Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The next chapter

As many of you are aware, the family and friends who read this blog, I returned to the United States February 28th after sustaining an injury while serving in Senegal. On April 8th my service with the Peace Corps was officially ended via something called Medical Separation. Although my final exit from the Peace Corps has been a long time coming since my accident in early February, the emotions of coming back and realizing it is finally “over” had been running high and I thought it best to wait a while before blogging about it.

My time in the Peace Corps, just like my life prior to service had its share of ups and downs with some crazy and unexpected twists along the way. Peace Corps service to me was a constantly shifting experience that made it difficult to put into words any given day. I tried my best to only blog about the good times and the work, but oftentimes decided not to post an entry I had written because it was riddled with emotionally influenced content. I apologize to anyone who therefore found it to be dry reading, but I assure you there are plenty of stories still be told, and that my accident is by no means the last chapter of what the Peace Corps has given me.

One of the most common questions I have been asked by you all has been posed directly or indirectly as, “what have you taken away from your experience.” It seems like such an innocuous question to make but has caused me a number of sleepless nights. Summing up my time in Senegal with just a few comments about increased personal growth, understanding, passion, or ability to lie fluently in a foreign language in order to get out of a sticky situation would come off as trite. Therefore, rather than diving into the nitty gritty specifics of what I limped away from the Peace Corps with, I have decided to simply announce the following.

After serious deliberation while rehabbing at home in Williamsburg I have decided that in 3 weeks I am going to hit the road/buy a one way ticket to Austin Texas and start the adventure all over again. The best gamble I ever took, however off my motivations had been, was deciding to give the Peace Corps and Senegal a shot. Placing myself in a situation in which I was surrounded by languages, cultures, and people I did not initially understand allowed me to grow as an individual, and grow as a man. I realize now that staying in Williamsburg, or even the VA/DC area at this time would be a regression. I need to continue putting pressure on myself in order to see just how high my potential growth really is.

I don’t know how long my stay in Austin will be, but hope to see what the city has to offer in terms of employment, friendship, and great live music for at least 3-4 months. I few close friends of mine I have known since all the way back to the 7th grade have been working with me to hash out the details of starting up our own business, but I plan on also giving into my internal conservatism and trying to link up with a regular 9-5 suit and tie type job as well.

Of course it is possible that I don’t find what I am looking for in Austin and my dreams of owning my own start up crash and burn, but I know with 100 percent certainty that you don’t stand to win anything unless you roll the dice sometimes. With the support of my family and friends backing my decision to take this chance failure is certainly relative. Regardless of how tough it ends up being to make a go of things in Austin with only a couple thousand dollars to my name and a knack for muttering to myself in Pulaar when frustrated, at least I won’t have to ever look back and say to myself, “what if.” Taking chances in life is the only way to live one’s life fully; to live a life without regrets……. And that, is the greatest lesson I learned by being a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Pt 2-- A blurb of the last 3 months.

This entry has been more difficult to write than I first imagined because of the nature of Peace Corps rules of blogs and written material. As the nature of this particular entry involves past security concerns regarding the area immediately surrounding my old village I wish I was capable of giving you all a very frank assessment of both the nature of the concerns themselves as well as the way in which the entire situation was dealt with by Peace Corps staff, but I have determined a public blog is not the appropriate medium in which to share such information. If you have any remaining questions after having finished reading the entry I can always be contacted personally, but will not be answering any questions left in the comment section. Again, I apologize of the following seems overly vague or trite. I also didn't bother to edit this out of laziness so blame any errors on lack of sleep and for having cracked this entry out in 15 minutes.

Approximately 8 months ago after having just returned to my regional house in Kolda from an agriculture sector work summit I received a phone call from my host brother. At the time my language was not where it currently stands, and I ended the phone call with the impression that he wished me to return to the village immediately. In fact, as it was the middle of the day, my brother had been encouraging me NOT to return to the village until later in the afternoon when things had cooled down and more people used the bush path out to the village. As I biked the 8k to SG two men, who presumably had been waiting hidden in the woods for any travelers came tearing out of the bushes screaming, “Halt/stop white person” while waving machetes in the air. I turned in my bicycle seat as I had just blown by the two men, realized they held machetes and dug down on the pedals and raced like hell back to my village 3k away. The men gave chase but being on foot did not chase me for very long. I discussed this matter with the PC Safety and Security Coordinator who is an amazing individual, and we agreed upon certain travel precautions for future trips to and from the village. The Safety and Security Coordinator had my safety in mind first and foremost throughout this entire process. He even went so far as to travel from Dakar to Kolda in order to assess the situation himself and speak with the local law enforcement. We both were under the impression that it was perfectly fine for me to stay in my village.

Fast forwarding to approximately two and a half months ago I traveled to a city near the Gambia border with the intent of purchasing a horse. I was traveling with one of my host brothers and my friend of whom I have written about in the previous blog post entitled David and his Splendiferous Garden. We were unsuccessful in our attempt to buy a horse and returned to Kolda very late at night. The three of us spent the night in Kolda, but while the two young men returned to the village the following morning by bike, I decided to return that afternoon on foot. Upon reaching my village later the next day I was met by my brother and our friend racing out of the village with the intent of finding me. A situation had occurred on the path to my village that morning involving my brother, our friend, and masked men. Both were extremely lucky and escaped the incident unharmed but the matter was serious enough and involved me in such a way that I immediately notified my Safety and Security Coordinator. I left the village the following day unsure of when I would be returning, but confident in knowing that PC staff would handle the matter professionally and responsibly.

As time passed multiple assessments were made, visits to Kolda and local law enforcement performed, and my father, the chief of the village brought into the loop. I wish I could say that I handled the waiting with patience, but it really began to drag on me after about six weeks out of site. During the time spent away from SG I traveled around most of Senegal visiting various sites and staying with various volunteers or in regional houses checking out their projects and collaborations, but ultimately was very bummed to be away from MY village and MY work. At the end of approximately 8 weeks from leaving site I made up my own mind that I was not willing to return to site and would consider taking an Interrupted Service or Early Termination. I went so far as to meet with my Director to discuss things face to face, but it wasn’t until a very forthright conversation with my parents that I realized I was acting stupidly to have considered leaving country simply because I was not comfortable with the situation regarding my old site. I think it was my mother who asked me point black if my motivations for staying in the Peace Corps were based upon the assumption that I could only be useful and help people in SG or rather if I thought I was capable of helping people elsewhere. This question and the realizations it caused made me realize I was acting childish, and rather than running away from a country because of an unpredicted snag, should instead focus on finding a new site and new projects with which to work with.

Ironically, it was only a couple days after this conversation that PC Admin determined that the situation regarding the area immediately surrounding my village was such that they would not be allowing me to return to SG as a Volunteer even if I wished it. They simply needed more time to assess and move resources in order to absolutely secure the site, and knew that I couldn’t stay in limbo forever. At this point meetings were held and I was given options as to where my new site would be located. We ultimately worked together and reached the conclusion that I could potentially accomplish a lot in the city of Kounkane Kolda. I am currently writing this entry from that city in my lodgings here in town. I have been living here for a little over a week now, and as much as I miss the friends and family I had while in SG, my new setup has several advantages that I did not have while living in the village. In the next installment of this blog (coming soon Si Allah Jaabi) I’ll describe the new site and the work I hope to be doing here over the next year or so.

Love you all, and missing friends and family like crazy,


Friday, September 24, 2010

Part 1 of 3 catching ya'll up to date.

Pt 1 of a 3 part blog series, Pt 1- trip to America and realizations, Pt 2, Security issues with Saare Gagna/new Site, Pt 3, Description of new work and site while in Kounkane, Kolda.

Where to begin, where to begin? I realize I haven’t posted a blog entry since late May, but as delayed as this has been, I think as you read onward you’ll be able to afford me some slack for my tardiness.

My last blog entry was written and posted while in America on an absolutely glorious vacation of great food, amazing friends, and tons of quality time with the family. As my 3+ week stint back in America came to an end I realized a couple of really important things about myself: 1-- I ate way too much, but enjoyed absolutely every second of it. 2-- I was extremely motivated to return to Senegal after my vacation not only because I missed my host family and friends in the village, but because the break recharged my batteries and allowed me a lot of time to reflect back on my reasons for having joined the Peace Corps in the first place, and how much had changed during my time spent in Senegal. In order to cut this blog down to under 50,000 words I’ll recap my thought process on these two points as succinctly as possible.

I think I gained about 25 lbs during the week before and time spent in Americaland. Yes, this is absolutely disgusting, and probably more than a little dangerous for my body/sanity, but I have absolutely zero regrets. I came into Senegal last August weighing in at 252lbs give or take. Having gorged on cheeseburgers, pizza, and beer during my 4 years at UR I knew Senegal would double as a fat camp of sorts. During my Pre Service Training of 8 weeks I lost about 40 lbs then would cyclically lose weight while sick, slowly regain it while healthy, then lose more while sick or doing a lot of biking. When I came back for my vacation I weighed approximately 60-65lbs less than where I had started. I knew that my lifestyle in Senegal would allow me to lose any weight I gained, and quite eagerly stuffed my face each and every day while home. Returning to Senegal with an extra 25lbs packed on and back up to around 210lbs wasn’t a lot of fun. I was out of shape, felt bad, and was always tired no matter how little physical activity I exerted. Fortunately, however, the extra weight disappeared in under a month. Due largely to the events of the last 2-3 months, this weight further dropped to my current total of around 175lbs. I don’t have an ideal weight in mind, but would prefer just to be as healthy as possible. Hopefully in the near future I can get the weight loss to flat line and instead focus on building up muscle/endurance.

I tried to spend as much time with my family as possible while home in America while also seeing friends from UR, LHS, and work. It was fun to just sit and relax on the front porch with my parents, drinking a beer with my Dad, or talking about the agricultural practices of Senegal with my Mom. As many of you are aware, my life prior to Senegal involved very limited travel. I spent the majority of my college life only 45 minutes away from home, and have never been West of Kentucky. Being in Senegal was originally a huge culture shock and gut check in terms of homesickness, but slowly but surely I began to fall in love with this place, its people, and the overall idea of travel and expanding one’s horizons. This is a far cry from my mental state when I first applied for the Peace Corps. Yes, I have always had an interest in helping others and seeing new places, but as many of you know a big reason for me having joined the Peace Corps involved the urge to just simply get away from America and memories of a really amazing relationship with an ex girlfriend that fell completely and utterly apart. I don’t know exactly when it happened during my service, but while home on vacation I was finally able to vocalize that my reasons for staying in the Peace Corps were now entirely in line with what I consider “legitimate” motivations. I realized I was over the idea of Senegal as a chance to “get away,” and instead embraced it for what it is, as the opportunity to learn a lot about myself and my limitations while also doing my best to improve the quality of life of some of the people who need it the most in this world.

Somewhere during my service something just clicked, I picked up the language, made friends for life, stopped listening to sad bastard country music, became more confident in myself and my limitations, and was finally able to realize that happiness in life isn’t predicated upon how you are treated by others, but rather, by taking personal responsibility and initiative. I learned my own happiness was furthered by helping others, and no longer bitched and moaned as much about the little snags in life, but instead embraced the simple pleasures of life such as a cold water bucket shower, the first fall harvest after weeks of waiting, or the bi monthly skype calls from home. I’m just now starting to realize happiness means good food, country music, a fridge full of something cold, family, faith, and above all else, the ability to never, ever, take yourself too seriously. I got back on that plane headed for Dakar with a level of excitement that wasn’t present when I had first arrived. I had new work project ideas floating around in my head, the ability to harass the guys standing outside of the airport in their own language, and the confidence that I had made the best decision of my life to have joined the Peace Corps in the first place, albeit for maybe the wrong reasons initially. Although I won’t absolutely set it in stone (nor am I officially able at this time), but I would love the opportunity to extend my service here in Senegal until at least the end of 2012.

To be continued…..I promise the next 2 entries won’t be as cliché. Love you all. P.S., check out my facebook as I’ve updated a lot of the pictures I had taken over the last year.

Monday, May 31, 2010

What exactly is the "work" I do here in Senegal?

So I'm home on a vacation in America and this is the number one question people seem to be asking me. If you're interested in things I've done up in this point in Senegal you'll have to read past entries, but looking into the future this is what I've got for ya.....

I wrote this a while ago when I had just been officially notified about having my Volunteer site and counterpart selected for this newly introduced joint project of Peace Corps and USAID, but never quite got around to posting it until now. Hopefully it gives the few of you still following my blog a good idea of the primary focus of my work in the year and a half remaining on my Peace Corps service. Take what I have written, as everything written in the blog for that which it is….ONLY MY OWN OPINIONS AND IN NO WAY REFLECTS THE OPINIONS OR OFFICIAL POLICIES OF THE U.S. PEACE CORPS. Glad I got that disclaimer out there, it was a mouthful.

I also want to be clear ahead of time that this is not, “my” project, but rather a large scale initiative that, if anything, is the project of my host brother and friend Toumani. I helped him with the initial budget proposal, but the actual work and trainings associated with the project will be a shared experience among Toumani, myself, Anna (closest PCV to my village) and a handful of other interested Volunteers in the region as well as possibly one or two Senegalese workers to be chosen by Toumani at a later date. We’re all going to work, sweat, and generally beat our heads into a figurative brick wall until this is made a complete success one way or another. Failure is not an option.

This Peace Corps/USAID project involves the selection of highly motivated and skilled farmers scattered across Senegal and seeks to bolster country wide advances in rural agriculture through the development of large scale demonstration plots. The prevailing mentality behind this slight shift in rural agricultural development is in part due to concrete data that has in recent years proven that cooperative farming is less efficient in promoting new farming practices in rural Senegal/West Africa than an individual based model. The policy of this project is therefore to promote the good work of a few hard working and highly respected locals in order to have their work copied through both basic mimicry and routinely held demonstrations/field classes.

In the first batch of selections, of which my host brother and I were fortunate enough to be a part of, 8-9 local farmers throughout all of Senegal were chosen as local ambassadors of agriculture but backed by the funds USAID and training support of Peace Corps staff here in Senegal. Titled the, “Pilot Farmer project,” or initiative, or something equally fancy, these 8 men and 1 woman were rewarded for their hard effort and community leadership with a three day initial training in Thies and access to serious cash on the part of USAID (disbursed via Peace Corps administration), in order to build and maintain a large demonstration site for the purpose of promoting --by both example and routinely held meetings various agricultural practices, techniques, and technologies. The long-term goal for these sites is to have them set up as de facto field schools whereby farmers of both sexes can travel to and live on (for upwards of a week at a time) in order to attend and participate in various demonstrations and classes to be led by the “Pilot Farmer” and assisted by Peace Corps Volunteers.

In my particular case, my host brother Toumani and I received approximately 6,250 USD in order to develop a site of 100x100 meters. Within the site’s newly purchased chain link fence we will demonstrate agricultural practices, both new to and already proven worthwhile throughout Senegal, in the areas of; field crops—millet, corn, sorghum, rice, sesame, and beans, large scale gardening---anything you could possibly think of growing efficiently for both nutrition of cash crop capabilities, and tree cultivation/maintenance---bananas, avocados, oranges, mangos, acacia, ziziphus, and an additional 5-10 varieties I can’t think of at the moment. Mixed within these three overarching categories the site will also act as a demonstration of such techniques and technological advances in areas such as wind breaks, live fencing, foot treadle pumps, drip irrigation systems, small scale perma-gardening, natural pest management, composting, manure teas, nitrogen fixing varieties, shade crops, etc. The approved initial budget of this project includes a line itemed list of somewhere around 30 items ranging from chain link fencing and well digging costs/materials to the more mundane costs associated with seed purchases, and materials such as rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows, watering cans, and a hammock. Just kidding on the hammock part, that was just a test to see if you were actually reading instead of just skimming my terrible writing :)

The bulk of the work related to field crops will take place in the rainy seasons from year to year and will involve the latest varieties of seeds developed by a Senegalese governmental agency by the name of ISRA. At planting we will promote via example improved spacing, weeding, and pest management practices. During harvest we will perform yield calculations in order to give feedback to the agency in order to further their mandate to constantly adapt and produce seeds with improved vigor, as well as hold routine demonstrations on seed selection and off season storage practices for nearby farmers.

The gardening work will be slightly less structured in the design of the project as gardening practices vary greatly from one region of Senegal to the next, but needless to say that as my site is located in Southern Senegal and my counterpart is the most motivated Senegalese I have yet met…we will have our hands full year round in attempting to plant anything we can get our hands in order to achieve the highest outputs possible for both consumption and sale. The techniques and technologies previously listed will all be demonstrated as part of this gardening component.

The tree work will be divided among fruit tree cultivation for consumption and sale as well as the promotion of thorny species, nitrogen fixers, and shade varieties throughout the interior of the demonstration site as well as all four 100 meter borders. Prior to joining the Peace Corps I knew very little about trees beyond the fruit trees of my house in Virginia. Although I will participate as much as possible in this component of the Pilot Farmer site, the vast majority of the Volunteer driven work and expertise will come from my closest site-mate Anna who serves as an Agro-forestry volunteer in a village approximately 6k away from the site. I wish Anna was the one who had written this past paragraph as she knows about 100 million times more information than I could profess about all things trees and shrubbish. Side note, if shrubbish isn’t a word, and spell-check is claiming this to be the case, it should be made into one asap.

Once again I’ve cranked out a blog entry in under 20 minutes, but I’m sure I forgotten a ton of pertinent information so if you have any questions just leave them on the comment section below. And lastly…….I checked the map thing located on the side of this blog and for the first time realized just how many places my blog is being accessed from. You all out there in such exotic places as Costa Rica and Alaska should feel free to chime in any time in the comment section.


David S.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Update + Helping Senegal Connect 4 Style.

And. I’m. Back.

After an extended blog hiatus due in part to lots of travel and work in the village, but primarily because of extreme writers block……I have returned. In the following blog I’ll try to catch you all up on the random daily goings on of the village, my sister Catherine’s visit to Senegal, my work failures and successes while also interspersing the occasional anecdote to try and keep it all interesting. The following entry is less so one cohesive entry, but rather a series of shorter entries which do not necessarily follow one another in a particularly cohesive manner. Lastly, I am absolutely in love with Senegal. Well, okay, that is a huge exaggeration, but I am very happy here, and increasingly motivated by both ongoing and future projects in the village. It is my hope that such feelings are reflected throughout the following post.

1) My last blog entry left off with the construction of my demo garden and the eventual planting of my seed potatoes and assorted other vegetables. In retrospect my potato project was as much for my personal sanity as it was to benefit my village and those immediately surrounded it. I genuinely believed that potato extension could in effect double as both as cash crop as well as provide sorely needed vitamins particularly to the village’s youth population. While I still believe in the complete awesomeness of potatoes, my potatoes which initially had close to a 100 percent germination rate are now 100 percent dead. Partially this is due to the fact that I planted later than I wanted to and we experienced a couple weeks straight of 120+ degree heat (in the sun), and partially because when I left site for IST (In Service Training), the two younger guys I was working with accidently water shocked the plants by watering during the hottest part of the day instead of waiting until the afternoon.

Needless to say, when I got back to site after IST to discover my potato graveyard, I was feeling pretty down. When the project first began I had sworn to myself that if it was to end in complete and utter failure I would probably Early Terminate my service. Currently such thoughts could not be further from my mind. The potato project and demo site set up, when combined with several important external factors pertaining to the village’s shortage of cash from outright field crops, has caused the number of gardens in Saare Gagna to have jumped from 3 legitimate gardens (at the start of my service at site) to 8. People are starting to ask questions and seek answers both through myself and independently. The two young men I was working closely with throughout the potato project have successfully planted and maintained vegetable beds of carrots, onions, tomatoes, and eggplant. They now fully understand some of the inherent risks of gardening, but are quite adamant about how much they want to continue with such work.

As low as I was feeling upon first realizing the potatoes project was a “complete failure” I have never been as excited during my service in Senegal as the day both of these men approached me independently and asked if we could try again with potatoes this coming Fall. Not only will we give potatoes one more shot, we are going to do a much better job having gained a lot of useful experience from the first attempt. I feel like the potato project will always be a personal reminder of how the best intentioned development projects can fall flat, while also serving as a gauge of how much more mature I have become since my instillation in the village. There was a point when I was motivated to accomplish all sorts of new projects in the village at the expense of flexibility and catering to the actual wants of my villagers. As my language and patience have developed, however, I am now much more in tune with the expressed needs of the people with which I work with on a daily basis--which I believe in turn has made me a much better Volunteer.

Furthermore, in the past when I was still constantly nervous and unsure about my service in Senegal an event such as walking into the potato graveyard would have caused me to run for the hills (i.e. the USA), but now such setbacks only serve to make me grit my teeth, learn from my mistakes, and adapt accordingly. In summation—Senegal has been very good for me.

2) The often over quoted Robert Frost is probably best remembered for his famously penned stanzas about taking, “the road less traveled,” and how upon taking this literal and figurative road, “less traveled by,” it has, “made all the difference.” Well let me tell you……Robert Frost never traveled in Senegal. I’d go so far as to say that Frost never had the exhilarating, adrenaline pumping, stomach spasm inducing joy of suddenly finding himself on the wrong bush path, or been stuck several miles away from purified water, or being chased after by two angry Guinea Bissauans wielding machetes. No, I’m fairly certain he has never experienced any of these delights because if he had his poem would have been more along the lines of, “taking the road less traveled by is an amazingly thought provoking metaphor for person growth and attitudinal change, but this concept is entirely devoid of real life practicalities, especially when serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal.” Yes, I realize this doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the original verse, but it is oh so much more fitting.

Only a couple of weeks after installation I was biking back from the regional house to catch up on protein intake and catch up on emails when I found myself headed down a bush path towards Guinea Bissau. This misadventure had all started when my closest Volunteer neighbor Anna and I were discussing how I had absolutely no clue which bush path extending out from the city of Kolda was the appropriate path to take directly to my village. I determined that rather than taking a wild guess and possibly biking 8k to my site, I would ride with Anna to her site 10k away from the regional house, then ask villagers to show me a supposed 6k trail that eventually would intersect my village. Things were going well early into the trip up until the point Anna and I took a wrong branch of her trail and ended up getting lost. Out of water and with what I thought was a totally busted bike chain I ended up walking about half of what turned out to be a more circuitous 13k route to her village. In no way to I blame Anna or myself for this mix-up. It was early in our service, all the roads were still unfamiliar to us, and frankly the Casamance region of Senegal goes from looking like something out of Jurassic Park during the wet season to National Geographic Africa (sans lions) once the rainy season ends which can throw off anyone, Senegalese included.

Upon reaching Anna’s site we said our goodbyes and I (bike chain now back in place) set off to my own village. Things were going well for about the first 2k into the trip when I reached an actual crossroads of donkey/horse cart paths. I was actually so stunned and fatigued I stopped by bike at the intersection and had a 10 minute internal monologue/crisis as to which of my three choices I should take. Had the villager I spoke with a Kilometer back said take the right at the intersection? Take a left? The path straight ahead more comparatively less overgrown….did that mean it led back to the city of Kolda rather than occasional villagers traveling back and forth from our two Volunteer sites? Due largely in part to exhaustion, lack of water, and the fact it was starting to rain I opted for the rightmost path…….that’s right, the road less traveled by.

Unfortunately, however, after another 5k down this path I ran across a very startled illegal charcoal burner who after initially trying to whip his donkey cart away from me, realized I was white (and therefore no real threat), and informed me I was heading into Guinea Bissau. The correct path to my village had actually been the path MOST traveled. Damn you Robert Frost. I backtracked to the original crossroads, proceeded to get lost yet a third time later in the day, but eventually made it back to my village whereby I proceeded to sleep for the next 10 hours. Looking back to that day I can barely remember how scared, frustrated, and dehydrated I was, but none of this really matters. What matters is that I now am absolutely, positively, 110% certain of which bush path will take me into Guinea Bissau, and am therefore 110% sure which path I will never take again during my service here in Senegal.

3) As an extension of my previous story about getting lost and almost accidently heading into a country plagued by political upheaval and daily violence, here are another three quick comments about general travel in Senegal.

A- I don’t’ recommend talking on the phone while trying to bike a bush path. Bad things usually happen. While talking to my friend Kevin from back in the states I actually crashed three times during the course of the conversation, the last crash was particularly bad and had my friend completely confused as I laid there next to my bike mumbling curses in the general direction of my cell laying in the dirt near my head.

B- Never travel during the middle of the day to my village. Over a month ago (sorry I didn’t tell any of you about this until way after the fact), I was recently back from Tambacounda for a general Ag sector meeting when my host brother and counterpart called me to ask where I was. The phone conversation was somewhat garbled because of the connection but I thought he was asking me to come home to the village right away rather than wait until the day cooled off and biking was more manageable. Turns out he was actually warning me not to come back right away and was encouraging me to cool me heels for 3-4 hours before getting back. Whoops. Long story short, what ended up happening was just after the halfway point from the Kolda regional house to my village I heard shouts and loud sounds of movement from the woods to my left.

Luckily I was going down the path a lot faster than I usually do because right as I passed a very slight curve in the road two men with machetes came tearing out of the woods hell bent on stopping me (or maybe they just wanted to have a friendly chat). I started biking faster and they very quickly slowed down to a jog and then a walk. I couldn’t understand what they were shouting at me, but it really doesn’t matter. What is most important is that 1- I set a new land speed record to Saare Gagna via bike, and 2- The safety and security coordinator in PC Dakar is an amazing guy who followed up on my situation and found out that several Bissauans had been arrested shortly after my encounter for robbery and attempted robbery along the same trail. I know feel totally safe biking to my village, but in the future I will only do so during the early morning and late afternoon hours when foot and bike travel is relatively heavy and therefore safety is guaranteed.

C- And lastly, never freak out while traveling in taxis or sept places in Senegal. My sister Catherine visited Senegal a little over a month ago and turned out to be a complete trooper the entire time in country. I think she realized without having to be told that freaking out or becoming anxious about travel arrangements in this country serves little purpose other than to make yourself less happy. In Dakar after picking up a taxi from the sept place garage, we got the joy of experiencing the wheel of our taxi flying off from under the car while on the interstate. Had this been America I might have blinked, but because it is Senegal nobody in the car even flinched. Amanda, another Volunteer from Kolda actually calmly said, “I think our wheel just came off” right before the wheel actually rolled in front of the taxi and our axle sparking against the road brought us to an abrupt stop.

4) So my sister Catherine visited Senegal in early January. To this day I’m still not exactly sure how much she enjoyed the experience, but my villagers at least will never forget her. I could write all about how awesome she was for bringing all sorts of delicious food products from America or spending 5/6 days in my village, but instead I’m going to write about her lasting legacy……Connect 4. Yes, you read that correctly, My sister single-handedly brought the game of Connect 4 to the Casamance of Senegal, and although initially hesitant, everyone in my village is now intensely in love with this game. I’m seriously considering writing to Hasbro for a possible donation because after my sister and I explained that Connect 4 was a “thinking” game that was good for mental development, adults and children alike got on board quickly.

Now that physical labor has evaporated with the oncoming hot season, men and women constantly drift in and out of my compound and take turns playing the game from 10am to 3pm every day. Sometimes the games get heated and words are exchanged, but more often than not two men or women will be playing with a crowd of 5-10 others loudly groaning, hissing, or clapping depending on their particular opinion of a previous player’s move.

Originally I was considered some sort of Connect 4 oracle in my village because I simply did not lose, but increasingly this reputation is becoming harder and harder to maintain. Although I shudder what will happen when they eventually start to routinely kick my butt, I still consider the game to be one of the greatest things that I could have introduced to my village during my service. It helps them think strategically and therefore to plan one move, two moves, or ten moves ahead, while it also provides a captured audience. As much as the men of my village want to strangle me when I casually (but repeatedly) bring up the topic of how bad mono cropping nothing but peanuts are for the village’s economy, when they are absorbed into a marathon session of Connect 4, they can’t very well get up and walk away, can they? 

This blog is now going to come to an abrupt halt because I have been feeling under the weather and writers block has struck once again. But I promise in the very near future I’ll post another entry completely catching you up to the current. Topics will include In Service Training, attending the new group of Volunteers’ Pre Service Training, The Pilot Farmer project, my impending vacation to America, and thoughts of possibly staying in Senegal beyond the 27 month mark.

Love you all. Keep the messages coming!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Story of David, His Friends, and Their Splendiferous Garden

The Story of David, His Friends, and Their Splendiferous Garden

Real names of anyone mentioned in this blog have been altered as I lacked the Pulaar to ask their respective permission.

I came into Kolda this morning with the intent of sending off a work related email to my boss in Dakar and then immediately biking back to my village when I realized my gmail inbox was semi cluttered with several requests to “stop being lame, and update your blog more regularly…you’re only 5ish miles away from a computer.” The following blog is therefore a tribute to the kind-hearted souls behind such malicious attacks. You remind me, and I will update. You forget, and I will forget. I recommend leaving such encouragement on the comment section of the blog itself, however.

Over the past 5 weeks or so my garden has morphed from a place of solitude and relaxing/mind-numbing physical labor to a two-a-day wrestling-match-fueled garden arms race. About three weeks ago I was plugging along in the garden, increasingly convinced that I wouldn’t have anything in the ground in time for the winter gardening season, and that even if I did somehow pull off the impossible, nobody in my village would give a damn if anything short of a magical money tree sprouted from the soil. I was staring at one clogged well, one dry well, villager apathy, an unfinished fence, and an increasingly annoying monkey situation. My compound’s horse had recently died (taking use of a plow out of the equation), my highly motivated counterpart was swamped with peanut harvesting, and my younger brother Cy was plugging away with his studies 6k away in order to pass his current level and attend the high school in Kolda next year. Both my counterpart Tom, and Cy had repeatedly expressed sympathy in my overall situation/garden project, but there was no viable answer to my woes in sight (cue violins). My garden had become my own worst enemy….a half-finished, ugly looking money pit of Senegalese development. I was humbled. Dead on my feet from perpetual stomach bugs and down a total of 67lbs from arrival in country, I was more than ready to throw in the towel….(cue “Eye of the Tiger”)

Fast forwarding to the present --I’m still in shock that after roughly 40 days from this lowest of lows, more than sixty villagers have stopped by to see the finished product (raised beds, seed beds, demo plots for new varieties, re-dug well, semi-finished water cistern), composting system, over 1,500 potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, eggplants, cabbage, lettuce plants in the ground, cow-proofed fence etc.

The following is the story of David, his two Senegalese friends, and their Splendiferous Garden. It is told in an overly dramatic fashion not only because I’ve had a sh*t- eating grin on my face the entire time I’ve been typing this up—not only because I’ve regained 7lbs in country (you read that correctly, GAINED)—not only because I’m floating on a sugar high of a liter of genuine Coca-Cola while listening to Eye of the Tiger on youtube repeat—not only because while biking in this morning I set what I consider to be an unprecedented land speed record from my village of S.G. to Kolda (31 minutes)….but mostly because I’m damn proud of my village and am relishing drawing out what I consider to be a sure sign that my village wants to continue working with the PC. This is a village that wants to continue having the sh*t developed out of it, and I’m stoked to be here and in a position to help in my own all-or-nothing, no-such-color-as grey-way.

The back story has already been listed above. For the reasons mentioned, and some more personal ones I have chosen to omit….the beginning of my story involves coming back from the garden one day totally exhausted, frustrated, bitter, and overall angry at the world. To escape from reality for a little while, I filled up a water bottle from my filter, purchased a pack of 75 cents cigarettes and climbed the village water tower. In the past I had used the water tower as my own personal tree house. Nobody in the village ever seems interested in climbing up there, so I’ve always been able to just sit alone and reflect against the background of my country music-loaded ipod. This particular day, while Johnny Cash was doing his thing with Rings of Fire, a soccer game developed on one of the fields near the tower. As the music transitioned into an even more depressing Eric Church single, I stubbed out my cigarette and climbed down the tower to get a closer look at the game. Somewhere between guitar rifts and stale tobacco fumes, I reached the conclusion that I was going to pawn my last remaining soccer ball in Senegal to the local soccer team in order to try and pay someone in my village the exorbitant fee associated with re-digging a dry well. This depressed me on multiple levels, not only because I knew the fee was outrageous only because of the color of my skin, but because I knew paying the fee myself would leave me dead broke.

And then…….drum roll……something miraculous happened.

Just as I reached the field, the team’s soccer ball performed some sort of spontaneous combustion. It literally seemed to blow up in the midst of a penalty kick. This act, accompanied by my presence on the field that day, represented a catalyst of bizarre and entirely fulfilling acts to come. First, the soccer team held a meeting right there on the field and determined they would rather help dig the well themselves in exchange for the new soccer ball (rather than pay my asking price). In my mental state at the time, I was 99 percent sure they were full of it, and headed back to my hut wondering if maybe, just maybe I was wrong.

Usually I hate being wrong. Hell, I almost always hate being wrong. But the next morning I was thrilled to be wrong. Almost 20 younger men in my village made the trek over to the garden, and after about 5 hours of brutal physical labor in the field, we all chipped in to re-dig the well another 2 meters. This might not seem like much work, but digging 2 meters down, a meter/meter and a half wide in already saturated clay is extremely difficult. The entire morning as we worked, I preached the word of gardens. They were a captive audience, wooed by the promise of not only the soccer ball sitting in my hut, but promises of more soccer balls to come if they didn’t give up. While we worked, I railed on the injustices of peanut harvesting in Senegal. I spoke the word of peanuts as pure evil, weakening the soil at the expense of very little cash profit and months of sore bodies. I talked of unhappy wives, mothers, and children who depended on the mens’ peanut fields as a once a year influx of cash for everything from food to schooling and medicine. I spoke of diversification of gardens, of vegetables, of different cash crops with lower labor inputs and much higher potential gains. I was in my element, and sensed blood in the water.

With the well dug, I was then approached by my younger brother Cy (age 18) who had come up with a very creative proposal involving a micro loan in order to buy a bike. Cy and I hammered out the details over 4 cups of attaya whereby I would float him half the money for a new bike in Kolda as a loan, and present the other half in exchange for one-on-one Pulaar tutoring sessions to be held in the garden every afternoon. The bike would give Cy the ability to return home each afternoon from school, rather than spending the weekdays in a village 6k away, which was something both of us really wanted. Cy wanted to be closer to home, and I wanted someone to help me with the garden. We agreed to split the future profits of the garden 50/50 up until the point I had been reimbursed for what I had purchased as inputs, with anything remaining going towards his future high school expenses.

A couple of days go by and Cy mentions a friend of his in the village who is interested in working in the garden. I am still extremely skeptical, but the two of us are fighting an uphill battle to get the land cleared, fence up, and seeds in the ground in a timely fashion, so I agree to hold a meeting with the newest character of this agricultural saga. Stage Left, enter Funny Man.

Funny Man is Cy’s best friend in the village. They both have a million brothers, but their connection is one forged by countless hours hanging out in the village since they were both old enough to walk, mutual girlfriends/exes, attending the same soirees in nearby villages, and the occasional trip to Kolda to loaf about and try to impress girls. Funny Man is 20 years old, and at this point in Senegal, I trust him more than anyone I’ve met. His mother has been blind for almost his entire life, and the two of them live in a nearby compound with extended family. This past growing season Funny Man worked 6 months and will make a projected 80 dollars for the year. This is his only source of income. While other men in the village will travel to cities like Dakar and Thies to find work in the hot season months, Funny Man decided it would be better if he stayed in S.G to take care of his mother. I liked Funny Man immediately upon being introduced. I like him even more as I write this.

Funny Man, Cy, and I became equal part owners of the new garden. Cy continued to tutor and work in the afternoons on weekdays, while FM and I worked both mornings and afternoons. Future profits were discussed, and the same deal as previously organized between Cy and myself was agreed upon by all three parties. Failure to show up to work would result in a verbal tongue lashing, with repeated offences being followed by a threatened ass kicking, and eventual dismissal (these are Funny Man’s terms, not mine). Our rules were/are simple, and in my opinion something all Fortune 500 companies would find beneficial if adopted accordingly.

We started by breaking the soil with picks and shovels, then making mounds for the potatoes 40 cms in height. It was a lot of hard work, but we somehow developed the tradition of breaking up the monotony of it all by having two-a-day wrestling tournaments. Win or lose, all of us would grin, slap hands, and get back to work as soon as the 5 minute battle was over. The third party/ref would usually replay the skirmishes out loud for the remaining part of the morning or afternoon, but the loser and winner alike never took it personally. My Pulaar went from being extremely stilted in mixed/older company to conversational trash-talk. I can now say socially useful things like, “I’m going to hit you so hard you have to change your pants,” and “maybe you are too tired to work and wrestle today because you are an idiot and decided to go to the dance with your girlfriend last night.” Functionally limited Pulaar, but emotionally satisfying, as far as I am concerned.

We finished planting absolutely everything in the garden a couple of days ago, and word quickly spread around the village. A side benefit of working with these two very colorful guys is that they are both extremely popular in the village among the younger crowd (4-34). They like to talk a lot, and have spread the word of our hard work. Yesterday when our last seeds were in the ground, several men from the village and a handful of women drifted over to chat with us and compliment us on the progress. Many expressed interest in building their own gardens if ours was found to be successful, and even more spoke with me about working under similar group arrangements the following year. There were old men, young men, and children who came to look at our progress. To each, Funny Man and Cy had spread the word about the evils of mono cropping, and the wasted time and effort on peanuts.

I’m not sure how much, if any, will actually sink in over my next two years, but at this point I’m more than content to wait it out. I consider the new garden to be the first of my projects in S.G., and as I build upon my technical and language skills, I imagine in the long run it will prove to be one of the least impressive. With that said however, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the last couple of the months at site, and the sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and always challenging creation of the Splendiferous Garden.