WITH big, strong arms, Musu Kegba Drahmmeh hauls up buckets and carries them one by one to her section of a large, cooperatively-run vegetable garden near this capital city.
Typical of West African women, she wears a brightly colored, loose-fitting, full-length dress even when farming.
Making the desert bloom is only part of what women across Gambia do with their gardens. They are also making money. In a country where unirrigated land turns to dust in dry years, and the per-capita income is $360, both achievements are noteworthy.
On the fastest-growing continent in the world - Africa's 2.9 percent growth rate will double its population in just 23 years - the cooperative gardens of Gambia and other dry West African nations, such as Mali, are an important source of food.
These gardens are becoming more important as farmland becomes more scarce, says Binta Khan, horticultural coordinator for the cooperative garden where Ms. Drahmmeh and some 500 other women work. Under intense care, with bucket or pump irrigation and hand weeding, gardens can flourish on land that might otherwise produce little.
Now a Norwegian aid project is trying to help some of Gambia's gardening women earn more money by marketing their vegetables collectively, instead of undercutting each other by selling individually.
The idea is that the women will earn more, have savings to apply to long-term costs such as well repairs, and have more time at home with their families, instead of sitting long hours in the sun at open-air markets.
``It's a good idea,'' says Ms. Khan, whose garden at Bakau, near Banjul, is one of several the Royal Norwegian Society for Rural Development (NRD) is helping. ``It's working,'' she says.
The Bakau garden began eight years ago with 180 members in the cooperative. But as it expanded, the women soon ran out of prime space at the local markets on which to spread out their vegetables for sale. And often, especially when they needed quick cash, many women crowded the market, competing for customers.
``It was like a crowd of grasshoppers coming in,'' says Claes Elliot, a Swede representing the NRD. ``The women were underbidding each other.''
What they didn't sell quickly, spoiled. And when the women tried to market their produce through others, they ran into another problem: too many middlemen, each of them wanting a cut.
One group of middlemen met the buses and group taxis arriving at the market. For a fee, they distributed the vegetables to wholesalers. Another set of middlemen, for another fee, moved the goods from wholesalers to retailers.
Women tried to sell their vegetables at the garden, saving transportation costs to and from the market as well as the middlemen's fees. But buyers' visits were sporadic, and vegetables have to be sold when they are fresh.
So the NRD purchased two pickup trucks and contracted with one seller, who pays cash for the deliveries and absorbs any losses from spoilage.
This cuts the middlemen down to one and frees the women from having to spend long days at the markets selling the produce themselves.
By delivering vegetables to several markets in the area, the project minimizes the risk of forcing prices down because of an oversupply.
``It helps me sell my vegetables,'' says Njuma Cesay, one of the gardeners in the project. ``Last year I sold by myself. Now I have more time for domestic work.''
Mr. Elliot is convinced that the women ``make more money than before.''
But at a recent meeting of women representatives participating in the project, questions were raised. Some women balked at the 10-percent fee the NRD is charging for transportation and marketing. Where does it go? Who benefits? they asked.
``The 10 percent is not ending up in [the agent's] pocket, but goes to pay salaries,'' including those of the drivers, loaders, and sellers, Elliot said. ``This thing isn't run without expenses. The project is not profitmaking.''
The project receives a small portion of the fee to offset its own costs. ``If you do not contribute to the transportation costs, we'll only be able to assist you for a short period of time,'' Elliot continued, adding, ``Our job is to help you in development, not to spoil you. We are here to help, but this does not mean we are here to hand out money as if we are printing it ourselves. What we are discussing is reality.''
A number of the women are illiterate and use their inked thumb to ``sign'' receipts for reimbursement for transportation costs to the meetings. Some remained suspicious of a slice being taken out of their sales money, even though they used to pay the middlemen and their own transportation costs.
Acknowledging the cut in income due to the fee, Ms. Khan says there are offsetting advantages, such as less money lost from spoilage, since the agent buys the whole lot with cash.
The project is not cheap: Costs are running at the equivalent of more than $100,000 a year. Asked what was so expensive about helping women grow and market more vegetables, K.E. Nordlie of the sponsoring NRD provided these cost estimates for 1994: $35,000 for marketing facilities (which he said might include some coolers and construction of a modest marketing center), $65,000 for training and education of the approximately 700 women currently in the project, $20,000 for administrative staff and office costs.
The project may expand to serve women in other gardens in the area, he adds. In the past it has built wells and installed a solar-panel-driven well pump, replacing a diesel engine.
Very little machinery is manufactured in Gambia, Mr. Nordlie says, and that makes aid projects there expensive.
He says the project began in 1987 and will continue at least a few more years. The NRD began training the women at two gardens in Gambia in 1987 and is now helping with marketing. It may spend up to $100,000 before it's through.
Eventually the women will be able to take over the operation, Elliot says, including the hiring of marketing agents. The cooperatives could dig more wells, hire tractors to clear land, and build fences to keep out livestock and thieves, he says.
But that would require the women to make self-imposed assessments to pay for such activities. And though such steps might pay off in the long run, life for most African farmers, including the garden women of Gambia, is often a short-run struggle to survive.