As Assistant Coordinator of AVN Senegal I am in charge of research and development on training and technical issues and co-manage deployment in the field while assisting with strategy and networking.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feasting in Senegal

Poached fish, fresh veggies, stewed rabbit, and stuffed chicken

Life has been good and food bountiful at my garden these days.

 Catfish from the stream in my garden. Such a succulent meaty fish! I fried thick slabs of it over the fire with garlic, oil, and fresh basil. After taking that first scorching, juicy, delicious bite I had to sit down, take deep breaths, and talk myself into remaining calm and eating slowly. Maybe I'm a bit protein starved. Or maybe it was that good.

 Fruits of the garden. Moringa leaves on the left--these tree leaves are more nutrient rich than spinach and ubiquitous in my garden now--in the bowl are pigeon pea pods (like green beans that grow on trees) basil, and tomatoes.

 Skinning the first of my rabbits to be turned into lunch. Browned with onion and garlic then slow stewed it with beans, rice, eggplant, carrots, peppers and basil. I shared lunch with my grandfather at the farm and then took all the leftovers home for dinner where my family quickly cleaned the bowl. My brother enthused over the meal, praising the meat and my skill. Afterwards his wife declared simply, "Mustafa mën na togg," "Mustafa can cook." Jealous, sis?

 My latest in a series of trial and error designs to develop the perfect low-cost rabbit hutch. This is my ultimate winner. Built entirely out of branches of the tree Azadirachta indica bent and woven together. I used a negligent amount of twine and to make the floor I pay 1500 CFA ($3) for a meter of wire mesh which I brace with more branches underneath. It is durable, portable, easy to build, cheap, and with the shady interior and wire bottom provides a cool sanitary environment. I have built four already and intend to complete many more.

Christmas dinner in Toubacouta with a bunch of the other volunteers! We had garlic mashed potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce, green beans, home-made chocolate chip cookies, and snacks brought fresh off the plane from the USA by one of my good friend's brother and cousin who are here visiting. I baked banana bread and stuffed and baked two chickens and another of my rabbits Thanksgiving-style. It's a rare occasion that I get to stuff myself to repletion here but this was one of those times. Excellent breakfast leftovers too.

I sure miss being home with family and friends in the States but we survive here.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Back to Work

Hermit house

I decided to build myself a hut out at my garden. I already spend so much time here working on my plants and trees that I thought it would be great to have another cool, shady retreat for the hot part of the day and a comfortable shelter for spending the night when I don't feel like leaving the the tranquility of the bush. I also just love building forts, so it wasn't a hard sell.

 Stage one of my cob hut. A shady spot with a commanding view of my garden, the water, and the distant fields and forest. The plan is to dig down inside while building up, using the excavated sandy soil mixed with clay from a nearby termite mound as building material. End goal is a building half submerged underground and with thick (12-18inch) walls to keep the inside cool even on the 110+ degree days.

 Progressing slowly, or "ndank ndank" as we say here. Working by myself is really fun and relaxed but definitely incremental.

 Getting help from another volunteer, Tracy, who hung out for a few days before she left for Dakar and then on to other adventures, her two years in Senegal finished. The four separate pits in the bottom are all for mixing cob. My mixture is four buckets of clay (~50 liters) hacked from the termite mound mixed with roughly equal parts sandy subsoil carved out of the floor and walls of my hut, ~20 liters water, and an armful of chopped straw.

 Using a half of a steel barrel as support for the arch over the doorway. Also planted two papaya trees out front to give shade and fruit.

 Cob stomping laborers are always welcome!

 I had a whole crew working for me this day so I set up of chain of kids to pass the cob out of the pits and up on to the tops of the walls. At this point the side walls are finished, just the front and back remain, to set up for an A frame roof. The roof will be a series of eucalyptus rafters covered by a layer of millet stalks and then all covered completely with cob, leaving an air-tight cob-insulated

Current status: walls almost complete. Have cut roof beams and rafters and left them to dry while I finish up the walls and inner excavation. My efforts have drawn increasing interest from my community and surrounding villages. A surprising number of people come out to the farm I work on to visit with my grandfather who spends all day out there keeping birds from eating the ripening rice. Now that word has spread of the strange creations of the white man almost all these visitors cross the water to my side of the garden to satisfy their curiosity. While the cob hut is undoubtedly the main attraction it provides a great chance for me to share the other projects I'm working on, including cob oven, terraced beds of fruits and veggies, mango trees I've recently pruned and grafted, and the various other tree species interspersed throughout my garden.

 After-rain remodeling

The rainy season left me with a lot of weeding and repair work to rebuild what Bevan and I had created by the end of last dry season. But having the outline all in place helped significantly. Many of our cob berms needed only a fresh layer of cob, having held up to the rain quite well. The beds closer to the water, however, are still saturated and have succumbed almost entirely to weeds and swampiness. I can only wait for the water level to recede before reclaiming these lower beds.

Enlisting Andalla's help to re-cob the inside of the oven. The wet season didn't harm my oven too much but after a season of baking and then months of rain it needed a remodel. This kid was gutsy (and small) enough to slide inside the oven on his belly and plaster wet mud all over the walls and ceiling.

 Re-finished oven, outside and in. Ready for another season of baking

 The new coterie of clay heads I made to disturb and fascinate any visitors. I found I can scrape rust out of my barrels and mix with water for orange and brown paint, and use powered charcoal for black.

 Sunset on my walk home after another day of work in the garden

Other exploits

Another new hobby while out in the bush is slingshot hunting. This was a beautiful iridescent blue-purple bird that I just stunned and caught before letting it go. Other less flashy and larger breasted birds like bush pigeons don't get away so easy and usually end up as a tasty snack if I manage to hit them.

 Some kids and me spending an afternoon drawing and coloring my wall with chalk

 The bird I drew. Unfortunately it's inevitable that tiny eager child fingers will smear the colorful chalk into oblivion and carve unintelligibly over it with blunt hunks of charcoal. Metaphors for Peace Corps service are ubiquitous.

My yard. Recent boundary disputes and political wrangling resulted in my substantial gain of 10 square meters of ground, where my new cement rabbit hutches now reside (visible in background). My five papaya trees have been growing like crazy, they are already 10-15 feet tall and putting out fruit, yet not even 10 months old. Their broad-leafed canopies and two vigorously spreading passion fruit vines--which have spread between the tops of all my trees already (seed from Brazil, thanks mom)--combine to provide my yard with cool dappled shade. I hope that as I continue to water consistently through the dry season I'll have a mini oasis of shade and greenery encompassing my yard.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rains, fasting, and slaughtering rams


Tabaski is the grandest of all Senegalese holidays. Generally every family slaughters a couple rams (or sheep if you can't get rams, or goats if you can't get sheep--the hierarchy is well-established). It's a mark of pride and status to be able to provide a ram for your family. Generally every man with a wife will provide one, but sometimes it falls on unmarried younger brothers and sons to scrape the money together for the animal. Since my host father and two brothers (all married) had the ram situation well under control I contributed a big sack of onions and another of potatoes. This combined with liberal use of the "no wife, no ram" excuse deflected most of those trying to convince me I should buy my own ram.

The routine for Tabaski in my village went something like this:

Slow morning around the home, eat breakfast, perhaps sweep the courtyard (I made a quick mission to my garden to plant some seeds and go for a run, this kind of behavior is discouraged since Tabaski is one of the few times people here DON'T go work)

Dress in your fancy new clothes bought especially for this day, and go to the big tree outside the village to pray (many women and some guys didn't go--I didn't go, nor did I dress in traditional Senegalese clothing. ***This subject merits further discussion--since I do so much to fit in with my community why don't I wear their clothes? The reason is that I really don't like wearing the traditional men's clothing. I was coerced into it during my time as a Trainee but now that it's up to me I want nothing to do with wearing what feels like an over-sized, starched, waxy, pillowcase. I admit the men look impressive and the women beautiful in their gorgeously patterned and personally tailored clothes, but I don't care to wear them myself. Since I have done so much to integrate here already (language, culture, work, relationships, etc) I feel I deserve some leeway to be an American and in doing so teach my community a bit about my own culture. My clothes are one of the few concessions I allow myself. I wore my best dress slacks and a nice button-up instead).

Come back and change into normal clothes, then slaughter the rams. Immediately afterwards they are all loaded onto a cart and pushed out to a nearby field to be skinned and butchered.

Deliver the meat to the women

Men = sit and talk for the next three days
Women = the same, except they have to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner prepared every day, so usually only dress up and socialize after dinner each night

I read a lot, visited a friend in another village, and spent plenty of time sitting and talking with family and friends around my hut

One of my cousins in his Tabaski splendor

Video of the Tabaski morning ram slaughter. *Disclaimer* Rated "R"-- bloodshed, animal cruelty

 Slaughtering the rams in the morning of the first day

 My brother Abib and me, hanging out in the evening on the second day of Tabaski

 My mom, Aram, and some kids

 My neighbors, dressed up for Tabaski
Troupe of girls in their Tabaski best

Coloring in my room

Baby rabbit. My two rabbits had five babies and they're growing up quick

Part of my awesome crew of kids showing off the shirts I brought them from the US. They are great, always hanging out with me, helping me with chores and projects, and explaining village stuff when I don't feel like talking to adults about it


I did not write this blog in chronological order, since Ramadan happened July 10th to August 8th and Tabaski was October 16th-18th.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, when Muslims fast for 29-30 days during the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. This fasting was not like anything I was used to in the States. Here we woke up at 4:30 am to eat breakfast before the sun rises, then no food or water until sunset at around 7:45 pm. At dusk we would "break fast" with some bread and tea, then eat "lunch" shortly after at around 8:30 pm, followed by very late "dinner" around 11 pm.

I decided from the beginning that I wanted to fast along with my family. I'm not Muslim but I am a part of the community and wanted to show respect and solidarity for their customs. I also wanted to see if I could handle the challenge. Since making the commitment to fast it was never exactly difficult to forgo food and water, i.e. I was never really tempted to cheat. But it was pretty miserable at times. The water. I was never hungry because thirst was so overwhelming. I worked in my garden in the mornings but after about 10 am I was done, and would just nap at the farm then wander home to sit on under the shade of my porch and read, write, draw, listen to music, or talk. People here would often go back out to work in the late afternoon, a truly impressive feat that I did not care to attempt.

Fasting for 30 days was a difficult but rewarding experience. I found myself reaching a peaceful state of focus when reading, writing, or drawing, as if the fasting left me physically drained but mentally sharp--unable to pursue more than one task at a time and often sluggish to switch tasks but when set and in-the-zone I was fully absorbed and all the more effective for the lack of distraction.

Fasting was also a tremendous source of respect and credibility--shared mutually. I got to see the sacrifice and tenacity of people here that fast for a month every year. They in turn where quite surprised that I--an American, non-Muslim, had never fasted before, etc--was able to go without food and water for a month just like them.

My proudest moment here in Senegal was during the morning prayer after the last day of Ramadan when everyone gathered under a giant tree on the outskirts of the village. After we all kneeled, stood, kneeled, stood, and then sat while praying, the Imam (religious leader)--who is my grandfather, neighbor, and friend--lead a prayer of thanks for all that this year had brought. The praying lasted for over an hour, and I had dropped into my own revery of giving thanks for all the wonderful people and events in my life. I awoke from my thoughts when I heard my name from the Imam and glanced up to see many of those kneeling in the huge group around me to be smiling approvingly in my direction. I tuned my ear to the Wolof of the Imam and heard him praising my integration into the community, my openness to learn and share with everyone, my hard work, my compassion, and the importance of work like mine to share our ideas and cultures. It was the greatest compliment I have received here and from a culture notorious for their lack of positive feedback. It meant a great deal to me.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Golden Era of Garden Expansion

One of my best friends from back home, Bevan, paid me a surprise visit. He had been traveling for the last several months in East Africa but had led me to believe he was in New Zealand working. Then rumor reached my ear that "a strange tall man with a large beard and some kind of foreign accent" had showed up in the regional Peace Corps office looking for me. I had no clue who this stranger could be until I narrowed down the list of conceivable bearded traveling friends I have to one: Bevan. I was still in a state of denial, repressing my excitement that he could actually be here, so I went about my day in the surrounding villages, visiting some friends and buying supplies at the market. When my host family called to tell me a visitor was there looking for me I finally believed it was true, and raced my bike home just before dusk to find Bevan waiting for me in my tiny village in the middle of the bush. This was no small for feat for him, given he knows no Wolof or French, and managed to find me by using my address and a picture of me off my blog. Since nobody here in Senegal nows me as Patrick (it's Mustafa), he had to show people a photo of me and repeat the name of my village. This tactic worked surprising well.

After a joyous reunion, we settled into a solid work schedule, spending every day out at my garden working, coming home each evening exhausted after digging, watering, foraging, weeding, landscaping, planting, etc. We've been busy turning my humble garden space into a stellar botanical resort complete with mud-brick terraces and a bench with rice-sack pillows. Our main building material is cob--a combination of clayey soil, straw, and water which once mixed and set, hardens into brick-like rigidity. Here are some pics of our progress:

Bevan and me relaxing on our lounge couch. Naturally this was the first thing we built.

 The original part of my garden, now dubbed the Sculpture Park after our contoured terraces and decorative cob spheres.

 We started building in patterns on our main staircase as well. Some of these superfluous design additions draw skeptical or confused looks, but most people like them.

 Some local kids enjoying a fresh watermelon from my garden. The mangos are also exploding on the trees right now, meaning the most delicious snack breaks imaginable on days that never stay below 100F

 The largest section of the great garden expansion Bevan and I have been working on. Six new beds about 1.5x3 meters, dug to a depth of .5 meters and heavily amended with compost, manure, and sand (the soil here is almost devoid of organic material, and the high clay content makes for an almost cement-like consistency when it dries). This area is the Back '40, behind our central shelter.
Our terraced melon beds (second wave of watermelons and honeydews on their way). We had some extra cob one day and made heads, which turned out to be a huge success with visitors to my garden, especially kids. So now we have plenty of cob heads around the garden, protecting against evil spirits and malicious monkeys.

The upper half of my garden, all new expansion since Bevan has joined me. To the left are the new beds we are breaking in the hard earth to the north of our current space. Known as The Northern Frontier, this area is our sunniest location and we have high hopes for corn, melons, beans, and tomatoes there.

The lower garden, my original area but now remodeled with smooth paths, steps, and rock-hard berms for every bed.

 Shot from underneath the shade structure that will soon complete our central pad, off to the right is our cob oven, dug halfway into the side of a termite mound (the soil in these mounds is like rock, has to be chipped out with picks) and then built in layers using an internal removable frame of peanut shells. It is drying now, we hope to fire it up this week for a pizza, banana bread, or roast meat.

Cooking station, a sheltered cob alcove that does an impressive job of radiating heat and conserving cooking wood. To the left is some amazingly dense wood that Bevan and I hacked off of an old stump out in the bush. It burns like crazy and lasts forever. In the background are two of our three compost pits.

Movie night with the neighborhood kids. I get constant petitions for movie nights, and occasionally relent granted I have my comp charged up and I have the requisite energy to stay up a little later after our long work days. But the kids are always super happy to see some random American film that must confuse the hell out of them (How to Train Your Dragon--"look, it's a giant chicken!"). The kids are a lot of fun to hang out with, and since they have learned I give out snacks to however helps me with my chores (feeding my rabbits, pulling water, sweeping my porch, etc) I almost inevitably have an army of little kids nearly fighting over who gets to help with the evening work when I get back from the garden.  I couldn't imagine a better arrangement.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


The wild child: There is a young boy (maybe 11-12) in my village who all the locals tell me is “dof,” a word that encompasses crazy/stupid/mentally handicapped. This kid’s name is Xali (pronounced “hall-y”), which means “kid.” Since my first encounter with Kid I knew he was not like the other kids—he exists in a constant state of uncontrollable energy comparable to that of a severe ADHD kid after drinking three cans of soda. He also loves heckling foreigners aparantly, evidenced by him shouting the mildly insulting “toubab” (westerner/white person) at me incessantly the first time I met him, demanding cash, and repeating some nonsensical prayer-like phrases concerning peaceful days and sacks of money. I realized the hazardous waters I was navigating in an instant. If I reacted to this boy in the wrong way I would likely earn his enmity and then endure his unbridled ridicule for the next two years, since not even an adult with a swift stick in hand is enough to curb him (and they try). So I have, since that first day, set out to make Kid my friend.

The other day I realized with some surprise that I am actually happier to encounter Kid than many others in my village. Maybe it’s because our interactions are on a simplified level. Kid has no inhibitions so I gladly drop mine to engage with him. I return his taunts with tousling and tickling, and respond to his demands for cash by stealing his own money out of his pocket. I give it back.

I’m glad to notice that our engagements earn approving smiles and laughs from any onlookers, as I can tell they are just as happy as I am to turn a potential menace into a friend.

The monster: To celebrate my birthday another volunteer and I went out kayaking in the brackish mangrove-filled river delta next to our regional office in Toubacouta. We saw pretty birds, lots of mangroves, and a monkey. We followed tiny channels in the mangroves until the branches hedged in our kayak and forced us to turn around.

The most memorable event was the monster though. I had two sightings of it. The first was merely a glimpse of a sleek black shape terminated in a fin or flipper, disappearing under the surface with a slight ripple. By the bit I saw I guessed it must have been at least 6 feet long. The second spotting enlightened me further. I saw a glistening black body bulging up and out of the water, like a breaching wale. I saw only the lower portion of its body but it whatever the creature was it was at least 8, probably 10 feet long. My friend caught just a glimpse of it the second time as I stuttered for him to follow my gaze. My detective work is underway to uncover the nature of this mysterious aquatic phantom.

Cashew fruit: They are finally ripe. After staring at all these cashew trees for four months with nothing on them I am finally enjoying the glorious fruit. People grow the trees for the nut, but the fruit is extremely juicy, sweet, and incredibly satisfying on a hot day, i.e. everyday.

Master farm training: Last week I biked out to another volunteer’s site where she had organized a training day for local farmers. Several of our Peace Corps bosses came to help run the event, and most of the volunteers in the area. This is the second Master farm training I have helped out with, and they are a great example of what the Peace Corps agriculture program is trying to do here in Senegal. Each Master farm training is essentially a small-scale version of what we are pursuing throughout the country, and in many other countries too.

A Master farm is a created when a Senegalese farmer with ample farming experience receives a sponsorship from Peace Corps. Peace Corps provides funding to dig a well, erect a fence, build a tool shed, and buy basic equipment for a (usually about) one hectare farm. The farmer is also trained by Peace Corps staff in a variety of farming techniques and best practices. In return, the farmer agrees to manage his farm in the Peace Corps approved fashion and use his farm as a demonstration to teach other farmers these techniques. Thus the Master farm sites are ideal locations for summoning local farmers for a day of agriculture training.

I was helping explain live fencing—how to set up and care for a tree nursery, when to outplant your seedlings, and how to properly outplant the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of thorny young trees and then prune and manage them afterwards to maximize the effectiveness of the living hedge of thorny trees.

Tough day--quicksand, thorns, and getting shot at: OK, he probably wasn’t aiming for me, but when the birdshot ripped through the mango tree I was sitting under I decided it was time to leave the garden. Apparently tourists pay to get driven out into the remote bush (where I live and work) to hunt things. This always attracts crowds to come see the toubab, mostly little kids. This is not optimal, since the foreigners seem to have no concept that there are people nearby, and fire recklessly after their exotic birds with no concern for what lays beyond. I don’t think anyone’s been shot yet, so I guess it all works out. It sure ruins a peaceful afternoon in the bush though.

The quicksand was real though, and just about swallowed my Peace Corps boss's car when he came to visit my site. It was right next to the farm I work at everyday, where the water table is low enough to create a sinkhole of mud perfected disguised by the desiccated sand above. The car sunk all the way to the chassis and it took eight guys a full hour to dig, wedge, jack, and push it out. I was all for bringing on a couple teams of cows to pull on it, it would have been interesting at least.

Thorns, while not as threatening as bullets, have done more damage to me. I covered my watermelons with branches cut from a thorny tree to keep monkeys, other beasts, and children from molesting my melons. The first victim was me, however. Running around watering my veggies I managed to lodge one of the nearly 2-inch thorns into the ball of my foot where it then snapped leaving the hardened black spine embedded inside. It took me a while with my pocket knife but I cut it out at last.

One of my tree nurseries. Papaya on the left, Zisiphus mauritiana (a thorny tree with little crab-apple type fruits) in the middle, guava on the right.

New rabbit hutch. Finally proper housing for my bunnies. They seem to like it, although they keep flipping their water bowls over, despite me wiring them to the wall.

Local kids hanging out in my room. They can be pretty helpful sometimes, sweeping my room, getting water from the well for me, feeding my rabbits, etc. In return I set up movie night for them with my computer, and feed them whatever I happen to cook up. The little one on the right is a real troublemaker. Always pushing the limits. But he's my nephew and we understand each other.

Sunrise runs: My daily routine now incorporates an hour or so of running in the nearby national forest at dawn, before jumping in the pond and then watering my garden. It was just what I was missing. Running clears my head and leaves me more energetic and positive for the rest of the day. It's the perfect mental stimulant I need to keep me motivated.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Photo Essay

Sunrise on my walk to the farm

Local hooligans who helped me set up my rabbit hutch in my yard (see hutch in background). Pop built it out of sticks, and with just a bit of work to wire shut some gaps and build a door it was rabbit-ready. I bought the rabbits in the local capital, Kaolack, since there were none in my subregion. The rabbits and I caught a first-class ride in a Peace Corps car that was conveniently headed to my neck of the bush.

Final product. The sheet is for shade, not just stellar aesthetics

Male rabbit: aka Gerard

Female rabbit: aka Lola

My plan is to let these two grow up a bit (they are 3-4 months old) then begin cranking about bunny babies. I'm currently feeding them a mix of corn/millet/ leftover rice and plenty of sweet potato leaves.

The mice plaguing my room didn't see it coming. They had apparently grown complacent in their years of luxurious crumb-eating life in this hut. No previous experience or training had prepared them for the wrath of American made mouse traps in the hands of a kid who spent his middle school recesses trapping rats under the school. The first night I rigged up the trap (with my patented peanut butter-soaked string baiting method to snag their delicate teeth) I caught the foolhardy ringleader. What is better than catching a mouse on the first night? Catching two the second night.

 Photo-documentation of the extremely rare phenomenon of dousmus carnificinatum--two mice executed with a single trap

If you are a careful observer and perhaps cross-referenced this photo with the picture from my last entry you may have noticed this is a different puppy. While I was away for a week for my language seminar Pop gave away Blaze to a friend who was in need of a dog. But he got another puppy, even younger and smaller. I was never asked to give this puppy a name, it was just assumed this dog would be called "Blaze" as well.

Blaze seeking shade and water; two rare and precious commodities in Senegal.

My bed of snap peas and squash in which the soil was NOT amended, only dug and mixed to a depth of 18 inches.

 Bed beside it, given the same treatment but with the addition of ground peanut shells and manure. Watering can for size reference. The importance of amending the soil is well-known here, and I have seen manure used. It is more common, however, to buy small sacks of chemical fertilizer. Therefore a more useful comparison will be to have neighboring beds with the same treatments except one is given chemical fertilizer and the second is given manure. Then I could find out if the chemical fertilizer is any better than the natural alternative.

My garden

Pop's sweet potato trenches. He digs the trenches and mounds the soil, letting the adjacent pond fill in the rills to create beds full of sweet potatoes that only need to be watered once per week.

Pop's prolific onion production

Pop, a "seekur," and Blaze. This is the second time Pop has shot one of these creatures out in the forest, and the second time I have eaten my fill of meat since being here.