DAROU FAL, Senegal As a boy, Pathe Kane's family farmed a large plot of land on which sat deep lakes filled with wildlife.
In his youth, Ousman Sow wandered the land raising cattle with his Fulani nomad tribe. Over time, sand from the Sahara Desert drove Kane's family from its farm, and drought forced Sow's tribe to forego its nomadic lifestyle.
The Senegalese government believes the advance of the desert and the drought are results of climate change that are having a dramatic impact on several countries in Africa forcing whole communities to relocate, changing entire lifestyles and making it harder for people to make a living.
"There were very, very deep lakes where people were doing fishing. All these depressed areas (valleys) were lakes originally," said Kane, 56, fondly recalling what his home was like during better times. "This area was so beautiful that theShah of Iran visited here and wanted to build a tourist residence."
Farming was much easier, he added. They simply had to sink a well to water their crops of carrots, yams and potatoes. They established a cooperative in nearby Mboro to sell their produce.
There was so much water around that El Hadj Birameka, 85, said they had to be careful around the shoreline.
"There was a big incident and a child was with her dog and a crocodile attacked the child and took away the child and the dog," he said.
Some find it hard to believe that fish and crocodiles were once plentiful in Darou Fal. The area once resembled the rolling landscape of the Sierra foothills.
However, for years, strong winds have covered fertile land with tons of sand and stopped all farming activity. The transformation was hastened by 30 years of drought.
"When it rained, there wasn't enough rain and the landscape disappeared, so the land found itself naked and was vulnerable to be taken away by the strong winds and the sand," said Samba Thiem, regional director of the Senegal Ministry of the Environment, through an interpreter.
The Senegalese government said the Sahara was advancing at least 15 feet a year. Concerned it would encroach on more farmland each year, the country began an ambitious program to reclaim land from the desert by blocking the winds and sand.
Using fir and eucalyptus trees that withstand drought well because they don't need as much water, the government is planting a "green wall" of trees along the edge of the Sahara Desert.
"Thanks to those efforts, we were able to save 12,000 hectares (about 30,000 acres) of land that would have otherwise been lost," Thiem said.
Of particular note was a tree that Thiem pointed out that had been completely covered by a sand dune, now looking more like a large bush growing out of the sand.
But there is still more to do, according to Thiem.
"We have at least 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres) of sand dunes to be stabilized in this zone alone," he said. "That is why Senegal is fighting hard to take back this area, which goes all the way from Dakar to the city of St. Louis (the former capital). That is an area that stretches almost 200 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide."
And the government has no plans of stopping there. President Abdoulaye Wade has ambitions to plant 4,375 miles of "green wall" from Dakar to Djibouti in Eastern Africa.
The nomadic life
The Senegalese Fulani nomads for centuries wandered the African bush, raising cattle, which were their source of wealth. Climate change has changed their way of living and forced them to develop creative solutions to provide revenue.
"With the drought since the 1970s, we have been forced to settle to find new ways of making our living while also maintaining our traditional way of life of cattle breeding," Ousman Sow, 48, the chairman of the Nguigalakh Peulh Village Association, said through an interpreter.
The tribe settled in a farming community near the old Senegalese capital of St. Louis and is now realizing unforeseen benefits.
"One of the disadvantages of being a nomad was we could not get proper education for our children, who were roaming around the bush with us. And we used to live off milk," Sow said. "But now with the drought, there is less and less milk, and that is why we had to make an adjustment to our traditional way of life by combining cattle breeding with agriculture."
Along with raising their cattle, they also are manufacturing traditional clothing and jewelry, which they sell in the village store. They have created a fund that provides loans to needy villagers who can't afford health care or medicine.
Kane's family has returned to farm the land again, thanks to a government-sponsored program created in 1974 to stop the advance of the desert. They are seeing some success farming again, but there is still little rain and now need to use motorized pumps to access ground water.
The recent climate change conference in Bali that resulted in a road map to a solution to curbing greenhouse gases has sparked cautious optimism among officials in Senegal. But that optimism may be premature, said Professor Daniel M. Kamman, the director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy.
"One of the things I found by working on the IPPC process, the intergovernmental panel on climate change process, is that experts in almost each area of environmental change who are the most knowledgeable are the most worried," Kamman said.
What often goes unnoticed is that the people of Africa contribute very little to global warming. The biggest polluters are the United States, China, India and Brazil.
Kamman said experts who are the most knowledgeable about climate change are the most worried because change is happening a lot faster than they thought and few of the impacts being experienced in Senegal actually can be tied directly to climate change at this time.
"But," he went on to say, "when we look back on this decade, I bet we're going to tie a huge number of things that we're right now not totally sure of, but suspect are climate change, very clearly to exactly that."
Bob Butler is an independent Bay Area journalist who also can be heard on KCBS 740-AM.