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

Sand in My Eyes

There is a verb in Pulaar that means ‘to collect firewood’. All of the cooking in most rural villages is done over an open fire a few times a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year. I’ve no doubt the trees missing from the landscape around me have been turned into ash over the years and now rest in someone’s cooking pit. I know this is the case with my own host family who I help to collect firewood frequently. It was also for this enormously important job I ended up stuck out on a relatively open plain in my first major dust storm in Senegal.

My host brothers, Missoudou and Isma Yila, and I had hitched up the donkeys to their cart (‘saret’ in Pulaar) just after lunch about two weeks ago with the purpose of finding firewood enough for a few days. We had been out for about an hour (they chop the trees down with axes and I have the glamorous task of dragging them out) when Isma suddenly started yelling my name and gesturing to the east. What I saw when I looked up was the sort of thing you have nightmares of after watching an apocalypse movie. Moving fast but still a mile or so off was a massive wall of loose earth, several stories high. My brothers laughed at the stupefied expression on my face and said we couldn’t get home now so we had to load up the wood and wait it out. We turned the donkeys away from the direction of the wind and the three of us sat down next to the wheel of the cart with our heads in our shirts. The wind is perceptibly faster in the dust storm and the moment it hits feels like a burst of energy, an unleashing of angry sand, dirt, and small rocks. The sand and rocks bite at your skin and no amount of head covering will ever give you clean air to breathe in a moment like this. So we sat and waited about a half an hour as grit filled our noses and ears, until visibility had cleared to around a hundred yards in front of us and our skin had a filmy layer of dirt over it. We made it home to a family very worried about their American girl getting stuck in the ‘leydi’ (dirt) and their American girl in turn worried about how many hours it would take to sweep this dust storm out of her room.

Believe it or not there is a positive side to this bad weather phenomenon. Dust storms are formed with the high winds that tend to accompany rains here and having one blow in signals cooler weather and precipitation. Just a few days before I left for the south of Senegal to meet up with friends and celebrate the Fourth we had two days of good rain. This means that when I return to my village today I will be up to my eyeballs in work and muddy water. In the lower lying areas of rich clay soil, closer to the river, my farmers will be planting sorghum. The higher elevation areas with a sandy soil will have peanuts and cowpeas. I have so far extended improved varieties of both sorghum and cowpeas to select farmers for trial runs this year. If the seed grows well for them they will give me back two kilos for the one I gave them and save the rest to grow again next year. I also have a small gardening space picked out that I will be starting in the next few weeks to give the women ideas for improved gardening techniques. I am hoping to help them increase their use of space through proper spacing, help combat pest and disease spread through a basic understanding of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) methods, and bring in new vegetable crops to help increase variety in diet and income generation.

My biggest challenge to work in the month of July will not be dust storms or flooded bush paths but Ramadan. Ramadan, an Arabic word derived from the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, means intense heat, scorched ground, and shortness of rations (all ironically fitting for my village especially). The holiday was recognized on the 30th of June in my village and fasting follows over three, ten day phases. To Muslims all over the world, Ramadan represents a time to purify the soul, refocus attention on god, and re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance. Essentially, it’s a month to wipe the slate clean and start over. While I cannot fast in the true sense of the word after my run in with kidney stones (this requires drinking no water and eating no food in daylight hours) I am doing as much as I can in solidarity with my host family. I am foregoing food during the day and only eating one meal, the breaking of the fast at 7:30 pm. While it’s no fun to go without food for a day and I get tired and ornery easily, going without water is far and away much more difficult and an incredible show of self discipline and sacrifice. You can imagine that in a climate that easily reaches 110 degrees every afternoon fasting kills productivity more quickly than bad weather. So I will keep a dust storm tally for the next month and promise not to eat any small children no matter how hungry I get during Ramadan.

Deranged Donkeys

For a few straight days last month there was a male donkey breaking loose from his compound next door and running screaming into ours. I suspect he was after the lady donkey in our pack of three but he nonetheless caused utter chaos every time he showed up. Donkeys don’t take kindly to unwanted attention and our three would take off running across the yard, scattering the kids in every direction and causing the goats to take refuge on the woodpile. The intruder donkey has some sort of fungal rain rot on his neck and lost half of his left ear at some point in life – all of which give him the mangy, deranged look of some wild thing you want to capture and give a good bath. After he’d scared half the village with his braying and taken a few solid kicks from the other donkeys the kids would gather up their scattered courage and chase the poor thing out. I haven’t seen him in a few weeks and I expect he’s found a new family to terrorize in his free afternoons.

Lately, I’ve been as much of a sideshow as my crazy donkey neighbor. May was hot and tiring as we finished prepping and clearing fields in Yacine Lakke for planting in July. My master farm will have a few demonstrations on companion planting, zhai hole use, zisiphus grafting, IPM (integrated pest management), tree nursery care, and SRI (system of rice intensification) this coming rainy season. Djinde, my master farmer, also has a walled in demo space right next to the village where we will do demonstrations in growing improved varieties of corn and sorghum and show the benefits of adding organic matter through compost and manure. My master farm is located outside of the village about two miles and is close to the river, making it inaccessible for a few weeks in the rainy season (this is what my village tells me – I have yet to see the phenomenon that is precipitation in this country). So most of June and July will be finishing field clearing and preparation, seeding, and praying to Allah the rains are neither late nor early. The importance of rain and floodwater timing cannot be stressed enough where accessional and recessional agriculture are concerned. Given our proximity to the river, the farmers I work with practice both kinds of agriculture and count on the rain to be held long enough in the hard clay soil to give them two rotations of crops in a season.

As an extension agent, one of my projects is to extend small amounts of improved variety seed to responsible and motivated farmers in my village for them to grow and save seed for the following year. I’ve started to select the farmers and will be discussing with them in the coming weeks what they are interested in growing and whether or not they are willing to try a new crop. A failed crop can easily sink a small-scale producer and farmers are naturally slow to accept new techniques or seeds. However, I have some enterprising men and women in my village and I’m excited to work with them this season and keep our eyes on the future.

A side project of mine that has required much of my time and attention lately is called the Michele Sylvester Scholarship and it provides a scholarship for nine middle school girls (three from each grade) in order to cover their tuition fees and to pay for school supplies for one year. Michele Sylvester Scholarship was established in 1993 in memory of a Peace Corps Volunteer dedicated to girls’ education in Senegal.  Its purpose is to help close the education gender gap, which many experts contend is the foremost challenge facing international development today.  The ideal scholarship candidate shows academic promise but a lack of financial resources or familial support; scholarship recipients are aided through follow-up activities with PCVs in addition to the financial support provided by the scholarship. To date, I’ve talked to the school director about candidate selection. The girls will then be provided with the application, an interview and an essay asking about their favorite subjects, plans for the future, etc., and finally a home visit to explain the scholarship to their families. The scholarship will provide 10,000 cfa (the Senegalese currency, 500 CFA = 1 USD) for each student, the equivalent of about $20. In total, I need to raise $180 in order to cover the scholarships for all nine girls. If you would like to donate, please drop me an email! Or my mom, Karen, who has all the details and created a wonderful informational pamphlet about the program (She also has the regular internet access that I do not and knows how to get a hold of me at site).

My last two updates for this post are things I hope to prevent in the future but wanted to share with you all, as they’re very much a part of my life here in Senegal. Two weeks ago I had a health scare as a result of kidney stones at site with horrible pains in my right side that had me doubled over next to my hole in the ground toilet and vomiting up everything I had eaten that day. It was past midnight when the pain started and after calling our medical officer on duty I spent the next twelve hours in a delirious state of fever, nausea and pain. Although you couldn’t have convinced me at the time, I’m pretty sure no one has ever died of kidney stones and my semi-hysterical host family kept me as cooled down and hydrated as possible (even if I did have to repeatedly turn down their offer of whole goat’s milk which they were convinced would fix all of my problems). A Peace Corps car arrived the next afternoon and took me the nine hours to Dakar where I stayed in our sick bay wing at the office and went to get an ultrasound a few days later to confirm nothing unwanted was left stuck somewhere it shouldn’t be.

Secondly, after a long week of meetings out of site, in Thies on Saturday morning, two men on a moto robbed me as I was walking to the bank. They pulled up beside me in a nicer, but deserted at the time, area of the city and the driver stayed on the motorcycle while the second man jumped off the back with a glass bottle in hand that he immediately smashed on the ground in front of me. Rather than just give him my cheap Senegalese phone and bankcards, I tossed them into a bush behind me and started screaming my head off. We ended up struggling on the ground for a minute where I wound up with some good scrapes and managed to give him a solid kick between the legs that he repaid with a kick to my upper arm right before grabbing my wallet and jumping back on the moto. The bank cards were cancelled within an hour (not that there’s anywhere to use them in Senegal anyway) and my Peace Corps issued cell phone is only worth about 10 USD. So although I was angry about the incident and definitely scared in the moment, I’m happy their cowardice was rewarded with nothing. Someone ought to warn these guys about the salaries of Peace Corps volunteers before they go wasting their time; they owe me lunch.

Nonetheless, after the events of the morning were straightened out I headed for Saint Louis with a couple of good friends and enjoyed jazz fest in the old city for the weekend. Its beautiful, French inspired streets on the island are reminiscent of the French quarter in New Orleans and the jazz bands that came to play could be found in almost any bar at night. There’s something about live music that can’t be beat. Something in the way a song comes together after seeing all the elements in play. Jazz is certainly a classic example of this and it was wonderfully strange to be able to enjoy such a thing in Senegal.

Out to dinner in Saint Louis with my friends and fellow agriculture volunteers, Megan and Rhianna

Out to dinner in Saint Louis with my friends and fellow agriculture volunteers, Megan and Rhianna

We have a new health volunteer installing in the Bakel area on Wednesday and after I help see that through I will be back in Yacine Lakke for the next month. I plan on drinking a lot of water, working with my farmers in the fields, meeting some amazing young women, and occasionally feeling like a deranged donkey running around, keeping life interesting.

Matam Girls’ Camp

One week ago today we wrapped up our Girls’ Camp here in the Matam region. The camp is five days long and involves girls of middle school age. Girls from villages all over the Matam region were interviewed and chosen to attend the camp by volunteers for their academics, enthusiasm, leadership, and desire to be at camp. Sessions and trainings during the camp covered topics from business to women’s health, with side sessions on agriculture and record keeping for the camp chaperones and girls’ mothers.

Girls’ camp was by far the most rewarding and fulfilling project I’ve taken part in during my service so far. The first day of the camp were introductions, ice breakers, and dancing. The difference in the energy level and outgoingness of the girls from this first day to their departure four days later was inspiring. They preformed a dance for their parents they had been learning all week, exchanged phone numbers with new friends, and made speeches in front of a crowd of fifty people about what girls’ camp had meant to them.

One of my favorite sessions during camp was our successful women career panel day. Among the women present to talk about their experiences were two midwives, a domestic abuse advocate, women’s group treasurer, and radio host. The women discussed the importance of their initial education before pursuing professional careers, what it’s like to balance family obligations and a job outside of the home, and the steps they took to realize their professional dreams. The girls had so many questions for them, a lot related to marriage and the appropriate time to do so if you still want to go to college, and then had two hours to sit down with the women in small groups and continue the discussion.

Another session that benefited the girls immensely was one on women’s health. It was run by second year health volunteer Claire Cravero and two Senegalese midwives. In an area as poor and conservative as the Matam region there is almost zero discussion of women’s health issues and never an opening for young women to ask questions about sex or their own sexuality. Claire and the midwives covered everything from the biology of a woman’s reproductive system, how it differs from men, exactly how and why women get pregnant, and how to practice safe sex. At the end of the session they had an anonymous question box where the girls could ask anything they wanted. The range and amount of questions asked and answered was remarkable. The girls were so curious to learn more they even asked for the session to be extended into their free time after lunch, when they sat down with just the midwives and had an open discussion. Seeing them get to ask such personal and normally taboo questions in such a comfortable environment made me both happy and sad for them. Without a forum like girls’ camp, these questions most likely would have gone unspoken and unanswered.

Girls’ camp will happen this time again next year and we’ve already started planning and fundraising for it. With a lot of luck, and the convincing of a very conservative village, girls from Yacine Lakke will be able to attend the camp next year, make new friends, and have their questions answered too.

 

*All of the following pictures were taken by my friend Bear Dolbeare (agroforestry volunteer who braved the girls’ camp as one of only two men present and gave excellent recommendations on nail colors during the mani/pedi activity)*

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Playing ‘Best Game’, a game that teaches business and money lending practices

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Camp chaperones learning how to make ceramine, a nutritional porridge, from ingredients they can buy in the market

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Volunteers Kenna and Alicia running a physical education session on dance

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All of the girls’ camp participants and volunteers

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Facilitating a discussion on gardening and mulching with the camp chaperones

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Professional Women Career Panel Day

 

 

Life on the River

The Senegal River runs roughly 1,020 miles long. Five hundred and fifteen of those miles make up the border between Mauritania and Senegal. In places, the river and its flood paths can be as vast as 12 miles wide. It’s in this unique oasis thousands of rural, isolated villages have existed for hundreds of years, like my home in Yacine Lakke. The river buffers us from the encroaching Sahara Desert and its annual flooding allows for corn, sorghum, and rice to be planted year after year in the same clay-heavy fields. The Pulaar ethnic group populates most of the north of Senegal, and certainly all along the Senegal River on both sides. However, from about ten km north of my location near the river to just south of Bakel, the Soninke ethnic group claims every village on the river and some others off in the bush in sites like Yacine Lakke. There is also a small minority of the Bambara ethnic group in the Bakel area that only exists in a few other places around the country. None of these ethnic groups share a common language and they rarely or never collaborate with each other or inter-marry. Nevertheless, they all share a similar culture of subsistence agriculture, livestock herding, and large, family compound living situations. All three ethnic groups also practice Islam (but keep separate mosques).

I’ve spent the past two weeks at site biking around my strange and fascinating little microcosm of the Senegal River and discovering villages I never knew existed. I try to leave early in the morning, when it’s still cool and the sun isn’t frying my skin yet, and bike on bush paths in the direction of the river. As I said earlier, all the towns and villages along the river are Soninke. Most Soninke people speak some Pulaar, or will go running for someone who does if you show up looking hot and sweaty on a bike and speaking in Pulaar. An exception to this happened about a week ago when I arrived at a boutique in Moudery, a very large Soninke town on the river of around 5,000 people, to buy water. Although it’s a more developed town with concrete houses and electricity, there is no paved road to Moudery and not too much outside traffic coming through. So when I walked into the boutique and asked for water in Pulaar the kid behind the counter shot up and ran out the door yelling toubac (foreigner) before I could even try asking in French. I stood there for a second, hot, tired, and annoyed and trying to figure out what to do, when the kid came back, grinning from ear to ear, with a middle aged man. The man came up, shook my hand, and started chatting away in German…  Of all the languages in Senegal this was one of the last I ever expected to encounter when trying to buy water in a rural border town. And when I finally managed to convey to the man that I didn’t speak German he was surprised to the point of indignation. A white person who can’t speak German! The nerve, I know. But I eventually bought my water and kept going. My next self-improvement assignment will be to learn Soninke greetings and the word for water.

In my treks along the river I saw four camels being watered on the Mauritanian side late one morning (they’re SO much taller than I realized), met some Soninke women washing laundry in the river and carrying firewood up the bank from canoes that had transported it from the Mauritanian side (probably some sort of laws broken there), and watched a herd of sixty cows get driven into the river in Mauritania and swim over to Senegal with packs of boys swimming behind them with sticks, hooting and hitting them whenever they got tired and tried to stop (I don’t think there are visa requirements for livestock but I’m sure this is also illegal).

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The first of the cows coming across the river. A second section broke off and had to be chased back to the crossing point by their unfortunate herders.

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Almost there! One cow started to tire too much and had to be supported by a canoe the last half of the way.

I’m so curious to see how the ecology of our river area will change with the rains in August. We have a sub-Saharan climate in the Bakel area, so we get the lowest amount of precipitation in the country. Still, it’s enough to rise the Senegal twelve feet and flood it all two miles to Yacine Lakke, where our clay soils hold the water longer than normal and allow us to plant and harvest two rotations of field crops in just six months. In the meantime, if you come to Senegal and happen to be in the area, just ask for the toubac who doesn’t speak German and I’ll be there, sunburned, covered in dust, and trying to buy some water.