This blog reflects my personal ideas and does not represent any position of the US government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Goodbyes...transitions...

As some of you may have seen from my last post, I have just recently left my home of the last two years, a rural village in Senegal. It was an emotional transition, to say the least. During my service, I spent two years experiencing and observing a rural lifestyle in the developing world. I lived in a community of about 500 individuals--the majority of which are children--23 kilometers from a paved road, along a sand path (I don't think it would be right to use the word road here).

Day to day, I was confronted with lives that starkly contrasted from my middle-class, American one. In my community, I watched as young girls, my neighbors, only twelve years old were given husbands 3-4 times their age and sent to accompany them to far away villages where they would cook, clean, wash clothes and get pregnant...even if their bodies were in no way ready to do so. I was introduced to a subsistence farming lifestyle, as mentioned in a previous post, where children (both boys and girls) as young as four years old were forced to spend days in the one hundred and ten degree sunshine just so the family could have enough labor to finish the field work. I struggled to help/keep up with the mothers in my family as they performed daily laborious chores while carrying babies on their backs or in their bellies (maternity leave from chores while pregnant=0 days, maternity leave after birth of child=2 weeks). I watched as my family and those surrounding me spent weeks or more with little access to fresh fruits or vegetables, particularly during the early rainy season as field crops take priority over garden crops during this time. And in light of the labor and hardship in this community, the villagers access to healthcare was minimal if not nonexistent. I have heard horror stories of emergency situations: one woman pregnant with twins in labor, riding on a horse drawn cart through sand roads in the middle of the night in a rain storm just to reach the hospital in Koungheul...only to have both children die shortly after birth. And regardless of all this, I lived with a community deeply dedicated to their religion, continually praying to God as they will always stay positive and believe improvement/development is possible.

This community was the one that welcomed me in as a naive, American child just two years ago. I was adopted into a host family with two wives and now, as of recently, eight children ranging from a few weeks to 12 years old. These people became my family and I cannot thank them enough. They took care of me, cooked for me, washed my clothes and helped me with just about everything else aside from physically dressing me. I relied on them, repeatedly questioned them, loved them.

And I can't help but always think, particularly after my service, that even though I was there to witness, experience, question and observe, I was only there for a definitive two years. Those two years ended and now I will moving on to new, different things. The lifestyle I became apart of for a short time will never represent my real life. I will always have some sense of guilt that I have the privilege to leave that community, those hardships, that environment, whereas those that I learned to love will remain there. Why have I had so much opportunity in my lifetime, especially as a woman? Why did I happen to be born in the family that I was?

As the next step, I have chosen to extend my Peace Corps service for another year here in Senegal. Just two weeks ago I moved out my village to take my village-quality belongings (ripped and dirty) into the suave capital city of Dakar. Since then I have been settling into a new apartment, new amenities and a new position. For the next year I will working as the Nutrition Capacity Building Coordinator for Peace Corps Senegal...which essentially means that I will be developing our nutrition programing for all volunteer sectors in Senegal, training Senegalese work partners to extend nutrition information to their communities as well as developing/organizing resources for volunteers. I started this position a little over a week ago and I am excited for future opportunities. For example, in the picture below, we recently participated in a health event in conjunction with Special Olympics to train handicap children and their families about the importance of proper hygiene and hand washing.

Special Olympics event, extending proper hand washing
to handicap children and their families. (Dakar)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

I thought I'd share with you a few video snippets of my last two years in Senegal and photos from the past few weeks in my village.


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Fatou Samba (born October 15th, 2013)

The new addition! Fatou Samba, my host
mother's newborn daughter
A new start to the peanut harvest just as I
am finishing work in village. 
One hat, true happiness.
Lunchtime! Getting ready to consume a lot of rice. 
A little trade
Family photo during my last few days in village. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

C'est la vie!


I often imagine the life of a subsistence farmer in Senegal or other developing countries to be one of the most exhausting. Not only does it require an extreme amount of work performed solely by hand (no heavy machinery here) but it also depends entirely upon the rains delivered by Allah. I just want to take a moment and describe the process of farming here in Senegal, keeping in mind that during only a three-month period, these families MUST cultivate enough to eat from for the entire year.
The seeding season begins: horizons dotted with machine seeders
Farming work begins even before the rains, around May and into early June. Traditionally, and something we have been fighting consistently here as Peace Corps Volunteers, farmers hand rake and clean up all of last years crops residues or weeds into small piles. Bushes or trees are hacked down as well and the piles are left to dry in the sun. Once dried, they are burned, continuously depleting the soils, ruining its structure, and killing beneficial organisms. Fields must be clean, according to all farmers here, though clean does not lead to healthy soils.
One example of a machine seeder.
The rains usually start slowly in the end of June or early July (this is specific to my region and often differs in other regions of Senegal by a few weeks). As the rains become more consistent, the rush begins. All crops that are planted here in Senegal have at least a three-month maturation period and there is never a guarantee that rains will last for that long (there have been years where they fall short, and there are no large scale irrigation systems to supplement). Thus, once the rains start and the soil is wet enough, the race is on to seed all crops (peanuts, millet, corn, beans and rice) as quickly as possible. Usually, seeding will begin in early to mid July. (Note: Farmers always want to seed a lot, though it is a careful balance between seeding too much and not being able to care for the fields with little man power or seeding too little and not having enough for your family to eat.) Every year I have found that one morning I simply wake up after a large rain to a horizon dotted with small seeding machines pulled by two cows, a donkey or a horse, making consistent lines traversing the slope of a field. These animals quickly become exhausted. They have gone the entire dry season eating old, dried up weeds with little nutrients. People in Senegal often grow peanuts not only for the nut, but also for the hay and save it throughout the dry season to supplement these weeds. Supply, however, dries up quickly. With little legitimate food in their bellies, these animals now must pull a machine each morning and evening for hours. They quickly become emaciated.
After a few weeks, the seeding period is over and the nervous wait for germination begins. If rains are inconsistent, problems can easily arise. This year for example, we had very little rain at this time. Plants would often germinate and die from lack of water and extreme sunshine. Those that survived were subjected to an array of pests (with little rain, natural weeds failed to survive in the bush and thus a large population of pests—primarily grasshoppers—turned to the delicious crops in the fields). Farmers were forced to reseed and reseed, sometimes up to three times. You also have to imagine, that with little weeds germinating, there is still close to nothing for these farm animals to eat and yet they are continuously required to pull machinery and seed the fields.
The fields post seeding. 
In August, rains start to become frequent (every couple of days), plants that will germinate have already done so and the weeding period begins. Farmers weed between lines with a plow pulled yet again by two cows, one horse or one donkey. This eliminates the weeds between crop lines but not within them. Now, entire families head out to the fields, bent over long lines of crops to weed in between each plant (before, work requiring machines is performed entirely by men or boys). If your family is large (maybe 10 individuals or more), your lucky, as you can take a team out to the 2-3 acre field and hand weed it in about 4-5 days (I have little knowledge of farming in the states, though I imagine it would take someone 4-5 days to weed hundreds of acres). Families will work every morning and afternoon to do so and the women must still continue to take care of the house—cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning, pulling water, taking care of the kids etc. etc. Hence why, in rural areas such as this, there is little incentive for family planning, the more help the better. 
Weeding season begins, machine weeding between lines.
(two cows, one horse or a one donkey)
The weeding period will usually last until the end of August, once over, it is a waiting game for crops to ripen. As they ripen, families go out in teams once again to bring in the goods. Beans are the first ripen and become a much-needed source of nutrients to diminishing food supplies. Then corn, which is usually eaten as a burnt treat. They will then continue on to harvest rice, millet and peanuts. A portion might be sold to buy other forms of food or to improve the house (as it now suffers from exposure to lots of water), while a larger portion will be saved for food and seed for the following year.
Another weeding example. 
After reading about all this work performed in the fields for farmers to simply get enough food for the following year there is still more to think about… All the funds and food derived from last season is on its last legs during the exact time when farmers need it most. Imagine, working morning and night and not getting enough to eat, or not eating anything of value. This is the life of a subsistence farmer in Senegal. 

Another weeding example (horse). 

Hand weeding within lines, a family effort.
More hand weeding.
The final result. A clean field of peanuts.
The most recent celebration of Korite! The end of Ramadan, and
my third time experiencing it in Senegal.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A little rain with that heat

I wanted to quickly follow up on the well project that I touched on in my last blog entry. The project was finished approximately one week ago. We started in early May with the purchase of cement from the nearby town of Kounghuel and proceeded to transport the sacks (totaling about 2 tons) 21 kilometers back to the village of Diam Diam Saly via horse-drawn carts. Contrary to my previous beliefs, this was the most time consuming phase of the entire repair. Initially, the internal structure of the well that had collapsed in previous rainy seasons was repaired by a local mason specializing in well work. The mason was actually lowered the 32 feet down into the well by a system of ropes and pulleys and gradually passed down the cement needed for the repair, one bucket at a time. After this phase of the repair was complete, a large portion of the remaining cement was used to make bricks for the external structure. Masons living within the village were hired to construct the walls surrounding the well and reinforce the platform such that future erosion water will not damage the integrity of the well. Finally, this past week, the remaining funds were used to purchase a large amount of rope and a brand new pulley for the community. (here's the link: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/1534)

Seeding millet.
Other than the well, my second rainy season in Senegal is threatening to begin. In early June we experienced two rains (between 20-30 mm) only a couple of days apart. This, of course, caused everyone to hook up their horses, donkeys and cows and seed millet into the newly wet soil. It may have been a little hasty however, in that since those two rains we have seen...nada, zip, zilch (only my own sweat). Who knew that farming with rain as your irrigation system could be so difficult (especially when there's no such thing as the 5:00 news or a weather man)? Some villagers are a little worried considering if seeds remain in the soil too long with no rain they may not germinate or could rot. In the mean while, I'll do a little rain dance. And of course, with the rains will come a lot of my work as an agriculture volunteer. Just like last year, I will be extending five types of seed (corn, millet, sorghum, rice and beans) to about ten farmers throughout the area. Accompanying the extended seed, we discuss with farmers a variety of best agriculture practices that they may or may not choose to adopt…  
Here she is!

On an exciting note, I have also discovered that the best way to find out the flora and fauna that exist in Senegal is to simply not sweep my hut for large expanses of time. In particular, this past week, I lifted one mat to discover something I never knew existed here, and if I had, I may have reconsidered coming to the country in the first place…Since its discovery it has been relocated to a nearby baobab tree though if it is to return it will not be so lucky again. (see photo)

Now, I anxiously await the month of Ramadan (about 3 weeks away) and begin the food hoarding process (similar to a squirrel preparing for hibernation). 


For pictures of a few recent adventures and the finished well, check out my photobucket (http://s1197.photobucket.com/user/katierichards0/library/The%20Hot%20Season%20Begins?sort=9&page=1). 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Working with Constraints

The well we hope to repair in Diam Diam Saly
In an effort to stay somewhat sane or occupied during the dry, hot season, I decided to take on a small well reparation project in a village nearby. Each rainy season, runoff contaminates the well in Diam Diam Saly (approximately one kilometer away from my site) to the point where its water is undrinkable. Living in a desert with no water...don't ask me how they do it. So, with a little help from the folks at Water Charity, we have begun the process of collecting materials for reinforcing the well. This past Wednesday our efforts began with a trip to Koungheul and a few important lessons were learned. After waking up at 4:30 am, I waited by the front of our compound under the moonlight, listening to the booming population of donkeys and waiting for the call to prayer. Five o'clock passed, then six o'clock, and I finally dragged my droopy self back into bed. At approximately eight o'clock the horse-drawn carriage arrived...first lesson, something I should have hammered into my head in September of 2011, nothing happens on time. The two hour ride into Koungheul under the blistering sun was...fun. After arriving, we proceeded to purchase 2,200 kilograms of cement, or 2.2 tons, along with a few other accessories. This would be carried back to the village through sheer horse power, the kind fed by peanut hay. Envisioning that this could end in some issues particularly with my level of exhaustion, I decided to catch a car back to village. I waited for the car for approximately 6 hours. Don't worry, during those six hours I was invited to attend a naming ceremony by a friend who lives in Koungheul, this is how Senegal works. You never know where your going to go, who you'll spend the day with, what you'll eat or experience. The ceremony certainly occupied me during those hours. After the car finally filled (a small Peugot pickup stuffed with approximately 20 people, 14 in the back, 2 in the front and the remaining 4 on top), I arrived home at about 6 pm, exhausted, popped in for a bucket shower and collapsed into bed before the sun went down. The carriage driver called me at about 10 o'clock to say they had broken down on the way home... second lesson, rickety carriages are not meant to carry that much cement. I believe they made it home at around midnight, a long day. It's often funny for me to imagine how little time a task such as this may have taken in the states, one hour? maybe two? maybe even just a few-minute call to the local store to deliver the cement? who knows, but here, we are living with constraints. Anyway, the reparation stage of the well is about to begin, as quickly as possible, before the rains hit, so be looking for updates.

I also have posted a couple of pictures of a wedding I attended recently. A good friend of mine from village (Mati Gueye) moved into her husbands house this past month in a village nearby and was thrown a large ceremony with lots of rice! She is the man's second wife and he was absolutely beaming, as I'm sure they all are (not pictured).

Also, checkout my photobucket for a few more photos from these past few months (http://s1197.photobucket.com/user/katierichards0/slideshow/The%20Hot%20Season%20Begins) Hope all is well in the states and heating up (I'll send some your way!)!
Mati (center) and her "wujju" or first wife (right) being driven to
their husband (not pictured) by my host father (left) on his
motorcycle.

Mati preparing for the ceremony. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Katie, the Senegalese Kind

I have been back in village for the past three weeks now and am jumping into the swing of things. Of particular interest, this past week, I completed a malaria education program at my elementary school. (This past rainy season and even until recently, I was shocked by the amount of malaria present simply in my own family compound...my 12-year old sister contracted malaria twice during the rainy season and the small 6-month-old just recovered this past week). The program, known as "Nightwatch," is six days long and occurs after school. Each day the kids learn various things about malaria, including how it is transmitted, what are the symptoms, what to do when you contract it, how to prevent it etc. The program specifically focuses on mosquito nets and the vital role they play in preventing malaria throughout the entire year. The exciting part is that the program culminates in a short test followed by a fun activity on the last day. Each student was given a small flag (that I had made by a tailor in Kounghuel) and some fun markers. They were instructed to close their eyes and imagine what they wanted to be when they grew up....teachers, doctors, jounalists and even the president of Senegal showed up. Kids wrote their dreams on these flags and decorated them with great colors. All the flags were hung up in the classroom, though in about a weeks time each student will take home their flag. The hope is that they will hang the flags inside their mosquito net and each night be reminded that sleeping with their net will protect their dreams by keeping them healthy/malaria free.

I also have some other exciting news. In early January, I decided to attend a naming ceremony (occurs a week after the baby is born and announces his/her name) for a good friend who had her first girl on December 29th, 2012. I became close with this family during the past rainy season as they are of pulaar descent, care for multiple herds of cattle and have copious amounts of fresh milk during the farming season (delicious with millet couscous). I would often spend many a morning at their compound filling up on milk and millet and passing out for a cat nap on their floor. Their house is always bustling with tons of adults and children though most all speak solely Pulaar and therefore we find it very difficult to chat. Maam Diara (the new baby's mother) however, speaks fluent wolof, so I was always partial to passing out on her floor with a belly full of milk.

The morning of the naming ceremony, I arrived at the compound early to witness the naming of the baby (the head is shaved, a goat is slaughtered and the name is announced). I first greeted Maam Diara, who was done-up with braids and hair extensions, and then moved on to visit with her family that had traveled in for the occasion. They were quite rambunctious and enjoyed joking with the Toubab, saying I'd be the baby's namesake. Once Maam Diara and Mumadou (the baby's father) were dressed up, the baby was carried off with the women of the family, the mother and I. We all sat on beds in a small thatched roofed hut and watched as one of the baby's relatives shaved its head and placed the hair in a small bowl with water, cotton and some bark (I'm sure all symbolizing something). At one point a small wisp of hair was carried away with the wind and 3 elderly ladies chased after it ouside trying to distinguish it from goat and sheep hair (not sure what is done with the bowl of hair later but is was clear that every bit of hair needed to be included). Outside the men were busy praying and slaughtering the goat to be eaten for lunch. After the whole process, the name was announced by the father, and one woman of the family relayed the name into our room...she announced that they would be naming the baby after...Fatou Sarr....my stomach dropped , Fatou Sarr is my name... All the women looked up, fixed on me, smiling. One asked my American name as that should be the true name of the baby, Katie Richards. Maam Diara and her relatives were not joking, I am now the namesake of a beautiful baby girl in the village next door, Baby Katie (pronunciation still remains a bit difficult among the family), the Senegalese kind...

Both photos of Baby Katie and the malaria program should be added soon, so keep your eyes peeled. These next couple of weeks I look forward to touring Senegal with my parents and taking them all the way to my humble hut in the bush! They should be updating photos of their trip as well, and when I get a chance I'll let you know where to find them.

Love.

Friday, December 21, 2012

America Fresh

I have just returned from a quick three-week trip stateside. The goals of the trip were to see as much family and friends as possible as well as to fatten up a bit before going back into hiding in the Senegalese bush. As my host family and village like to tell me frequently, I returned home to breast feed at my mother’s side (sorry for the visual). Upon returning, it appears the trip was a success. Even three weeks since my re-entry into the country, I am still receiving comments like “wow, you are looking chunkier these days” or “your skin is so vibrant now” (all a result of eating American foods in wide varieties and failing to be exposed to the sun on a daily basis). Overall, the trip was amazing. It was wonderful to see family and friends and even more so to realize the support that I have from everyone. I am so lucky and must thank you all so much.

FMNR in action! (No age limit)

Saliou, a farmer from my village

Now in Senegal, I have begun my second year as a Peace Corps Volunteer…also known as…time to hunker down. The days are quickly passing and the project ideas, continuously popping into my head. Most recently, I attended a week-long training in the city of Thies. This training invited approximately forty Master Farmers from all across the country, including two from my village in particular. I’m not sure if I have introduced this program yet on my blog but it is something that I have worked extremely closely with in the past year. The Master Farmer Program chooses respected and experienced farmers in communities all across the country, primarily in rural areas where farming is the main source of income for the majority of families. Peace Corps brings these farmers to our training center in Thies and teaches them numerous farming, gardening and agroforestry techniques (farmers will usually attend at least one training per year). All techniques hope to improve the current farming/gardening practices in Senegal by stressing the improvement of soil structures, since most have been ravaged from years of farming (fertilizer abuse) and deforestation. Overall, we, as volunteers, then work to help these farmers bring these techniques back to their respective communities and demonstrate them in an enclosed space. One highlight of this training was two days spent at a local reforestation project which introduced to both me and my master farmers a technique known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). In an effort to reverse desertification, FMNR teaches farmers to utilize and care for naturally occurring trees within their fields, as opposed to clearing them each start of the raining season (resulting in multiple issues including erosion and decreased soil quality). Fostering the natural growth of trees throughout a field can increase a farmer’s or gardener’s overall yield through increased soil fertility, water infiltration and retention, biodiversity or even shade (something we all love here in Senegal).

more pruning...

After this training and a small break for Christmas, I cannot wait to jump back into things in village. This past month, villagers have finished harvesting their peanuts and due to a particularly rain-filled rainy season harvests are proving prosperous and pockets slightly happier. They are now amidst the home-improvement season, as field crop stalks (millet, corn, sorghum) are abundant and being used to replace old, falling fences and dead weeds are being collected for roofing materials. As for me, aside from plans to continue extending some great techniques like FMNR at the Master Farm, I have hopes to start a small school garden at the elementary school (including not only nutritional vegetables but just plain pretty flowers…fun for the kiddies). I have also recently received funds to start a women’s garden in a village approximately two kilometers away from my site. This group of women have been struggling to garden in both the rainy and dry season as they lack a properly protected space to do so (with goats, sheep, cows, horses, donkeys and chickens running rampant, you can imagine it’s nearly impossible). Their efforts during the rainy season, as well, have been confined to seasonal ponds, however, when large rainstorms hit these efforts are often destroyed by flooding. So, let’s hope all goes well!
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Saliou, Omar and I at the end of the
 training this past week.