Fall Updates

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of going to the hay fields in summer with my brother and parents. My mom would set up an old blanket for us on the side of whatever field they were cutting or baling that day and my brother and I would make dandelion necklaces, build forts in the hedges, and have picnics. Whenever the tractor stopped Mitch and I would race out from the shade of the trees to see what caused the break and to bring mom and dad some cold water. It was these moments that taught me to love the sweat and hard work that went into a small farm and find joy in being outside together. They were fun, hot, summer days that seemed to stretch forever. The smell of fresh cut grass and the feel of a cool breeze across my neck are so ingrained in my memory I still call them to mind on hot dusty days here when I need a little imagination.

I’ve found such a similar sense of family and camaraderie in my village this fall it gives me pause to smile and reflect on my own childhood farming. During the first few weeks of November in Yacine Lakke, families with fields near the river that flood seasonally were hitching up their donkey carts every morning and loading them up with seeds, hand hoes, water jugs, and young kids and old aunts alike. Once we got out to the fields everyone had a job to do and they split up remarkably efficiently. My middle host brother, Isma Yila, would take a six foot long, hooked stick with a piece of metal attached to the end and walk along the field, raising the stick up over his head and smashing it into the hard ground every meter. He was breaking ground and making way for the teams of women, my aunts and sisters, who followed him with massive poles sharpened on one end that they drove 10 cm or so into the ground to reach the still-wet earth below. Then, one of the other women would drop three corn seeds into the open pockets. Meanwhile, the kids had dispersed into the bush when we arrived with buckets for collecting loose topsoil. They would return and trace their way through the seeded area of the field, dropping handfuls of dirt on the open pockets as they went. After two or three hours of this, everyone retreated to whatever shade they could find from the bushy, thorny trees lining the banks of the tributary and took a break. The youngest kids inevitably fell asleep and everyone took turns looking at my blisters (and laughing at them). Then we got up and did it all over again for another hour or so until lunch, re-packing the carts and driving back over the dusty plain toward home.

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Corn planting lasted about two weeks this year

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My ride to the fields each day, on loan from my host brother

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Improved variety sorghum seed grown on trial in Yacine this year and harvested in October

 

When they haven’t been busy planting corn in their family’s fields, the women have started gardening in earnest this month. The transition to cold season has started and daytime temps are (only!) reaching 100 degrees, with nights finding a comfortable 75. December, January, and February are the best times for growing vegetables, with temperatures reaching only into the high 80s. At the end of October, the head of the women’s group here, a no nonsense lady who also happens to be the president of the parent’s association and organizes baby monitoring and weighing activities at the local health post, approached me about the possibility of starting a community women’s garden. This is a project many Peace Corps Volunteers take on and I jumped at the chance to work on something so important to the women in my village. She and I worked out the details of what would be needed for the project with another woman from the group, using the hectare of land just outside Yacine Lakke that was given to them by the village chief.

The project would require a grant from USAID, through their Feed the Future funding, and a community contribution of cash and labor totaling 25%. The community contribution is the village’s way of proving investment and interest in the project; a promise they will see it through. After determining what materials would be needed and writing up a draft budget, the women and I called a meeting of all interested group members (I was much more nervous about planning this meeting than the women, apparently all it takes to call a village-wide meeting is a mosque loudspeaker and an hour of your time so people can spread the word). This was the first time I had ever run a meeting of over a hundred women, by myself, and in Pulaar. After a less than eloquent speech by myself and a lot of deafening foot stomping on the part of the more enthusiastic women, we agreed on a two day time frame for going around to all the compounds in the village and collecting any amount of donation interested women could afford. By the end of the deadline, the women, and some recruited boys and men, had collected over 300,000 CFA from 308 women (which translates to roughly 600 USD and about $2 per woman). It was much more than I had dared to hope for and I was blown away by the women’s enthusiasm and dedication to the project. The grant was written, submitted, and approved at the end of October and now we are just waiting on the funds to be redirected. Construction is planned for the beginning of January and we hope to be gardening in the space shortly thereafter!

In most recent news, I spent Thanksgiving a two day’s journey from my site, at the beach. Some of my closest friends and fellow volunteers also made the trip and we cooked a feast worthy of the America of our memories. There wasn’t enough sunscreen in the world to save my very white legs from a good burning and now my awkward tan lines have only been exacerbated, but it was a great holiday and wonderful time with some of the best and hardest working people I know.

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The faces of stuffing and gravy deprived volunteers who see both on the horizon… Look at those smiles!

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Quiet, early morning coffee break before the chaos descends

 

In the next few weeks, my parents will come to Senegal (!), I’ll haul myself 13.1 very hot and dusty miles in the name of self torture and raising money for girl’s education at the Tambacounda Half Marathon, and I will take a three week hiatus from Senegal in favor of Switzerland Christmas markets and a trip back to Richfield Hill Road to snowshoe in the Adirondacks and play with my slightly older and fatter black Lab.

Cheers to the big moments and the small, to 12 pounds of mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, and to appreciating small town roots in the most unlikely of places.

Six Days Stateside – Blog It Home

My first hour stateside in a year was spent in customs, assuring everyone who looked at my plane ticket that I didn’t have ebola. My second hour found me at the Brooklyn Beer Garden in JFK’s terminal 2, sipping the smallest Dogfish IPA I could order (the things living in a Muslim country will do to your tolerance) and demolishing a plate of chicken wings. There was a football game on and although I can’t tell you who was playing or what the score was the whole trifecta gave me the warm and fuzzy feeling of being American and knowing I was home. I was on my way to the Peace Corps’ Top Bloggers Tour in DC, in mid September, for the winners of the Blog It Home competition.

If you remember, the Blog It Home competition happened in the beginning of August, after eight winners were selected from a group of 20 finalists in an online voting decision. A huge thank you to everyone who voted for and shared this blog with others. It ended up being an incredible week in DC with some very special and talented current and returned volunteers. I arrived late on Sunday night, the 14th of September, to Dulles International Airport and was met at the baggage claim by some of the faces I’d missed the most in the last twelve months: my mom, dad, and Grandma Trudy. I had all of Monday to catch up with them over good food and hear all about my brother Mitch’s individual successes and team domination at his woodsmen’s team lumberjack competitions. My best friend since childhood, Sara, also flew down for my last day in the States and after my initial freak-out, so-happy-to-see-you hug it felt like only a day we had been separated. Seeing them and hearing about home did my soul some good and reminded me what a strong support network I will always have no matter where life takes me.

My roommate for the week was fellow winner, the hilarious and genuine Sara Laskowski of Peace Corps Guinea. She was evacuated from Guinea in August due to the spread of Ebola but has spent her time since educating people about the beautiful culture of Guinea, rocking complets in a way that I will never be able to, and combating Ebola hysteria with a level headed and realistic outlook. Over daily, early morning coffee and egg and spinach wraps at Starbucks over the course of the week we traded stories about West Africa and marveled at the similarities in the places we call home. The work (and the fun!) started Tuesday morning at the Peace Corps Headquarters building near the Georgetown area of DC. Once there, we met the staff who had helped organize the competition and all the headache of flying back nine volunteers from all over the world, not to mention coordinating their movements all over DC for four days. All returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Eileen, Kate, Meleia, and Ryan made us feel right at home and had an incredibly exciting itinerary in place for the next few days. Best of all, they had set up a conference room for us to work out of for the week and stocked it chock full of enough candy and snacks to make any doctor cringe. I may or may not have consumed a year’s worth of Peppermint Patties but I argue they got me through several early morning and late night presentations.

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Julia (Uganda) and I multitasking in the idea room (working on presentations and eating peppermint patties!)

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Brainstorming and discussion in the ideas lab

Over the course of the week we made our way around DC, giving interviews in foreign languages, meeting with top social media and digital communication experts, teaching at public schools and libraries about the culture of the countries we serve in, explaining our roles in development work to our representatives in Senate and Congress, and exchanging ideas with influential NGOs about increasing access to information about global poverty and human rights issues. Instead of repeating a prepared and memorized, and probably monotonous, speech about Senegal hour after hour and day after day, I found myself swapping stories about friends in my village or funny cultural stumbling blocks encountered in the course of the year and being constantly amazed at the thoughtful and provocative questions people asked about my country of service.

One of our first events was a tour of the broadcasting headquarters for Voice of America, the international public broadcasting institution of the US government, and interviews on our corresponding radio stations. Myself, Julia (Uganda), Anna (Cameroon), and Sara (Guinea) gave interviews live in French on the West African programming station to millions of listeners. After Voice of America, we headed to the White House where we met with the Digital Strategy team who keep up the social media accounts of the President’s administration. Brian Forde, a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Nicaragua and current Senior Advisor to the US Chief Technology Officer, gave us invaluable career advice and reminded us to appreciate and expand on the innovations and impacts of our current experience. We also had the opportunity to visit ONE headquarters and meet with US Executive Director Tom Hart and members of the communication team behind their incredibly successful and powerful blog promoting action to end extreme poverty and preventable disease. The international campaigning and advocacy organization has brought crucial attention and support to the African continent in particular and talking with Hart and the communication team was a mutually beneficial conversation that I came away from feeling re-inspired to talk about my work and share information.

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Free Chobani after meeting with Senator Schumer’s staff, I <3 New York State

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Talking about topics and best blogging practices at the One campaign’s headquarters

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Live interviews at Voice of America for the West African broadcasting station

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Meeting with Brian Forde at the White House to talk digital innovation. After starting his own telephone company in Nicaragua, post his own Peace Corps service, he has more than a few ideas

More fantastic meetings with Smithsonian Magazine Chief Photo Editor Molly Roberts and US Diplomat in Residence Terry Davidson followed later in the week, after a myriad of presentations and public forums. My favorite presentations were at the two middle schools I visited in DC. The nine of us were split up between several schools over the course of a day to talk about the unique culture of our countries to classes of anywhere from 20 to 100 students. The best question of the day went to a confident 7th grader who asked me how to say “twerk” in Pulaar. I told him there wasn’t one yet but I’d be happy to bring it back to Senegal and see if we couldn’t find one. The results of that have yet to be determined. A public night at MLK Library and a group presentation with individual country tables after for over 100 Girl Scouts rounded out the cross cultural sharing. At both events there were enthusiastic future Peace Corps volunteers, some currently going through the application process, and it was so fun for me to remember that exciting time and answer their questions. I admire their desire to challenge themselves and open their worlds just a little bit more. It will be worth it! I can promise you that.

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Presenting on Senegal and more than likely talking about onion sandwiches…

Doing question and answer with one of my 6th grade classrooms of the day. These kids did their homework and had pretty impressive geographical knowledge of Senegal’s location and neighbors

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Keith (China) made us laugh a lot this week, even in panel discussions for a crowd at MLK Library

I loved sharing Senegal’s culture and my work here with everyone we met over the course of the week. I also greatly enjoyed exchanging ideas with some of the most innovative and successful people I have ever met. Both of those parts of the Top Bloggers Tour were rewarding and re-inspiring to my service, making me more excited than ever for my second and last year in Senegal. The best part of the week for me, however, came from the connections made with the fellow winners and with the returned volunteers working at Peace Corps Headquarters. I came away from our five days together with new ideas of what my service could mean to me and my community. I also took away the appreciation that no matter what country we serve (or served) in we’re all just finding different ways to achieve the same end: to make this world a little better every day with hard work and a smile. It is this that first attracted me to Peace Corps and this I remembered through the friendships formed that week. And as much as I missed good beer, spicy chicken wings, and football games, I realize trading them in for rice, instant coffee, and donkey chases has made me happier and more fulfilled than I ever thought possible.

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The whole, crazy family

Find links to the other winning blogs here and read along with their adventures to learn about their own sometimes hilarious, sometimes challenging, time abroad.

What’s In a Picture?

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This is one of my favorite pictures from the last 13 months; it represents the culmination of so many things in my life here in Senegal and it deserves to have its story told.

It was taken in June of this year in my village of Yacine Lakke at an end of year ceremony for our primary school. We can admit right up front I am the Waldo of this picture, with my white skin and blue eyes, in intentionally oversized Senegalese clothes. If you have read the post ‘Pants and Onion Sandwiches’ you will know I fall under the category of volunteer who strongly dislikes wearing complets (the skirt and shirt ensemble I’m wearing) but wears them occasionally because it makes her village ecstatically happy. As Peace Corps volunteers, cultural integration in our villages is arguably the most important thing we have to master, and half of that is dressing as our families and counterparts do. It was well past 110 degrees Fahrenheit that day and if you can’t tell by looking at it, I was sweating buckets under all that dark colored fabric. It was, however, a very special occasion and I am not the only person in the photo who is dressed up. All of the women I am sitting with are members of the local women’s group, who I do gardening work with and gossip with (usually more gossip than work). They too are dressed up. No Senegalese woman in her right mind would walk around with that much jewelry, face paint, or thoissan (the threaded gold rings framing the face) on a normal day. All the kids and a select group of women from the women’s group (myself included) dressed up and put on a play and performed dances throughout the day. Senegalese women do normally wear complets, although I try to avoid them because I can’t walk in them to save my life, and most older women do still sport very real face tattoos like the ones painted on in the picture.

The beaded bowl I am holding I made myself (with the help of two eager six year olds) and it is used as an instrument; there is even a hilarious video someone took from later that day of me dancing with it. Ironically, the tablet in the woman’s lap to my right is not mine, it is her 18 year old daughter’s. She shares it with all of her siblings and it is a gift from their father who works in France, whom they haven’t seen in two years. Young people here are increasingly technologically savvy (although the kids referenced don’t have Internet on their tablet, they only know how to play games and take pictures with it) and that was something I didn’t expect to see coming to Senegal. Senegal is changing and modernizing in awkward leaps and bounds and the ceremony we were participating in is a way of respecting and celebrating the past. It is for this reason this picture is so special to me. It was the coming together of three thousand people to remember their heritage, and after committing two years of my life to living with these people in their village I was grateful to be there, counted as family.

This picture opened up an unending discussion on the stereotypes surrounding development and what it means to be white in a foreign country. But it’s astonishingly complex; even the ‘developing world’ into which we arrive is not always what people said it would be. My time in Senegal has taught me just that. This picture represents to me the past and present of Yacine Lakke converging and my small place in it for two simultaneously challenging and rewarding years. It represents to me all of the things I’ve had to learn and overcome to be successful here (complets and Pulaar I’m looking at you). It also represents the friendships I’ve made and the unreserved welcome I get each and every day. For me it is proof that life can be beautifully unpredictable. For me it is home.

One Year and Nothing Too Much

Two weeks ago, I passed the year mark in Senegal. Sometimes the time feels like it has dragged its feet, stretching 12 months into an impassable mountain whose summit seems to elude me. Those are the days people don’t show up for meetings or I can’t get one sentence out in Pulaar. Other times I watch yet another blood red sun set uncommonly fast and wonder how a year can slip so quickly beyond our grasp.

So much has changed this year. I don’t just mean from when I stepped off the plane into a foreign country where I struggled to speak the language or stepped in sheep poop 20 times before I learned to avoid it. Although that’s certainly the bulk of it. I also mean learning that I can handle what I was sometimes deep down afraid I couldn’t: change and hardship. This means pushing yourself farther than you’ve ever had to before. It also means loss; loss of people and things you had before and the reality that the point at which you have to start pushing yourself comes when you are alone. The starkest moments of difficulty came in the beginning, in the initial few months. Now they are less frequent but I have my mornings where I open my eyes and forget where I am, and when it all comes crashing down I think, ‘Oh boy here we go again’. And yet the most beautiful moments I’ve known here have been in overcoming those challenges. They come after a meeting held completely in Pulaar where everyone understood me and I understood them. They come after a morning out in the fields when one of my farmers calls me over excitedly to show me a new technique they tried all on their own. And they come when my little host brother Ousmane calls me ‘Aunt Foune’ for the first time. These are the realities of my life here that help ground me, that help me appreciate what a crazy, once in a lifetime experience I am having here in Senegal.

This last year has also taught me a lot about hard skills. I’ve found, for instance, that I’m hopeless at Senegalese needlepoint. It takes more attention to detail and time than I’m willing to give. I consistently mangle the language of Pulaar and have only succeeded through the patience of my host family and village. And no matter how many blisters I callous over or field work I put in I always rip open new ones once a week. I’ve identified strengths too though. Through months of practice, I’ve come to know I’m more than capable of washing mounds of laundry by hand. I’m actually quite good at it. I take extreme heat pretty well too; up until 115 degrees Fahrenheit I’m fairly functional. I can prune a thorny tree into a live fence and only stick myself once. I have a gift for eating onion sandwiches (I once ate three in one day!) and I can shame even the most rude and forward Senegalese man into apologizing.

One last thing I have not so much learned this year in Senegal as much as perfected is walking. I’ve always loved to walk. The time it gives for reflection, perspective and quiet is invaluable. Ralph Waldo Emerson said some very intelligent, thoughtful things about walking, including the following, “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much.” I think I could say the same things are required of Peace Corps service, and absolutely of my time here in Senegal: lots of endurance, no material possessions you aren’t willing to destroy by hand washing, the ability to see beauty in even the most desolate places, humor in spades, an endless supply of questions, speaking when you have something to say and overall listening hard. You will find it is more than enough.

I’m writing this post from my iPhone at site (we can dedicate a whole separate post to the strangeness of that statement another time). It’s evening here and the sun sets at 6:38 these days. It’s 6:37. Evenings are my own here, time to relax and get perspective after what always turns out to be a longer than expected day. Senegal has taken a lot out of me but it has also given so much back. One short year here has taught me more about myself than I could have ever hoped to know. One more year will give me the chance to make things better, to push myself just a little bit farther. The sun is about to set now, I count down slowly as it drops and finally disappears behind a ridge, leaving the compound in a hazy pinkish glow. I’m sure tomorrow will come and go just as quickly as today did so I hope I make the best of it. And with one hot, dusty, sweaty, frustrating, hilarious, change-filled year behind me, I look forward to it.

Where Dad Picks Your Husband

My namesake, Foune, has never met her husband.

The marriage was arranged by her older brother who works in France, where he met Foune’s now husband, Alassan. Foune is around 30 years old, she’s not sure of the exact date, and has two children from her first marriage, a 13 year old and a four year old. Her first husband, also from our village and whom she married at 17, died while working in France months before his second daughter was born. She was shortly remarried, with a newborn baby, to a man she had only ever seen a picture of.

It took months for me to piece together Foune’s story; it’s not something she likes to talk about. And normally, Foune likes to talk. She has a firecracker personality and a quick temper. She made a grown man cower after he asked me to marry him one too many times on a bus once. She walked three miles into the bush with me one day early in my service, strapping Hawa to her back, just because I needed to clear my head and she didn’t want me to go alone. When I thought I might pass out from the pain of kidney stones she stayed up with me all night, covering me with a wet rag and sitting next to me while I puked for hours on end. She has been a mother to me in Senegal and my best friend. If ever I am successful in my work in Yacine Lakke it will be because of Foune’s unfailing stability in my life here.

You will understand, then, why the background of her story is that much more important, and painful, to me. And I have found through the course of my service it is not unique. Although on the whole Senegal is much more progressive than other parts of Africa arranged marriages are still incredibly prevalent among the rural, conservative Muslim communities. These also happen to be overwhelmingly from the Tukulor ethnicity (the Pulaar speaking people of my village, and almost all of the north of Senegal, are Tukulor). Typically, arranged marriages come about for one of two main reasons in Senegal: the first, it is adventitious (monetarily or security wise) for both parties, and the second, it reconnects families to each other. Foune’s two marriages satisfy both of these reasons. Her first was to a distant cousin and her second was because she was a widow in need of monetary support and he was a man with a job abroad, in search of a second wife from a good Pulaar family. Sometimes, these marriages work and people end up very happy. Foune certainly was with her first husband (his pictures still hang on the walls of the small room she shares with her girls). Other times, just as easily, they don’t work. Alassan, her current husband, has never sent money home and doesn’t have the right paperwork to leave France (read: he got there illegally and could get deported), so he may never come home.

I recently asked Foune why she ever agreed to marry Alassan in the first place. It was a hot day during Ramadan and we were sprawled out on a mat in her room, too hot to even bother trying to fan ourselves. She sighed and said, ‘Mi yahaani ecole. Mi waawa janngude, mi waawa haybatta. Mi alaa kaalis. Debbo Senegal sohli gorko.‘ ‘I never went to school. I can’t read, I can’t do anything. I have no money. A Senegalese woman needs a husband.’

Whenever the subject of arranged marriage comes up, this narrative is repeated over and over in rural villages all over Senegal. Any extra mouth to feed is a burden on a family, and parents, even the best ones, start to hear the clock ticking when a girl is as young as 14. Two of the middle school girls I work with for our scholarship program were in danger of being pulled out of school next year to be married because their parents felt school was becoming too expensive. These young girls are bright and intelligent, excited for the future. They have an enthusiasm for life I know well. Their empowerment is crucial to a Yacine Lakke of the future, with more opportunities than it holds today.

For many Americans, the term arranged marriage is hard to grasp. It’s an outdated tradition of strange places. Certainly, as the daughter of a strong, independent woman and niece of equally strong, independent aunts, I have grown up with the luxury of being able to choose my future and relatively unaware of the uncertainty faced by so many young women in villages like Yacine Lakke. To me, Foune’s explanation of her decision to marry proves education for women is the crux on which the argument for arranged marriage exists, at least in Senegal. Marriage for a woman here is more like the transfer of her cooking, cleaning, and child raising services from one family to another. As much as this makes me want to make a scene, point my finger and give some of the men in the village a piece of my mind, I find it hard to exclusively call arranged marriages here unfair and bad. While women remain uneducated and without the means to support themselves, an arranged marriage by their families offers the security necessary for survival in a rural setting like Yacine.

A few days ago, Foune excitedly called me into my host father’s house. He had just gotten off the phone and there were at least 15 members of the family crowded around him. ‘Fatimata jogi gorko!’ ‘Fatimata will have a husband!’ Foune said. Fatimata is my 16 year old host sister who is the first person in her family to receive a formal education and recently completed her second year in middle school. The potential husband in question is her first cousin who works in France. I ask her how she feels about the prospect. ‘Omo jogi kaalis hewii‘ ‘He has a lot of money,’ she giggles nervously. As virtuous as this is, I can’t help but note she has never met him and can’t remember his first name. I also wonder, if she were given the opportunity to finish high school would she still laugh so girlishly about her father picking her a husband or would she cross her arms, narrow her beautiful brown eyes, and tell him no one decides where her life goes except her? I choose to believe the latter, and every young woman has a right to no less.

A village drum circle in pictures

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The Senegalese start dancing young; after experiencing several drum circles now (and getting thrown into the middle of all of them) I’m convinced it’s genetic

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“Amde” means ‘to dance’ in Pulaar. There are a few classic moves that everyone knows but mostly you move to the beat of the drums and make the dance an expression of whatever you want

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For anyone who read my post about pants vs Senegalese complets: no, I have no idea how they move like that in those skirts

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The only rule of a drum circle is to stay out of the middle unless you’re dancing; the bigger the movement and the faster the speed the better

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While women of all ages typically dominate drum circles, some men (and energetic boys!) have crazy moves and really get the drummers to respond

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Blog It Home – Vote Now!

Hey all of you wonderful readers. If you came here in the last few days as a result of the ‘Blog It Home’ contest on Facebook, thank you for your interest in Senegal and Peace Corps’ work here. It’s not always easy (‘No… I’m not a man, I just don’t like wearing skirts!’ For the millionth time) but I enjoy every hot, sweaty, dirt-covered day here because the people of my village, and of Senegal as a whole, make it worth it.

IF, by chance, you haven’t heard about the ‘Blog It Home’ contest, you can vote by following the link below to my picture in the Peace Corps’ Facebook album and ‘liking‘ it. The like is your vote!

https://m.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152404781115914&id=110634980913&set=pb.110634980913.-2207520000.1407183148.&source=54

The contest aims to promote blogs from volunteers around the world who are achieving Peace Corps’ Third Goal of bringing back the culture of the country they serve in to other Americans. Read as many as you can (including one written by fellow Senegal PCV Chris Uller)! There are some incredibly thoughtful, entertaining, and unique blogs from places around the world. If you enjoy this blog, and learning about Senegal, please share the link with family and friends! Voting ends tomorrow, August 10th, and you can ‘like’ and vote for as many blogs as your heart desires.

Onjaraama no feewi,
Erika

Extension – A lesson in patience

Crops grow really well in rich, dark soil with a lot of nutrients and adequate water at the appropriate stages in the life of the plant. They can also grow in plain old dirt with some water. In fact, you can even throw some seeds in straight water and they will germinate. Point being, the only input farming truly requires is… water. What has my village not seen in two weeks? WATER.

I tell you this with a mixture of desperation and hilarity. I knew when I got assigned to the northeast of Senegal as an agriculture extension agent I would be fighting an uphill battle. We’re plagued with Sahara induced dust storms and lucky to get 500 mm of rain a year (combine this with the heat that never dips below 100 degrees in daytime hours and that’s enough to grow a whopping one crop each rainy season). Our saving grace is our proximity to the Senegal River and it’s tendency to flood, but you need a little help from Mother Nature to get that going. And so far, that’s not going.

After a few big rains early in July all the farmers in Yacine took to the fields to plow (usually by donkey but some fancy people used horses) and prep their fields to seed. After one more big rain, around the third week in July, all my farmers planted their sorghum seed. This is the staple crop for Yacine Lakke, turned into a type of couscous after it’s harvested and dried, but a few women also farm beans and peanuts in our areas of sandier soil. Those few weeks in July were also a critical moment in my service. Part of Peace Corps Senegal’s agriculture program is the extension of improved variety seed to motivated farmers in our villages. They are given a small, experimental amount of seed (about a kilo) and asked to return two kilos back to us, the volunteers, if they have a good harvest. This promotes good seed saving techniques and gives the farmer their own source of improved seed for the following year (if you want to know more, nitty-gritty details on this program and the source of seeds, let me know in the comments section and I’m happy to expand on this). Over the course of the growing season, we go back out to these farmer’s fields and troubleshoot with them, while also recording data and tracking the growth of the plant. Later, these records will help the developers of specific varieties of crops to make them even better in later generations.

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Plowing the field by donkey; a 40×20 meter plot takes a little over an hour to finish

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A young man in my village posing with his ‘jambore’ before starting to clear fields. His traditional Pulaar scars are also visible on his temple

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Planting sorghum by hand is hot, sweaty work and straight lines aren’t always achieved

It all sounds very civil and straightforward when you begin as a new volunteer. Having done field studies and worked with similar crops and programs in China and Mexico during college, I was incredibly excited to run an extension program in Yacine Lakke. I picked out eleven farmers to work with in three field crops: sorghum, beans, and rice. I gave them the seed in painstakingly collected and cleaned, airtight plastic bottles, I carefully explained in well rehearsed and researched Pulaar the guidelines of the program and what was expected of them, and I sent them on their merry way. Three weeks later, well after when they should have planted, I started to hunt down the farmers and their fields and collect my first data. What did I find? Extension work is painful and behavior change does not happen after one 15 minute conversation.

Of the 11 farmers’ fields I still haven’t located three of them. One guy owns a field four miles outside of the village that I made the mistake of saying I could walk to the first time I went there. One person gave his wife the seed to cook for dinner because they were short that day and another never planted his in the first place because he decided he didn’t like the color. A woman I extended beans to inter-cropped them at random, 15 foot intervals in her husband’s sorghum field, effectively killing my chances of collecting plant density data on that particular plot. And the kicker of course is that after all of this it never rained again for my farmers who did plant the seed, with appropriate spacing, in fields I can locate without walking to Guinea.

Fear not, however. Another beautiful thing I’ve learned in Peace Corps is to hold out hope beyond what is reasonable. Things aren’t a complete failure yet. Beans and peanuts are pretty hardy crops and can handle some water stress. Sorghum as well can hold out a little bit longer in the dense, clay soil it’s been planted in. Although my village has hectares on hectares of our most crucial staple crop at risk of completely failing, I think I have been more worried about it than anyone else the last few days. While I meticulously track how long we’ve gone without rain, and run around consulting everyone and their brother about what happens if the crop fails, all my farmers pat me on the shoulder and say, ‘Janngo, inshallah‘ ‘Tomorrow, God willing’. Well God hasn’t willed and he doesn’t seem inclined to either, I want to say. But I don’t. I know their decades of experience run circles around my first-timer fears.

I don’t expect extension work will get easier anytime soon. I also don’t expect it will rain when I want or need it to. But I do expect that my farmers will keep me on my toes, laughing, and engaged in the work I hope will change agriculture here for the better in the future. Somehow, inshallah, I know we’ll have something to show for our efforts at the end of this season. In the meantime, you’ll find me out here under the hot sun, standing on a dry patch of ground, looking at the sky and doing a rain dance.

Pants and Onion Sandwiches

‘Foune alaa pantalons!’ ‘Foune has no pants!’ Screamed my delighted young host brother, Kaw Ousmane.

I was not, as you might worry, walking around half naked but had instead opted to wear a Senegalese complet this particular morning. Even in the States, anyone who knows me will tell you I pick jeans over skirts every time. I like the mobility and functionality of pants. I like that they can take me anywhere at any time. This is especially true in Senegal where I’m out doing field visits and troubleshooting with farmers at least five days a week. Senegalese complets, a shirt and wrap skirt ensemble made from colorful, printed fabric, are not conducive to biking, wading through streams, or getting on your hands and knees to look at a pest problem in a field of corn. There’s also a certain grace  (that I do not possess) necessary in wearing a wrap skirt correctly without letting it ride up and expose your ankles or, god forbid, blow open and expose your scandalous knees.

Occasionally however, as it was the morning of Foune having no pants on, I have an ‘off’ day where I decide to rock the village and dress like a woman for once (THEIR idea of one anyway). My off days are designated to sweeping the insidious Senegalese dust out of my room, doing the laundry I’ve let pile up after a few days, beating more insidious Senegalese dust out of my rug and mosquito net, and catching up on project notes. On these mornings I drink my coffee in peace, then struggle into the stiff, structured top of the complet, and stare down the piece of fabric meant to turn my useful two legs into a restricted uni-leg that can only move five inches forward at a time. I’ve learned I can stretch the utility of the skirt a little by widening my legs to shoulder width as I wrap and tie the skirt in place, but I never quite get it to look as smooth and elegant as the women in my village. In true Senegalese fashion the ensemble is finished off with a ‘kala’ or head wrap, which I grudgingly wear and usually ditch by lunchtime. Men’s clothes in Senegal are a little bit more open to interpretation. Young men lean toward western style cloths while older men wear grand boubous, pant and shirt outfits made from plain fabric in whites or rich blues and purples. Grand boubous are made with yards and yards of material, with wide sleeves and the danger of always getting hung up on the horns of a passing sheep. Needless to say, although I respect the craftsmanship and beauty of Senegalese clothes, I still pick pants over skirts, hands down.

For those of you wondering from my last post, yes, Ramadan is still underway and, no, I haven’t eaten any small children. Eid al Fitr, the holiday Muslims use to celebrate the end of fasting, is quickly approaching and my village tells me it will last three days (I’m not sure if that’s regulation or us just trying to squeeze the life out of available party time). Fasting has been an incredibly humbling experience. Not eating for twenty hours gives you a very healthy appreciation of food and recognition of how hard simple things can be on an empty stomach. I also spent almost every day of my twenty-two days fasting thus far working for four hours a day in the fields with my farmers. You push your body past limits you thought couldn’t be broken and keep doing it again and again. I have even greater respect for the grit of the men and women in my village I work side by side with who are also going without water. I spent two days foregoing water and the first of that I spent sleeping or hiding out because I was so irritable and tired.

Unsurprisingly, 7:30 pm, when the first night prayers are projected out to the village on the mosque loudspeaker, is my new favorite time of day. It’s Christmas morning as a kid reborn. The bissap juice flows and the onion sandwiches are brought out. Probably due to prolonged food depravation (but no longer caring for what reason), I’m newly of the opinion that there is nothing finer on this green earth than an onion sandwich. Think fried onions slathered in bouillon cube juices and slapped on a warm piece of bread. After twenty hours of no food you too, my friends, would be worshipping at the metaphorical feet of an onion sandwich.

The end of the holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid al Fitr will come with the sighting of the new moon. According to my desk calendar that should be tomorrow night. In Pulaar land, however, these things are give or take a day depending on the whims of the local religious leader and whether or not he is in need of glasses. With any luck, in two days time I’ll be eating in daytime hours again and helping my family butcher a cow. Praise pants and onion sandwiches.

Village happenings in pictures

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My host sister Hawa before the end of school ceremony

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A few of the village women performing traditional Pulaar songs with gourd instruments

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The threaded gold rings, called thoissan in Pulaar, are woven into the hair and worn by women at important events or ceremonies. The black dye underneath her lip can be worn in several places on the face and is meant to be a decorative tattoo

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My village was SO excited to see me in traditional dress for the ceremony. It was talked about for days…

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One of my host sisters, closest on the left, and her dance team at the end of school celebration

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A zisiphus grafting training at the Yacine Lacke Master Farm. Grafted zisiphus, known as Pomme du Sahel, is an improved variety of a bush fruit tree that is being extended as an income generator and is something I would like to bring to Yacine

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Alhadji Daaradesh, Bema Master Farmer, showing Djinde Ousmane Sow, my work partner and Yacine Lacke Master Farmer, how to attach and care for a grafted zisiphus scion

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A four hour old calf born on the morning of the first day of Ramadan in my host family’s compound