Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Five Weeks in Sama Ndiayen

I have been in my village (permanent site), Sama Ndiayen, for the past five weeks, since my “installation.” I have been learning about and participating in village life, trying to get to know my fellow villagers and understand the problems they face.

Installation and my family

Five weeks ago, I was dropped off by a Peace Corps car, with two suitcases and a trunk full of belongings – mostly clothes and a hefty stack of reading materials (Peace Corps has a penchant for giving us manuals of all sorts) – as well as some basic furnishings, a water filter, and a gas canister for cooking. I was greeted in a small outdoor ceremony by the chief of the village (who is also my host father), the head of the local women’s association, my village counterpart, and a number of other faces that were new to me at the time but have since become familiar. I was also greeted by my two closest Peace Corps volunteer neighbors, Jenn Richards of Fass Toucalour (1 km away) and Jennie Wysong of Sambande (7 km away). They gave me a stool as a house warming gift, which I have been using every day since. I was also given the name Babakar Njay, after my host father.

I am living in my own hut within the compound of Babakar Njay’s family. The “compound” is actually more like a series of households in sub-compounds, occupied by different branches of the family. Each household usually eats meals together, but otherwise shares the living space. In my household are the huts of my father, Babakar Njay, my mother, Diara Njay, and their son Xalifa and his wife, Nday. I have heard that my father, Babakar, is about 65 years old, although he looks much older and has a back condition that prevents him from standing straight- I think it is the product of years of hard work farming. As I have gotten to know him better, my respect for him has only grown. As the chief of the village, Babakar is the head authority at the village level. (The French ruled rural Senegal through chiefs of villages, and the system continues today alongside the elected officials and appointees of the modern government. The lowest level of official government is the “community rurale,” which typically contains several villages, so the two systems don’t conflict at the village level. The role of the chief is inherited hereditarily, so my father will be succeeded by his oldest son, who is currently working in South Africa.) Despite his prestigious role, my father seems like a very humble man; at village meetings I have attended, he has said little if anything, but listens to others and if need be, goes to consult government authorities in the community rurale or arrondissement capital about issues the village faces.

A photo of my hut taken from my backyard.

Inside my hut.

My mother, Diara, is probably ten years younger than Babakar and is his only wife. She has been lovely towards me although I haven’t yet gotten to know her as well as other members of my family.

Xalifa, my brother, is 24 years old. Like his father, he’s a humble man and a hard worker. I often accompany him to work in the fields, and we chat about America. He asks me questions like, “do they have goats in America?” I like him a lot, but he speaks in a low mumble that is often hard for me to understand. His wife, Nday, is a small woman about Xalifa’s age with a bright smile. She is a fabulous cook, and she cooks most of our meals. (Typically breakfasts and dinners consist of a millet or sorghum cous-cous, called “cere”, with a leaf sauce made from the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) called “buum.” Cous-cous is made by pounding the grain in a giant mortar and pestle and then steaming it, often with sap from the “bep” tree, and it tastes kind of like what they call “dido” in Nepal. On special occasions, we have a rice porridge for breakfast called “sombi,” served with yoghurt. Lunches are typically a dish called “mafe,” which is white rice with a peanut sauce and vegetables like eggplant, carrot, and sweet potato, or “ceebu jen”, which is rice boiled with oil and a tomato sauce served with vegetables and fish.) Xalifa and Nday have one son, Mohamed, who is about 2 and is a constant vocal presence.

The oldest and youngest members of my household - my father, Babakar, and Mohamed, his grandson.

There are also two about 10 years old who live with us, Ami and Diara. They are grandnieces of my mother, whose mothers passed away. They are always playing. The other day I came home to find them racing around the courtyard pushing watering cans, making car engine sounds. Also in our household is a cousin of my mother’s, Yaysatou, who is a widow without children. She is about 75 and helps take care of the kids in the compound.

One of the other households within our compound belongs to my counterpart, Papa Dia (pronounced “Poppa Jah”), who is married to Fatou Njay, one of my father’s nieces. (Typically, women marry and move in with their husbands’ families, but this isn’t always the case. I think part of the reason Papa lives with us is that his own parents have passed away.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, Papa is a bread baker, and so he has a big clay oven next to his cinder block house. He has become one of my closest friends in the village, and I often go chat with his family after dinner, or when Papa makes tea in the afternoons.

All told, there are about 45 relatives of all ages living in my compound, and I am enjoying getting to know many of them, but for the sake of brevity I will not introduce them all here.

Our compound is on the edge of the village, SamaNdiayen. The village population is about 600, spread among thirty or so family compounds, spread over about 1/3 km2. In the center of town is a white mosque with blue minarets that can be seen sticking out among the tree tops from fields surrounding the village. SamaNdiayen is located about 20 km from the regional capital, Kaolack, and about 4 km from a minor highway, from which it is accessible by sandy road.

View of Sama Ndiayen from the edge of town - the well I use is in the foreground.

The mosque in Sama Ndiayen.


The harvest season is coming to a close, and so the people of Sama Ndiayen have been busy for the past month + harvesting their major crops: peanuts, millet, sorghum, and corn. I have helped members of my family and neighbors harvest, which has been a good way to learn about local agriculture practices and problems. Peanut harvesting is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. The peanut plants must be first dug up from the ground with a horse-drawn plow, and then collected by hand and piled. People then transport the piles into town, where women sit under the shade of neem or Gmelina arborea trees in the afternoons, separating peanuts from the plant and shelling. While plowing is men’s domain, women do most of the piling and gleaning lost peanuts from the field. It is hot, dusty work and after a day in the field I find myself blowing dirt out of my nose.

Although the way the peanuts are harvested, by removing the whole plant from the field, rapidly depletes soil organic matter, it is hard to blame farmers for doing it this way. Separating the peanuts from the plant is time consuming work, and so it is best done in the shade. Although it is possible to take the chaff back to the field after doing this work elsewhere, the plants themselves are in high demand for livestock fodder during the dry season.

Peanut farming does not pay well, either. I don’t think peanut farming has ever been very profitable, but prices have fallen since state-run peanut company SONACOS was privatized from 2004-2007. In my village, households sell their peanuts cooperatively in the nearby city of Kaolack. Still, for many people peanuts don’t meet needs for cash income. My cousin and neighbor, Alhaji, recently went to Dakar to sell baby clothes and sandals on the street for several weeks, ahead of the major holiday Tabaski, in order to raise money to buy a sheep for the feast.

In addition to working with farmers in their private fields, I have helped in the village’s communal peanut fields, which are managed to raise funds for our mosque and for the marabout, the religious leader. In Senegal, Muslims belong to tarixas, or brotherhoods, which are kind of analogous to Christian denominations, but all fall under the category of Sunni Islam. Each brotherhood has its own marabouts (religious teachers), but people from different brotherhoods share mosques for worship together. Most people in my village belong to the Tidian brotherhood, and so the money from the peanut field goes to a Tidian marabout in Kaolack.

Work days in the communal field have been a good way to get to know people in my village. Most households send at least one person to plow or pile. Young men usually do the plowing, while a mix of women and men and children pile. Older men come around to distribute water and candies. Even my father shows up and piles a little bit, despite his bad back, and he says a group prayer at the end of work.

I have also been working at the master farm in my neighboring village, FassToucalour. The master farmer program is a new Peace Corps program to create model farms, managed by talented and motivated Senegalese farmers with the help of PCVs, that serve as centers for dissemination of knowledge about improved agriculture and agroforestry techniques. The farm is less than six months old, so there is a lot of work left to do to set it up. So far, I have been working with the master farmer and my PCV neighbor, Jenn, to set up garden beds, seed guava trees in the nursery, tend our vegetable nursery, and dig compost pits (in the dry Sahel climate, compost maintains moisture best if placed in pits). In the coming months, we will start a variety of other tree species in the nursery for demonstrations of various agroforestry techniques on the farm (as an agroforestry volunteer, this type of work will be my focus). The trees will be outplanted during the next wet season.

Agroforestry is broadly defined as the integration of perennial trees into annual crop fields. One of the agroforestry techniques we are working on at the master farm is a live fence, which which is a densely planted row of trees along the perimeter of the field and regularly pruned back to induce dense branching, serving as a barrier to livestock like goats and cattle from entering the field. Live fences are usually made with thorny species like Acacia nilotica, Acacia senegal, or Prosopis juliflora, or unpalatable species like Jatropha cucas and Euphorbia spp. They are a cheap, effective, and potentially more durable alternative to metal fencing, which is often prohibitively expensive for farmers here.

Another agroforestry technique we are using at the master farm is a windbreak. A windbreak is a row of trees planted perpendicular to prevailing winds in order to slow wind speed. Windbreaks can be useful especially in protecting orchards, because they can reduce wind damage to tree flowers and thereby increase fruit yields. At the master farm, we are using Eucalyptus camaldulensis as well as prosopis and acacias for our windbreak.

In addition to live fencing and windbreaks, we are also interplanting trees among field crops (millet, corn, cow peas, manioc) and in our vegetable garden – a technique called alley cropping. Alley cropping can improve soil structure, add organic matter to the soil, and increase nitrogen levels, as well as provide products like wood, fruit and fodder. At the master farm we are in the process of planting alleys of nitrogen-fixing species like Moringa oleifera and Leucaena leucocephela.

We will also be growing a number of fruit trees like mango, guava, jujube, cashew, papaya, and banana.

The master farmer I work with is named Abdul Salam. He’s in his mid 40s and very enthusiastic about his work and turning his farm into a demonstration area. I have the sense that he has a deep philosophy about the value of hard work. One day we were taking a break from weeding, sitting under a shade tree and listening to a radio program about migrant Senegalese workers in Europe who can’t find work and turn to crime to make ends meet. Abdul was obviously bothered and interjecting at what some of the callers were saying, so I asked him about it and we got into a long discussion about migration, work, and where prosperity comes from. Abdul was adamant that rather than migrate abroad or to the city, Senegalese people should stay in their villages and farm their land. Moving to the city and demanding jobs from the government, or going abroad and getting involved in crime, is the lazy man’s way, he said. While I disagreed with him in that I think macroeconomic circumstances outside of one's control also contribute to migration, I have a lot of respect for Abdul's dedication to hard work.

A recently planted section of live fence at the master farm - Acacia senegal. Right, Abdul Salam digging a compost pit.

In addition to working with Abdul Salam, I am planning to work with the women’s group in my village on a communal garden. The women’s group has been established for some years and has already established a co-operative market; members travel to Kaolack every morning to buy vegetables and fish in bulk, and then bring them back to sell to villagers in Sama Ndiayen. Profits go to the association, which then pays members dividends or uses the money to do projects. For example, last year the women constructed a cement shade structure where they now hold the daily market. Different women do the work each week, based on a lottery system. While I’m impressed at the organizational skills of the women’s group, it seems inefficient to go to the city to buy vegetables that could be grown locally, and so I was happy when the leader of the women’s group, Sianabu Niasse, approached me about the garden. The group already has a space near a well that they’d like to use, but it is in a high goat-traffic area, so they would like to put up a fence. (Although live fencing is an option, metal fencing would probably be better in this case because so many livestock pass through every day that it would be hard for seedlings to establish.) I am planning to help the group write a Peace Corps grant to purchase fencing and set up the garden. If they are interested, I’ll help them start a tree nursery along with their garden.

Firewood and nomadic herders

I also went out to search for firewood one day with my brother, Xalifa. The firewood of choice for most cooking is “ratt” (Combretum glutinosum), a small shrub. (However, my friend and counterpart Papa swears by “dimbu,” Cordyla africana, as a fuel source for baking bread.) Ratt is in short supply. Xalifa and I had to walk for about forty minutes, first through crop fields and then through a shrubland where less-utilized species like Acacia seyal have come to dominate, before reaching a ratt stand that was mature enough to cut. We hacked away at the ratt for a few hours, until we had a cart-full of firewood to bring home.

There doesn’t appear to be a formal system for managing the firewood resource in Sama Ndiayen, but I am not sure. I am interested in working with people here to plant trees for firewood (not least because I feel a bit guilty after chopping down all that ratt, and consuming food cooked on it every day!) A neighboring village, Keur Nen, has a communal woodlot (tree plantation) of eucalyptus. I have seen only it while by on a horse-drawn cart, but I plan to go back and learn about how they have managed the woodlot, both the silvicultural techniques they’ve used and how they have organized community members to work cooperatively on the project.

A few days after gathering firewood, I was sitting under the “penc” (a shade tree in the village used for socializing, like a pipal tree in Nepal), when men from different households began gathering around me and a heated public meeting began. One of the men, Omar, had lost part of his peanut harvest because someone had let a herd of cattle graze his field. People were pretty sure who the culprit was, a nomadic herder from the Pulaar ethnic group. (Pulaars and their language group are spread throughout much of West Africa, as far away as Nigeria. Pulaars were traditionally nomadic herders, but in Senegal today most are settled in farming villages.) A few people at the meeting seemed to be angry at Pulaars in general (my village is 100% Wolof ethnic group), but when I asked if people in our neighboring village, FassToucalour, which is mostly Pulaar, were part of the problem, they clarified that it was really just the nomadic Pulaars who are a problem. This got me thinking about the importance of live fencing, not only as a tool to protect crops, but also in the context of social tensions between herders and farmers. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that my father, acting as chief of the village, would travel to meet the Sous Prefet (government official) in our arrondissement capital to report the incident.

Later that week, I arrived home one evening and found a large crowd gathered at my house, and learned that the accused Pulaar had just left. He had been brought in to discuss the peanuts with people from my village, and denied that he was the one who grazed his animals on the peanuts, but he said he knew who the culprit was and would help us find him. Most people seemed to believe him, but I haven’t heard about what has happened since.

Trips outside

I’ve also taken a few day trips outside my village. I went on two trips with one of my volunteer neighbors, Jennie Wysong, to visit a third Neighbor, Jessica Goza, and help her paint murals at a school in her town, Keur Madiabel. Keur Madiabel is 20 km down the highway from my and Jennie’s villages. It took us about an hour to reach there on our bikes, riding along the shoulder of the highway. After a long ride it was nice to have cold drinks, which aren’t available in my village. Over the course of the two trips to Keur Madiabel, we painted 4 murals at her school. I think the best and most useful one was a number chart, with one apple, two bugs, etc. up to ten. It was also good getting to know Jennie, who is an Environmental Education volunteer from New Jersey, and Jessica, who is a Health volunteer from California. The bike rides home had the benefit of a cool evening temperature with little traffic along the highway (about one car every five minutes) and a reddening sky in the hour before sunset.

I’ve also been leaving my village on Tuesday mornings to attend the luma, or weekly market, in Keur Socce, a small town along the nearby highway. People from surrounding villages come to the luma to buy and sell a wide variety of items: vegetables, grains, seeds, clothing, flashlights, cosmetics, pesticides, and medicines for animals and humans, to name but a few. Vendors set up tables and stalls under a shade structure and along the highway and alleyways off of it. It is often packed by mid-morning, but I like to ride my bike over earlier, buy a bean sandwich for breakfast from a woman who has a stall there, and get shopping done early. I’ve been buying a few things for my hut (like a mirror and sheets) and one day, I got my machete sharpened at the local blacksmith. I also get vegetables to bring back to my family, and some frozen bissap (hibiscus) and benye pastries as a snack.

I’ve also taken a couple trips to see farmers’ fields in neighboring villages. One week at the luma I met a farmer who told me about his cashew orchard in a neighboring village, Biteen Daaro, and he invited me to come see it the next week. I made the trip with my counterpart, Papa. We hitched a ride in the morning on a horse-drawn cart passing through my village, and I paid the driver a few hundred FCFA (West African Francs) when we got off, about 7 km down the dirt road. Although it is more remote, Biteen Daaro seemed obviously wealthier than Sama Ndiayen; it has electricity and as we rode in I noticed one particularly large house with air conditioning units and a satellite dish on the roof. Papa explained this was the house of a major marabout, or serigne (like the one our village sends money to, from the communal peanut field). As we saw more of the town, Papa pointed out a number of local projects the serigne had funded: a giant new mosque (so big that it seemed out of place in Biteen Daaro, which is not much larger than Sama Ndiayen), a water tower, and new buildings at the school and health post. Papa was exuberant about the serigne’s munificence, and while I was impressed also, I felt like reminding him that it was not just the serigne, but also the serigne’s donors in villages like ours, that made the projects possible. (Out of respect for Papa, I didn’t.)

Papa Dia and myself.

Papa Dia's son, Amadou, at work baking bread.

The farmer we visited, Babakar Cam, had a beautiful field of cashews and mangoes alley-cropped among eggplant, cow peas, and manioc, all surrounded by a euphorbia live fence. Babakar showed me a few trees that had diseased roots, and I took some pictures to show my agroforestry director when I return to Thies in about a week for in-service training. He also showed me a windthrown cashew tree, and said he was interested in working with me to create a windbreak to better protect his field.

Babakar seemed like a lovely man and I am interested in working with him on a windbreak, but I am also hesitant because I’m not entirely sure he needs my help. He was already given most of his tree seedlings by Eaux et Foret, the government forestry agency, and he is a wealthy farmer, with six hectares of peanuts and millet in addition to his orchard. At the same time, his financial means allow him to spend more time tending his orchard, buying necessary pesticides, etc. so I think a windbreak on his farm is more likely to be successful than a windbreak planted on a poorer farmer’s field might be. I feel like the pull between working with wealthier farmers who are more willing to experiment with and maintain new crops/trees, and poorer farmers who perhaps are less able to invest time and energy, but need the help more, is a tension felt in agricultural extension work in general.

Babakar Cam in his manioc field.

Tabaski and work party

I was also in my village for the holiday Tabaski, known elsewhere in the Muslim world as Eid-al-Adha. The holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to God; at the last minute God provided a ram to be sacrificed instead. In Senegal, Muslims commemorate this by killing a ram (or goat, depending on income level) on Tabaski. City people often return to their villages to celebrate with their extended families, and everyone puts on their best clothes, often tailored specially for the holiday. Gifts are given, and in the evenings kids come around begging for change, kind of like trick-or-treat. People also apologize to their neighbors for wrongs they might have committed against them during the course of the year. The holiday has elements of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Halloween all rolled into one.

A family photo on Tabaski. From left to right: Me, my brother Xalifa, his wife Nday, their son Mohamed, my mother Diara, my father Babakar, and Babakar's brother Aliou.

The men in my compound slaughtered six or seven rams and a goat on the morning of Tabaski, draining the blood into a hole dug in the middle of our compound. Most of the households in our compound had each bought one animal, although my father had bought two in order to have meat to share. I watched the slaughtering, but helped skin and butcher the rams. Almost all the organs were used. I was surprised at how large sheep stomachs are and the amount of fecal matter we poured out was unappetizing, to say the least (like emptying a cesspool!) but I must say that I tried eating stomach later and it was quite tasty.

Xalifa and the boys with sheep to be slaughtered for Tabaski.

Papa Dia with his Tabaski sheep.

Most people celebrated Tabaski for three days, continuing to feast on the rams slaughtered during the first day. (By the third day, I stopped eating the meat because I was put off by the smell; without electricity, we had no way of refrigerating it). As chief of the village, my father hosted lunch for three days for guests from other families in our village. The meat was cooked in a vinegar-onion sauce called “yaasaa”, and served with tapalapa (hearty village baguette).

The second night of Tabaski was also the beginning of a three-day annual wrestling tournament in my neighboring village, Fass Toucalour, where Jenn Richards lives. Some other volunteers decided to come for a few days and watch the wrestling at night and work during the day. It was a good group of people, and we got a lot of work done. We painted murals at the primary schools in Jenn’s and my villages -big maps of Senegal and Africa. My school has two classrooms, for the equivalent of 5th and 6th grades only, while Jenn’s school has only one. The rest of classes are held in shade structures made from millet stalk fencing, which have to be rebuilt each year. The school also lacks a permanent latrine. The teachers were on strike for a week before Tabaski because they hadn’t been paid their salaries. There are certainly large problems facing Senegal’s education system that our small contribution won’t begin to fix, but I feel like the maps can be good learning aids, and are nice things to look at for kids who tend to zone out in class (I know I used to study maps on the wall in boring classes).

Our work party also spent a day with Abdul Salam on the master farm. Jenn Richards, Molly (a Small Enterprise Development volunteer from South Carolina), and Jack Brown (an Agroforestry volunteer from Washington), double-dug some new garden beds, and Roseann Dunivan (an Agfo volunteer from Nebraska), Jennie Wysong, and myself made good progress digging compost pits.

My friend and neighbor Alhadji, making a millet stalk fence (sacket).

In the evenings we made our own dinners in Jenn’s hut before heading to the tournament. Wrestling is pretty popular in Senegal. There was a rumor that Yekini, a famous fighter who was a Koranic student in a neighboring town, would show up, but in the end it turned out to be unsubstantiated.

Wrestling started late, but the event itself began closer to 8, as a drum group began playing and wrestlers registered with officials. A ticket cost 500 CFA for non-Fass Toucalour residents (Fass residents were allowed in free). We paid through a small hole in the millet stalk fence that was erected around the school soccer field where the event was held. A gaggle of kids from my village, Sama Ndiayen, who didn’t have money for admission were gathered near the entrance, obviously excited to be at such a big noisy event and maybe hoping to catch glimpses of the action through holes in the fence. I felt bad for them, but didn’t have enough money to buy them all tickets, so I just went in with my Peace Corps friends.

Once inside, we took seats on a plastic mat we brought, next to a bunch of kids and young women. Older women were selling benyes and peanuts, and a drum group made up of young men dressed in fashionable American attire, hammered out complex rhythms over two elderly Sereer women’s voices on a mic. They mostly sang songs of praise to the event organizers, wrestlers, and others who gave them tips. Most spectators were dressed up; pageantry was an important part of the event. I saw a cousin from my compound, a skinny kid about 16 named Babakar, wearing a classy tweed three piece suit, although it was a few sizes too large for him.

Before the wrestling started, wrestlers performed extensive warm-up routines, jumping around and leaping like frogs, doing quick sprints and flexing their muscles as young boys and young women ogled. Wrestlers wore loincloths and multiple talismans, or “grisgris” which combine Islam with pre-Muslim traditions. Talismans include bracelets, anklets, and necklaces, often containing a passage from the Koran wrapped inside a leather pouch.

The wrestling ring was lit by several lightbulbs on wires strung across posts in the ground, powered by a generator the village had rented for the tournament. Several wrestling matches went on in the ring simultaneously, so you could choose which to spectate. The matches lasted anywhere from a few minutes to twenty. Wrestlers sometimes picked each other up and threw each other, but sometimes they locked in a head-to-head pushing position for minutes at a time. It looked exhausting.

I was impressed by how big and in-shape the wrestlers were. Jack, one of the visiting PCVs, told me that in his village, there are a few wrestlers who go around to households at night eating other people’s leftovers in addition to their own families’ dinners, in order to buff up.

I missed the third night of the wrestling tournament because an important visitor came to my village. Serignes make annual tours to villages of their followers on the days following Tabaski, and on that night, a major Tidian serigne, Adi Niasse, came to give a teaching in my village. The event was held under a tent set up outside the mosque, and the village rented a generator to power five or six fluorescent lights and a loudspeaker system. The serigne was late, and while we waited several older men and a young boy about 12 years old who had a beautiful voice recited verses of the Koran and sang religious songs over the loud speaker. After three hours waiting, the serigne drove up in an American SUV around 10 PM, and the crowd was overjoyed. After a series of welcome speeches by villagers, the serigne gave a teaching that lasted a couple hours. I had trouble following him because of my still-limited Wolof skills and because I was falling asleep through most of it. The next day, though, Papa explained that the teaching focused on the importance of family, and the role that mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and grandparents should play in supporting other family members. At the end of the teaching, some young men came around collecting small donations to thank the serigne. The serigne was tired and left before eating a meal my family had prepared for him, which I could tell disappointed my father and his brother Aliou. However, they were happy to say that the serigne invited them to his house in Dakar in December.


I am now in Kaolack,the regional capital, for a few days’ break and to celebrate Thanksgiving at a Peace Corps regional house here. Kaolack is a crossroads for several major highways leading to other areas of the country. There is a large salt refinery on the outskirts of the city, near large piles of smoldering trash that line the highways leading out of the city. Once you get off the main streets, the residential areas of Kaolack are pretty quiet. Most of the streets in residential areas are wide and dirt, and often have huge puddles during the rainy season that require a car, horse cart, or bike to drive through. Almost all the houses are made out of cinder blocks, and
almost all are single story, so the city is quite spread out. Thereare very few trees, and the city has been very hot and dusty. The downtown area has a large vegetable market surrounded by shops selling electronics, plasticware, cloth, tools, even a supermarket catering to
foreigners with imported cheeses and cereal. Kaolack kind of reminds me of a hot, dusty Nepali Terai city like Biratnagar.

Early morning in Kaolack. A man is pulling a cart of peanuts. In the background is a mural of a serigne.

The Peace Corps regional house here is a place for volunteers to a break from the village, do paperwork, and use the internet. About 25 volunteers are here to cook a Thanksgiving meal, with turkeys someone was able to find and brought in from their village. Everyone is helping to cook, and I look forward to digging in later this afternoon. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Counterparts, the capital, power cuts, and the end of training

Pre-service training is almost over, and about a week remains before I move into my permanent site, Sama Ndiayen.

The other week I participated in a "counterpart workshop" at the training center in Thies. Each Peace Corps volunteer is assigned two Senegalese counterparts who are either residents of the volunteer's village, or are professionals working in the volunteer's field, such as NGO workers or government officials. The (unpaid) role of the counterpart is to facilitate the volunteer's work mainly by introducing him/her to people in the community who are interested in working together, and by providing advice when needed. Peace Corps chooses counterparts for volunteers, after consulting members of the community. The counterpart workshop was held so that volunteers and counterparts could get to know each other, and discuss future work we will do upon moving to our villages.

I enjoyed the chance to spend time with my two counterparts. One counterpart, Mass Gaye-Diey, is a forester at Eaux et Foret, the government agency for forestry and water management. He works in the arondissment (administrative unit) that includes my village, Sama Ndiayen, but is living in the regional capital, Kaolack. He is a large man with a large smile and deep laugh who rolls his own cigarettes. Although I don't anticipate seeing him on a regular basis, he seemed open to meeting at his office to answer questions I might have, and also said that he would come to visit me in my village.

My other counterpart, Papa Dia, will be a neighbor of mine in Sama Ndiayen. He is a small-time farmer, but also a baker. He owns an oven and bakes tapalapa, a delicious and hearty type of baguette that is generally found only in villages. (In cities, an airier, less delicious "machine bread" is available, which ironically is more expensive and has a certain prestige attached to it so that many people who can afford it, buy it instead. Tapalapa is often used to make sandwiches with a bean sauce called ndambe, eaten for breakfast.) Papa Dia, my counterpart, was one of the quieter participants in the workshop sessions, but when he did speak he seemed to have precision and purpose. He also seems to have a clever sense of humor, and I look forward to working with him. As part of the workshop, Peace Corps had me teach a short Nepali language class to counterparts to demonstrate the difficulty of learning a new language (although many already speak French, Arabic, or a second Senegalese language), and since then Papa has been greeting me with a "Namaste!"

The workshop took place amid ongoing protests in Thies and elsewhere in the country over power outages. The power company Senelec claims that the government has been failing to pay subsidies owed, and has responded by cutting electricity for large parts of the day, and so "Coupelec" has become its common name. In some cases, protesters are also expressing discontent with the government of Abdoulaye Wade, the neoliberal-leaning president of the country since 2000, who many speculate is grooming his son, Karim, to replace him in 2012.

After the counterpart workshop, we had our first free weekend since arriving in Senegal, which most of us spent at the beach. We went to Popenguine, a beach town with many houses and bungalows owned by foreigners and wealthy Senegalese. The beach was beautiful; there were bluffs overlooking the sea and decent-size surf, and I had a good time try to body surf. I spent most of the time at the beach but also ventured into the town, which had a number of shops catering to vacationers and a prominent cathedral. After Islam, Catholicism is Senegal's most populous religion (about 5%).

After the weekend at the beach, we spent one day in Dakar as part of training, in order to get acquainted with the city (for most of us, it was our in the capital), and attend a security presentation by an embassy regional security officer. We visited the downtown area first, which has many high rises, fancy shops (we stopped for some pricy but good ice cream), shady tree-lined sidewalks, an underground tunnel, and a cosmopolitan feel. Compared to the contrast between Kathmandu and rural Nepal, the contrast between downtown Dakar and rural Senegal seemed even more stark. In Nepal, disparity in wealth is extreme, but Kathmandu is only just beginning to be partitioned into neighborhoods of the wealthy and their commercial centers as separate from poorer neighborhoods. Downtown Dakar, however, had few signs of the serious poverty that exists elsewhere in the country. The government recently banned talibes, or Quranic students, from begging in parts of the city, and I didn't see any beggars during our short walk in downtown.

After seeing downtown, we drove up the beachside promenade known as "The Corniche" to the American club/American school compound, where we attended the security presentation. Some of us accidentally walked into the school during lunchtime, where a mix of white and African kids were playing soccer on a manicured field. The American club had a pool and restaurant. Following our security presentation, we drove further north, past the giant bronze African Renaissance Monument (recently commissioned by the government and built by a North Korean firm), to the Dakar Peace Corps office. We had a brief tour of the office and met with staff there, who seemed very friendly and helpful, before driving back to Thies.

The Dakar trip was followed by one last week in Ker Madaro with my host family. I worked on my Wolof skills by carrying around a pen and paper wherever I went, writing down words in conversation that I did not understand. Although I have a lot left to learn, I think that my language skills will be adequate for moving into Sama Ndiaye and beginning work.

School registration also began while I was in Ker Madaro - a several week-long process where students come in to register, before classes actually begin. In Senegal, government primary school is free for all, but after 6th grade, students must pass a test in order to continue to attending government college (equivalent to middle school). Another test must be passed in order to attend government lycee (high school). Students who fail the tests may attend private school, but tuition can be expensive and there are problems with the quality of education.

I continued to enjoy spending time with my host family, and they continued to take excellent care of me. I often spent afternoons sitting under the neem (Azadirachta indica) tree in our yard, chatting with my host sisters or visiting neighbors. For my last night in the village, I bought a couple chickens and we had a lovely meal of chicken, potatoes, onion, and "boisson." I was sad to leave my family, and a few other friends I made in Ker Madaro, but I also look forward to being in Sama Ndiaye and beginning work. I plan to go back to visit Ker Madaro when I return to Thies in December for "in-service training," two weeks of tech-intensive agroforestry training.

I took a few photos of my host family and Ker Madaro, which I attached below.

A family shot.

Aram, my host sister, with Nday, her neice.

Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in the fields outside Ker Madaro.

The ladies of the house: Nogay, Fatou, and Aram (carrying Nday).

The road outside my host family house, with a small mosque on the left and and a Ficus spp. tree on the right.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Football (soccer) and superstitions

Approximately two weeks of pre service training remain. Since my last post, I have been spending most of my time in Ker Madaro, living with my homestay family and focusing on learning Wolof.

As my Wolof skills have been improved, I have learned more about my homestay family. The father, Malick Seck, is a farmer who grows mangoes, watermelons, peanuts, cowpeas, and some millet. His focus, like many Senegalese farmers, seems to be on cash crops. Almost 60% of grain consumed in Senegal is imported from abroad. Although millet can grow quite well in the sandy, nutrient-poor soils of Senegal, many people who can afford it prefer to eat rice. Much of the rice comes from Thailand and elsewhere in Asia. Unfortunately, rice lacks the nutritional value that millet has.

I have also learned that my father is an imam at one of Ker Madaro’s several mosques. My father often comes home late at night from the mosque, but I hadn’t realized his prominent role until about a week ago. I found out in a round-about way, at a village soccer game, when I asked a Senegalese friend why my host sister, Aram, wasn’t at the match. He explained that Malick was an imam, and like many imams, was rather protective of his daughters and generally does not allow them to attend sports events.

Although I have not spoken with Malick as much as I have with other members of the family, I enjoy his presence. He has a lovely smile and laughs at jokes that I try to make in Wolof. Like most Senegalese Muslims, he seems very tolerant of other faiths and non-doctrinaire; I was actually quite surprised to hear that he doesn’t allow Aram to attend football matches.

My mother, Nogay Njay (wives don’t change their names in Senegal), spends most of her days selling mangoes to travelers along the highway. She has several close friends around her age who frequent our house in the evenings to chat with her and catch up on news.

My three siblings who live at home, Aram, Nogay, and Mamu, range in age from 20 to 33. Aram, the youngest, is unmarried and spends most days doing household work. She was living in Dakar until several months ago, where she cooked and sold snacks near the airport. Since returning to our village, she continues to sell ndambe (a cow pea sauce) to friends and neighbors, who come by in the mornings and evenings with baguettes on which she spreads the ndambe. Mamu, the brother, is a bus driver in Dakar but returns to Ker Madaro on the weekends to spend time with his wife, Issa, and their two young children, who also live in our compound. Nogay, the middle sister, lives next door with her husband and three children.

I also learned that Malick has two sons living and working in Italy, doing some sort of sales work. Because of high rates of unemployment at home (around 50% - not sure who is considered unemployed), many Senegalese migrate to Europe and elsewhere in Africa to find work. In Africa, the oil industries in Libya and Mauritania attract Senegalese migrants, but Ivory Coast and Gabon have also been historically important destinations. In Europe, France was traditionally a major destination for Senegalese workers, but once mandatory visas for Senegalese were imposed in the 1980s, people began to go increasingly to Spain and Italy. There are several hundred thousand foreign workers in Senegal also, from countries like Guinea, Lebanon, and Mali. Lebanese people began immigrating in the late 1800s, under French rule, and there are many ethnically Lebanese business people in Senegal today involved in the peanut trade and other sales. Many of them were born here and speak Senegalese languages, and I have heard that many have obtained Senegalese citizenship. The Malians I have met in Senegal were also involved in trade - selling Nescafe and baguettes.

During my time off in Ker Madaro, I’ve been playing a bit of football and also spectated at two matches between the team of Ker Madaro and the teams nearby villages. They were fairly big events, with several hundred people in attendance, taking buses or walking several miles to see the match. The crowd was mostly young men and boys, but there was also a small contingent of young women who were very dressed up and cheered on the teams by drumming on buckets and singing. Before the matches, I tried to ask people for the predictions as to who would win, but it seemed that people very reluctant to speculate – “Yalla rekka xam”, or God only knows, was the most common response. (In Senegal, many people seem to be superstitious about jinxing chances of success by being overly confident. Also, there is an aversion to counting people, for fear that if people are counted, they may die.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Second impressions"

Pre-service training continues, and we are now beginning week six. I have been continuing to spend most of my time in Ker Madaro, focusing on Wolof language classes, but I’ve also had the opportunity to travel a bit.

I neglected to mention in my last post that I am learning Wolof, the lingua franca for most of Senegal. The Wolof are the largest ethnic group, making up about four tenths of the population in the country. Most people of minority ethnic groups speak Wolof in addition to their mother tongue. Other major languages spoken in Senegal are Pulaar (forms of which are spoken in several other West African countries as well), Sereer, Mandinka, and Jaxanke. French is used by government officials for official work and it is taught in government schools, so many children speak some French. But French is not widely spoken in many villages, so most Peace Corps volunteers learn Wolof or another Senegalese language in training.

We received our site assignments about a week ago, and I just returned from a “volunteer visit” to the village of a current volunteer who lives one kilometer from the village where I will eventually be living permanently. The two villages are in the region of Kaolack, which is in the central “peanut basin” of Senegal, three to four hours’ drive southeast from Dakar. (Peanut farming was prioritized under French rule, and peanuts remain one of Senegal’s major exports, but I’ve heard that these days the “cash crop” is becoming less and less profitable for farmers. The government buys the bulk of the peanuts, but the prices they offer are often inadequate. Peanuts also degrade the soil, despite being nitrogen-fixers, because farmers harvest them by removing the whole plant, tearing up the soil and leaving little in the way of soil organic matter in situ.)

The volunteer I visited, Jen, lives in Fass Toucalour, a Pulaar village with about 300 residents. She speaks excellent Pulaar and I was impressed by the rapport she has with people in the village, and the work she has done so far. She is working with a farmer in her village to establish a new “master farm.” Master farms are functioning farms that are also demonstration sites for the agricultural and agroforestry techniques, varieties, and technologies that Peace Corps is promoting. Farmers in surrounding villages can come to master farms to observe and gain first-hand experience. The master farmers are provided small payment from Peace Corps in return for their commitment to try new farming technologies, and share their knowledge with other farmers, in conjunction with Peace Corps volunteers. The master farmer in Fass Toucalour, Abdul Salaam, seems like a lovely man, very motivated to try new techniques and excited to share his knowledge with others. He took us on a tree tour when we visited him, and pointed out about 20 species and listed each one’s many medicinal uses. I am looking forward to working with him once I move to my site.

During the volunteer visit, we also made a brief visit to my site, the village of Sama Ndiaye, which is only a ten minute walk from Fass Toucalour. Sama Ndiaye is nearly 100% Wolof, with a population of about 500. I will be living in the compound of the chief of the village, Mbay “Babakar” Njay. I didn’t have enough time to meet everyone in the family, or really talk with those that I did meet, but I did meet with Mbay, one of his sons, and the mother of the family. I look forward to getting to know them once I move in, one month from now. Sama Ndiaye, the village, is in a beautiful area, which is very green now, during the summer rainy season. Large baobab trees and other amazing looking species like “haal” (in Wolof, not sure about the English name) are interspersed occasionally among fields of millet, peanuts, manioc, beans, corn, and other crops. I look forward very much to returning once training is over.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First Impressions

I have been in Senegal for almost two weeks now. While I have had time to form some initial impressions of the country, my experiences has been very limited so far – I haven’t seen much of the country, and two weeks is really not long at all to learn about a place.

The trip over here was comfortable. Our group of 60 + Peace Corps volunteers flew into Dakar’s Leopold Senghor international airport, named after Senegal’s first president, a poet, socialist and independence leader whose party, in various iterations, ruled the country from independence in 1960 (Senegal had been part of French West Africa) until 2000. We drove from the airport directly to Thies, a city of about one million people and the location of the Peace Corps training center. Thies is about an hour’s drive due east of Dakar, which is located on a long peninsula that protrudes into the Atlantic. Thies is pronounced “Chez.”

The group of Peace Corps volunteers spent the first five days ensconced within the walls of the training center; we had a lot of forms to fill out, vaccinations to receive, and classes on cultural and practical matters to attend before we were allowed to venture out into the city (classes included instruction on eating and drinking tea Senegal-style, using a squat toilet, and taking bucket baths among other things) It felt a bit odd to be kept secluded for our first few days in Senegal.

Our first day in Senegal was also the first day of Ramadan, which is observed with fasting by most of the 95% of the Senegalese population that is Muslim (children, pregnant women, and others with demanding lifestyles do not fast). I have not tried fasting, but am impressed by the will power of those who do. It must be extremely difficult to go without water during the day during this hot month of the year. So far, Senegal has seemed to have a sleepy feel to it; I wonder if this will change when Ramadan is over.

On our fifth day in Senegal, we were allowed a visit into the city. Thies’s central market neighborhood is a bustling place, with many stores and open-air stalls selling a wide variety of things – produce, cloth, electronics, tailoring services, food. One of Senegal’s main railways, from Dakar to Bamako, Mali, runs through the middle of town. Taxis, private cars and motor scooters drive along potholed streets, sometimes driving up along the sidewalk to avoid pond-size puddles (it is the middle of the rainy season now). Some large trees, like African mohagany and neem and others I don’t recognize, line some of the wide thoroughfares, which are laid out more or less in a grid. Paved streets are partially covered over by sand, which seems ubiquitous in Senegal. The city’s layout has the feel of grand ambitions, but the poverty apparent on the streets belies the plans. Disparity in wealth is apparent Thies; alongside private cars and outside walled compounds of the wealthy are beggars, including talibes, young boys sent by village families to study at Qu’ranic schools in the city, who beg for their food.

After five days at the training center in Thies, we trainees were sent out to various villages and smaller towns to live with host families and take intensive language classes as part of our community-based training. I was assigned to the small town of Ker Madaro, a twenty minute drive from Thies, along with three other volunteers and our language instructor, Aissatou Mbaye. Ker Madaro is a sleepy-feeling small town, along the main road and railway to Mali. Older women sell mangos to buses and travelers along the highway. Inside town, there is a small government health clinic and school, where we held our language classes. There are a number of large open streets and public lots in town, and big beautiful trees where people relax under the shade, sitting on plastic mats. There are many, many children. It feels like there are five people under age 10 for every one over age 20. It is right now summer break, so I don’t have a sense of how many of the kids attend school.

My host family’s name is Seck, and they live in a cinder-block house, with a tin roof, sort of in the middle of town. My host father, Malick, is probably about 60 years old and is a farmer with fields on the edge of town. He and his wife, Nogay, who I think is also about 50, have one son, Mamu, and two daughters, Aram and Nogay. Mamu is probably in his mid-twenties and spends most of his time in Dakar, where he has a job as a driver. Mamu is married to a woman named Issa. Issa gave birth to a baby boy on the day that I arrived, who will be given a name one week after birth in a baptism ceremony. Mamu’s sister, Aram, also lives in Dakar, where she has a cleaning job at the airport, but she returned to Ker Madaro to help with household work while Issa is recovering from the birth.

With three employed people in the household, the Seck family is better off than many; I have heard that almost half the population in Senegal is unemployed. Many unemployed people venture into the city in search of work, and approximately half of the country’s population now lives in the Dakar area.

While the Secks don’t have electricity, they do have a water tap in their courtyard so they don’t have to pull water from the well, at least when the tap is working. They are very generous to me, and they provide food generously to talibes who come begging in the morning and evening.

Some things in Senegal seem familiar. I have seen similar poverty while growing up in Nepal, and in some ways I think poor people live in the same way around the world, out of necessity. Cheap rubber sandals, overcrowded buses, polluting vehicles, trash heaps along the side of the road, bucket baths and squat toilets are common throughout much of the world.

However, culturally Senegal seems very new. I know very little about Islam and hope to learn more.

One striking difference between Senegal and Nepal is in the way people eat. In Nepal, there is a concept called “juto” – the idea that food shouldn’t be eaten if it is touched by others, or if it is prepared by someone from a lower caste. In Senegal, however, everyone eats together with their hands from a large communal bowl. The most common dish is ceebu jen, rice with fish and sometimes other vegetables like carrots, manioc, potato, eggplant, and bitter tomato. One eats the food that is closest to one in the bowl, and must make sure not to take too much so as to ensure everyone has enough to eat. If there is only one piece of vegetable or meat left, older family members break it up and dole it out evenly.

Greetings are a sort of ritual in Senegal. When walking down the street, it is customary to greet everyone you meet, at least in villages and small towns. “Assalamalekum! Malekum Salaam! How are you? Peace only. How is the family? Peace only. How is the work? It walks. The heat? Very hot. The rain? A lot of rain.” It can go on for minutes. The standardized greetings make it easy to pass oneself off as speaking the language better than one actually does. Questions and answers are exchanged at rapid fire speed, and people often say the greetings softly without real force to their words. Although one might see it as empty talk, it provides a way to open conversations with complete strangers.