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Michel, Joseph, and Ibrahim showing off our newly transplanted nightshades

Last month Celine posted some photos of us volunteers, and a family friend from home commented – “Looks like a great time. Does anybody work?” A look back through the photos and I could see what he meant by his snarky commentary. The album was all play and no work – shot after shot of exotic places and smiling faces. I looked back through my own posted photos and saw the same thing – a visual travelogue comprising snapshots of my happiest moments here. I was reminded of how we like to edit our own lives. We skip over the slow parts (work), we cut out the sad parts (loneliness), and we look deeper into the good parts (time spent with friends on the westernmost shores of a whole continent). It’s not like we’d be posting photos of our work if we were back in the States anyway. But lately I have been spending more time with my hands in the dirt, and it warrants a report. So Alan, this one is for you.

I’m an urban agriculture volunteer in the south of Senegal. I chose this work and I chose this country, and luckily I got both. Some volunteers agree to be sent anywhere and do anything but I knew right away that this was the field for me. I believe in growing food where it will be eaten and finding more sustainable ways of producing food if we are to continue to exist on this planet. I chose urban because I’ve grown fond of electricity and running water and I just wasn’t ready to give them up for two years.

We arrive in Senegal and get a quick and tumultuous 2 months of training before they ship us off to the far corners of the country and tell us to be farmers. They also say: your service is what you make of it, and you’re only volunteers so don’t worry about it, whatever it may be. But I worry about everything. And I’m no good with mixed messages, so I do the only thing that makes sense, which is what my APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director), Massaly, told me to do in the first place: 1) turn my demonstration garden into a self-sustaining garden space for community education and local food production; 2) work with local farmers to grow field crops by distributing seeds and monitoring their progress; and 3) work with a master farmer to develop and maintain a progressive master farm where we can train other farmers.

So I go to my garden, every morning and every evening, and it’s hard. Literally, the ground is hard. It’s compacted and eroded and dry. For my first 6 months at site it was the dry season and almost everything I planted died. But I didn’t give up. I continued to go out there every day and work the hardened soil, double-digging each garden bed with a narrow pickaxe and taking extra time to remove the garbage – one day I dug up 27 batteries. I kept trying to plant cucumbers while the locals shook their heads, because I knew that when my cucumbers finally did grow they would have the least amount of battery acid of any urban cucumbers this side of the Gambia.

Eventually I found some things that didn’t die, like horseradish tree, and I planted so much of it that my work partner, Fatou, told me to stop. And then the rains came and everything started to grow, even things I didn’t plant. I remembered that Mother Nature provides what we need at the time that we need it. That, and because of the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, the tropics get extra radiation that warms the earth and cools at higher altitudes giving us our rainy seasons. So I learned that you just have to wait until June to plant your cucumbers. I also learned that in this part of the world it either rains to so hard that you’re surprised your roof is still there in the morning, or it doesn’t rain at all. Some mornings I know that I don’t need to go water my garden, because it surely has washed away.

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Nene Fatou Mori stealing the moringa that she told me not to plant (like a true Baldé)

But it’s figuratively hard too, for someone who just wants to be left alone at work, when your work is an open garden in the middle of a city. Every day passersby yell out to me as I’m working. They want to know what I’m growing, where I’m from, or what’s playing on my iPod, and they each want to be greeted extensively. I get frustrated. How can I get my work done with these constant distractions and unwanted attention? I become a grumpy old man and ignore people and wave them off and yell at kids who lean on my fence. NE TOUCHE PAS LE GRILLAGE!

Then one day I had enough. Class let out and a gaggle of schoolboys felt that they had nothing better to do than to pester me and lean on my fence. It was time to put them to work. If you want to be here then dig this garden bed. Here’s the pickaxe. And they did. They double dug the entire 3-meter bed, displacing each layer of topsoil and amending each bottom layer with wood ash and manure – just like I showed them. Afterwards, the boy who did the most work asked for money, with a sly look as though aware of his own audacity. Even though I tell most people who come around looking for work that I can’t pay them, I knew he had earned it. So I gave him 100 francs – a nominal amount for hard work, albeit an amount I knew would be agreeable, if not the going rate. But before the boy could even imagine the taste of the cookies he would buy, his friends were vociferously admonishing him for taking it. They shamed him into giving it back to me, and the look on his face said that he knew he couldn’t keep it.

They rambunctiously ran off in the same manner they had come, and left me standing there puzzled. I felt I had learned something but I wasn’t sure what. Was he not allowed to take the money because one person should not have more than anyone else? Or was it because help should be given free of charge? I assumed the latter. Couldn’t they have all just asked for money, knowing that I was willing to pay it? I was surprised by their benevolence, and yet this wasn’t the only time here that I was caught off guard by kindness.

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Filling tree sacks with my first trainees

Assignment #2: Extend field crop seeds to local farmers. Ok, but how? I don’t know any people here, let alone farmers, let alone 16 of them, which are how many Massaly wants me to give seeds to. And I barely speak Pulaar. Am I supposed to just walk up to random people on the street and say Good day sir, peace be unto you, I have some millet seeds here, would you like them? Incidentally, if you do that in Velingara people will say yes. Not only do they like free things as much as Americans, but everyone here is involved in some level of farming. But it turned out to be easier than that.

My demo garden is next to the Velingara Office of Agriculture. So one day as I saw some folks coming around to get equipment and amendment I approached one of them. Lama Diallo, a round-faced young man, wore a polo shirt, pressed slacks, and a plaid flat cap – well dressed for a farmer here or anywhere. He speaks a little English, so I mixed that with my little French and little Pulaar to explain my predicament. He said that he would find the farmers and gather them at the garden so that I could distribute my seeds. And he did. All the farmers showed up at the agreed upon date and time, and he even helped to explain to them how I wanted to visit their farms and monitor their crops. Afterwards, I thanked him zealously. He smiled (though he’s always smiling) and said that he was only doing his job. I nodded and smiled back. But what I was really thinking was: No, this is definitely not your job. I know that you didn’t interview for this and your résumé doesn’t say – “Help random Americans with volunteer assignments”.

Lama continues to be an indispensible work partner and simply a good person to be around, and I continue to be amazed by the people I meet and the situations I find myself in. But it’s not always pleasant; in fact it’s often unpleasant. The work is hard and it’s slow and our service is riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings and failures that we would be happy to forget, not photographed and posted on Facebook. Like many people, I want to produce work that I can be proud of, and I get frustrated when I can’t. But my region-mate, Jason, reminded me the other day that we are Peace Corps volunteers and our primary purpose here is cultural exchange. It’s connecting with people on a deep level; it’s fostering peace. The people who we meet here may not remember the work that we did, but they will remember how we made them feel. And if we happen to get some sector work done along the way then that’s an added bonus. And if it’s photogenic then it might wind up on Facebook.

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