Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Fill your Belly After Sunset ... and Why Babies Make Everything Okay

So, here we are, Day 17 of Ramadan. Ramadan, it turns out, is a pretty amazing endeavor on the part of the world's Islamic community. All around the world, for one whole month out of every 12, a billion and half Muslim people deprive themselves of food and water for the 16 sunlit hours of the day. That's a lot of people spending a lot of time fasting. To me, it's an amazing statistic, and one that I appreciate infinitely more having spent the last couple of weeks entrenched in this experience.

In solidarity with my community (to make a long story short), I've been joining them for the daytime fast. My host mother comes a-knockin' at my door around 4:45 am; sometimes I consent and stumble groggily to the communal bowl of lukewarm left-over dinner rice, but more often, I nibble on a Cliff bar or eat nothing at all and go on sleeping. And that's that, until 7:30 pm on the dot, at which point the village mosque - which has somehow acquired a car battery for its purposes - blares the evening Call to Prayer, AKA our signal to stuff our faces. In my family, we break our fasts with bread, homemade mayonnaise, dates, spiced coffee, and water ... lots and lots of water. It's really quite lovely, actually, and makes the whole Ramadan endeavor entirely worthwhile -- to sit with my family in that moment of dusk, bathed in that delightful orange glow that occurs only at that time of day, and together nourish our bodies after having collectively gone without.

Since it's the "rainy season" (the rain in these parts has been bit sparse), it's prime time for farming. Most of the men and many of the women in Ngaraff spend their mornings in the fields, and I've enjoyed accompanying my brothers or various neighbors out into the green pastures to plant or pull weeds or do whatever needs being done. When they're done with the morning tending of the fields, the people here tend to collapse under a tree until it's time to start roasting the coffee and thinking about breaking the fast. I can't quite bring myself to be totally out of commission for so many hours, so I've been busying myself with little tasks here and there -- composting, painting murals, experimenting with natural pesticides, as well as helping my mothers with all sorts of household tasks and doing research and preparation for projects that are in the works.

In other news, one of the women in the village, Ada Mbay, gave birth a couple of weeks ago. It's not the first baby born since my installation in Ngaraff, but I've been out of town for all the other baptisms. This time around, I made sure to be there for the baptism, and went a little crazy taking pictures not only of Ada's newborn baby girl but of all my other favorite little tykes in the village. So yes, the pictures are a bit of baby mania . . . are you surprised? These babies make me so gosh-darn happy.

My mom, breaking bread as she waits for the call to prayer.

Dieng ladies of all ages pitching in on laundry day.

Men returning from the fields as a big storm rolls in.

Mbase, Sidi, Ndene

This little guy decided to build his cocoon in my shirt overnight.

The thorn I extracted from DEEP within my little brother's toe.

Few PCVs are as proud of their murals as I am, but you all KNOW how desperately artistically challenged I am. Look at the detail! I painted this!

With my bros, heading back from a morning of working in the fields.

Brand new baby before her baptism. Her name is Sohla, named after the daughter of the other Bigue in the village!

With baby Sohla and her mama, Ada.

Pop Ibra.

Nayfatu is the most beautiful baby in Ngaraff, but also cries more than ANY of her peers. I call her "Joykat" -- joy, in Wolof, means to cry, and kat is the suffix they put on words to indicate profession. (a jangalekat, for example, is a teacher - jangale means "to teach.")

Nayfatu, in a rare happy moment.

Daba Ndieye is camera-shy.

Pop Diaw thinks mommy's funny.

How great is this picture??

Pop Ibra and big sister Aissatou.

Itty bitty baby girl! Ooooof, too adorable.

Saye also doesn't like the camera.

Does this make you laugh? It makes me laugh.

This is my life.

Aida Gaye and Pop Ibra are my two favorite babies.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Millet Fields Forever

It's been over five months since I first stepped foot onto Senegalese soil. In someways, that seems like a deceptively short span of time when I consider the twists and turns that my life and my psyche have taken since I got here. In other ways, however, I'm a little ashamed at the time gauge it provides. Five months, and what do I have to show for it?

IST (In-Service Training) gave us an overview of some of the many projects we can undertake while here in Senegal, including permaculture gardening, improved stoves, chicken raising, bee keeping, latrine building, and youth clubs, among other things. The majority of my time, I feel, was spent looking at, identifying, and handling trees at various stages of maturity, and not one moment of that time was lost on me. Sadly, I can't claim to be a natural green thumb, but I'm determined to plant some trees in this god-forsaken desert, if it take me the rest of ma vie, sobe allah.

Now that training is really over, my cohorts and I have once again been unleashed on this country in a second American diaspora, and this time around we're supposed to show Senegal what we're made of. While I feel a certain amount of concern about my general lack of progress on, well, anything . . . I'm trying not to dwell on my progress or the degree to which it justifies my presence here. Rather, I'll say only that that that persistent wisdom, "Poop or get off the pot" has been ringing loudly in my ear. This ultimatum comes down on me not from any external source so much as from my own conscience, as you can imagine. It's time to do some work.

After IST, I spent a weekend decompressing on the beach with a few friends. After that I took a few days in the town of Linguere, helping out with work at a local farm that is part of the Master Farmer Program linked to Senegal's extensive and quite bad-ass Food Security Initative (check it out! At long last, I've now been back in my village for only about a week, trying to figure out exactly what form my work will take.

Somedays, this feels like such an intimidating prospect that I start to crumble under its weight. One day, I stood in my half-dead, half-diseased garden, and cried, loudly. All I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position, preferably on the next flight to LAX or SeaTac. Instead, I went on a hunt for the freshest, greenest manure I could find to add to my nascent compost pile. And that's kinda been my strategy -- call it life avoidance, but I've simply been trying to keep busy with whatever sweaty, toilsome task I can find. It's prime farming season, and I've been tagging along with people heading to their fields, spending my days helping in whatever way I can. It's hard work, but it makes me feel more a part of this community than most things, and it gives me time to think about my "real work." (Plus, who doesn't love that satisfying feeling of pulling up a deeply-rooted weed?) I don't want to jinx any potential projects yet by bellowing about them on this blog, but you can be certain that they'll have to do with gardening, trees, preventative health and access to basic health care, latrines, keeping girls in school, and dealing with trash.

I'll make this post even longer with a few anecdotes from the long-running comedy of errors that I like to call "Being Bigue:"

1. I fell in a sewer . . . again. Due to my unabashed vociferousness on the subject, most of you know about my unfortunate run-in with a poop pit in Madagascar a few years back. Thanks to that experience, my more recent ordeal seemed like little more than a dip in a kiddie pool. It happened after an especially strong rainstorm in Thies, on the last day of IST, when all the streets were flooded and the power was out; I was traipsing through the streets after a couple of beers and all of a sudden found myself waist deep in a watery pit at the gas station. As the gas station attendants, only slightly worried, helped me climb out of the hole, I tried to explain, in Wolof, how I had no idea that stupid hole was there, while Kourtney sternly reprimanded them for not having a better lit service station . . . forgetting, of course, that the power was out.

2. Mistaking them for weeds, I nearly pulled out a whole swath of healthy, important millet plants in my host mother's field in my effort to be an "extra helpful" helper. She stopped me just in the nick of time.

3. That same day in the fields, I noticed some commotion among my brothers in the neighboring field. I went over to check it out, and found that they were taking turns slamming large sticks into the ground, hooting and hollering all the time. The victim of their blows was an enormous mbet, a bizarre lizard creature, three-feet in length. (In English, a monitor lizard -- have you seen these things? ( The boys then informed me, most excitedly, that they planned to eat the wretched creature, and proceeded to slash into its tough, scaly neck with a dull sickle.

4. My little brother asked me to put a band aid on his butt . . . pretty much right in the crack. He was so cute, and so unashamed himself, that I didn't even protest. But maybe I should have?

5. All that, and chickens keep getting stuck in my room -- they somehow slip in stealthily when my screen door is open, and then, upon being discovered by me, they squawk and flap their wings and try frantically to exit whence they came, bumping their beaks against the screen door that has now been closed, but which they somehow fail to notice. Isn't my life a hoot?

To anyone out there still reading, HAPPY AUGUST! To those of you rambling in the Cascades or the Rockies this season, please let the mountains know that they are at the top of my mind, and that I will return with sufficient sacrifices to Mother Gaia in two years time. For those of you preparing to attack the Minnesota State Fair, do enjoy a deep-fried Twinkie on my behalf. To those of you in Panama or Haiti, thank you for the inspiration that has seen me through to this juncture. To those of you battling the behemoth metropolis of Los Angeles, well . . . just join with me in reveling over how extremely and comically that past life of mine contrasts with the one that I currently inhabit.

I'll leave you with that, and, as always, far too many photos with obnoxiously loquacious captions.

Before IST, Team Linguere gathered to do some minor home improvements, including building this garden bed outside our house.

Have you ever seen a cashew tree sprouting out of a cashew?? I thought it was pretty neat!

Our PC Environment Education Director showing proper mango tree transplanting technique.

Stoked on our mango transplant.

Bee houses.

Tree nurseries are my life. (No, I did not plant this one . . . If I ever create anything remotely this beautiful, I'll literally jump for joy.)

How we ended up befriending and then engaging with these beefy Senegalese wrestlers at the beach is still somewhat unclear to me . . .

Dead puffer fish - it's huge!

Andrew and I actually found the opportunity to hike, of all things - imagine that! - and I was absolutely thrilled, this being the most elevation that I've gained, on foot or otherwise, since my United Airlines flight started its descent into the Dakar airport five months ago.

Ann Marie and the rest of Team Linguere, planting 200+ Procipis trees at the pilot farm.

Procipis seedlings in their new home.

With the farm owner and workers after transplanting, right before a huge storm hit.

Farmland around Ngaraff.

My brothers, weeding their peanut field.

Is this a good look for me?

It's a better look for my sister Joyja.

My siblings, helping me transplant a mango seedling. If I do say so myself, this transplanting was a perfect example of the knowledge exchange that I was so hyped about when applying to the Peace Corps: I brought the mango tree and some overly academic skills regarding outplanting fruit trees; they brought endearing enthusiasm and crucial practical knowledge on how to construct a defensive shelter that would protect our little tree from the hungry goats.

Farming, farming, farming . . . this is the tool that everyone uses to weed -- it's kind of a trowel on the end of a long pole, and they push it through the soil to cut the roots of the weeds. It's fairly efficient, and I'm getting pretty good at it, too!

Ngui, and several of her friends, saw me picking Neem seeds, and when I told them, upon their inquiry, that I would use them to make a medicine for my sick eggplant, they were practically tripping over each other as they scrambled to help me gather the seeds. It warmed my heart from the inside out and back again, and the best part is, it's not so atypical. These are really good kids.

A Garden State moment with my buddy Magatte.

My sister Penda, driving us out to the forest to get cooking wood. It was an epically fun trip with she and two other sisters.

Have you ever chopped something with an ax or hatchet? It's absurdly fun. For all my tree- hugger tendencies, I couldn't get enough of it. Am I going crazy? (I still plan to bring more efficient stoves to the village . . . don't worry.)

My sister Bitti, with our wood and our means of transport.

P.S. I've updated the "Being Bigue" album to the right.