in Rome—filled with interesting presentations, getting-to-know-each-other exercises and excellent food—I was ready to stop talking about what we would experience in Africa and actually go out and experience.
The first few days were a rush of impressions and experiences. Fresh off the plane after our all-night journey, we met the WFP staff and had a chat with the country director about our assignments and the WFP-TNT partnership.
Three days into our WFP experience and we were already invited along on a field trip to Kaimu, a village some 5 km from the Senegalese border. A rebel movement demanding independence for the Senegalese region of Casamance occasionally carries out terrorist attacks in the area, which has caused some 7,000 refugees to cross the border into the Gambia, effectively doubling the population in many villages. Rather than living in refugee camps the Senegalese, who are mostly from the same tribe and speak the same language as their Gambian neighbours, are hosted by local families. The Gambians share their houses and food with the refugees, causing an already dire food security situation to become even more serious. Most of the host families are farmers, but Gambia only produces about 50% of the food it needs to feed its population, and these families are no exception. What they produce during the harvest months is usually not enough to sustain them year round, and the influx of refugees has only worsened the situation.
This is why WFP provides food aid to the refugees and has a Food for Work project in place for the host families. In the Food for Work project the community decides on a development project that will benefit the entire community—for instance, building roads or irrigation canals, clearing land, cultivating crops, etc.—and sends 1 in 5 family members to work on this project in exchange for rations for the whole family.
Darko and I were excited to see a WFP project in action and after getting security clearance we embarked on the bumpy and beautiful drive to Kaimu. Along the way we were surprised to see a sign along the road that read “Watch out! Mine area!” My UN advanced security training came rushing back to me—“it is better to stand on a mine for two days than to lose a leg” and “you can never outrun a mine!”—but our colleague assured us that these mines were a good few kilometres from the road and that we would not be attempting any James Bond driving manoeuvres in this area.
We arrived to find two lines of people waiting patiently in the pouring rain. One for cross-checking the names of the family members who had contributed to Food for Work with those collecting food, and one for the measuring and collecting of the food. Several people were busy loading big bags of rice and jugs of oil onto carts drawn by oxen, horses, donkeys, or any other sturdy animal. I was surprised at how orderly everything was progressing. Even though everything was taking much longer because of the rain, nobody complained and everybody seemed to know exactly where to go and what to do. Nobody seemed bitter about the situation. I chatted with several women who were eager to have their picture taken and let me know that I could now rest assured that I had several friends in Kaimu.
We also visited two of the community asset projects, a coos and a groundnut farm. The harvested crops are sold and the money made is reinvested into other community development projects, as decided by community representatives. The idea behind the program is to not just give the population food hand-outs but to create more sustainable solutions and self-sufficiency in the long run. The participants have a double incentive for participating: they receive food for the time they invest (the value of which is many times that what they would earn if they were wage labourers) and they are contributing to the tangible development of their community. Particularly by investing in more effective farming methods such as better irrigation systems and tools the farmers can increase efficiency and production, thus improving food security in the region and lessening the farmers’ dependency on organizations like WFP.
Some of the refugees have now been here for many years and have decided to settle permanently in the Gambia. For them, WFP and some of its partner organizations are working towards helping them create more sustainable livelihoods. For instance by helping them secure a piece of land and buy the seeds and tools needed to cultivate it. Ideally, WFP would like to make itself redundant in these kinds of projects, but unfortunately, that reality is still a long way away.