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.