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.
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.
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.