Breaking bread goes hand in hand with telling stories. I first heard about Keba Mbengue years ago dining under a chickee here in Naples – and how trees forever changed his life. Keba lives in Senegal about a four-hour drive from the capital city of Dakar, but an unfathomable distance from the world you and I live in. Even tirelessly working the hard ground, Keba only earned about $200 a year farming peanuts. An income so low it meant he and his family would regularly not eat for a day or more.
Keba’s plight reminds me of another man I heard about eating under a tree along Uganda’s Kampala-Gulu Highway. My dining companion told me about detaining a man who hadn’t been able to afford meat for months. His wife had just given birth and was desperately weak, so he headed into a national park where he illegally snared an antelope for them to eat. With seasoned meat still conspicuously in my mouth, my friend pointedly asked me, “What would you do with such a man? Would you jail this new father for poaching and doom his family – or would you side with your humanity?”
The challenge facing me and all my conservation colleagues –indeed all of us – is to work these problems upstream, well before a parent or a ranger is forced into
such excruciating choices. I’m grateful Naples Zoo partners with many who have risen to that occasion, which brings us back to Senegal. My friend John Leary told me about meeting Keba when he was the Executive Director of Trees for the Future (TREES). Years before, community trainers from TREES had taught Keba the life changing Forest Garden model of farming using trees and provided him the seedlings.
Touring Keba’s mature garden, John told me he was asking how much each crop earned including the tart, nutrient-rich apple the locals love to eat from cashew trees. I’ll let John’s words speak for themselves: “When I asked Keba how much he sells the cashew apples for, his solemn, chiseled face breaks into a smile that stretches ear to ear. ‘I give away more than 150 pounds of the cashew apples every season to the kids in the village.’ Pride, generosity, compassion, and hope all beamed forth from the face of a man who once couldn’t feed his own family.” Keba restored his degraded land, improved biodiversity, fed his family every day, and greatly multiplied his income. All in just four years! Can you imagine this father no longer dreading the eyes of a hungry daughter, but embracing a smiling child? What a magnificent change!
Replicating Keba’s story many times over, TREES has planted over 300 million trees since 1989. Naples Zoo has funded over 900,000 of those trees since 2009 and we’re working diligently to cross the one million mark this year to help more people and wildlife. We plant one tree for each student on a field trip and four trees with each membership sold or renewed – and we hosted a fundraiser with Ankrolab Brewing Company that planted more than 17,000 trees. Efforts like these enable Neapolitans to support our programs that benefit the land, its people, and wildlife.
If you’d like to be part of making more moments like these, contact me at email@example.com. Change for the better is truly possible.