9 July 2012
I have a small, two-sided chalk board in my hut, where I keep all my “to-dos.” On one side I have the “long-term to-dos,” including “build a live-roof on my chicken coop,” make compost”—the ideals for when I have time and the always necessary tasks. Flip it over and you’ll find a list just as long entitled “to do when rains come.” Well, my friends, the rain has come, and so has my sister so the past few weeks have been a whirlwind.
After returning to site, almost healed from my cashew oil encounter, I had a tight ship to run. My crew consisted of 10 local farmers and Gano, 4km away in Thiewol Lao. Some unseen stroke of charm or maybe my ability to speak English had my new site mate, Steph, wrapped-up in much of this too. We’ll call her my skipper, following my poor directions from her village to mine and taking in the copious instructions I left for my brief trip to Dakar, where I would source Julia, Lexa, and a surprise Aussie, Danushka.
At first it was all hands on deck, my first mates Seyni and Fanta darted with me from starboard to port, fiving orders and gathering assurances that the PC-extended ISRA (Institut Sénégalaise de Recherches Agricoles) field crops would be seeded at proper spacing using mechanical and hand seeding. I made meter sticks for each farmer and taped the recommended spacing to each bottle of seed, so they could match the numbers on the bottle to the numbers on stick. Seyni and Fanta took turns meeting with farmers to explain this plan, drawing rows of corn or sorghum in the sand and to reinforce my desire to know everything about how this seed grows. Peace Corps requires volunteers to record, seeding, weeding, thinning dates, observe flowering, tillering and ultimately determine yields at season’s close.
Along with checking in with each farmer on basic maintenance, a few farmers are helping me perform demonstrations for improved techniques. Some of these won’t start until thinning or flowering for spacing and pest management. Two started in this crazy week. One farmer dug Zai holes, amended, moisture-retaining planting holes for his corn with help from Seyni, Steph, and I. This guy was prepared with neem leaves (for pest repellent and Nitrogen given by green organic matter), manure (even more Nitrogen and whatever the animal source has been eating), and wood ash (Carbon source and provider of crystal-like ant-killers) as I advised him. We knocked out four rows of sixteen Zai holes in with pleasant conversation and breaks for breakfast and water brought by his wife. The next day I found myself in a very different situation with the farmer interested in creating amended ditches for his sorghum crop. I reminded Farmer #1 once of the necessary materials. Farmer #2, I reminded three times and nothing was ready when Seyni and I arrived at 7:30 to work. It was hot by the time we were digging eleven 10-meter long trenches and there was only enough material to amend one trench. He said he and his sons would finish them the next day but a week and a half later nothing had changed. Starting this work with individual farmers is a lesson that one must cast a far net to catch both the motivated worker and discover those just hanging on the gills of larger fish to get ahead.
I was also advancing the big projects you’ve all heard about already, Earthworks and the Master Farm. When Seyni, Fanta, and I returned from the Earthworks training, fourteen women and one man signed up to begin water harvesting projects in their fields. All the women’s work was in the rice fields, which are seeded after the other crops, so we started with my brother, Mama, and his peanut field. We did not have a lot of workers on hand so we discussed the potential for contour berms throughout the field and built one check dam where a large swatch of water pours on to the field and has previously carried his seed across the path along the opposite border. Real-time update: Although Seyni and Fanta said they would help organize work days as soon as the women started working the rice fields, when I got home the fields were all prepared without implementing any of the technologies. I am less sure about teaching community leadership than I am about teaching agricultural technologies, but helping my counterparts become confident enough to lead and extend knowledge to their community I’ve decided is more valuable than me spouting information myself.
In the Master Farm we prepared garden beds for rainy season vegetables, seeded leucena trees on contour berms in the field crop space. We tried day after day to prepare the field crop demos but we were stopped by rain and the final revelation that Gano did not have the proper piece to attach the new ripper, a conservation farming tool, to his plow. He had withheld this information possibly for simplicity in our confusing, mixed-lingual conversations or desire to please in the impractical way I’ve come to associate with the Senegalese perception of truth telling. Just because they want to do it, doesn’t mean they are doing it. This left Gano, Steph, and I waiting out a rain storm in the newly roofed shed at the Master Farm, reviewing the steps for each demonstration. We each had paper and pen, where we drew out how the ripper would follow the contour lines established by the berms, digging a narrow trench in which amendments would be added and on which crops would be seeded. It was as thorough as I could be with the forces of Senegal not allowing us to work the field together. Being dependent on the weather the way one must be here induces anxiety in us Westerners with our plans. My sister was coming, the date of her flight would not change if heavy rains pushed back field work. The rains had come, I’d checked off what I could from my list, but worlds were colliding. It was obvious that my plans and Senegal’s surprises would clash when I calculated that Julia’s flight from Washington Dulles to Leopold Senghor was a shorter trip than my journey from Fodé Bayo to Dakar.
May God bring us good harvests,