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
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
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
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.
30 September, 2012
I screamed an obscenity as loud as I could at the rolling field of peanuts and nothing spread out next to me. A bit dramatic but it was a long time coming. I’d just flown sideways off my bike into some millet and prolonged exposure was starting to burn my arms and the space between my nose and upper lip, just those two places. I don’t know. My ear phone had gotten pulled out during the fall, my biggest pet peeve. It didn't matter, no music was playing anyway. Not since the Pantera album I was listening to had ended soon after I decided to back track instead of continue down an unfamiliar road. The reason I was biking down a road I knew was wrong is that if you keep going you’ll usually find somewhere. A village to ask directions at. I couldn't have been that far off but it seemed I was on the bush path to nowhere. Visions crept up of biking for 30 more minutes over that rocky, crevassed road only to end up at a big seasonal lake. Nowhere. The planted fields were untended and transitioning into uncultivated land; only forest. This indicated that I was getting farther from where people are willing to go, and people travel several kilometers for available field space. The phone was dead, the water was finished; it was time to back track.
I knew I’d find my way eventually but I was sick of biking; the roads were awful from a rainy season of torrential down pours, which had seemingly ended abruptly. I truly hoped they hadn’t though, for the sake of a good harvest. And I did make it home. And it felt good. Brothers, sisters, and cousins welcomed me, chanted my name, announced my arrival, and I had just left that morning. After bathing and cleaning my many scrapes from the day, I chatted with my family. We sat in a circle and de-stemmed a medicinal plant, leydour, to be dried and sold. My host mother's call to gather around for dinner was very welcome, and familiar.
Chere with mboum sauce. A fine millet, corn, or sorghum ‘cous cous’ with peanut butter and green leaf sauce over top. This is the dish I equate with Home, as in my home here. It is the pasta and sauce to my real home in Brooklyn. My host mom’s chere is just like my dad’s sauce in that none other tastes the same, or as damn good.
I’ve had over a year here in Senegal. The mid-point of my service is coming up in November and instead of moving forward I feel as though I may have gone around in a circle. But I must have learned something right? Yeah, A LOT. I had to have achieved something and made a positive contribution, right? Well, yeah, I've fostered the learning of a few important things. Then why do I feel like I’m exactly where I started?
Upon arrival here as a Peace Corps trainee, and during my first few months of service, I purposely deconstructed myself and tried to rebuild as the ideal PCV. Fearless, constantly positive, approval seeking, proactively minded, an expert and an educator. I threw myself into various work projects to feel out my abilities and interests (a valuable and fulfilling way to start service). I've felt stressed, lonely, contented, achieved, useless, bored, thirsty, completely discouraged, and incredibly inspired (sometimes all at the same time). All of this for a year and I came out exactly the same person I started as. I still miss my family and people I love at home and still wonder if I should have left them, I still worry about doing a good job and feel under-appreciated here, and I still despise poverty and its causes and would like to build a life dedicated to the amending of social wrongs. I’m still the hopeful cynic I started as. People say Peace Corps service is life changing so I guess I thought it would change me noticeably, but I am happy that is hasn't. Just yet.
Many things are the same as they were in the beginning (i.e.: getting lost in the bush on my decrepit bicycle) and there’s still a lot to learn (i.e.: the rainy season roads to my village). I don’t think I went in a circle though, but I didn't move straight forward either. I think I followed a path many things desire to follow, I went in a spiral. I followed around the curve so I may well be close to where I started, in mind set and attitude, but not for lack of progress. Simply for the natural path of growth.
26 April, 2012
We sit in the dark and silent still.
Staring up at millions of stars.
One falls, blazing red, appearing
from behind The Great Neem.
Everything is silent, everything is still.
It's almost never silent here. The radio is off.
Ulle doesn't like the radio, she explains.
The children are asleep in a row on their mat.
It is hot.
We near no baby cry.
A rare and silent peace
held firm in place by an unyielding heat.
A rolling roar arrives in the East.
Stroking each branch of each Baobab.
A forest that remains, housing the dead.
The Great Neem above us is quiet.
But we listen.
The Wild Hunt arrives.
The Great Neem springs into motion.
Branches dancing and leaves jostling.
This explosion of movement
breaks the still.
The heat remains, but not unmoved.
We revel in the newness,
the Dynamic Shift.
Scorpions come out with the wind, she explains.
With flashlight trained on the row of children,
their stillness unbroken, she tells me a story.
Our laughter touches each leaf of each branch of The Great Neem.
It is picked up by The Wild Hunt
and carried on with it's journey
to the next village
to the next continent
to the next Dynamic Shift