When women in Mali, West Africa lose their husbands, they lose more than just the person they love. These women lose the head of the family and their financial security. Madian Diarra, from Mafèya village in Koulikoro region, was one of these women.
Madian’s life was turned upside down on June 23, 2015, when her husband Sounkalo Diarra passed away suddenly. That morning, Sounkalo woke up feeling just fine, but by late evening he was suffering from terrible stomach pain with no medical facility or doctor available in the area. He died before dawn the next morning at the age of 58, leaving behind four children. Madian became a widow and single mother overnight.
According to the World Bank, 1 in 10 African women aged 15 and older are widows. When their husbands pass away, 72% of widows are thrust into the role of head of family without any preparation. They face isolation and lose their safety net.
In Mali, widows head the poorest households. They have lower levels of nutritional status than married women and this disadvantage spills over into their children’s health, education, happiness, citizenship and future outcomes. Even remarriage cannot repair the damage that occurs when the head of family dies.
In August 2016, as part of the VEGA Farmer-to-Farmer Special Program Support Project (SPSP) Improving the Sustainability of Malian Sheep and Goat Farming, Browse and Grass Growers Cooperative (BGGC) sent volunteer Margaret Summerfield, PhD. A retired botanist, Margaret knew there was a better way for widows to cultivate financial independence—by planting trees. “As a botanist and having been a single parent myself, I was excited to travel to another country to meet women there, to learn from them and to help them by teaching and providing trees for their animals’ nutrition and better the lives of their families. I was and am thankful for the opportunity provided to me by the Farmer-to-Farmer program.”
As part of the project, Margaret worked with farmers to grow trees to feed their small ruminants, fertilize the land and supply valuable human nutrition. Through donations collected prior to her assignment, 2,000 saplings were started in local nurseries. Moringa, Leucaena and Glyricidia trees were chosen because they grow readily from seeds or cuttings in marginal soil with very little water, and they produce fruit and leaves within 8-12 months in tropical countries like Mali.
Moringa leaves are packed with nutrients, including vitamin C, calcium, vitamin A, potassium and protein. Powdered Moringa can be sold to local medicine dealers, who will pay high prices for this now well known “miracle plant.” Leucaena and Glyricidia trees are an excellent source of high-protein forage for small ruminants and are especially helpful as a supplement during the dry season when livestock becomes thin and vulnerable to disease.
If farmers were successful with growing trees, couldn’t widows succeed as well? Common Pastures Project Director Bara Kassambara says without a doubt, “YES.”
“Widows are so successful with trees because in contrast to men, women are good multi-taskers. Like children, trees need true love with strong and close care during the two first years of their life to grow properly – and widows are able to provide this.”
In addition to the economic and nutritional benefits of growing trees, Malian widows also benefit socially, culturally and psychologically by having their own business and being able to provide for their families independently.
Madian was provided trees to care for after the death of her husband. During a follow-up training in 2017, Madian shared her appreciation. Her trees have grown significantly and with continued project support, she will soon learn how to process the leaves of the trees so she can begin her business of selling Moringa powder. Her trees will also provide her sheep and goats with higher quality nutrition so they will grow better and have more offspring. Thanks to the Farmer-to-Farmer program, Madian is now on the road to financial independence and security.