What a lettuce farm in Senegal reveals about climate-driven migration in Africa People from all over West Africa come to Rufisque in western Senegal to labor in the lettuce fields – planting seeds and harvesting vegetables.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1134823038/1137225904" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When you start drawing a map of where people move because of climate change, the arrows can go in a lot of different directions. Take Senegal. For the last several days, we've been telling stories of Senegalese people who are leaving their home country because of climate change. But unpredictable weather patterns across Africa are also sending people to Senegal.

OUSMANE DIOP: I cannot give an exact number of people, but I can say it's increasing.

SHAPIRO: It's a sweltering hot day, and Ousmane Diop is leading us through a field of lettuce, or, as they call it here...

DIOP: ...What we call salad.


DIOP: English, here - salad. Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: Diop works with the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. They help people from all over West Africa who arrive in Senegal. Many come here just outside of Dakar to a city called Rufisque to labor in the fields, planting seeds and harvesting vegetables.

DIOP: So some of them come from Gambia, from Mali, some Senegalese from the inland.

SHAPIRO: From the inland - Senegalese people 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 right through the fields, a reminder of how quickly the outskirts of Dakar are crowding in on these farms.

So we're arriving under a great big fiddle-leaf fig tree, and in the shade, there are large tires that people are sitting on, chairs and little stools made out of small branches.

About a dozen men take shelter from the heat. At the foot of the tree, there's a hut with walls of corrugated metal. The men outside, laughing, give us permission to enter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You have authorization?

SHAPIRO: We have authorization.

It has a simple sleeping pallet inside.

There are bags hanging from hooks on the wall. It's cozy and dark. It's very cool. Yeah. Yeah.

The men sleep here sometimes so they can water the fields at night when it won't evaporate as quickly. Today, a sprinkler is doing some of the work for them.


SHAPIRO: Swarms of dragonflies hover over the neat green rows of lettuce. None of the men in this small group are from Senegal. All of them grew up working the fields in their home countries. But those farms are no longer producing like they used to. Rains are unpredictable. Crops don't grow.

FODE BALDE: (Through interpreter) Here in Senegal, the way they grow all this food, if you could have that in the 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 was really bad in the last few years.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean the rains did not come or there was too much? What happened?

F BALDE: (Through interpreter) I noticed a big difference between before and nowadays. Nowadays, the rain is really rare.

SHAPIRO: Does Senegal feel like home now?

F BALDE: (Through interpreter) Yeah, it really does.

SHAPIRO: So you think you will stay here?

F BALDE: (Through interpreter) Yeah. We all talk about this. We have hope.

SHAPIRO: Sitting next to him, Sadio Konte is from Mali. He wears a black baseball cap that says Dior.

SADIO KONTE: (Speaking Bambara).

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

KONTE: (Speaking Bambara).

SHAPIRO: It's so much hotter where he's from in Mali, he says, which makes farming difficult. And he thanks God that he found work here.

The changes that these men observe are consistent with what scientists have predicted would happen in Africa as the Earth heats up. Most of the migration in Africa looks like this. According to the U.N., 80% of migrants stay on the continent instead of going on to Europe. And these men immigrated here legally. They have freedom to move across borders within West Africa in the same way citizens of the European Union can cross EU borders freely. Farmers and herders have always migrated following weather patterns. But walking through the lettuce fields, Ousmane Diop of the IOM tells me things are different now.

DIOP: Seventy percent of people here in Africa, in West Africa, do the agriculture. And agriculture depend integrally in climate condition. So that's why, with the impact of climate change, migration is a coping strategy.

SHAPIRO: A coping strategy - faced with dramatic changes in weather, people are coming up with their own solutions to support their families without crossing oceans, without risking their lives to reach countries that colonized them in the past.


SHAPIRO: The Muslim call to prayer rings out from a mosque behind us. Some of the farm workers roll out 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 that he plants here. But now...

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

SHAPIRO: Here's one of those problems. At the beginning of the rainy season, you plant seeds which germinate. But those seeds need more rain. So if there's an unexpected dry patch...

S BALDE: Those seeds that's germinated, they will end up dying.

SHAPIRO: So you have to plant an entirely new crop.

S BALDE: You have to replant again while the season is going on.

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

S BALDE: Example - if it's supposed to weight 10 kilos, it will be weighting 5 kilos instead of 10.

SHAPIRO: So you're getting half the harvest that you usually get.

S BALDE: It will be very light because the production will be very poor. It will be very bad.

SHAPIRO: He would grow peanuts, corn, millet. Eventually, bringing in half as much harvest as he used to, he couldn't keep up. So he left. And when he visits home, he tells other young men that they should leave, too.

S BALDE: I tell them, if there is no work, you need to move out. Because, like, if you don't work, you end up stealing. Because right now, if you are caught stealing and you are jailed for two years, that's a waste of time.

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

S BALDE: Actually, there's no place like home. No matter what, I feel to be home.

SHAPIRO: There is no place like home. These men wish they didn't have to find a new home. But for now, the lettuce is growing, and it needs to be picked. The midday break is over, and it's time for these men from all over West Africa to return to their fields in Senegal.


SHAPIRO: Although this kind of regional migration within Africa is much more common, longer journeys to Europe are more dangerous, more politically provocative, and they get more attention. That's why Europe is fortifying its borders with Africa. On the northern edge of the African continent are two Spanish cities surrounded by fences, guarded by men with guns. People have died trying to jump those barriers. As our reporting continues this week, we'll visit that land border where Africa meets Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) Melilla today is like a bunker. It's like living in an island. Melilla is somehow a gate into Europe.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.