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A lesson in Senegalese melons

By Susie Emmett


The melon harvest has just taken place in Africa's westernmost country, Senegal, and millions have been plucked and packed for a hungry European market, but after a day in the fields, there is still time for a football match between permanent workers and casual staff.

The whistle blows. Players shout. The ball is kicked into play with a thwack. At least that is what I imagine I would hear if it was not for what has kicked off on the touch-line.

A tall man in a grey, long-sleeved garment, with fabulous embroidered neckline, is beating furiously on a small drum clamped in his armpit. He exhorts two seated drummers to do the same and together they beat out a deep, quickening rhythm.

Three, iridescently dressed women whirl forward from the all-female crowd. High-kicking, hip-grinding, buttock-thrusting, arm-punching, face-making - it is a spectacle. At the drum master's behest, another three women leap forward to outdo them.

But I am not here for this, or the machismo on show on the pitch, but for simply sumptuous melons.

So near to Europe, just seven days by sea, melon is a marvellous crop for northern Senegal. At the height of the growing season, on land leased to a French company. The community harvest up to 25 tonnes a day of the fragrant globes from the flat, wind-swept fields.

When is a melon in its prime? In the welcome shade beneath the branches of a giant baobab tree at a field edge I get my answer.

"Look here," says Mohammed Gaye - a mighty man once chosen for elite football training in France. A knee injury put paid to that passion so he switched to his other love, agriculture.

image captionSmell and feel can help identify ripeness

Mohammed balances a perfect sphere of a melon in his hand. I follow his finger tip to the collar surrounding the stalk.

"See these little lines? Of course you can't!" he teases. "You English have no idea how to tell a ripe melon. You prefer to eat your fruit when it has the texture of wood - and under-size!"

He should know. The small percentage of fruit from these fields destined for British shores has to be small - and very under-ripe.

French, Belgians, Swiss - they eat melons of all sizes and when they are pungently ripe. "So ripe everything else in your fridge smells of melon too," laughs Mohammed.

After Spain, Morocco, Guadeloupe, and Brazil now it's Senegal's turn to join the melon market. They have the sun. But soil? It's so sandy, like farming a beach. It's great for root development. But roots need water. Northern Senegal has plenty of that too.

I go almost to the mouth of the River Senegal. After a 650 mile curving journey, right round the eastern border with Mali and then Mauritania to the north, it joins the Atlantic.

The sea used to flood inland to meet it but now, with a bright yellow barrage at Diama, the sea is held back. With the steady drone of diesel pumps a tiny percentage of what flows seawards is lifted into a canal that winds to the melon fields.

Water is not the only thing brought to the fields. Just before the plants begin to bloom, hives of bees are carried to the crop. Industriously these beneficial insects assist pollination. Above them, darting acrobatically in the clear blue skies, African swallows - like squadrons of fighter bombers - patrol the plots picking off flying pests.

For Africa's true depth of colour, wait till the hour before nightfall. The football match is in its second half. The team shirts are now crimson red, the dusty pitch has a rosy glow.

I walk through the village and see the lush family plots of vegetables - grown with irrigation water too- emerald rows of peanuts, chillies and tomatoes bejewelled with fruit.

Madame Thiane is my guide. An elder, dressed head to toe in blue, she oversees the recruitment each day of teams of melon workers, taking women and men evenly from each family.

image captionIrrigation has helped Senegal harness more land

"Look around," she points.

"Just three years ago, our main thought was getting enough to eat. Today the village is a building site. With income from melons, we are improving our homes."

Now, the villagers are preparing the next fields, moving the network of drip irrigation pipes.

Then in sheltered nurseries they'll painstakingly plant melon seeds and nurture the young until they are big enough to transplant to the fields, ready for production to begin all over again.

Final score: a thrashing, 3-1, by the casual staff. The winners finger "un, deux, trois" in the losers' faces and laugh uproariously. Winners and losers alike make their chanting way to the melon packhouse where a massive sound system is set up for a serious party. The exuberant dancing starts all over.

Did I join in? That's for them to know and me to keep quiet about.

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