Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Friday, March 16, 2012
Some people build fences out of dead wood and thorny branches around their field –“dead fencing” in Peace Corps lingo. While this is effective at blocking animals from entering fields, it requires cutting wood from trees elsewhere, which contributes to deforestation. Moreover, dead fencing does not last very long; it falls apart during rainy season inundations or is eaten by termites and thus requires a lot of labor to maintain.
We invited 14 residents of Fas Toucaleur who already have manioc fields with dead fencing to our training to learn about live fencing, which, although it takes a good deal of work to establish, in the long run should save them time and effort. Fas Toucaleur is unique in my area for having so many fenced-in fields. Only two people in my own village Sama Ndiayen have fenced their fields. I asked my host father why, and he said that people in our village are just lazier than the Pulaars in Fas Toucaleur. Another possible reason is that there is a tradition of growing manioc in Fas but not in Sama, and manioc requires protection. I also get the sense that more young men leave Sama during the dry season to work in the cities, so there is less labor available. Anyway, we hoped that by inviting only farmers with dead fencing to the training, we would be focusing on a group that has motivation to establish live fencing and the means to protect their fences through their first year after outplanting (although the live fence will eventually protect itself).
In preparation for the training, we printed up invitations about two weeks ahead of time and gave them to each household with a dead fence in Fas, as well as to a few friends of mine from other villages. In all, there were 23 Senegalese invitees. We also invited other PCVs in my region to come and bring farmers from their villages, and we invited the PC agroferestry PTA, Cherif Djite, who has a lot of experience in growing trees during his previous career at the government forestry agency, Eaux et Foret. The day before the training I went to Kaolack to buy 10kg of vegetables,17 kg rice, and 4.5 L oil for the lunch. Five chickens and tea supplies were bought locally. Any good NGO- or Peace Corps-funded training in Senegal requires a fancy lunch and tea; it’s just expected.
We invited participants to arrive at nine, hoping that they would show up by ten. I thought that in my year and a half here I had become accustomed to Senegalese tardiness and that an hour-long buffer would be enough. As it turned out, the bulk of participants showed up after 10:30 and by the time we started it was almost eleven. That said, my friend Tamsir actually showed up at nine (he helped an Italian team build the government water tower at Keur Socce, which he now runs, and I think he has gotten used to Western schedules through his work), and a few of the old men from Fas showed up before ten.
We started the training with a tour of the master farm’s live fence, which was planted over the past two rainy seasons. Abdul Salam explained the various uses of the species we have in the fence – Parkinsonia acuelata, Bauhinia rufescens, Acacia nilotica, Acacia mellifera, Prosopis julliflora, Agave sisalana, Acacia senegal, and Euphorbia spp. He talked about the various uses of each tree, and really rhapsodized on their medicinal values, which seemed to engage the crowd, who also chimed in with bits of their own knowledge. One guy said the bark of Prosopis has more curative properties than any injection he’d ever received at the health post.
After showing the live fence, Abdul Salam and I explained seed collection and storage methods. We discussed how it’s important to gather seeds at the right time of year so that they are mature, and to store seeds in dry plastic soda bottles with ash to guard against insects and rodents. Abdul Salam then led a hands-on demonstration of how to create a tree nursery, including creating an appropriate soil mixture (1:2 manure:sand), filling plastic tree sacks (“polypots”), and arranging them in a recessed bed in a location that receives some shade but also some sunshine. We also discussed how to pretreat seeds by boiling them or scarifying and soaking them (since the species we work with have evolved to remain dormant through the long, hot dry season and require an extra push to germinate), and each participant tried their hand at scarification using fingernail clippers. Abdul Salam then showed participants how to plant seeds (two or three per sack, depending on the species) and take care of the nursery –watering, weeding, and periodically rotating sacks to make sure the trees’ roots don’t find their way out into the soil below. If nurseries are begun in April, the trees should be ready to outplant in the coming rainy season, beginning in July.
Abdul Salam did the bulk of the talking, but it was good to also have present Cherif Djite from Peace Corps and other participants who had experience growing trees, because they filled in details that Abdul Salam and I forgot to mention and added tips we didn’t know about before. One guy, a Sereer from a nearby village named Modu “Gui” Mboj (he got his nickname because he likes to plant baobab trees) talked from his experience working on USAID tree projects in Fatick, throwing in as many playful jabs at his Pulaar hosts as possible (Pulaars historically enslaved Sereers, but any previous animosity has turned into a joking relationship today). Abdul Salam is an enthusiastic public speaker and was proud to show his accomplishments to other farmers from his village, some of whom were visiting his field for the first time. There is a certain amount of jealousy associated with the master farm and all the aid Abdul Salam has received from Peace Corps, but I think the knowledge-sharing and chicken lunch helped smooth this over (this was the first training that we’ve hosted for local people). Abdul Salam is able to explain concepts clearly in Wolof or Pulaar and can engage Sengalese people in a way that I will never be able to do.
At the end of the training, we gave each participant 100 tree sacks and an instructional manual on agroforestry in Wolof with beautiful illustrations, provided by Djitte. We asked the participants to fill their tree sacks within 10 days, with the promise that if they do it on time, I will provide them the rest of the sacks they need to complete their fence, seeds, and, along with Mandow, support in maintaining and outplanting their trees. In the end, the success (or failure) of the training will be seen in how many of the participants outplant live fences this coming rainy season.
Filling tree sacks hands-on demo
Adding ash to the soil underneath the tree sacks to prevent termites
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
It’s February, the middle of the eight to nine month dry season in Senegal. For most farmers here, there is little work at this time of year. Days are spent napping, drinking tea, eating, going to a neighbor’s house to drink tea, then maybe napping some more. (This is a broad generalization, and it really applies only to men. Women have to keep up their work cooking, cleaning, caring for babies, and yelling at kids, who seem to have a driving passion for getting in trouble. And there are many people, both men and women, who find other work during this season – gardening, making fencing, construction, or going to the cities to find temporary work.)
At this time of year many men pass their days at the “penc,” a meeting- and hangout-spot in the center of the village. The penc consists of a raised wooden platform for sitting on, which is about 3m x 3m and 50 cm off the ground, under a thatch shade structure. There are no walls, only wooden posts that support the thatch roof, but the roof comes down so low and is so shady that from the outside you can’t really see who’s in there, unless you stoop. But once inside you have a clear 360* view of the outside. It’s kind of like a bunker.
Men come to the penc to hang out, chat, or take a nap away from all the noisy kids at home. It is a very low-key scene. They often bring their radios, and sometimes there’ll be several on at once, all tuned in to different radio stations. Senegalese people seem to have a high tolerance for dissonant noises. One time my family and I were listening to the radio when the station cut out, and we listened to static all through dinner and for a good while afterwards before anyone got up and changed the tuning. At the penc, it is not uncommon to come across a slumbering group of middle aged and older men, whilst several radios play different stations, and maybe one plays static.
In stark contrast to the penc is the women’s cooperative market, which lies on the other side of the village central square. The market bustles with noisy ladies dressed in colorful complets, gossiping and haggling as they buy and sell vegetables and fish each morning from about 10:30-12. The market is frequently a venue for loud arguments, and on occasion I have even seen group wrestling matches spontaneously occur. The penc looks out on the market from about 50m away, and in between is a sort of no-man’s land that no one seems to cross. In my year and a half in Sama Ndiayen, I haven’t once seen a woman go to the penc to hang out (they find it boring, probably) and I have only once seen a man set foot in the women’s market (mostly I think they’re intimidated).
Despite the general lethargy of the season, there has been some excitement because it is an election year and the vote is just days away, on Feb 26. Incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade is running for a third term against 13 opponents, who range from the millionaire businessman Mustafa Niasse to the Democratic Socialist Ousmane Tanor Dieng. The candidates range in age from the Macky Sall, who is just 51, to the ancient Abdoulaye Wade who is rumored to be over 90 although his official ID states he is 85. There are two female candidates, Diouma Diakhate (who is a fashion designer) and Amsatou Sow-Sidibe (a professor), although they don’t seem to stand a chance. A few weeks ago I saw campaigners for Sow-Sidibe in the market in Kaolack. There were two guys standing on the back of an 18 wheeler truck who had a sort of rap going back and forth about her election platform, which was well rehearsed and very loud, but no one seemed to be listening. They were just going about their daily business.
Women in Senegal can of course vote, but it seems like they have a harder time doing so than men. For example, they may not have time to register to vote, chores keeping them at home. Getting an ID and voting card costs 6,000 CFA and requires traveling to the arrondisement capital, Diedieng. My host sister-in-law has a voter card, but is registered to vote in her home village and she’s not sure she can make it back there for the election. It seems like this is an issue for a lot of women, who usually marry outside their villages. Men usually live in their ancestral homes, but those who work seasonally in cities would face the same problem.
The campaign rhetoric has been heated, and there have been daily demonstrations throughout the country, but the most intense have been in Dakar. Most of the opposition contend that it is unconstitutional for Wade to seek a third term in office. Wade contends that it is constitutional, because the new constitution limiting presidents to two terms was adopted only during his second term in office, and so his first term doesn’t count. This was also the judgment of the Constitutional Council, which approved his candidacy last month. (The members of the Council were appointed by Wade.) Wade seems to be weary of his appearance abroad, and reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to an American political consulting firm to write a paper explaining the legal case for his candidacy to the White House. (Prior to the Council’s decision, US diplomats made statements disparaging Wade for seeking a third term, but recently they have been silent about it. Apparently other American lobbyists also encouraged other Senegalese candidates to use their services but none did. I’m not in a position to assess the extent of a cause and effect relationship here, but US superpower sure seems like good business for lobbyists.) However, domestically Wade seems to be meeting opposition with force. Police have killed a number of demonstrators and recently threw tear gas into a mosque that was used by demonstrators. One hears conflicting accounts as to who started the violence, the police or the demonstrators, and being remote from it all I really have no idea.
I can’t claim to be a well-informed political commentator, but sometimes I ask my villagers about their political views. I get the sense that the issues that they care most about are the ones that are important in their day to day lives: they will vote for whoever they think can improve the health post (it’s often out of medicine), fund the schools (teachers have been striking because their salaries are regularly paid months late), lower the price of gasoline (public transportation has been getting expensive), lower inflation generally, bring electricity to our village, or ensure a good price for peanuts. It seems like most of the candidates promise most of these things, but it’s often unclear how they plan to do it. Maybe that’s why my host mother says, in the end, it all comes down to who pays the most for votes. I have heard that teams from both the Wade and Sall campaigns have offered my villagers money in return for support at the polls. (Sadly, I can’t claim that American presidential elections aren’t caught up in abstractions or controlled by money, either.)
I get the sense that in Sama Ndiayen Wade supporters are a minority, but a vocal one. One of the Arabic teachers is a Wade supporter and has glued a big portrait of Wade to the side of his house. The women’s group president is also campaigning for Wade, and extolls his virtues to members of the women’s group, who humor her by listening and agreeing to vote for him but once she leaves they tell me they have no intention of doing so. One of my closest friends, Tam, who I think is very smart and I respect very much, also supports Wade although he told me he thinks Wade is too old to be president and wishes he had allowed someone else from his party to run. (He also disapproves of how Wade has handled demonstrators violently.)
Among those in my village who don’t support Wade, there doesn’t seem to be one clear candidate of choice. One guy, Aliou, is campaigning for Macky Sall and arranged for a campaign team to visit Sama. They drove up in a five-car motorcade with horns blasting one afternoon, and there was a rumor that the candidate himself was here, so a lot of people rushed to the scene. I started to go with my neighbor Xadi but we were 15 minutes late and by the time we got there the campaign team had left. Macky Sall himself did not show up (I doubt candidates ever go to villages as small as ours), and it turned out the campaign team had talked about how Wade had messed up the country for 15 minutes before moving on.
Another popular candidate is Mustafa Niasse, whose hometown, Keur Madiabel, is only 25 km away. My friend Papa, who supports Niasse, explained to me why in his view he would make a good president:
(1) 1He is an honest man, and moreover he has so much money of his own that he won’t be tempted to use the presidency for personal gain. He says that if elected, he will donate his presidential salary to the handicapped or for education.
(2) 2He has political experience. He was in the cabinet of Abdou Diouf, the last Socialist president, served as Wade’s first PM.
(3) 3He’s aware of issues affecting farmers, because he’s involved in agribusiness in the Keur Madiabel area.
(4) 4He will be able to lower the price of gasoline because he has good connections with the Saudis.
(5) 5He says that he only seeks one term in office. (He’s already 72, so that’s probably a good thing.)
The president of our communite rurale is also a Niasse supporter, and a few days back he came to our village on campaign. He showed up hours late. It was around dinner time when his car came honking into town. In towns and cities, the campaigns provide lunches with meat, but in the villages they seem less spendthrift, relying on honking horns and megaphones and other loud noises to bring out the crowd. The thing is, this seems to attract a younger-than-target audience. Upon hearing the honking horns of the campaign, my younger sisters (aged 3-12) rushed off to join in the commotion, but my father and mother and I, tired and weary of the noise, stayed home. I have a feeling that the campaigner was speaking to a mostly pre-pubescent audience.
It was actually quite nice that night – we could hear people drumming and yelling at the meeting in the distance, but with my sisters’ absence it was a lot quieter than usual. I took the opportunity to get out my guitar and practice a new song I’m learning. I don’t like playing when my sisters are around because they always ask me to change the song, or they crowd around and dance in a sort of mosh pit until inevitably someone gets hurt and a fight breaks out and someone gets thrown against my guitar. If only they could have political meetings every night, and the kids would always be out, I joked to my parents, and they laughed hard, but I could tell they kind of wished it.
The next day I was walking by the mosque when I saw Malick and Sega Gaye, two brothers who are some of the oldest men in the village, sitting at their usual spot under a mango tree. I asked them if they went to the previous night’s meeting. No, they said. Malick explained that nothing good would come of the elections, people were going out and protesting and police killed people, but it was all over nothing of importance. They said they weren’t sure if they would vote, but probably not. Sega said people get carried away with politics instead of focusing on their own lives. For him, getting his cows fed and milked comes first.
The election took place yesterday, and they counted votes all last night and today, announcing results polling station by polling station on the radio. There was little commentary on who was in the lead nationally for the longest time, which was frustrating for those eager to find out, but I suppose announcing results piecemeal is worthwhile because it helps make things more transparent.
The polls in Sama Ndiayen were held at the primary school and were overseen by the teachers and three election officials who came from outside the village. The voting site served my village and two neighboring Pulaar villages, Fas Toucaleur and Keur Gueladio. When I dropped in in the morning there was a line about ten people long, but many people were loitering outside. I saw Sainabu the women’s group leader and Papa Dia and Aliou Toure there, talking politics and with people who waited to vote. After voting, each person had to dip a finger into a can of pink ink to prevent attempts at double-voting.
The polls closed at 6 pm, and by eight they had finished counting the votes from Sama. Papa showed me the list later. Mustafa Niasse received 79 votes, Wade 49, Sall 16, and Dieng 7. The rest of the candidates received one or two votes only or none at all. I saw Amsatou Sow-Sidibe, the female professor, got a solitary vote.
Upon hearing Sama’s results, a group of teenage boys and young men who support Niasse started running around the village whooping and chanting slogans and lighting firecrackers. I was surprised at how fierce their political feelings appeared to be. Things had been low-key all day, and as people awaited the election results in the schoolyard they mingled and chatted softly. But these kids looked like they were ready to go riot in Dakar. I didn't recognize a lot of them. I think a lot of young men who are living away came back to Sama to vote. Later I heard that someone threw a stone into the compound of Mere Sainabu and one other outspoken Wade supporter. No one was hurt. But everyone I talked with today agreed this was an ugly thing to do.
I stayed up late last night listening to the radio with my family, but at 1 am they were still announcing poll results station by station so I went to bed. It wasn’t until this afternoon that it became pretty clear there will be a runoff vote in March between Wade and Sall (Niasse was popular in Kaolack, but nationally came in third). I’m told that the cities are mostly peaceful and the election was seen as mostly free and fair.
The scene at the polls in Sama Ndiayen. The voting booth is on the left - the black curtain.
Sunday, January 8, 2012
It would be correct to say that Sama Ndiayen, where I live, is an agricultural village. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that. While the average, middle-class American might have a single job with a salary (although these days one might be lucky to have that) the average farmer in Sama Ndiayen probably has several other income sources besides farming. I would hazard to guess that, although most people farm, less than half of the village’s wealth comes from agriculture.
There are a few local businesses in Sama Ndiayen. There’s one shop (run by the only Pulaar in town) where you can buy things like candy, tobacco, powdered milk, or rice. Plus there are at least two families that sell some basics like soap, tea, and sugar out of their homes. There is one family that owns a gas-powered mill, which they fire up in the evenings, and village women go to turn their millet and corn into flour for cous-cous for their families’ dinners. My friend Papa Dia has a mud oven in his backyard and with his son bakes about 200 loaves of bread every day, which he sells in Sama and a couple other villages nearby. One of his customers is a widow (actually she’s remarried but still lives alone) in Sama who sells bean sandwiches and cafe touba out of a tin shack beside the gate to her house. Another widow, named Ata, makes money by cooking lunches and dinners for some guest workers at a nearby cashew project.
There’s also a village women’s group, which nearly all the grown women belong to, which runs a daily vegetable market and a garden. They also have a revolving fund and they own a set of giant pots and pans that they rent out for weddings and baptisms.
There’s Matar Njay, probably the tallest man in the village, who is a photographer. Like most Senegalese photographers, his main gigs are weddings, where he photographs heavily made-up women in immaculate dresses. He can develop your photos at a studio in Kaolack, where it’s possible to make poster-size prints and photoshop your portrait so it looks like you had your wedding in a luxurious hotel suite with a spiral staircase, rather than in your village hut. Matar is proficient with his manual film camera, but he has problems with his digital automatic that he bought recently, and sometimes asks me for help, like when he couldn’t figure out how to get it off the video function.
There is also Tamsir Njay, the village imam who runs a Quranic school for borders and village kids, as well as the government school teachers (all of whom come from outside the village). And there is Ibu Njay, the mason, who can help you build a house, compound wall or a cement douche.
There are also two drivers in Sama Ndiayen who own vehicles that they drive in Kaolack. Abdou Nyan drives his sept-place taxi to Kaolack every morning after first prayer, and takes Sama Ndiayen villagers directly to the city for a small fee. These early-morning rides in Abdou’s car are usually pretty quiet since people are still half-asleep, unless Abdou goes on a rant about the price of gasoline or politics or some such thing. The other driver, Abdoulaye Njay, is a huge man with a very even keel and a penchant for XXL football jerseys. He owns a “mini-car,” a Mercedes bus that holds about 40 people (or maybe 50 if you really cram) that he drives between Kaolack and the Gambian border every day. He seems to be somewhat of a legend among the bus driver network – often people in the garage in Kaolack or Sokone ask me where I live, and when I say Sama Ndiayen they often say, “Abdoulaye Njay’s village! He’s a good guy.” Abdoulaye Njay employs a fare-collector, plus there always seem to be a few young guys in the Kaolack garage who guard his bus when it’s there, fix it up, and take it to the gas station while Abdoulaye takes a rest.
There are also many village men who live outside Sama but send money home. Some are kids, like my cell phone credit dealer in Kaolack, a teenager who returns to Sama only for major holidays like Tabaski. There are also grown men with wives and families in Sama but who work and mostly live in the city, like Aladji Konte, my neighbor who is a security guard at a bank in Kaolack. And Papa’s brother, Omar, who sells baby clothes in Dakar. When my American parents came to visit, I went to visit him where he works in the Medina neighborhood of Dakar. He has one small table covered with baby clothes and toiletries, in a market full of stalls selling similar stuff, in a city with many similar markets. I don’t see how he could manage to make much money doing what he does, but he seems to get by (he also returns to Sama during the rainy season to farm). He seemed to have a lot of friends in the market, whom he introduced me and my parents to, and another man from Sama, Aladji Gaye, was visiting him at the time, so at least he didn’t seem lonely, although he must miss his wife and kids.
There are also villagers who leave the country for work. Just recently Papa’s son Amadou spent three months working at a bakery in the Gambia. People also go farther away for a longer time. One of my neighbor’s sons, Babakar Njay recently returned from a few years in South Africa. He worked in a retail store and learned pretty fluent English. He was roomates with some South Asian Muslims, and he developed a taste for lentils and chutneys. He said he didn’t really like South Africa because it was dangerous, men were willing to kill you over the smallest thing, and the women were mostly prostitutes. It was because they lacked Islam, he said.
Another guy, Samba Gaye, spent a few years in the Bronx. I’m not sure what he did there, but he speaks surprisingly little English. He did master the greetings though, and when he sees me he says: “Babakar! My man! How you feeling? You feel OK?” He’s about 40 years old and lives with his family in a pretty nice house which I presume he built with savings from America.
However, the fanciest house in Sama is owned by Samba Njay, who spent 11 years in Italy. Besides the house, he also has a stylish wardrobe (including a cool feathered hat), a robust horse, a handsome white smile, and one of the most beautiful women in the village as his wife. I don’t think people begrudge him though, because he’s very friendly and helpful. He went to Italy as a teenager and was a street vendor at first. When Bill Clinton visited Italy in the early 90s, he walked right past Samba, who didn’t know who he was until someone explained it was the American president. Later Samba got a job in a metal factory in northern Italy. He showed me some pictures from his time there, and it looked like he had a lot of European friends, including Eastern European friends from the factory. After 11 years in Italy, Samba returned to Senegal and ran a store in Dakar for a while. He once traveled to Dubai to purchase electronics to sell in Dakar. Now that he lives back in Sama, he’s returned to his farming roots and says he never wants to live away from home again.
For the most part people in Sama Ndiayen get by OK. But their lives are totally different from wealthy Senegalese and expats who live in the cities. When I go to parts of Dakar, it’s hard to believe I’m still in the same country as Sama Ndiayen.
The cell phone company Orange recently held a SMS raffle for a luxury SUV and a big house in Almadies, an upscale neighborhood on the Western tip of Dakar (also the Western tip of continental Africa). For most Senegalese people, the raffle will have no significance, except maybe leaving them a few hundred CFA poorer from sending texts to enter (and for some Orange execs, it might leave them that much richer.) But for the one lucky winner, it will mean a whole new way of life. Or will it?
I’ve been trying to imagine what would happen if someone in my village won the raffle. Here’s my prediction of what my host family would do if they won: To begin with, sell the house in Almadies. I can't picture them there. I think they’d miss the village community. Plus, how would they pay for the utilities of such a luxurious living space? It would be hard to find work nearby. With the money from the sale, they’d buy Tabaski rams for everyone in Sama, and send my dad and maybe my brothers on the Hajj to Mecca. What’s left over they might invest in a store in Kaolack, where some family members could live and work but still maintain the home in the village. Or maybe they would use the money on peanut speculating and win even more money (or lose it all).
My brother Xalifa would learn to drive, and become the first luxury-SUV taxi driver in Kaolack. Or maybe they would sell the SUV and buy a mini-car like Abdoulay Njay, and put a really nice job paint job on it, with pictures of all the Tijan marabouts.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
In my village, Sama Ndiayen, preparation for Tabaski began weeks ahead of time. For many people here, Tabaski is the one time in the year when they get a new outfit tailored, myself included. This year I bought white “wax” (waxy fabric that is stiff the first time it’s worn) in the market in Thies, and had it tailored and embroidered by a tailor in my village. (The tailor did a beautiful job in my opinion, except that the pants pockets are about two ft deep and the shirt pockets are under my armpits.) The purchase of the food is also important. My family bought many kilos of onions and potatoes, and a ram for 35,000 CFA (approx. $70) from a herder at the weekly market. Many rams are brought in from eastern Senegal and even from Mali and Mauritania. A ram is the sine qua non of Tabaski, and as demand peaks, prices can reach 500,000 CFA ($1,000) for a big one in cities. I’ve asked a few people in my village which is tastier, ram or goat, and everyone I asked said goat, which is much cheaper. But without a ram, there is no Tabaski.
In the days leading up to Tabaski, the women busied themselves with their hair. A few women in my village paid to go into town to have their hair done at a salon, but most bought weave and braided eachother’s hair at home. Young girls got their hair braided first, while young women braided their hair the day before, so that the braids would still be fresh on-the-day-of. Most older women just covered their hair in a head-wrap.
One of my host sisters, Diara Gaye (who is actually adopted into my family and is about 8 years old), had a unique hairstyle. While she had the same cheap yarn-like weave that most of the other girls her age had, there was a large bald patch from where she fell and cut her head, and had to have it shaved, a month or so ago. The wound healed fine, but she has since been the butt of jokes about her hair. People have taken to calling her Bala Gaye III, successor to the famous wrestler Bala Gaye II, who has a similar weird haircut, although his is intentional. Diara seems to like the attention, and has taken to saying Bala Gaye’s signature line “I don’t care” (in English) and dancing around like she’s getting ready to wrestle.
On the day of Tabaski, I slept in and then got up and greeted all my family members around the compound, a daily routine. We had breakfast and then around nine o’clock all the men and boys and the elder women put on their new outfits and marched to the mosque in a colorful parade for a special Tabaski prayer. I put on my own new outfit, and people began complementing me on it at once – it’s a lot fancier than my old one, and is a big contrast from the shorts and dirty tshirt I wear around on most days. I helped my host sister in law peel potatoes until the men came back, changed back into their daily clothes, and slaughtered the ram. Last year I helped skin the ram and clean the organs for eating, but this year I decided to just watch. I kept my fancy clothes on, partly so no one would ask me to help, since it’s not very pleasant work.
My brother Xalifa butchered our family’s ram skillfully, but my host uncle’s teenage sons, Babacar and Aladji Omar, were doing theirs for the first time and made some mistakes. After slitting the animal’s throat while looking into its eyes and draining the blood into a hole in the ground (as is the protocol), they hung up the ram by a rope tied to its rear legs and attached to a tree. But once they had tied it, they let the body swing and hit the tree trunk, causing the stomach’s contents to come gushing out of its bloodied throat. It was not very appetizing to watch, so I went back to peeling potatoes with the women.
Once the ram was butchered, the women went to work cooking it in a vinegary potato and onion sauce, with lots of oil, which is standard Tabaski fare. We had a second breakfast of organs before the rest of the meat was cooked, but the full lunch was served at around four in the afternoon. It was a communal, progressive lunch, moving from compound to compound around our neighborhood of the village. First we ate at my neighbor Aladji Konte’s, then moved on to Papa Dia my counterpart’s, then to my own compound where my family and our neighbors served everybody more meat and potatoes than many of us could handle. The man kneeling next to me at the bowl kept egging me on and I ate until I felt sick. Then we sat around and shot the breeze while recovering.
It was not until the evening that the males and older women re-donned their fancy outfits and the young women and girls put theirs on for the first time (they had been cooking and eating all day, and didn’t want to stain the new clothes). And then the photo-shoot began. It took a while to get my family rounded up for a photo, which was taken by Papa, who worked as a photographer in Kaolack when he was young. I also took a family photo for Papa, and another family in my compound. Lots of kids asked for photos, and women with their babies, and I was taking photos until it was dark and I was using the flash.
The first day of Tabaski is the most important, but the eating and merry-making continue for two more days. Figuring I wouldn’t get work done anyway, I got up early on the second day and rode my bike to visit my friend Joey, who lives near Sokone, about 50km away in the area of the mangrove delta. I left around 7:00. The first part of the ride was through back roads and quiet villages where people were just waking up and women were going to pull water in the early morning chill. After an hour and a half I hit Passy, a road town along the highway, where I stopped for breakfast. I pulled my bike up to a boutique painted with murals of Baba Maal, the famous Pulaar singer (check out an album called In Search of the Lost Riddim, by him and Ernest Ranglin – I recommend it), where I bought and ate bread and butter. While I was sitting there a bunch of well-dressed young boys came in and bought fire crackers and began setting them off outside. I got back on my bike and continued on the dusty highway towards Sokone.
Nearing Sokone, the scenery became greener as I grew closer to the water and wells became shallower. The highway entered groves of cashew trees, and passed by an old abandoned cashew processing plant on the outskirts of Sokone. (Cashews have a hard shell from which the nut must be delicately extracted. I’ve heard that today, many of Senegal’s cashews are shipped to India for processing. The cashew tree is native to a small area in South America, but today the majority of production is in India, Central Asia, and Africa.)
An hour and a half after Passy I reached Sokone. Sokone is one of the biggest towns in the delta area, but it has a sleepy feel, especially on the morning after Tabaski. It is bordered by water on two sides, an although many of the mangroves in the area have been cut down for their rot-resistant wood and alternative land use, some mangrove reforestation efforts are underway and some of the mudflats outside of town are dotted with rows of mangrove seedlings. The town of Sokone itself has some nice big mahoganies and a lot of mangos and other trees, as well as a few campements, although not nearly as many as the tourist town Toubacouta, 20km further down the highway towards Banjul. Pigs – always a sign of Catholic presence – wander the unpaved avenues that lead into quiet neighborhoods set back from the highway.
I met up with Joey and a Sokone volunteer, Jamie, and that afternoon we set out for a nearby campement that was purported to have the coldest beer in Senegal. The campement is across the water from town and although we heard there was a bridge, we found it wasn’t finished. We rode as far as we could and locked our bikes together and waded across to the campement, where we found the refreshments to indeed be brain-numbingly cold. The hotel is located on a rise, and we could see Sokone across the water. On the edge of town was visible a large air-conditioned house with solar panel on the roof, which is rumored to belong to either an American or a Brazilian woman. There are a few French people who live in Sokone, including some volunteers associated with the church, an old man who roams the streets on an ATV, and a philanthropist couple who were the only other guests at the hotel that day. They spend several months of each year in Sokone, and built a school in a nearby village. They went to Joey’s village once, took pictures, and when they came back they had printed them out, decorated and laminated them as gifts. I would have liked to talk to them, but none of us three speak French.
We went down to the water, in a reforested section, for a swim. As we walked across the beach crabs skittered back into their holes. Mangroves are really beautiful. There is something special about the combination of forest and ocean. You can easily get lost in the maze of waterways.
When we were ready to leave we realized that we had lost the keys swimming, and since the bikes’ back tires were locked together we half-carried, half pushed them back to Sokone. We left them at another campement on the edge of town, whose owner has a family connection to Peace Corps in Dakar and knows a lot of volunteers. It was getting dark, and we decided to crash at Jamie’s in Sokone rather than walk the 5km to Joey’s village by moonlight. We bought some onions and potatoes at a shop as sarice.
Jamie has a very large host family that lives in tight quarters, although they have money. We sat on plastic chairs outside and ate dinner, mutton left over from the day before. I avoided the meat in favor of the cous-cous, and when Jamie’s father saw and was concerned I awkwardly tried to explain in language appropriate for people who are eating that the Tabaski ram gave me diarrhea.
“Eh! Xaar bek na la!” He said (the ram butted you in the stomach!) I later found this explanation garnered a lot of laughs in Joey’s village.
After dinner we watched the news on TV outdoors, and there was a story on the latest Peace Corps group to swear in. It was funny watching ourselves on TV, we looked so professional. RTS sends a TV crew to every swear-in; showing toubabs dressed up in boubous and complets and speaking local languages with funny accents must up the viewership.
The next morning we left early to find a metal worker who could cut our lock for us, but only one was open, it being Tabaski, and he wouldn’t do it for a reasonable price. Instead we bought our own hacksaw at a hardware store, cut the bikes free ourselves, and rode to Joey’s village.
In the afternoon we went to Joey’s master farm and grafted a couple Zizyphus there and for another farmer in a nearby field. Neither of us had grafted Zizyphus before but we’d had some success grafting mangos last time so we gave it a shot.
At night we ate more ram and cous-cous for dinner, and sat out under the moon with Joey’s family and talked. Joey’s dad, who is a lean old man with no teeth, filled his tobacco pipe and smoked and ground up kola nut using a home-made grater to suck on, since he can’t chew. He speaks fast and it’s hard to understand him, but Joey’s gotten good at it. His name is Poot Diop, and as a Diop he is entitled to tease me, an Njay. He does so with more relish than any other Diop I have met. When am I going to change my name to Diop, he always asks me, since it is so much better? Njay’s eat a lot, he says. When I tell him the ram hit me and I can’t eat any more meat, he says Njays are not strong, that’s why.
Poot and his wife don’t have any children of their own, but he has two adopted children (or three, if you include Joey). He can be hard on his adopted son, who is a goofy, chubby teenager, but can also be very kind. Joey told me that after his brother worked hard harvesting cashews for months, Poot went to Kaolack with 40,000 CFA in his picket to buy him a bike as a present. It is not every day that a Senegalese kid gets a 40,000 CFA present. He came back and the bike was super cool-looking, with a headlight powered by energy from the wheel. But it started to break right away, and turned out to be a piece of crap. Poot yelled at his son that he was breaking it because he didn’t know how to ride it right, but Joey says that really he blamed himself for being suckered on the deal.
We sat out under the stars and Poot got to telling us riddles, and we shared a few. After a while it was chilly and I was tired and I went to bed.
Later I was talking with Joey about life in Peace Corps, and we both agreed that we’d like to do more adventuring, break out of routines we’ve fallen into. There are supposed to be some beautiful areas in the south, and I still hope to go there. But traveling in Senegal is difficult because roads are bad and it takes a long time to get anywhere. And after being here for over a year, you’re suddenly back to square one in terms of community integration. No one knows you, you’re offered toubab prices and spoken to in French. But it’s not necessary to travel to have adventures – there is a lot to explore locally, characters to meet and beautiful spots to find. I hope to do more of this in the year I have left.
Papa and me.