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