Miagatta Diop, who is the chief of a 75-year-old village in the Louga region of northern Senegal, recalled when the now-worn soil near his village yielded great harvests and when scattered shade trees were a lush forest.
He has known years of drought and has known hungry children and men who sold their possessions to buy food. Yet, Diop said the villagers would gladly kill their chickens to feed visitors.
In a different setting in the southern part of the country, Ibrahima Sane, a young broadcast journalist who grew up in a village in Casamance reports on a crisis that he never imagined as a child.
"When I grew up it was unthinkable not to have enough food," he said. "It was a shame that only your very close relatives would know and they would hide it from the village, and the parents would hide it from the kids."
In this West African country, memories of a proud past have been clouded by daily hardships stemming from a decade of drought and the country's growing dependence on food and financial aid from the international community.
Senegal, with a population of 6 million and a per capita annual income of $490, is one of eight African countries bordering the Sahara, a region called the Sahel. Over the years, the Sahara has engulfed more than 143 million acres of land as it moved southward, claiming once fertile land and displacing villages like a mighty army ravishing the spoils of victory.
Senegal's efforts to reclaim some of that land exemplifies the magnitude of the problem the country faces.
At the site of a 10-year-old tree-planting project in a rural area outside the town of Kebemer, the government has stopped the advancement of a sand dune that threatened a niaye, a water table around which people settle and engage in market gardening. Following the 1985 rainy season, vegetables grew in the dune's shadow. But the success maybe ephemeral.
On the other side of the dune, an area where a forest once stood was blanketed by sand. A fierce north wind mockingly rocked the barriers of dry grass and sticks intended to protect the neat rows of recently planted trees. The tiny trees swayed, bowed and in many places succumbed to the shifting sands.
But nature has not been identified as the sole cause of the country's agricultural difficulties. Donor agencies and officials for the World Bank have criticized Senegal's use of centralized and costly regional development agencies that for years relied on a complex farm price system that was aimed at increasing production but actually discouraged small farmers from producing food.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said in a report on development strategy for Senegal that the country's problems have persisted although Senegal "has had one of the highest per capita aid flows in the world." Overall, aid has amounted to an average of $500 million a year in recent years. Development experts estimate that the same level of aid would be needed for the government of Senegal to make substantial progress toward recovery.
"The bottom line is that at the moment, Senegal is over a barrel but nobody is going to push it over the edge," said Carole Tyson, who has been deputy director in USAID's Senegal office for three years. "It is a stablizing force in this part of the world. People look at this place as something that can work in Africa."
The Senegalese government is bent on creating a sense of urgency for its long-range development plans in an effort to prevent the country from becoming hopelessly dependent on outside charity for survival.
In that respect, the country represents the other African story: the quest for recovery.
Abdou Diouf, Senegal's president and current head of the Organization of African Unity, is determined to persuade other African leaders to focus on development projects that could cushion the countries against future droughts.
"At stake is our credibility before our people, before the entire world, indeed before history," Diouf said at an OAU summit meeting that focused on the continent's recent food crisis.
Unlike Ethiopia and other countries where the drought had devastating effects, Senegal's problems have been cumulative and has made the country more dependent on food imports in recent years than it had been 20 years ago.
Throughout Senegal, there is evidence that the government is aggressively seeking changes.
Partly due to pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Diouf has implemented a reform plan to balance Senegal's budget, reduce the balance-of-payments deficit and increase national production. In the process, he introduced a number of austerity measures, including raising the prices on imported consumer goods to bolster the use of domestic products.
Another factor in favor of Senegal's recovery plan is the government's decision to emphasize agriculture, the backbone of the country's economy.
Although nearly 40 percent of the country's land is arable, only about 15 percent has been used for farming.
The government is engaged in a number of projects, many of them funded largely by foreign aid, aimed at moving Senegal toward food self-sufficiency.
One such project is the Diama Dam in the delta of the Senegal River, which forms the northern border with Mauritania.
Through irrigation made possible by the dam, scheduled to be completed in early 1986, and another dam under construction at Manantali in Mali, the Senegalese would be able to use 600,000 acres for agriculture, making it possible to grow fruit trees on now barren land and to produce two rice harvests a year, which is necessary if Senegal is to become self-sufficient in rice.
At the same time, however, the Diama Dam has been a controversial project. Some international observers argued that it would cause environmental changes that could subject residents to new health problems.
But Mamadou Diop Gaye, the project's chief engineer and director, pointed out that lives and livestock already are threatened because the area is without fresh water 10 months of the year.
"Senegal is not the U.S., Canada or China," Gaye said. "We only have one river. All life depends on that river. . . . We don't want to go around the international community begging all the time."
While much of Senegal's success in increasing crop yields will depend on good rainy seasons, the government is also convinced that its rural population must change some attitudes and traditions.
In the Louga region of Senegal, the N'Dioben Matar village is one example of government intervention.
Because trees, the chief source for household fuel, were once plentiful, fuel conservation was an unknown concept. Now, village women have been taught to build sand and clay stoves that cut wood consumption in half.
N'Dioben Matar is surrounded by seemingly endless fields of melons and shade trees carefully planted under the watchful eye of the government. The village volunteered to participate in the tree-planting project because the government promised that life would become easier. The village soon adopted a new proverb: "To have rain, we must have trees."
While many of the villagers said their lives did improve after government intervention, they readily indicate that their hardships have not disappeared.
Rawa Saik Diop, who looks much older than her 36 years, said her daily water-drawing chore begins at 5 a.m. and ends about 10 a.m. By then it is too late to prepare breakfast for her children, so she heads for her work in the fields. She pointed to the calluses on her fingers as proof of her labor.
There is a water pump nearby but the villagers said it seldom works and there are no parts to fix it. Like the pump, the government's plans to some in the rural areas represent no more than a good idea that does not bring immediate results.
"It is very difficult to explain to them that in three or four or five years they can be better off," said Lamine Boye, a counselor in Senegal's Washington embassy. "The government is there giving directions but the government is not the ones who are suffering."
In a recent visit to Washington, Diouf indicated that for recovery to become a reality, African states must be willing to take risks and the world must be patient.
"Problems which date back more than 10 years cannot be solved from one day to the next," he said.
"African governments, bilateral and multilateral donors and nongovernmental organizations will have to persevere in their efforts to improve the economic climate, overcome the impact of the drought and restart growth."