A Change of Pace


I have six new men in my life! I meet with each one on a different day of the week. Our dates consist of talking about the benefits of organic versus chemical fertilizer and whether Neem truly works to repel the ants that attack young mango trees. We often make compost piles together and by the time we are done with our date, we are both covered in manure and ash. Romantic, eh?

Okay, so I admit it. I don’t have six new boyfriends. But what could be the only thing better than six new boyfriends? Six new work partners! Bacari Yatta-Badde, Jam Boye Kula Balde, Mamadou Diallo, Mama John Sidoube, Thierno Sarah Diallo, and Tijane Diallo are all signed up as  Mariama Camara’s A Team line-up for this next year of agroforestry domination! It turns out this whole mango fiasco couldn’t have happened at a better time. In fact, it’s almost as if it’s what I needed to wake up and see that the community project I had planned was just not working out.

Here’s the thing. If Sinchurio really really wanted a mango orchard deep down in all their hearts, you’d think it would be a pretty easy thing to send one of the 300 people living in the village out to water them wouldn’t you? Or if you really thought a well was important to add to the land, you’d think if free money was offered to you and all you had to do was find the guy to dig the well and name his price, you would jump right on your part of the deal and find a well digger, right? 4 months later… after I have completely finished the grant and repeatedly asked Ibrahima to find a well digger in a region full of people with this specific job, he still can’t seem to find one.

It’s unfortunate, but after a year of being here, I have learned that people love to talk, but very few people really have the gumption to get off their butts and do. It is easy to sit around under the mango tree and complain about how hard your life is, and I am sympathetic. What do I know about poverty? I grew up in the heart of the most powerful nation in the world. What should I know about living hand to mouth, I’ve never had to do that. While all of these things are true, I still believe that no matter where you are in the world you still have to actually DO something to have something. But after literally begging my village to take the offered help, money, and knowledge and watched them pass it up for no apparent reason except for that they just didn’t really feel like getting around to it, I don’t want to hear it anymore. Conclusion: It is difficult to help those who refuse to help themselves.

This is the hard cold reality of development and believe me, my optimistic self had to take a few hits to understand that it was time to change the game plan. #1: I am done working with a community. There is no responsibility taken. Everyone thinks someone else is watering the field and in the end no one actually goes to the field. Also, as far as I can tell, the men all want the mangoes, but they force their wives to go and plant the seeds, fill the sacks, and water the trees. The women complain the entire time and don’t do a good job. This past year, after every community workday, I practically had to lock myself in my room afterwards and take the rest of the day off. Individual farmers are much better because they are the only ones responsible for the work. #2: Ibrahima Camara is just not working out. I understand that I do not speak perfect pulaar, Ibrahima Camara. Yes, it is unfortunate that I had not even heard about your language until last year when I started learning it, but I speak it pretty well after a year, and you continuing to scream that I don’t understand every word you’re saying two inches away from my face has gotten
really old after a year. I’m done. #3: Note to self: Look at the farmer’s field. Has he actually done anything? Does he have a well-built fence? Does it look like he’s done more than order his wife around and make attaya under the mango tree? If the answer is yes, I consider him for a work partner.

So now, after a year of mostly failed projects, I feel like I am actually starting to get somewhere. It took a change of mind and a change of projected goals, before I began searching for new people to work with. Now, with language and experience under by belt, I feel like I have finally stumbled upon some great farmers with ambition, drive, and above all, are extremely enjoyable to work with.

Bacari Yatta-Badde is big man with a huge smile. He has the characteristic darker skin of the Sarancolde, a different minority ethnic group found within the Pulaar region. Sarancolde are known for their work ethic, their tendency to explore the world, and their huge families. In his youth, Bacari traversed most of West Africa and worked in the diamond mines of Sierra Leone for over 30 years. Now, in his late 50’s, he has settle back in his hometown to take care of his elderly mother, his three wives, and his countless children.

The first day I met him, he was bent over his tomatoes, bare foot in the dirt, wearing a bright orange bou bou. He looked like a miniature sun orbiting around his impressive garden all enclosed within a fence he made by himself, without the help of NGO aid. After we talked a bit in Pulaar, he surprised me by shyly breaking into extremely understandable English. Do you know rare it is to hear English in this country?

“Yea, I got about ‘doo hectares ‘ere. Any-ting you want to help, you are most welcome. I am happy Allah brought you ‘ere, Mariama. My heart is gladest!” he said in creole-like English spoken in the old English West African colonies.

“You speak English!” I said, sounding surprised.

“Small, small,” he said modestly, hand over his heart. “I try, but I forget most, now I live in Senegal.”

So he speaks English and Pulaar, not to mention, French, Mandinka, Wolof, and don’t forget his actual native tongue, which is Sarancolde. Our conversations are well-matched because Pulaar is a second language for both of us, but sometimes we break into English as well.

The first day we agreed to work together, I was testing him to see if he would follow the pattern of most farmers I have worked with during the last year. All talk. No action. So I asked him to bring all the materials that would be needed for a compost pile. I told him that if we were going to do a mango program next year, we would need a lot of compost and it was best to start this in the cold, dry season. I also told him that usually it was better for the compost to be put in a hole. The compost is a meter by a meter by a meter, but usually I advise the farmers to only a dig down a little way, because digging through a meter of hard clay soil is not easy.

When I got to his field the next morning, I scanned the field with trepidation, sure that he had not followed through. Not only had he followed through, he had dug a hole over a meter deep and over a meter wide into the ground! He had extra sacks of manure and more ash than I have ever seen collected in one place. And I’m not finished bragging on this guy yet. When I finally managed to close my dropped jaw and plug my eyes back into their sockets, he greeted me with a wave and in English said,

“Mariama, do you take-a the black coffee? I drink black coffee only. I don’t like, this,” he wrinkled his nose, “this attaya.”

All I could do was grin. Do I take black coffee? Do I take black coffee? For those of you who know me, you are probably smiling at this. It was like a dream come true. I had finally found a farmer who wanted to work and he was going to serve me black coffee out of his thermos that he had brought along with him to the field.

We worked side by side, layering and pouring the different elements for the compost, while I explained to him how compost worked and why it was important to have it prepared before the rainy season. Bacari is a very respected man in Sithian Koundaro and this respect has led to many other farmers being curious about the work he is doing in his own field. Before long, we had a community of neighbors and curious by-passers helping make the compost and asking questions the whole time. We had accidentally turned it into a miniature compost training as well! Bingo.

A couple of hours later we finished the compost, and as I drove the stick needed to gauge the temperature into the middle of the pile, I noticed Bacari making a transaction with another farmer off to the side. Yes, this day continues to get better. Bacari was buying beef in order to have a barbecue under the tree in his field for lunch, after the work was over.

So there we were, a bunch of grizzled old Senegalese farmers and me, lounging around under the tree, drinking black coffee and snacking on the best barbecued beef I’ve yet had in this country.

We talked about politics and farming and the differences between America and Senegal. We talked about the problem with a lack of education and the land tenure system. And the best part was, not one of those guys told me I couldn’t understand.

I leaned back against the trunk of the tree and closed my eyes. I could get used to this, I thought.

Categories: Uncategorized | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “A Change of Pace

  1. Julianna Jenkins

    Whitney, I am so happy that you found a new direction. Not too be overly parental, but the old adage and biblical lesson may in fact be true. Things happen for a reason, and when one door seems to close another opens if you are open to it. So, congratulations and well done. It was you after all that took the intiative to find another work partner – and now you have 6. After reading this blog, haven’t you answered your own question?

  2. grampy

    “Allah helps those who help themselves” or is it Whitney helps those who help themselves. nice going!! – grampy

    • It might be Allah and Whitney (with Allah’s help, of course). There’s also a Pulaar saying that says, Everyone puts their own pepper in their own part of the bowl.

      If you don’t bring your own pepper, I’m certainly not going to put in on there for you!

  3. YAY! Way to go! Black Coffee and Barbeque Beef! Reading this post made ME excited so I can only guess how you feel. I was in Omaha and saw Sydney… I miss all of the group so much, but it doesn’t even seem like it has been a year and a half.

  4. Lois Kay

    Whitney, I havent looked at your blog for months. That last update was incredible to read. I havent yet read about the obstacles you have been up against in 2012, but Im so glad that you had the perfect day with the farmers, the coffee, and the bbq 🙂 I hope there hard work and motivation keeps on going. Love, Lois xxx

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