Thursday, February 3, 2011

12 Professions

I regret being so late with this blog entry, but here is an update on what I’ve been doing and some of my observations over the past couple months.

Training and Traveling

In December I spent a few weeks at the Peace Corps training center in the city of Thies, where I attended an all-volunteer conference and an in-service agroforestry training. The conference was a chance for volunteers to share work they have been doing. I attended some interesting sessions, including one on community gardening and saw some of the appropriate technologies volunteers are teaching people to use, like a solar fruit drier. The in-service training covered some agfo topics we didn’t have time for during pre-service training, like seed collection, pruning and grafting fruit trees. We also took some interesting field trips, including one to a Catholic monastery near Dakar, where Senegalese and foreign monks manage a large orchard – mostly citrus. The orchard was equipped with a lot of technologies that are not readily available to the average Senegalese farmer, like drip irrigation and a mechanized well and water tower, but it was nonetheless interesting to see a successful large scale orchard in Senegal, and to be among so many verdant trees.

After the training I spent a few days in Dakar, where I had the chance to meet up with my Senegalese friend from college, Bass, who’s working in New York but was home on a short vacation. With so little time back at home, he was trying to visit as many family members as possible, so we went around the city in his car, greeting various family members at their homes, who were all very welcoming and excited to see Bass after years away. Visiting his relatives was a view into a very different side of Senegalese life from what I’ve experienced in my village. We ate lunch at the house of one of his uncles, a retired geology professor. The ceebu jen was delicious, and I asked Bass’s aunt if she’d cooked it. She said no, it was cooked by their maid, and that she was not a housewife but a veterinary doctor!

I was also in Dakar at the time of the Black Arts Festival, an international event with concerts, art exhibits, theater, and panel discussions on Africa and the diaspora. This was the third Black Arts Festival; the first was held in Dakar in 1966 under Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, and the second was held in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. The government sponsored the event as a celebration of African people and identity, but critics claim that it was a misuse of government money and a conduit for corruption. For example, my friend Bass said that the government bought a fleet of luxury cars for the festival, which will probably be given to officials afterwards. The festival also seemed like it was used to increase the ruling party’s prestige – I saw posters with President Wade’s photo posted next to the likes of great African leaders like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

I didn’t manage to see much of the festival itself, except for one concert by a band from Martinique that I attended with some other volunteers. It was held at night on a big stage with a state of the art light and sound system and big TV screens, on a wide street downtown. The street was packed, and it seemed to be mostly men in the audience. The music had a jazzy Latin flavor, I liked the conga percussion. When the concert finished around midnight, a bunch of young men on motorbikes began doing wheelies up and down the street, zooming by crowds of people walking home.

Language seminar

In January I left my village for another training, this time a Wolof seminar in the village of a nearby volunteer who hosted me, another volunteer and our language instructor, Aissatou, for four days of intensive language training. Aissatou is a great teacher and I feel like I learned a lot during the four days. Jam Agen, the village we were in, is more ethnically diverse and also seemed wealthier than Sama Ndiayen – our host family served us a luxurious breakfast of cere (cous cous) with milk every day. The village seemed to receive more political patronage than others I’ve visited. For example, we talked to women from a cooperative that received a tractor and other equipment for growing hibiscus for exporting to France from Viviane Wade, the president’s French-born wife. One afternoon an organizer from Wade’s party came to the house we were staying in, encouraging people to sign up to vote in2012.

As part of class one day we visited an agricultural research station just outside the village, run by the government of Senegal Agricultural Research Institute (ISRA). ISRA has several research stations in different parts of the country where they develop seed and do ag-extension work. The station in Jam Agen had some old pretty buildings and warehouses among mahogany trees, surrounded by many hectares of fields. We happened to go on the day of a retirement party for three older employees who had been at the station a long time, and they invited us in for snacks and soft drinks, and we listened to people make speeches for a few hours. One of the retirees talked about how he had come from a distant part of Senegal and had spent most of his career living at the station, and raised his family there, and how the whole research station was like one big family. It reminded me of Pakhribas, an old agricultural research station run by the Nepali and British governments I once visited, where British and Nepali researchers and their families once lived and worked in community in the hills in eastern Nepal.

Douze Mecci, Jack of All Trades

The more time I spend in my village, the more impressed I become by the array of skills the average villager has. It seems like he/ she can farm, cook, sew, butcher animals, care for sick animals, construct housing and fencing, even repair electronics. A few examples:

The other evening I wandered over to my counterpart Papa's house, where I found him fixing a Chinese LED flashlight. He was sottering the wires to the circuitboard using some sottering metal he bought at the weekly market (luma) and a crooked nail he heated up over coals on his tea stove. I held my flashlight for him so he could see what he was doing, and before long the broken flashlight was as good as new. People here use the term "douze mecci," literally "twelve professions," as the equivalent of our "jack of all trades." Papa, who in addition to being a proficient flashlight fixer has also worked as a bread baker, farmer, photographer, and mason, likes to say with a laugh that he is a "quatorze mecci."

I also learned a bit about hut construction the other day, when I helped my neighbors construct a new thatch roof. As is common in Senegal, many people pitched in to help - both family and friends. (As remuneration, the hosting family prepared snacks and lunch for the group of about eight workers, but the workers can also expect labor in return when it comes time to repair their own roofs.)

We used dried grass for the thatch, which is easy to find now. The landscape around my village has turned more and more brown with the absence of rain for the past three and a half months, and a dry, dusty wind that usually blows from the east. Using rope made from the bark of a tree called gigis, we made the thatch in sections by lashing the grass to a taught metal wire on the ground. The frame of the roof was made using eucalyptus poles, which the men hammered together using nails home-made from cable rebar. The frame was hoisted on top of the hut's four cement walls. The sections of thatch were rolled up and handed to someone on top of the roof, who unrolled them onto the frame, starting from the bottom and working up.

During a break I was sitting in the shade with my neighbor Tamsir, who asked me about construction in America. I told him I'd done some roofing work there, and while the principle of working from the bottom to the top was the same, we used very different materials, like rubber shingles. He was also surprised to learn that most houses in the US are made from wood. Milled wood is very expensive in Senegal, because most of it is imported, although eucalyptus and neem branches are commonly used in my village as poles for roofs and fencing. Tamsir said that he had heard buildings were much sturdier in America. I said that generally they are, and it's partly because we have better materials available, and partly because construction workers are very skilled. I explained that in the US, most people specialize in just one thing, which they get very good at, but usually they don't have as many diverse skills as the typical Senegalese "Douze mecci."

With eight or so people, constructing the new roof took all day. I am told that roofs are typically replaced every two years, and I can see why they are not replaced more often, it’s a lot of work.

Peanut Press

The price of peanuts fell this year, so many people have begun processing the oil themselves. My host uncle recently acquired a small peanut press, made from a couple old oil drums, a metal plate, and a car jack. The peanuts are pounded and then steamed in a drum over a fire of peanut shells, before being pressed into oil. The peanut meal left over after pressing can be mixed with water and fed to horses, a good source of energy as the dry season progresses and fodder becomes scarcer.

The intricacies of peanut sales are pretty confusing. From what I understand, a parastatal company sets the price for peanuts in Senegal (although I’ve read that the peanut market has become more privatized since Socialist Party rule ended in 2000). This year, the government/parastatal company that buys peanuts is offering lower prices than had been promised (only about 125 CFA/kilo, rather than 150 or 160). According to the master farmer I work with, Abdoul Salaam, the government/parastatal has the money to buy peanuts at the higher price, but corrupt officials are saying that they can only afford the lower price and pocketing the extra. However I’ve heard a conflicting explanation from someone else, that the government is waiting until the hunger season before the next harvest to pay farmers for their peanuts, so farmers will have money when they need it most. I’m still not sure what the true story is, but peanut farmers I’ve talked with are upset and worried.

My neighbor and cousin Aladji Gaye steaming peanuts before pressing them.

Mosquito net distribution

The government of Senegal is implementing a universal mosquito net distribution campaign, and last week nets were distributed in my village. The idea behind universal net coverage is that if everyone is using nets and no one is carrying the malaria bacteria in their blood, then mosquitoes will stop carrying malaria too and malaria can be eliminated from the community (anopheles mosquitoes only carry malaria once they’ve bitten someone who is a carrier).

I was impressed with how well the distribution went. The health post in my road town, Keur Socce, coordinated the net distribution for the region, but it seemed like much of the work was done by villagers who volunteered their time. My counterpart Papa brought the bales of nets to Sama Ndiayen from Keur Socce on his horse cart the day before the distribution. The bales said the nets were made in China, and they were marked USAID, which helped finance the project. On the morning of the distribution, one worker from the health post came out to help with distribution, and along with three or four village women and Papa we set up operations under a mango tree by the school. We removed each net from its packaging, and wrote the recipient’s name on it (about a month ago, the health post surveyed our village and determined how many nets each household needed based on the number of uncovered beds they saw). I think the rationale for writing on the nets is to prevent theft and to make them harder to resell/ more likely to be used by the recipients. Although I think most people wouldn’t have tried to resell their nets, it could be tempting for very poor people, especially now during the dry season, when there are very few mosquitoes. People came from Sama Ndiayen and two nearby villages, and gathered around while Papa and the women gave out the nets. In the end, every recipient family came to pick up their nets, and only one net went missing (the health worker said the post would provide an extra).

The net distribution.

At master farm during a field visit by our APCD/ open field day. From the top left: Abdoul Karim Ba (chief of Fass Toucaleur), Youssoupha Boye (the ag APCD), Abdoul Salam Ba (the master farmer), Jenn Richards and Jenny Wysong (my PCV neighbors), unknown. Bottom row: Sengan Sen (who helps out at the master farm frequently), Babakar Njay (my father), me (the other Babakar Njay), Papa Dia (my counterpart), and another person I don't know.

Motivational speaker

My volunteer neighbor Jenn Richards recently hosted a talk in her village by Awa Traore, the Peace Corps head of gender and development programs, who was on a speaking tour in our region. I invited people from my village to come too, and about 15 showed up in addition to 40 or so from Jenn’s village. Awa talked a bit about the role of Peace Corps volunteers and gender roles in the village, but what stuck with me most was what she said about education. Education is about finding out who you are, she said; it’s about discovering where your strengths and passions lie (roughly translated). She encouraged parents to nurture their children’s interests, both sons and daughters, and to send them to school through higher education. The average Senegalese school seems far from being oriented towards self-discovery (classes consist of rote memorization), but I think this is an ideal for education in Senegal and everywhere to aspire to.

In my Sama Ndiayen, you may be awakened from a nap by a horse licking your face.


Some girls from my family in front of the village school.