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.