Like the rain, my life has become a consistent routine of work, hanging out with my family and friends in village, and spending time to myself. There is not a day that goes by when it doesn’t rain. I am getting so good at reading the sky that I can time almost to the minute when it’s going to unleash in a torrential downpour. I have learned how the wind picks up right before a storm and I know if it is one of those teeth rattling monsoons where I lash everything I own down or pile it into my hut or if it’s just going to burb out a few threats of thunder and move on.
I love the rainy season for so many reasons. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but because of my upbringing on the ranch, the rain brings a feeling of security that everything is going to be okay and people will be happy. I have always felt this way and the more I travel, the more the rain reminds me of home. When I was studying in Great Britain and the English would complain of the dreary weather, I would sit contently in the kitchen brewing a cup of tea and think about my Dad gleefully checking the rain gauge attached to the log post at the bottom of our driveway. Here in Senegal I feel an even greater and more mutual sense of comfort because once again I am living among farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods depend on the rain just like at home. As storm clouds roll in and the sky opens up, I have joined my host brothers and father in a rain dance, mouths open, arms held up to the sky, and laughing like maniacs as we watch each other’s ridiculous antics. Soon we are completely soaked and run to our separate huts for shelter. There are so many days where I have looked out my door across the compound through the sheets of rain and seen the four faces of my brothers in their room or “the boys club” as I like to call it, peering back at me. I give them a thumb’s up before turning back into my own hut to write or read a book, listening to the drum of rain on my thatch roof.
The rainy season also means I am always working! There is a tangible charge to the air as people rush to get their seeds planted. Once the fields are tilled and the seeds are planted the work doesn’t stop because with the rain comes crops, but so does the grass. Now people weed, weed, weed. I saw one woman who had a callus above her knee and on her elbow from where she has been leaning her elbow on her knee and weeding with her other hand for all of her life. And I thought hand calluses were something to be proud of! Anyway, the work never stops and people are in the fields from sun up to sun down. Ramadan is hard because the people are working without any food or water and I have to admit that I am grateful it will finally be over tomorrow.
All of my mangoes are transplanted and the last step for this year will be trenching them in order to prepare them for grafting next year. The project that keeps me in the field most of the day every day is the live fence in the community field. While working on the community fence, I was struck with an idea. I have figured out how to make my projects sustainable, get the respect I need to gain projects in the village, and also finish the huge fence project all in this year. At first, I was waiting around to call a meeting and had nightmares every night about how I was going to organize the entire village into a work day that would enable us to plant the entire fence. And then I thought… I can do the fence myself, or at least almost all by myself.
Here was my reasoning: People are busy planting their own crops. Every single person in my village who is able is in the fields. This means everyone from the age of 4 all the way to the oldest women in their 80’s. They don’t really have time to help with the live fence no matter how important it is. So this is what I did. I decided I would plant three fourths of the fence, which would enable me to show the people I am capable of working hard in the field, demonstrate the agroforestry techniques I wanted to teach them anyway, save them time by helping them with the fence and allowing them to stay in their fields for longer time and save myself the hassle of a community work day which in the end was bound to be a disaster.
So for two weeks I worked my way methodically along the fence, cutting the Jatropha (unpalatable species) with my machete, laying the branches out to dry, planting the cuttings the next day, and also out planting the thorny species that we had started in a tree nursery earlier that year. People couldn’t believe how hard I could work and they were finally paying attention. I was getting what I am constantly striving for every day of my life here: respect. (Is this becoming a repetitive theme to this blog?) Not only could I function in the community, I could work my ass off in the field as well. My triumphant moment came when my counterpart/love of my life I am always speaking so highly about, Ibrahima Camara, showed up and said, “You know Mari, you shouldn’t do all this work by yourself. Let the people of Sinchurio help you. You don’t even own this fence and you are working every single day out here.”
Thinking he was once again calling upon my shortcomings, I snapped at him, “I can do it!”
“I can see that,” he said, gesturing at the kilometer of fence I had already planted. “We know you can do the work, Mari. I’m just asking to let us help you.” Then he walked away.
I almost cried. I scheduled my first big training for the next Friday. It would be a live fence training and all of the Sinchurio men and women were supposed to be there. I had finished three lengths of the 5 hectare eastern fence and now it was time to see what Sinchurio could do. I had a plan.
After all the men and women had assembled, pick axes and hoes in hand, I began my spiel.
“Hannde, mido falaa jannude mon tuttugol hogol ngol.” “Today, I want to teach you how to plant a fence.”
“I am going to show you all the methods you need to make a live fence. Although I am aware that some of you are already very adept at live fencing, I would like to show you the different trees you can use and the proper spacing, as well as how to prune the trees so that they make the tightest fence possible. When your wire fence goes bad in a couple of years, you should have a strong live fence growing, so that you won’t have to spend money replacing the wire fence.”
As I explained this most people were listening, but a few men chattered in the back of the group, completely ignoring what I was saying.
I raised my voice. “As you can see, I have planted three fourths of your fence. I am going to show you what I did and then you will be left to plant the fourth length of your fence by yourselves. I am also leaving for Kolda, so you will have to listen and ask questions now, because I am not sticking around to help.”
The men at the back went quiet.
“You’re not going to help us?” one younger woman complained. “Why? You can’t do hard work?”
Before I even had a chance to answer, one of the older and respected women in village spoke up. “Quiet!” she snapped at the younger woman. “Can you not see that she has planted most of this fence by herself?”
I had no more problems after that and people were eager to ask questions and make sure they understood the reason for doing everything, from spacing to pulling out the roots on the bottom of the thorny species.
At the end of the training I left them with these parting words: “I know that Sinchurio works hard. I know that you want this to be a place that is even better for your children. I want that too, but I do not own this fence and I don’t care whether it gets finished or not, I will not be here in 2 years. (Actually I do care, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.) I will not touch that side of the fence. If you care about the fence, you will plant it yourselves. If you do not want to plant the fence, you will not have it. You choose.”
And with that I hopped on my bike and left my village to see what they were made of. When I got back a couple of days later, the fence was almost finished.
Now I have started the other side of Sinchurio field which is an even bigger seven hectares. This I have been planting with seeds. Because this fence is longer, I am planting half and the village will plant the other half. That’s seems fair enough.
It’s ironic isn’t it? I go half way across the world and yet I find myself back on the fence line.
As for my personal time, I am finding out that it is more essential that almost anything I can do to keep myself happy and productive in my village. It’s funny how time lends so much perspective. In the beginning, I was making myself anxious by forcing myself to stay out in the village so that people wouldn’t think I was the weirdo American girl who always stayed in her hut. I visited every family in the village and stayed out in the compound with people long after my limited Pulaar had run out. At the time, it was survival and it was what I needed to do. Thankfully, I didn’t have the knowledge I do now that the center of the village does not, in fact, revolve around me and people are more or less happy to allow me to do as I please. If I would have known this, it would have been a lot harder to force myself out of my hut at all hours of the day and evening. I say thankfully because all of that time believing myself to be of the utmost importance really paid off. Now, I feel like I can do almost anything I want. People know that I love them and when I want to spend time with them I do. When I feel like going in my hut and having alone time, they leave me be and put it down to another strange behavior often shown by their beloved toubaco.
The only problem with alone time in my hut is… children screaming ALL the time. The fake cry is my favorite. The one that goes on and on in repetition and is clearly a well-practiced charade, finally ending with the mother scooping up the child in question and asking who hit who this time. More about my opinion on child-rearing here in the next blog installment. And then there are the donkeys and roosters, some of the most annoying animals in the universe who insist on standing right outside my bamboo weave fencing and braying or crowing loudly. Or my favorite disturbance, my eight year old brother Boye who is the only one who cannot accept the fact that his ja-ja Mariama likes her alone time in the afternoon and has taken to climbing the orange tree in his backyard so that he can peer down into my backyard on the other side of the fence. I found out this newest development right as I was mid-tug on my pants. My deusch (the hole in the ground that serves as a toilet/shower) is also in my backyard if you can’t remember.
“Boye, what are you doing up there?”
“Well good, now that we have that established, GET DOWN!”
“Are you going to bathroom?”
“As you can see, yes, indeed that is what I am preparing to do.”
“Okay, well tell me when you are done so I can get back up here.”
Aw… the life in an African village. So as you can see sometimes I am literally starting to go crazy with the need to be alone. I have two things that I have started to do in order to be by myself, both of which have been mercifully effective. First, I tell people I am going on a walk which is technically the truth. In my American flag back pack, I have all the essentials packed: journal, book, pagne, cell phone, snacks! First I look around furtively to make sure none of the small village children are following or watching me, then channeling the spirit of my 400 meter sprinting days, I dash for the woods. Usually I make it to at least the first tree without anyone seeing me, but sometimes there is the lone woman who has stayed out later than usual in the rice fields. I make up an excuse about wanting to collect seeds and slink deeper into the trees. I have a couple of spots I love to go, but all of them have one thing in common: No one can find me there. I go to great lengths to find these places. Once, on coming back from one of my clandestine meetings with myself, my family gaped at me in horror.
“What happened to you?”
“I, um, I was chopping the thorn trees in the live fence.”
Actually, I had seen a secluded place in the middle of a bunch of thorn trees and had decided to climb through them to get to the clearing in the middle. It was all going well until my back pack caught on a branch and the thorns whipped back and hit me in the face. The clearing was lovely though.
Another place is just at the edge of the rice fields tucked within a bunch of guava trees. The grass is so high no one can see me, especially when I make a nest for myself my spreading out my pagne and laying down.
It is amazing the lengths I will go to keep my places secret and my alone time sacred. One time, in my grass nest, I heard women coming back from the rice fields. Much too close for comfort. My panic rose as the grass rustled extremely near me. All at once, I thought I must know how the deer on our ranch feel when they are being hunted. My head snapped up and cocked to one side listening for the sound of my approaching threat. Yes, they were definitely getting nearer. I dropped to my stomach and army crawled through the grass until I could hide myself behind the base of a huge soapwood tree. I listened to laughter of the women fade into the distance, and then smiling to myself I crawled back, snuggled into my grass nest, and went back to my book.
When I don’t feel like walking that far I have another option and this one is even more brilliant and seems the most fitting as well. There are two “gates” to my compound. If I leave out the front, I walk straight into the village. If I leave out the back, there is the chief’s cornfield, a huge tabba tree, and then the countryside and the laterite road leading out of my village.
I head straight to the tabba tree. I actually don’t know what it’s called in English. It is my favorite tree in Senegal and the one behind my compound has a special place in my heart. These trees are absolutely magnificent and this one is particularly grand. I always think about how fitting it is because it seems like the chief of the tabba trees and it is technically in the chief’s compound. Big Chief Tabba tree has a trunk so wide that three people could link arms and encircle the trunk. Tabba trees are beautiful because the trunk and branches look like many trunks of many trees all twisted and wrapped together to form one trunk. It is a tree of love with its big heart shaped leaves and huge flexible branches that look as if they are reaching out to embrace you. And embrace me it does. The tree is so big, that unlike other trees I climb by starting with the trunk, I can start at the tip of one of its great branches that stretches far enough to the ground that I can hoist myself up with a bit of upper body strength. It’s almost as if the tree really is reaching out with one of its arms and scooping me up. After I have stepped away from the ground, it’s like I am in another world all together. No one can find me among the leaves and twisting branches. I climb through the maze of limbs, shimmy up a branch that kinks just like a tiny ladder onto one of the massive branches that is so wide I can lay on it with no fear of falling off. It slopes gently up to form the perfect curve for my back and thus my perfect recliner in the sky.
I can stay up there for hours, reading and writing and sometimes laughing at the unsuspecting children who wander beneath me. My favorite time to go to my tabba tree is a couple hours before dusk. When the sun finally dips into the sky, I stop reading and lean back to watch the activity in the tree. It turns out that my days in The Batcave (the name of our college house) are far from over. Now instead of the little Omaha brown bats, giant fruit bats swoop through the trees, preparing for their night. I lay very still as they fly inches from where I lay and marvel at the sunlight that filters through their paper thin wings. One day, a bat hung on a branch about 10ft directly above my head. Although I was a tad worried about what would fall onto my head from this position, I couldn’t have had a better view of his little face and ears as he twitched and listened for the rest of his coven flitting through the branches.
And now I am off to Dakar to pick up my cousin Kimberly and take to her to live the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. She is my first visitor so I am really excited. And although we are going to be sightseeing, I am also putting her to work. After I pick her up we are headed to a mangrove reforestation project in the Fatick region. Stay tuned to hear about our trip!