By: Alyssa Staats, Georgetown University SIPS-CERPA fellowship student
As we entered Association de la Saisonnière, we saw all sizes, shades, and shapes of plant life aligned in neat rows, adhering to the lined dirt mounds like obedient schoolchildren. Humble mint leaves flanked graceful baobab trees, while spinach leaves brushed against green beans or competed with their healthier counterpart, l’amarante (amaranth). The smells of fresh herbs overwhelmed our noses as we surveyed this dynamic, prosperous garden.
Founded in 2003, the Association de la Saisonnière (Seasonal Association, so named for the regular life cycle of its produce) operates on the principle of slow food, as founder Hema Sofie explained to us on a warm June afternoon. Specifically, the members of this cooperative are to “consommer au kilomètre 0,” (consume at kilometer 0) or to use the produce grown first for personal consumption. Those neatly divided plots are in fact not only divided by vegetation type but also cooperative member; each chooses the plants she will grow and fulfills her household’s needs first. They only sell if there is extra, and there usually is. This model positively contributes to food security, as the women and their families eat nutritious, organic food and spend nothing extra on it. With many different plants in their gardens, they can construct well-balanced meals without spending any money on food. Furthermore, the diversity of each woman’s garden is much better for the soil, which does not deplete as quickly as monocultured farms, because nitrogen providing plants balance out nitrogen depleting ones. A more unexpected result of slow food is the impact on household family dynamics: their healthy husbands have been known to voluntarily come to the cooperative and pump water, demonstrating far greater appreciation of and support for female economic activity than is typical of Burkinabé men.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the association’s flourishing foliage and innovative economic structure is its comprehensive programs for its employees and undeserved, vulnerable girls. The cooperative exclusively employs women, around 50 of them, and in addition to food security offers basic literacy training. Unequal gendered educational access is a glaring problem in Burkina Faso, especially among the poor, and its repercussions are evident to any bystander in a literacy class for adult women. Toting impossibly small and infinitely distracting babies and toddlers, students struggle to curl their q’s and loop their p’s, let alone worrying about crossing t’s or dotting i’s. Even so, their tired eyes remain hopeful and determined, as they make up for lost time and prepare themselves for more highly skilled work. In the neighboring room, a diverse group of rambunctious or drained teenagers learn to sew. A few are nursing babies, and one of theirs lies on the floor, a sleeping princess of the flies. All these girls are victims of domestic violence, and Madame Hema hopes to diminish their economic dependence on their abusers by providing the tools for the development of marketable skills and, when the building is finished, a safe haven. Crucially, this allows for greater and more sustained personal development, for the girls do not remain in an abusive home environment.
Finally, the association de la Saisonnière provides much-needed sexual health education in a cultural context riddled with sexual taboos, including wearing a particularly colored pagne, or wrap-around skirt, to signify pregnancy to one’s husband rather than mentioning it directly. In this setting, it can be extraordinarily difficult for women to obtain even the most basic information regarding their sexual health. To address this problem, the association runs workshops for both the women of the association and their husbands, where culturally appropriate yet comprehensive sexual health education is accessible. Attendance is amazingly high and totally voluntary and has had a significant impact on family planning practices within the community. With all these services, the Association de la Saisonnière is even more than an innovative economic model and inclusive cooperative. For its undeserved employees, it is a source of vital health information, food security, humanitarian and skills-based assistance, basic education, and empowerment. It is a community offering brighter, healthier futures to the women who work there and their families.
The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.