Lying along an inland strip of Atlantic Ocean coastline, the village of Palado in western Senegal sizzles in the afternoon sun. The air is so hot that the baobab trees tremble in the haze. Most of the villagers are working in the white-hued fields by the water, harvesting salt.
"We have been doing so for generations," says the Village Chief, Hamath Diouf. "For Palado and all the other coastal villages of this region, salt has always been a source of life." Women comb the fields, prepare shiny piles of salt which they then carry on their heads to even bigger heaps. Once collected, the salt is packed by the men, transported by horse-cart to the main asphalt road six kilometres away and sold on the roadside by the ton.
While it might appear that nothing has changed in the salt-making process here for centuries, in fact there is a big difference – even from a decade ago: iodisation. These days in Palado, the salt is iodized by a special (UNICEF-supplied) machine before being packed and sold. The function of that machine is pivotal because iodine is a fundamental nutritional requirement for every child and adult.
Iodine deficiency is the world’s single greatest cause of mental retardation, affecting the nervous system and foetal development, and leading to speech and hearing defects.
One of its most severe manifestations is cretinism, which is a serious and irreversible form of mental and physical retardation. Cretinism and goitre, a large swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck caused by a lack of iodine, are most prevalent in the regions of Tambacounda in eastern Senegal and Kolda in the south.
In coastal areas, the sea and soil are rich in iodine, so the nutrient is absorbed in food. However, the further inland ones goes in Senegal, the less there is in the soil, which leads to iodine-poor diets, and consequently, health problems. Facing an iodine deficiency problem, the Government of Senegal launched a national salt iodisation strategy in 1994, inspired by the positive experiences of other countries and by strong global advocacy, in which UNICEF played a major role.
Thanks in part to UNICEF’s investment and input, villages like Palado have become models of self-development and even a magnet for seasonal workers. Plus, the salt which is being iodised at local level is bringing health benefits to consumers further inland.
There are two major benefits of having all salt-producing villages in a particular area team up around an iodisating unit. Firstly, the premium paid on each sack of iodised salt sold is deposited by the villagers in a common account aimed at covering the cost of maintenance of the iodisation equipment. This system assures the sustainability of the machinery.
Secondly, recognising the importance of social security and infrastructure, villagers work one day per week in a common salt field. The profits derived from this special field are devoted entirely to local development.
These days, all the children of Palado and the neighbouring villages go to school. In 1998, when one of the villagers was struck by meningitis, the social fund paid for hospitalization and medicines. In 1999, the village health hut was provided with new drugs and a surveyor was contracted to plan a running-water connection. In 2002, a year of scant rain, the village chief distributed US$700 from the social fund to enable families to buy food during the dry season. "I am planning to do the same this year, but this time I will give the money to the women. They have so many projects in mind and they deserve a chance," Hamath says, his eyes sparkling when he talks about his community.
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