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ResilienSEA Scholarship Two Years On

A lot has changed since November 2019, when the ResilienSEA project awarded four seagrass research scholarships to master’s students. However, the recipients’ determination to complete their programs and protect seagrass ecosystems has not.

The goal of the ResilienSEA project is to build capacity and increase knowledge in seven West African countries to better manage and conserve their seagrass beds. At the beginning of the project, not every country had even confirmed that seagrass existed on their coasts. But now, in the two and a half years since the project was launched, seagrass was found and confirmed for the first time in both Guinea and Sierra Leone.

By providing scholarships to local researchers, the ResilienSEA project is ensuring that these countries with newly confirmed seagrass meadows won’t have to rely on outside expertise to conserve them, and instead they can rely on local expertise and resources.

“The most enjoyable thing is for us to sit and see that we are helping shape someone’s future,” said Dr. Adam Ceesay, program manager at Wetlands International Africa, an NGO that works to sustain and restore wetlands around the world, and a partner of the ResilienSEA project.

The recipients are Soumah Seydouba from Guinea, Feitimatt M’beirik Belkheire from Mauritania, Noelo Silva Akys Cardoso from Guinea-Bissau, and Gnilane Diogoye Diouf from Senegal.

“We also want to use this opportunity to put West African seagrasses on the map. Our students are expected at the end of the day to produce posters, present their research findings at international conferences,” Dr. Ceesay continued. “All these are planned for the coming year.”

Melissa Ndure from EPA-Sierra Leone and Maria Potouroglou from GRID-Arendal looking for seagrass in the Turtle Islands. Photo: GRID-Arendal.

Although many international conferences and poster sessions were postponed, and travel and fieldwork became challenging in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the students have managed to adapt their studies and their lives in response.

“Honestly for me, it has given me more time to be focused on my studies,” said Seydouba.

But the shift to virtual learning hasn’t been an easy one, “there are some accents, some of us are from French speaking countries, they have some accents that we don’t easily understand when they are teaching through video conference,” he said.

Belkheire added that virtual learning and the lockdown has added the financial burden of installing internet at home, a luxury which not all students have. While Diouf is dealing with a delay in her plans to conduct fieldwork.

Maria Potouroglou from GRID-Arendal talking to the national team members during the Seagrass Ecology training in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo: GRID-Arendal.

While delays and new challenges may be frustrating, these students are driven by their desire to protect seagrass.

“The first time I saw seagrasses, it was something that, should I get Alzheimer’s disease, I pray that I would not forget this feeling,” said Cardoso.

“I believe that in Guinea-Bissau, we know that seagrasses exist, without knowing their value. I had the honour and opportunity to be the first one in Guinea Bissau to dive, together with scientists, to record the presence of seagrass and identify the pilot site. Moreover, I am the first one who found a sample! I have no words to describe this feeling. In the water, I came out and shouted, ‘I found it!’ It’s an emotion that can’t be measured,” he said.

Maria Potouroglou from GRID-Arendal holding a water bottle containing Halodule wrightii found in the Turtle Islands in Sierra Leone. Photo GRID-Arendal.

Diouf also had similar feelings of wonder the first time she laid eyes on seagrass.

“I was born in a village far from the sea, so to be in the water was already something [different], and to then be told that there are plants underwater, I found that extraordinary!” said Diouf. “It’s a privilege to be amongst the first have started studying seagrasses [in Senegal],” she continued.

Seagrass brings out the smiles of Salla Ba from the MAVA Foundation and Adam Ceesay from Wetlands International Afrique. Photo: GRID-Arendal, 2019.

They hope their research will foster better understanding of how and why to protect seagrass ecosystems.

“I have been in their place, and I experienced first-hand what new thematic areas bring to you as someone from a country that hasn’t known much about a subject area,” said Dr. Ceesay.

“I got a scholarship from my master’s to study aquaculture and this was very new then,” said Dr. Ceesay. “People were like ‘what is there to study about fish’ and it’s the same response we get from some of the locals who are like ‘what is there to study about grass?’”

Though Dr. Ceesay hopes that, just as aquaculture has become mainstream in Africa, knowledge about seagrass and how conserving it can support local fisheries will increase.

“These students, they feel so grateful, I can say, and so appreciative of the fact that they can be a link between us and the local communities who don’t understand the meaning and the importance of these sites,” she said.

Halodule wrightii from Turtle Islands in Sierra Leone. Photo: Maria Potouroglou, GRID-Arendal

Olivia Rampel

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