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When people starve they do things they know are bad for them

Kaidia holds some néré pods - Soumaila T Diarra | Panos London

This morning, after breakfast, I went to the bush with other women from my village to pick the fruits of the néré tree. It is not yet the season for picking the fruits of néré trees. But because they need to make money quickly people have started to pick fruit that is not ripe yet.

The néré [parkia biglobosa] is a tree that grows naturally in the bush and women make money from its grains. In the dry season it flowers into striking red globes that hang down from the tree, which children like to play with. But what we are looking for now are long, brown pods that look like giant beans. When you break inside it there is a yellow pup that contains brown seeds. We spread the yellow pulp out to dry in the sunshine. Once it is dry we grind it to make a yellow powder. The powder is sweet and can be eaten on its own, or sometimes we add it to drinks or our meals.

But the most important parts of the néré tree are the seeds. We can easily make money from selling them. Next week I can make money from the fruit I pick this morning. Women mainly transform the seeds at home into soumbala [a popular spice in Mali and the West Africa Sahel region, also known as dawadawa]. Only women have the right to turn the seeds of the néré tree into spice.

Making soumbala is a simple process. You have to boil the seeds in water for one day. It takes so long because the seeds are hard. When they grow soft you remove the shells which reveal a soft seed inside. The seeds are then kept covered from air until they start to stink [a fermenting process]. After that you grind the grains into a paste. This paste is soumbala. You can buy that spice in every market.

This year people unfortunately did not wait for the néré fruits to be ripe. I went to pick them for the first time this morning. We didn’t go far from the village as we can find néré trees everywhere. People protect them because they are so useful. For example, when someone is clearing a farm he won’t cut the néré trees.

But when people starve they do things they know are bad for them. Everything failed on the farms here last year. The shea tree, which is another means for women to make money to buy food, did not produce many fruits. So in order to find money we are cutting trees to make firewood and charcoal that we sell. We know we are destroying our environment and it can have long-term consequences on our lives. But we don’t have any choice.

As told to


Kaidia Samaké






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