13 November, 2013

The Women of My Peace Corps Life

I cried only three times in the days leading up to leaving my village for the last time. Each time, the tears unexpectedly welled up as I walked away from one of the many women of my Peace Corps life, then they quickly passed. They weren’t tears of sorrow but were instead brought by overwhelming gratitude. I was walking away from the women I worked with, lived with, celebrated with, and learned from for the past two years. I owe them my life, as I’m sure it was them who kept me safe when I had no idea how to live here.  My host mother Ulle most especially was patient and kind, and despite being close to my age treated me with the same love and care she gives her own 6 children. When I first arrived and life in village was foreign and often down-right embarrassing, Ulle always put me at ease. She taught me all the names and uses of the trees in the forest. Without judgment she ushered me through the cultural graces in which I was sorely lacking. When she knew it was time for me to move home she gave me a heaping mountain of peanuts; the bigger the pile the more a person will miss you.
My Master Farmer and rice project president being awesome at a training they did together.

My host aunt Fanna

Ulle lives a very typical life of women in central Senegal. She married very young and moved a few villages over from the household of her father to the home of her new husband. She has never been to school so is not literate. She is, however, incredibly clever in a humble genius way. I’ve seen her rewire radios and battery powered lamps using hot coals to solder parts. She had 6 kids by the age of 30 who range from 2-15 year old. She lives daily under the typical gender assignments of Senegal. Cooking, cleaning, child rearing, fetching water, cutting fire wood, and her many responsibilities in the fields. Women take on much of the agricultural labor despite men claiming it is their realm of work. Most of the tasks required of women are by hand and are taken on painstakingly. The harvests are currently rolling in and in addition to hours of labor in the field, the daily household chores now include pounding millet in a mortar and pestle into flour and shelling each and every peanut by hand. They will roast these peanuts and grind them into peanut butter which will be the base of their diet for the next year.
Ulle rarely leaves the village and needs permission from her husband to do so, he generally obliges although many husbands do not. She has very little control over finances and must ask her husband for money if she needs to purchase anything including groceries for meals she cooks and to see a doctor. She owns goats and these are some of her only true personal possessions in a society where all things are shared. She maintains quiet stoicism under duress or pain, as it is expected in Senegalese culture. When she suffered a painful miscarriage on the day of her husband’s wedding to his second wife, I could hardly tell anything was wrong. She never complained about it later.
 I am not writing all of this to make you feel bad for her; she does not need pity. Although her life may sound undesirable from a western stand point she is proud of her work and her family. She enjoys being a mother and with her endless patience it seems to be her calling. She is fond of her husband and he treats her relatively well by the standards of the typical Senegalese marriage. Fondness in a marriage here is adequate since affection and emotional support are not required of a spouse; women and men obtain these human necessities from companions of their own gender. Ulle’s sister wives (wives of her husband and his brothers) are who she spends her days with and on whom she depends. She also has close relationships with her mother and daughters, her female friends, and her female Peace Corps Volunteer. I requested that my replacement volunteer be female for several pragmatic reasons but one aside, and emotional, reason was to be sure Ulle had a new companion in my absence.
My host mom and little sister. Beautiful!

This request was not unreasonable as Peace Corps Senegal tends to have many more female then males in its ranks. In fact, NGO, non-profit, and volunteer work all generally espouse female heavy ratios. For this reason I am not only surrounded by strong, beautiful women in my village but also at most Peace Corps work and social events. In the Kaffrine region I have shared an office with approximately 10 females to every 1 male for my entire service. Here in Peace Corps I have met some of the most hardcore and awesome women from all over America. In their number there are athletes and world travellers, singers, mountain climbers, linguists and farmers, horse-back riders, poets and chefs. My Peace Corps life has been defined by these amazing women just as much as those in my village. From them I’ve learned a lot about the world and life and even more about the power of female companionship. The power to hold each other up even in the hardest times whether her sister-wife is having a miscarriage or her friend is being robbed by a man in the garage.
Two of the lovely ladies I've had the pleasure of working and living with the past 2 years.

In my time here I have also become acutely aware, as never before, that despite great strides made in some places, women are hardly equal or safe in much of the world. Even in Senegal, not the worst place to be a woman, child marriage is common and acceptable. Girls whose bodies are too small to safely handle child birth often suffer dangerous health complications and death. At rural health posts women are often treated with disrespect and are never properly explained what is happening with their bodies. For the lucky girls who do go to school, stories abound of school directors and teachers who blackmail young girls for good grades. (These occurrences aren’t universal as there are meny dedicated health workers and amazing teachers here). That said, these offenses may even be construed as mild compared to what happens publicly, with no punishment, in other parts of the world.

So, I walked tearfully away from the women of my Peace Corps life, but I was only able to walk away at all because of the resolve in my mind and heart that I am not truly leaving them. I will pay them for all they’ve given me by never giving up the fight for equality, the fight my mother taught me the importance of as a child which I never truly understood until now. I will work on their behalf, on mine, and on the behalf of the world’s future daughters and sons to create a global society in which equality and safety are absolute for women; a place where their bodies and minds will be theirs. The women of my Peace Corps life have unexpectedly connected me to all the women of the world. And for this I thank them, and for this I will never be without them.

For some wonderful work being done in women's empowerment internationally check out these awesome projects:
Girl Rising the film:  http://www.girlrising.com/
Half the Sky Movement: http://halfthesky.org/en
International Rescue Committee programming: http://www.rescue.org/womenandgirls

And for a great read about an amazing individual and her work to insight change for women in Senegal check out the book 'However Long the Night': http://aimeemolloy.com/however-long-the-night/

10 October, 2013

What I've Been Up To...

I have been diligently updating my work projects descriptions to the right! Here's a quick run-down of what I've been doing in my last months of Peace Corps service:

In September I directed a young womens' empowerment summer camp event. For more about that click here.

I finished up my public health a hygiene project with the construction of quality latrines in every household in my village. Click here for photos and a project description.

We held a rainy season open field day at the Master Farm last week where 70 community farmers learned about the many progressive farming techniques we're implementing at the field.

The biggest project I have been working on is a series of demonstration/experiment plots assessing the potential of an innovative rice farming technique. Click here for a chronological description of how it's been going. The most recent addition includes pictures and descriptions of interesting ways the farmers I work with have been controlling pests in their rice fields.

20 June, 2013

How I Became the 'Rice Queen'

Photo Credit: Devon Jenkins
Crown Design: Mary Cadwallender 

Staring out the window and bumping along the road in a small bus, delivering tourists safely from the airport to their all-inclusive resorts on the beach, in Jamaica is when I caught my first glimpses of real poverty. A few days later on in the family vacation, my mind was beginning to grapple with what it had perceived through that window. The question; 'how come I'm in here and they're out there? I'm here eating, lounging and making sand castles, while people just outside are living in neighborhoods of corrugated tin shanties and begging in the streets just to survive'. I recall worry in my Dad's eyes one day when my mom, a known-wanderer, left the resort for a jaunt. 'What was he worried about?', I wondered. Then someone explained to me it was not recommended to leave the hotel grounds because of crime in the streets outside. 'How unfair!', my 12 year old mind thought, 'the people here are so bad off they have to steal money from a good person like my mom, the world is a mess.'  That thought, combined with my over-protective nature towards my mother sent me reeling. It was this initial mind-tizzy that started my obsession with international responsibility, and a desire to help people retain the dignity they deserve in a world often pitted against them.

Some time after this experience, blathering on about my new perspective, someone responded and told me about the Peace Corps and people who did work to help solve this problem I was first really beginning to understand. I swore I would join the Peace Corps someday, something my parents likely hoped would be a passing promise. In college I gravitated towards a major in Anthropology to satisfy my hunger to understand the complexities of humans and the way that they live and have lived. I topped this with a Philosophy major where I tended to focus on ethics and the studies of world religion, which only bolstered my desire to understand injustice and how it affects humans and groups. Immediately after graduation, keeping my promise, I submitted my application for the Peace Corps and was given a nomination for an assignment in Africa working in agriculture. All I knew about plants was a year of keeping a vegetable garden, and I would have taken an assignment in any sector, but something about the word agriculture sounded right.

Delays in my application process necessitated me to look for a position to hold me over and I took an AmeriCorps assignment in the South Bronx at the Highbridge Community Life Center That way I could help my fair city, and live rent free with my parents in Brooklyn. The assignment gave me working and service experience in several facets of an urban community center, but as promised at my interview, I was able to integrate my new interest in farming and food systems into my work there. My supervisors were supportive of my scheme to start a community garden where I applied my limited gardening skills and learned along the way. During my time in AmeriCorps I also realized a small urban garden was one thing, but a field of degraded soil in rural Africa was something I knew almost nothing about, and people's lives depend on what's produced there.

I explored the option of the Peace Corps Masters International program and I saw I could do graduate course work and learn about agricultural development before my service. Peace Corps had been my plan from 12 years old, I wanted to do it right. I decided to add this education aspect to my service so I applied to three programs relating to agriculture and environment. In the International Agricultural and Rural Development program at Cornell I was given the best training and preparation possible for my Peace Corps assignment, Sustainable Agriculture in West Africa. I learned some of the science of soils, the history and current trends in agricultural development, and methods of working with rural farmers in developing countries. Midway though my two semesters there a classmate suggested I meet with two women working on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) internationally, something I'd learned a little bit about in classes and didn't yet know would become the focus of my future work. I worked for them a few hours per week for awhile helping compile published research and training materials on the technique and my interest in it grew. It seemed to be having some success feeding people and improving rural livelihoods, which was what I really wanted to be doing.

Working with my Peace Corps Program Assistant at the SRI training in Benin.
Photo Credit:Devon Jenkins
When I started my agricultural extension work in Senegal I was certainly eager to spread knowledge of this technique. I told fellow volunteers about the website I'd helped work on and eventually became the trainer for new volunteers in the technique. The villages in which I worked my first had very little rice production and I focused on crops like millet and corn during that time. In the middle of the rainy season of my first year I discovered some villages I often passed through on my bike had pockets of rice farmers and interest was newly aroused in the crop due to government extension interventions. By chance a seasonal flooding pattern, the river Bao Balon which passes though this stretch, creates the perfect conditions and soils for rice production. I started touring these rice fields and gauging if farmers there had interest in working with me. From this I have created my research plan for my Masters work and my most fulfilling Peace Corps project yet. Through conducting a survey and organizing training and research with these farmers I have forged valuable friendships and work partnerships with them and my local extension agent. The farmer who is helping me coordinate all of our training and demonstration plots, Mary Diop, has become like a second host mother to me and has taught me endless amounts about rice farming and Senegal.

The Whole Group at the SRI Training in Benin-May 2013
Photo Credit: Devon Jenkins

Madi Diop
I was chosen to attend an in-depth training on SRI via a partnership between Peace Corps, USAID, Cornell SRI Rice, and a West African Rice Farmers' Cooperative. This training, for which I got the chance to travel to Benin, was designed and conducted by none other then the classmate who introduced me to the staff of Cornell SRI Rice and the woman for whom I worked there. The training was enlightening and gave me the knowledge and tools I need to do field research on this technique and in a real, and surreal sense, has brought my experience, from Jamaica to the Bronx to Cornell to the rice fields of Senegal, full circle. I have brought together all of these experiences, my energy and knowledge, up until now and I feel I am on the precipice of really beginning to achieve my original goals of international responsibility and service to my fellow humans. The training and research project I have begun with these farmers encompasses everything I dreamed of doing as a student of anthropology, ethics, and agriculture including inter-cultural exchanges, valuable work partnerships, and my hands in the soil.
Local extension agent consulting on my SRI project

08 March, 2013

The Heat is On

As I sit under a baobab tree, scribbling in my journal, sweat starts to pool in my clavicle and drip from the crease in my arm where my elbow bends. It seems that my second hot season in Senegal has started to rear its dry, ugly head. But for me I feel the heat being turned up in more ways then the Sahelian sun. The hot season will be followed by the rainy season when the most important parts of my most important projects will be executed. Farmers centered research in SRI for my Masters International project, field crop extension to farmers in my village, keeping up the Master Farm, and holding Kaolack Girls Camp. As Peace Corps is only two years long, this is my first and last chance to improve these projects. Not to say they were not successful last year, but I am playing a bigger role in them and hope to apply everything I've learned along the way. After that the search for the prefect job is on! But first, let me back track.

Christmas and New Years and the better part of January were spent in New York with my family and friends in New York. It was exciting and relaxing to have a break to see my loved ones there, and be reminded how my life used to be lived. I fell back into a life style of indoor bathrooms stocked with toilet paper and large diverse meals surprisingly quickly. Some things were jarring at first, like the disco, dance-club ambiance my favorite sushi restaurant took on. Other things fell back into place as though I'd never left, like hanging out at a favorite cafe with old friends. It was always in the back of my mind though, that things like sitting in a cafe wouldn't ever be exactly the same for me, at least for awhile The Great Sarah Ferguson once said, and I'm inclined to agree, that visiting home and returning is an important part of Peace Corps service. The effect that visiting home had on me was a solidification of my roles here in Senegal and my identity in general. I'm not just a volunteer in service to Senegal who bikes through sand to teach people about rice cropping sometimes, I'm also an New Yorker who rides the subway to a rock concert sometimes. Not that I'd forgotten who I was before Peace Corps, but for the first time it was very obvious all the new things I've become since.

Late January found me hurtling along at the bumpy medium pace of Senegalese public transportation from the airport to the city of Kaffrine. It was there I'd meet two farmers from my village to bring them on a week long training-of-trainers in earthworks myself and three other Peace Corps Volunteers had been planning for months. The project went very well and served to distract from the 'back from the U.S. blues' volunteers talk about but which I had yet to experience for myself, and have yet to now a month and a half later.

Some of the time since then has been filled with Peace Corps work like conducting surveys with farmers about local rice cropping knowledge, gardening at the Master Farm, and planning Girls Camp. But much of the time since I've been back has been spent doing what I call 'Other Peace Corps Work'. As Work Zone Coordinator of my region I created and presented a report about volunteer projects and partnerships, a plan for future work and villages for new volunteers to live in, and volunteer feedback to our administrative leadership. I attended and presented at a conference of all West Africa volunteers where work from all over this part of continent was shared. I spoke there about a document I created for other volunteers to follow if they want to hold an earthworks training-of-trainers tour, making our past work replicable. My final other 'Other Peace Corps Work' in the past month was creating training documents and assisting in the training of new agriculture volunteers. I consider all of this 'Other Peace Corps Work' because it doesn't directly effect the Senegalese people like a training-of-trainers in earthworks, but instead builds capacity (i.e.: helps Peace Corps Senegal as a whole help people).

I find I am good at this work and look forward to doing this type of during a long career in agriculture and food systems development, but for now I look forward to getting back to working one-on-one with farmers in the middle of no-where in my village, while I still can. This is the image of the traditional Peace Corps work, which along with the 'Other Peace Corps Work' does still exist in some sense. Although the heat on the thermometer is up (along with career search pressure), its time to dial up the 'original' Peace Corps work and prepare perfect for my rainy season projects.

11 December, 2012

Occupy! The Grain Mill?

The night before leaving my village for a week long training, to be followed by four weeks' vacation in the U.S., I could not seem to fall asleep. An all-night prayer event blasting over the solar powered loud speaker at the Mosque or the nagging thought of having to wake up at 4:30 AM for the car out of the bush may have lent to my restlessness, but no, something else was moving rapidly in my mind. I couldn't quiet the pondering inspired by the interesting publication I had just read. A compilation of interviews and talks by the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky regarding his thoughts, advice, and opinions on the new sociopolitical movement sweeping the cities of the industrialized world; Occupy. Hubs of this very movement are located in my old back yard in Brooklyn, which late at night in my village seemed so far away, but soon to be close.

Much like everything else in the life of a peace Corps Volunteer I was mentally drawing lines between what Chomsky had to say about Occupy to my experiences here. His pervasive suggestion to improve income inequality amongst Americans was not necessarily total revolution, but reforming our system which has proven to yield substantial change before, a la the Civil Rights Movement, Womans' Empowerment, etc. Senegal has also made great strides in the way of social, political, and economic equality, at least comparably to other developing nations. When weaknesses and disorganization of the system are reformed this forward movement is sure to continue at a more rapid pace. Two very different nations, with very different political and economic pasts, both immediately require the action of their people to change the vast gap in income distribution.

Chomsky points out that change will come about if communities increased their level of organization to reach identified goals. For example, the goals and needs of the community of Sunset Park Brooklyn should be chosen by the members of the community. Politicians vying for office there must prove she will fulfill these needs, as opposed to proposing hot-platform needs and convincing people through Public Relations tactics that it's what they want; as politicians local and federal are wont to do. My role in the community here, in the pocket of villages south of Kaffrine, is assuredly not as a politician but I have been instructed by extension manual, professor, and Peace Corps trainer alike to do just what Chomsky encourages leaders of the Occupy movement to do. The methodology is to learn from the people and have them identify their needs before attempting to bring change or inspire action. Otherwise, one's efforts will be in vain, not to mention that believing you know whats someone needs more then they do is quite vain as well (admittedly there are exceptions to this such as mandatory vaccinations).

he Occupy movement also places great emphasis on worker/union owned and managed production. The U.S. has many such operations but in general to create such a business would require a break down from the system of corporate ownership we're accustomed to; a removal of the top most part of a tiered business management structure. Many Peace Corps projects encourage the same type of entrepreneurship suggested by Occupy but it is instead being built from the bottom up. An example would be to support a group of women who sell roasted cashews to transform that same product into cashew butter and distributing it on a wider scale. Such cooperative small ventures can grow with the aid of micro-lending or grant opportunities through which a volunteer is a liaison. A fellow Kaffrine volunteer is currently helping a local womens' group apply for funding through an independent grant foundation in order to purchase a grain processing facility. They have been trained in the usage of such machinery and know the codes and processes to follow in order to sell their product to outlets in the larger cities of Senegal. If such an effort continued to grow to an industrial level, which is has the potential to do, the best way to run the operation would likely be to keep those workers who created the business at the helm. I believe this since it would be wildly beneficial to the community as they would employ local people at fair wages, as they are their kinsmen. I can easily imagine the benefits of such a structure both here and in the U.S. Perhaps a project which took some of our excessive military spending and put it into New Deal style economic stimulation (high speed rail anyone?) worker and/or union operated. I am not blind to the possibility of corruption emerging in such systems, but if members of the business at all levels feel valued and in control such behaviour may be avoided.

Large scale farming operation, or industrial factories in rural areas of Senegal could pull available wages and products out of the capital city (the only place they are currently somewhat readily available) and into the rest of the country. This could reduce the destructive 'brain drain' affect plaguing the country. Educated and/or potential wage earners leave the rural areas in search of cash income or other economic opportunity, leaving the important agricultural work and their families behind. Introduction of factories or other industrial operations could be beneficial to the lower classes of Senegal, but it shouldn't be to the benefit of some outside corporation's bank account. They should be regulated by the workers who determine fair wages, benefits, and culturally appropriate schedules and rules. The level of organization demanded by the goals of the Occupy movement in the U.S. would be necessary in Senegal alike to achieve such economic development I've just described.

Chomsky interestingly discusses why functional community organization may be difficult in the U.S. He told the story of a group of women and men in the mid 19th century who ran their own successful press operation in Boston but as the new industrial system grew it became too difficult to continue their business as they had designed it due to the imposition of rigid hierarchical structures by industrialization One of their main complaints was what they called 'the new spirit of the age: gain wealth forgetting all but self”. Selfishness has been engrained in us from childhood through sneaky PR schemes and the promotion of an isolated mentality. Although Dawkins is right that the gene itself is selfish, our selfish little genes do better if humans act altruistically, so to turn us all against the other my necessarily be against our biology (and may explain so much personal misery and depression among Americans). For the people of rural Senegal, this sentiment has yet to be ingrained and community is still of the most importance. At least, in this sense, Occupy sentiments have a leg-up on purveying into the social and local political structures here. I've heard other PCVs say that the spirit of sharing and community here is what is hindering development, since people are willing to give what little they have instead of saving and building their economic situation. It is my sincerest hope that this is not true and the strong sense of community here will, in fact, promote true democratic exchange instead.  

21 November, 2012

For the Love of Peanuts!

A lump formed in my throat and my heart grew strangely heavy. An inappropriately dramatic reaction to being handed the fifth bowl of peanuts in a week. I sat in my green plastic lawn chair, my most prized piece of furniture, eyeing the various sized heaping bowls of groundnuts in my room. I was running out of receptacles for them all. I took a deep breath to relax. In through the nose, out through the mouth. My room was the sickly sweet smell of burnt sugar which was still hanging in the air from my experiment with honey roasting peanuts earlier that day.

“Am”, my little host cousin squeaked in Wolof from my door, “Here”. She extended a tiny arm. Handing me the Tupperware in which I had given her roasted peanuts. Whew, a mouse proof container for my newest delivery of nuts. She peeked around the room hoping for a refill, but I had given them all out already. “Sorry, all finished!”, and she nodded and made a click sound of agreement and skipped off. There was that lump again. 

It is a few days after my one year anniversary living in this village and it seems I’m already worried about my time here expiring. I only have one year left to live a life it took me one year to feel completely at ease in. This hut, this household, this family, and this village are all the same word in Wolof. I have begun to feel pangs of nostalgia and guilt when I think I will leave them all. I’m sure these feelings are premature and amplified by the milestone of my one year mark here, but powerful none-the-less.

At five o’clock that day I hoisted out of my lawn chair to go out and do my evening work. But, not before I grabbed yet another handful of raw peanuts to snack on. I contentedly munched on the gift while I strolled to my garden, thankful for the clouds and the approaching cool season. The many bowls of peanuts being offered to me were part of a custom created out of a culture where sharing and reciprocity are the ultimate relationship builder and societal balancer. The bowls from my family members represent my share of the harvest as a member of the household, while another bowl-full came from a generous friend, and yet another from a woman I just began a year-long project with. Each of them solidifying my place as part of their family.
A pile of peanuts was even given to me so I could offer them to my family and friends back in America. My host aunt explained that my ‘people’, my family, back home, was now connected to my village and my host family and therefore they deserve their share of these peanuts as well. This touching offering exemplifies, symbolically, the literal was family systems work here in Senegal; all things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered, and everyone is family.

I arrived at my garden and the friend who gave me the bowl of peanuts was waiting next to my tall, clumsy hibiscus plants with her 10 year old son. He occasionally comes to my garden to help and learn, which usually ends with me yelling at him not to destroy something, but we have fun. I offered his mother, Fatou some of the ripe hibiscus flowers to make a sweet drink with. The sunset over the tree line was aiming to be glorious, and I thanked the clouds for a second time. I hauled watering cans over to each garden bed and tree while Fatou and I chatted.

I had never known it before, but she mentioned that her 3 year old daughter was not hers biologically but was technically her niece from her husband’s side. Fatou gave birth to her one son, followed by several miscarriages and then the inability to become pregnant. In Wolof, she used the same term I had ‘to offer’ hibiscus flowers, or roasted peanuts, to explain that her daughter was offered to her since she was unable to have any more of her own. All things are expected to be shared, but anything you may need is also offered.

The offering of a daughter to a woman who has none has a social importance here as well as economic. Roles and responsibilities within the household amongst the genders are fairly rigid, and without a female child the system of work and the general dynamic of the household could be upset. To offer one’s child, or to raise someone else’s, is a normal occurrence here and exhibits how sharing and family functions in Senegal.

That night, sitting under the stars with my host mother, I shared with her my fears of eventually having to leave here. She reminded me of how often I speak of my family and friends back in the U.S. and it will be happy to go home despite it being, at the same time, sad to leave here. She told me the only thing more important than one’s health is family. “Plus”, she said, “Your orange cat misses you and needs someone to take care of him.”

Her words eased my mind but for some reason I felt a flip in my stomach and a lump in my throat yet again. I may have grubbed on too many raw peanuts. 

23 October, 2012

A Funeral

Death in here is familiar but still jarring. This time the air in the village seemed heavier, more quiet then other times. This may have been my own projection though. Sunday morning I sat under a mbentinki tree and discussed his corn field, the one he planted with seed I’d given him. I told him it was fine he didn’t follow one of the protocols I’d asked. I thought maybe I didn’t explain it well enough to begin with but either way I didn’t mind, he was one of my favorite farmers to work with, and a good one at that. He was also family, but with 200 people in the village everyone is family. Monday morning I left my room at 8am with the day all planned out, as Americans like to do. My host mother told me immediately, “Babo died, you know the one you gave corn to. He died last night quickly, today is a sad day”.

I accompanied the women to Babo’s house where we sat outside his wife’s room. There, my host mother and aunt cried, something I’d only seen once before. I had felt like crying too and their tears made mine well up again but I didn’t let them fall. I felt a bit like an imposter and that crying would look foolish and dramatic.

We stayed there and sat in somber silence for an hour or so. By then two dozen women had gathered in the courtyard of the house and began preparing to cook a massive lunch. We joined them and I assisted in cutting onions and cleaning rice. I’ve yet to be brave enough to step in and cook with them in their giant pots over the open wood fire.

We then sat again in silence for hours. Throughout the household and out into the road groups of women huddled together and sat vigil. They all wore traditional dress; brightly colored patterns, one after the next in groups of 20 and 30. I knew I didn’t have to but I’d put on a black skirt and shirt, it felt more appropriate. Cars and carts full of men and women arrived and the women just joined their respective piles; one group of older women, one of mothers sitting on low stools silently breastfeeding, and another, and another.

All the men sat praying in the central square of the village, preparing for the burial. Mam Babo Cisse was older, but not that old. He became sick in the night and family members asked one of the men in a neighboring village who has car to drive him to the health post about an hour away. He had an asthma attack and died in the car on the way. Death by such an easily preventable episode is especially tragic.

As I sat with the women a beefy sheep baayed loud and deep from the post it was tied to next to me. This was the sheep Babo had bought for his family to sacrifice on Tabaski, the biggest holiday here and to be held in less than a week. An ancient woman I did not recognize as someone who lives in my village approached mumbling prayers while tossing small bits of cola-nut to each of us. A white and black streak, not yet a cat but no longer a kitten zigzagged between our legs, pausing to glance at me with its one good eye. I shifted awkwardly on my stool wondering how long we’d sit for, hoping it would be all day but at the same time becoming concerned with the lack of blood reaching my legs.

At around 1 o’clock I heard the hum of many male voices in the square and then engines of cars and motorcycles come to life indicating the ceremony had ended. The men of the village had conducted the burial while the woman sat at the house, as is the custom for most rituals here. My family and I returned to our house across the road and those from other towns ate lunch and headed out as well. The day went on as any other would but a reserved quietness remained.