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.