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.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Causes for Celibration

Exciting development #1: Puppy

Pop got a new dog! Now my daily routine includes taking the dog with me to the garden every morning, and back in the evening. He spends all day at the garden, while I commute twice, making it back to the village for lunch. His future profession is monkey-slayer. Monkeys are a serious pest in gardens like Pop’s, destroying crops, stealing mangos, and generally wrecking havoc. Pop used to have a dog to protect the farm, but the dog fought a gang of five monkeys, killing them all but succumbing to his wounds several days afterwards.

I named the pup Blaze. Blaze enjoys eating the millet mush I so despise, and especially likes the fish bones, my least favorite part. Our diets dovetail quite well, with him getting plenty of scraps to eat. Occasionally he and I both share in the bounty of a fresh-cooked feast in Pop’s garden, which leads me to:

Exciting development #2: Bush meat

The other day, Pop went hunting in the forest and came back with a creature resembling a badger. He stewed it for several hours over the fire with onion, sweet potato, salt, and spices. It was delicious. It had a texture and flavor much like a cross between dark chicken meat and slow-cooked pork shoulder, surprisingly fatty and tender. That day we all stuffed ourselves to excess.

Exciting Development #3: Beans

As delicious and filling as bush meat is, I’ve only had it once, so for the daily grind I need a more consistent food source. I’ve finally got a system together for cooking my own bean stews. The survivalists on the interwebs taught me about ‘thermal cooking,’ which comes in very handy when the world ends, anarchy reigns, and one needs to economize cooking fuel. Essentially I soak my beans overnight, then add all my other stew ingredients (potato, carrot, onion, garlic, peppers, salt, etc) bring to boil, simmer for 15 min, then take it off the burner, wrap it in a blanket, then inside my 15 degree down sleeping bag, then stuff the bundle into a plastic bucket. My improvised thermal cooker does such a good job of insulating heat that the pot is still too hot to handle for up to 14 hours after. As far as I understand, the stew continues to cook for several hours after leaving the burner, and then just stays hot. Whatever happens, it yields a scrumptious and hearty stew. Now my only problem is storage, since I don’t want to have to cook beans every day, and they spoil after about 36 hours.

Exciting Development #4: Banana bread

I love banana bread. Now I can bake it here. It’s not quite the same as back home, and the thought of tossing in a handful of something as precious as the chocolate chips I brought all the way from Washington DC is abhorrent (what if the bread gets ruined and I lose all 63 chocolate chips????) so it was a little plain. But still, it was tasty and reminded me of home. My neighbor routinely stokes the large clay oven with firewood, burning it down to coals and then producing dozens of loaves of bread (this bread has become another of my staples) and when he was done working the oven the other day I asked him to toss in a bowl full of my improvised banana bread batter (all those years of baking my own banana bread without following a recipe has finally paid off). It turned out baked to perfection. I shared it with my family, neighbor, and Pop, and all agreed that whatever the strange bread creation was that the American had made, it was darn good.

I just realized that three out of the four topics I wrote about are food related. This reflects quite accurately my preoccupation with feeding myself. I do other things of course, like work and interact socially. But trying to stay well-fed (in the American sense of the word) is much more difficult and time-consuming here than it was in the US. I find it somewhat perplexing that many people in the US spend more time trying NOT to eat so much.

Work has been going well. Several villagers have approached me with a desire for fruit trees so I have given out tree sacks, seeds, and advice. Nothing large-scale yet, just small 20-50 sack pepinaires to enlarge orchards and start new ones. My garden continues to grow, well some of it does. The carrots, corn, sage, and oregano failed to germinate entirely, and the green beans have a paltry 5% germination rate. Others, like the beets, broccoli, squash, kale, tomatoes, and snap peas are looking much more promising. Still, it compromises a bed of 3-sisters when one sister no-shows, the second is non-committal, and the third has to pick up the slack.

Some other random photos:

Two kids who helped me fill, place, and seed this pepinaire in my yard. The one on the right is one of Pop's sons, Andala.

The kind of brand loyalty I give to Chaco deserves sponsorship. In the background are my pepinaires (I have papaya, guava, moringa, and several species of thorny trees growing), and my solar panels getting some use out of the blazing sun.

Friday, January 4, 2013

One month at site

The sounds of Senegal

My most precious item brought here from the US is my iPod, well my solar charger too then, without which I would never be able to use my iPod to near the extent that I am currently. Which is a lot. Essentially whenever I am in my room or my little backyard, my music drowns out the cacophony of noise threatening to overload my brain. 

Sometimes it’s the awful radio stations spewing static, caterwauling strangers, and cackling news reporters. 

Other times unruly bands of children hurtle screeching through the streets beating makeshift drums with that fierce tenacity of over-excited kids—this is preferable, however, to when they wail and scream in hysterical fits, often following a beating from one of their parents (childrearing here… a topic for another day). 

Or perhaps it’s my neighbors on the east side of my hut—they often wake me up at night with an ensemble of banging of buckets, spilling water, and loud, monotonous, open-mouthed chewing that seems to have no end. Still, sharing a wall with two donkeys and a horse is preferable to a family full of frightful banshee-children. At least this way the crying babies are two huts away.

Yet other times it’s the harshly shouted conversation of adults that invades my American desire for peace and quite. For reasons not quite yet clear to me, people here converse at a decibel that in the US would be considered shouting, yet here is mundane chatting. 

Still other times (i.e. dawn, midday, evening, dusk, night--the 5 Muslim prayer times, and then sometimes at the awkward hours of early morning and late night when most normal people would be sleeping) the devout Muslims proclaim the call to prayer, or give village updates, or just chant for a while for the heck of it over the harshly grating public announcement system. 

I am also frequently serenaded by angrily mooing cows, shrilly braying donkeys, and impatient roosters competing to be the first to announce the sun that is still shining on the other side of the earth.

Often, it is some or all of these noises in dreadful chorus. My iPod is a blissful sanctuary for my sanity.


My garden is coming along well. I’ve now dug, amended, and seeded most of my beds. Here is a visual progression of my garden work over the last several weeks:

View from my garden looking back across Pop's farm. Trees are mangos, flowering now, can't wait for fruit season!

What my garden space looked like before I began...

 After clearing grass

Digging beds and amending soil with manure and peanut shells

Unfinished bed on left is still getting daily loads of manure that I lug from the village on my head in a sack. Hoping to plant potatoes there soon. Beds on right are planted with 3-sisters (corn, green beans, and butternut squash).

Planting! This is my pepinaire where I seeded tomato, pepper, eggplant, and peas. I'll let them grow for a while then transplant into the few beds I haven't seeded yet. So far the beets, broccoli, snap peas, and a few tomatoes have already emerged. I await with hesitant excitement to see how these American vegetables will perform in Senegal.


 Some of my fellow volunteers at our regional Peace Corps office in Toubacouta, enjoying our Christmas feast! We baked three chickens (they were small, and we were hungry) following as close as we could--given Senegalese produce--my Dad's time-tested Thanksgiving turkey stuffing recipe. Also on the table were mashed potatoes and stir-fried veggies. It was my first American-ish dinner since coming to Africa, and I gorged myself. So deliciously fulfilling.

**Latest update in the War Against the Zombie Frogs: These beasts will stop at nothing to connive their way into the moist, fluffy soil I so lovingly prepared for the plants in my yard. I built a fence out of sticks and old mosquito net, a quite impressive structure I was sure no frog could penetrate. So confident was I in my engineering genius that I naively seeded moringa and papaya, starting a small nursery to propagate these highly sought-after trees.

 That night the frog zombies struck. As soon as the sun went down they lurched out of their dark murky crevices and spread about, seeking insects and even wetter, darker places to nest for the night. Like inside my newly made tree nursery. Somehow the creatures wormed, wriggled, hopped, clambered, and nudged their way through my barrier. I woke to find my little 2x2 ft nursery infested with over 20 frogs, which had churned my clean seed bed into a mass of muddy, wrippling, amphibian flesh. I dug them up and flung them out with disgust. Thats when the fun ended and I was mad at the little buggers.

I pulled down my fence and began anew. Instead of layering several sheets of mosquito netting together where holes gaped, I sewed each hole closed and installed a single, intact surface, stretched taught between each stake--which were sharpened and pounded into the ground six inches at a negative angle, giving the frogs no purchase for climbing, no small holes to wriggle through, and no folds to push past.

The Ultra Frog Defier V 3. No frog has breached these impenetrable walls. Sometimes I sit in my wooden chair at twilight and smirk as the befuddled creatures press their slimy faces against my fence in vain. Victory at last. 

A few of the highlights of my life here:

 Peanut butter Nutella sandwich with fresh yogurt. Mmmmmm

 Shaded hammock + iPod + book = happiness

Eggs. They are paradoxically the most important source of protein I have and the font of artery-choking cholesterol that will prematurely terminate my two-year service of Peace Corps.

Cultural Observations:

Senegalese culture note #1: There is a much stronger sense of community and sharing here as opposed to the American ideal of pulling your own weight. Saving money, for example, does not exist here. If you have money you are expected to spend it, sharing the funds or what you buy with your family and friends. There is very little planning for the future.

Case in point: I have two moringa trees in my backyard which produce edible nutritious leaves that women like to cook into sauce with peanuts and fish and pour over their millet. The other day a random woman came by my hut asking to have my moringa leaves. I flickered quickly from startled to confused to indignant, my American brain thinking, “these are my trees, in my yard, and you want me to just give them away to you? I have never talked to you before, you haven’t done anything for me, haven’t offered me money, and haven’t even said please (granted there is no word for please in Wolof, but she wasn’t asking politely).”

I realized quickly there was some cultural misunderstanding going on, and that if she was demanding some moringa leaves then it probably wasn’t as rude as I thought it was. So I compromised by jokingly telling her that she hadn’t ever done anything for me and didn’t deserve my moringa, but if she gave me some of the dinner she made with them then I’d let her have them. She laughed and agreed. I then spat out one of the myriad questions bursting inside me, “if you want moringa, why don’t you plant it for yourself, it’s easy, grows very fast, and requires hardly any care?” Her response floored me yet again, “but I want moringa today, if I plant it I won’t have leaves today.” I reigned in my urge to get upset, masking my frustration with jokes (my stalwart stratagem here in Senegal, it has proved invaluable on countless occasions).

Our banter continued and I told her about just how easy it was to plant, how she could even plant the branches I had cut for her, just bury them in the ground and water once a week or so and they will grow. It is about the simplest plant possible to propagate. She protested that she couldn’t manage all that work, and that by the way, I didn’t give her enough leaves, she wanted more. Her family was large, she said, and my offering (I had lopped the top six feet off my tree!) didn’t cut it. I replied that with that large of a family she must have plenty of hands to help plant and tend a whole forest of moringa, and then she wouldn’t have to come take mine. So continued our talk, my mind split between frustration and fascination at what I was learning from this lady’s outlook. Finally she left, packing some cuttings off morings that she promised to plant in her yard, and she did send a bowl of her moringa leaf sauce and millet slop that night. I still can’t stomach the stuff so I let my family have it.

Senegalese cultural note #2: The phrase “may ma” translates to “offer/give me.” It is among the most commonly used phrases here in Senegal, especially when conversing with foreigners. This phenomenon relates to cultural note #1, because if I have something that somebody else doesn’t I should be willing to share it. Hence the lady asking for my moringa leaves, people asking for my watch (I stopped wearing it because this got annoying), the kids asking for my bike, or food, or money, or a new car, or… 

This gets old quite fast, and you develop strategies to deflect their demands: “It’s not my bike, my boss owns it and he’ll kill me if I give it away (maybe exaggerated but not entirely untrue), or, “I’m not giving you money for nothing, you have to work to earn money.” One of my most commonly recurring confrontations with “may ma” is people asking for my vegetable seeds. Since I work in the garden every morning, I inevitably end up discussing what I’m doing there with anyone I see on my way to or from work. Despite whether I’m talking to a man, woman, child, stranger, friend, family member, or any assortment of the above, the dialogue strays little from this track:

Me: Good morning
Villager: Good morning
Me: How’s it going?
V: Fine, how are you?
Me: Good, how is work?
V: We’re on top of it. How is the family?
Me: They're doing well, how is your family?
V: They are fine, thanks to God
Me: Thanks to God. You’re going to your farm?
V: Yes, where are you headed?
Me: I’m going to Pop’s garden to work with my vegetables.
V: Oh you farm onions?
Me: No, everyone here farms onion so I am planting other veggies, seeds I brought from the US. Tomato, beet, squash, bean, corn, carrot…
V: Oh that’s good, give me some seeds.
Me: (Ugh.) I planted most of them already.
V: But if you have some left, give them to me, OK?
Me: I’d like to, but I don’t have enough to give seeds to everyone in the village so it’s not very fair to give some to you just because you are asking me, see what I mean?
V: Yeah, yeah, OK I see.
Me: But if my veggies grow well and I have lots I will give you some!
V: Ok, great!

This is almost always a pleasant exchange, and I have come to realize there is nothing inherently sinister about them asking for my seeds (or bike or whatever), it is often just their way of interacting with me, as mundane a comment as an American mentioning the weather or a sports team. I try to keep this in mind and never get upset since they don’t know that their words border on taboo in my culture.

Sometimes people tease me maliciously, to try to get a rise out of the “toubab” (foreigner), but this usually only happens when I’m traveling outside my village, and then a quick rebuttal in Wolof will often ameliorate the situation as they realize I’m not just a tourist passing through since I know their language and don’t get flustered by their harassment. Instead I joke with them or change the subject, lingering long enough to let them know I am comfortable chatting with them and want to be their friend. Maybe I even impart a valuable lesson to them about America, i.e. there are poor people in America, work is often hard to find and difficult once you get it (especially if you are a foreigner who doesn’t speak English!), it is very cold where I come from and snows sometimes (closest translation for snow is, “rains ice”) and then I head on my way.

I get the feeling that foreigners rarely, if ever, stop and discuss with these types of guys (yes, usually young men are the ones more likely to be harassing people). I’ve realized the kind of impact I can have if I just hang out and talk to these fellows, listen to them, and give them solid answers about the reality of America. They all say things like, “America is so great, there is tons of money. Akon is in America. I want to go there. Take me there.” I do my best to paint a more realistic picture of America, how different and harsh the culture could seem to them there (if you knock on a stranger’s door in the States, chances are you will not be getting a free dinner and place to spend the night) and why maybe they should be happy here, because Senegal is pretty cool too.