Drink in Peace: A Gift of Water for the Village of Taiwoun
Tuesday is the weekly market day in Salemata, a large town in southeastern Senegal and the center of the administrative department of the same name. Everyone from the surrounding small villages makes their way here to buy and sell produce and wares essential for the coming week. Market day is also an important opportunity to catch up with friends and make business contacts, especially with those not owning a mobile phone, or those living outside of a network range.
Ousmane, one of my research assistants from Guinea, has come to Senegal for three months to facilitate activities related to well construction and chimpanzee monitoring. Resolving the tension between chimps and villagers over limited supplies of precious water is what brought us here. Ousmane spent two days in a bush taxi on mountain roads between Labe Guinea and Kedougou, my base in southern Senegal. My normal 12-hour trip from Baboon Island in The Gambia to Kedougou took 18 hours this time, on account of flat tires and road deviations. Neither of us is happy to be back in a car on a bumpy road. But here we are, on our way to Salemata.
As we approach, the road becomes congested with people clad in bright garments, bustling to the market on foot or riding bicycles. I admire a cyclist dressed in a flowing turquoise caftan with a matching Bedouin-style headwrap; Ousmane suddenly rolls down the window and yells out to him. He is the chief of Taiwoun, one of the villages we are on our way to visit.
Lama, the truck driver, shows up on his motorbike. It is a real stroke of luck to find this busy man with a few moments to spare. I need him to bring cement and other building materials to three villages — Taiwoun, Tyalere and Dianwelli — for the construction of a well in each village. While I negotiate prices with Lama, a Fulani woman comes up to the other side of the car and begins chatting with Ousmane. She is one of the many daughters of the chief of Tyalere. I know she will tell her father we are on our way to see him. We turn the car south, in the direction of Guinea, where the two remote villages of Tyalere and Taiwoun are.
Not the most beautiful time of year in southern Senegal, March is dry, dusty and hot, the vegetation colorless. I am thankful for an air-conditioned car, as this kind of dust forms a fine thin coating on the skin, producing an almost suffocating feeling that makes one even hotter. I think it curious that anyone would come to settle in this area. Sparsely forested, it does not look like the kind of habitat chimpanzees would choose either. Challenging my thoughts, water appears ahead, with gallery forest framing the outer edges of a cracked opening in the laterite plateau. The crevice below opens up to a vastly different world of diverse tree species, shade and dramatically lower temperatures: chimpanzee habitat.
In the early afternoon, we come to Taiwoun, and find mostly women and children in the village. Within moments of our arrival the chief wheels in on his bicycle (laden with market purchases) and joins us. Ousmane and I are sitting under the shade of a mango tree, chatting with villagers about chimpanzees and the issues with access to water. As though on cue, three young women enter the gate of the village, each balancing a large bucket of water on her head. This is only one of their daily trips to a water hole in the dry stream bed some 200 meters from the village. The collection of water is the responsibility of women, often shared with their children. Even in this small village, their task of bringing water for drinking, bathing, cleaning and laundry is formidable and time-consuming.
Once a chore requiring only strength, the collection of water, as the dry season advances, requires patience and perseverance too. As the water table drops and temperatures rise, surface water becomes scarce. Rivers and streams dry up. In Taiwoun, as in many villages, the source has a tendency to dry up as well. Chimpanzees and humans alike dig at the dry water hole to reach the water below. Though water is still available, it takes time to seep to the surface. Water is at a premium and everyone, even bees, clamor around. And the competition between chimpanzees and humans over water becomes serious.
If chimpanzees are at the water hole, children and women might run screaming back to the village for the men to come and scare the chimpanzees away. If chimpanzees find people at the water hole they do not approach; they remain in hiding and wait. Sometimes this means drinking only once a day and often this means drinking in the middle of the night. Movement at night disrupts the diurnal chimpanzees’ normal activity pattern, and exposes them to other threats, such as leopards.
I discovered the conflict over water more than 10 years ago when conducting a survey of chimpanzees in southeastern Senegal. It took a few years for me to fully understand the nature of the conflict and to devise a practical solution to improve the living standards of chimpanzees and humans. Simply providing a well in the village in exchange for the chimpanzees to have unhindered access to the source is not enough. People, especially women, visit the river or stream bed to do laundry and bathe. This too needed to be addressed, because the mere presence of people at the source, regardless of their reason for being there, deters chimpanzees. With funding from Friends of Animals I can provide a package deal: a well, a latrine and a laundry area, all within the perimeter of the village. In exchange, the villagers agree to abandon the source to the chimpanzees.
Our visit, this Tuesday, succeeds. We’ve selected the site for the well and latrine. We’ve organized the dates for the delivery of materials. Everyone agrees verbally to the terms. We say goodbye, and get into the car. It is already after 6 o’clock. It will take at least two hours to get to Tyalere. Arriving in the dark is not safe, given the tree stumps and narrow passage through the bush. Tyalere will have to be tomorrow; Dianwelli, the day after.
As we leave the village, we pass the small water source for Taiwoun. Less than a foot and a half across, the source is framed with a protective ring of rocks meant to conserve the precious water. This is only March. The situation worsens significantly by late April and early May.
But this year will be different. The women of Taiwoun will pull water from a well, just meters away from their house. They will do laundry nearby in the shade of the big mango tree using a slab of cement simulating the large boulders found near the river bed. They will have the privacy of a walled latrine and they will have clean drinking water for the first time since the village was established. And they might have some free time in their busy schedules for a bit of relaxation.
The chimpanzees will benefit greatly from the absence of people at the source. They will have unhindered access to drink when they wish, without being intimidated. They’ll have time to linger after quenching their thirst and before moving on. Comfortably positioning themselves on the long-stemmed, woody vines known as lianas, which are strung like hammocks over the river bed, they’ll savor a few moments in the shade on a hot afternoon. After a bit of rest they will quench their thirst again and move on to forage for food or find a nest for the night. They’ll leave on their own terms, knowing they can come back tomorrow and drink in peace.
What You Can Do
Fewer than 500 chimpanzees are thought to survive in Senegal. These primates are on the verge of extinction. We must help them. Our members can ensure Friends of Animals’ ability to cover the project's well and latrine construction, as well as monitoring and education work, through the year 2012. We expect this to cost $25,557. This work resolves conflicts between humans and chimpanzees over water. Donations to Friends of Animals can be marked as a special gift for Senegal's chimpanzees.