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.

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.

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