Heather in Senegal

Monday, August 07, 2006

August 5
If you lay an old car tire flat on the ground, cut the top, widening the opening as far as you can, lay plastic inside the tire to hold water, and then fill the tire with something like peanut shells or dirt, you have a nice little planting container that you can use to grow big plants or use to grow many smaller ones that you will later transplant. We have quite a few tires like this at the garden. It is a good way to grow food in Senegal because discarded tires can be found for free, plants in tires do not need to be watered as often as do plants in ground, if ground in your yard is rocky or too sandy you can still grow food in your yard using tires, and you can move the tires in and out of sunlight as the day passes and as the plants grow stronger.
I recently read about a method of growing potatoes in tires that really excited me, so for the last girl’s club meeting the local volunteers and I took the girls to the garden and began the potato tire process. Using a tire that was already cut, Jenny showed the girls how to prepare a tire for planting. Then I took cuttings from the sweet potato bed, the girls pinched off their lower leaves, and each girl planted a cutting. All of the cuttings have lived and grown long, so today, two weeks later, I was ready to take the next step.
This morning I biked to the bridge over the Casamance River. I had previously noted in passing that the trash heap going down the hill to the water was spotted with tires, and I had planned to climb down and grab a couple. However, on closer examination, I got the willies thinking about climbing down through all the garbage. Jenny has told me that the best way to get tires is to send some kids to get them, and then have the tires appear at your house as if by magic. I had hoped to do have the personal triumph of finding my own potato tires, but given the choice between wading and probably slipping though a dump, and enlisting help, I quickly relinquished the idea of doing my tires alone. One of the boys who lives in my compound works for a mechanic near the river. I did not know just where, so I biked slowly down the row of mechanics’ shops until a kid called my name. I asked him where Omar was, and he pointed me to the shop where he is apprenticing. Omar took me to his instructor, Saliu, who was intrigued by the problem of finding tires for a garden. To make him understand that what I wanted was old, beat up, otherwise useless, and thus free tires, I took him back to the river to point out the discarded tires. I told him I wanted those tires but did not want to walk down there. He affirmed that I had made the prudent choice, and then looked mischievously at the kids who had followed us.
One thing I love about Senegalese culture, having entered the culture as an adult, is that adults can ask kids to do anything. Kids are routinely asked to buy things from shops down the street, cook tea, go next door to get hot coals for making tea, give someone the cup that is by that person’s feet, do laundry, or do whatever older people do not want to do. And the kids don’t refuse. So, when Saliu told the kids to hurry down the trash pile and lug up some tires for me, down they went. Saliu and I smiled at each other, delighted in our lot of not being little Senegalese kids. I could have asked kids to do this on my own, but I would have felt that an element of their obedience stemmed from my being a toubob. It was nice to be beside Saliu and know the kids were doing his bidding purely because he is older than them. And judging by how much fun it looked like they were having, I bet they were pretty happy to be told to go run on top of the garbage.
The first tire brought up to us had a big crack down the side. I would have accepted it and just hoped the tire would last, but Saliu reprimanded the kid and sent the tire rolling and bouncing down to the river. The next two were suitable. I expected to carry the tires to the garden on my bike, and I wanted to lose any extra weight before strapping them on, so as soon as the first good tire brought to us, I took out my kitchen knife and began to cut the tires. Cutting tires is hard work, and I had a hunch that a mechanic and a posse of little mechanics in training would not allow me to do any hard work. Indeed, I cut only a quarter of one side of a tire before the knife was politely taken from me. Saliu and the boys got through the first tire beside the river, but by the end of it they had had to resharpen the knife on the cement sidewalk many times, and the knife was no longer in any ways sharp, and you would never know it had been a serrated knife this morning. So a boy grabbed each tire, another took my bike helmut, and someone walked my bicycle as Saliu led us to the tent where a man cuts and sews thick rubber for bags for wells.
Saliu explained what we wanted and then pushed me forward to greet the man. He and I exchanged pleasantries, he cleared a place for me to sit, and then he cut the second tire for us. This tire had metal wire running through it and was much more difficult to cut. The bag-maker bloodied his hand in the process, but this seemed to bother me far more than it did anyone else. He did not make the opening as wide as I wanted, but I did not want to complain.
Tires readied, I said my thank yous and began to lift one onto the back of my bicycle. Saliu patiently shook his head at me, and again some kids carried the tires and someone walked my bicycle as Saliu took us to his shop, where a kid set my bike inside. I sat with Omar on some huge car part, but then, at Saliu’s word, a kid ran off and soon returned with a bench for me. Saliu handed me his ID to look at while he went off to get his motorcycle. Soon I was leading Saliu to the garden, with Omar sitting on the back of the motorcycle, holding a tire on each side of him. We passed a man going slowly on the road with a goat strapped on to the back of his bicycle. I’ve seen this many times. The goats, judging by their calm, have no qualms about being a bicycle passenger. This was the first time I stole a quick back-scratch as I passed.
I had told the boys I wanted car-sized tires, but I had not known if that was specific enough. Luckily, the tires we brought to the garden are the same size as the one in which the girls planted the potato cuttings. We laid a tire on top of the potato tire. Understanding the process, Saliu looked at the tire cut by the bag maker and pointed out that the narrow openings on both sides would prevent the potatoes from having as much space as they should, and he volunteered to come back tomorrow with a good knife to finish the job. Omar brought a wheelbarrow full of peanut shells from the pile in the corner of the garden, and we filled the second tire with shells until only about two inches of each cutting was visible.
Eventually this will become a potato tire tower, seven or eight tires high, full of sweet potatoes.
Jenny wanted some peanut shells for a tire for her host mother, so Omar and Saliu helped me fill the big rice sack I had brought, and then they strapped it onto my bike for me. I believe they would have shuttled it to her house had I asked.
This evening I dug a plot in my backyard, roughly two meters by one meter by 30 centimeters. I did not finish digging until after dark, so I will have to wait until tomorrow to line the plot with plastic, refill it with dirt, and transplant sprouts from my pepinaires.

July 29

I just cleaned my water filter. The “candles,” the white chalk-like fingers through which the water must pass, were coated in a brownish slime. This is hardly a great monumental event, but it was my first time scrubbing well-water goo off filter candles.

On Tuesday morning Jenny and I biked out of town to meet Whitney on the road to her village. She lives about 45 minutes out of Kolda and gave me an open invitation when I first got here. I have been putting off the visit, wanting to get a bit more competent in Pulaar before trying to chat with a village of strangers who would be speaking pure Fulakunda, and not the Pulafuta-Fulakunda-French-Wolof melange of Kolda. Last week I finally felt ready, so we made the date. Riding to her village took us from urban Kolda to outskirts, off the paved road and onto soft sand, through narrow paths where grasses scraped our legs, and into a beautiful backcountry far from electric wires and crowds of buildings.
When we arrived at Whitney’s village women danced and clapped to welcome us. I was able to manage basic greetings and some simple exchanges, but Jenny, with her year of experience, did most of the talking. Where I have a huge hut and no private land, Whitney has a tiny hut with a big private backyard. A quarter of it is taken up with her bathroom, which is a big cement tank sunk in the ground with a shoe box sized opening on top. The majority of her yard is a corn field. She has two long rows of okra, and a thriving watermelon plant.
After we cooled down in the hut, we went out to the village’s fields. From a selfish point of view, the fields are beautiful. Long stretches of green and brown, patches of trees, a pair of women breaking ground, wide sky above spotted with fluffy clouds. I am finding a new passion for sky gazing. From a practical point of view, the sight was frightening. Tuesday marked thirteen consecutive days without rain in these fields during what should be the peak of the rainy season. The field should be covered in tall green stalks, and we should be home-bound by the pouring rain. More and more I am hearing people discuss the lack of rain and the impact it will have on the winter’s food supply.
When we returned to Whitney’s hut two women appeared with a gift for Jenny. A third woman had taken an instant liking to Jenny, and she had gone biking to the next town to buy her a few pieces of candy. As is custom, she gave them to her friends to act as go-betweens. Whitney said this is common. Friendship-at-first-sight. She has seen many friendships sprout from this kind of gift giving. It seems people simply agree they are going to be friends, skipping all preliminaries, and proceed as if they are already close to each other.
Lunch was served to us in Whitney’s hut. By this time Justin, another volunteer, and Hamidy, Whitney’s boyfriend, had joined us. Lunch was white rice with a sauce of follere leaves (I found out that follere is hibiscus) and okra. The sauce is a bit bitter, but it has good texture and feels very nutritious, which at this stage is more appealing than a good taste. Hamidy cooked up some bissap juice. This is made from dried flower of the hibiscus boiled in water. He served it hot with a lot of sugar. It is very similar to the juice from a fresh batch of cranberry sauce. After lunch we took a blanket out to a nearby field and lay under a tree, surrounded by kids. I tried to teach Hamidy some partner balancing, and the kids mimicked us. They were too shy to try it with me, but Whitney thinks they will practice on their own. Clouds rolled in, and we could hear thunder from all sides, but the direction of the wind correctly told us that the rain would not hit us. However, the wind and the shield from the sun made the lounging outside simply perfect. Jenny and Justin left around four o’clock. Justin escorted Jenny most of the way to town, and then he turned around and went home. Two weeks ago this would not have been thought necessary, but recently a girl was found raped and murdered on the road between Whitney’s village and Kolda, and some men dressed like cow herders have been hanging around the road not greeting people and generally looking suspicious, so now we do not ride the road alone. Hamidy, Whitney, and I cooked maffe gerte for dinner: peanuts ground into butter boiled with water, salt, red pepper, and mashed up okra, over white rice. Delicious. I have heard that village food is awful, but I enjoyed everything I ate. One of my main reasons for wanting to spend the night was a desire to see the sky in a land far from electric lights. It was cloudy, so I will have to go back. The lightening striking off in the distance, however, was stunning. On Wednesday we went back into the fields to do some weeding. One lucky side affect of the lack of rain is that weeds can’t grow much. The few that are present are rather short. Still, spending a little while bent over weeding a field is enough to instill a new respect for the women for whom this is the way of life. When we came back from the field I went with Whitney to a meeting with two villagers. Whitney has arranged for a doctor a few towns over to sell medication to these women, who in turn sell to the villagers. Last year Whitney helped set up a small store in her village, but because everyone in the village is related in some fashion, and everyone badgered the cashier saying, “we’re family, so you should give me lots of stuff and let me pay later,” the store was never able to afford a second shipment of goods. However, the women in charge of the medicine are collecting money, so they will soon be ordering more supplies. Once they got deep into vocabulary I do not yet know, I started making faces at the kids and soon had a pack trying to make fish lips and cross their eyes.
Whitney learned of a tree that has very nutritious leaves, and she recently did a class on how to cook using these leaves. Other leaves have been less beneficial. About a year ago, a young man invited her over for tea several times. He was a friend, so she came and drank with him each time, and then vomited all night. When she finally connected her puking-boughts to the tea, she and some others questioned the young man. He confessed that he had been putting herbs in her tea to make her like him. The nausea was an unfortunate side affect. The fact that she is still friends with him makes me wonder if the herbs were powerful in the intended sense; although she does not date him, she somehow likes him enough to forgive him for poisoning her.
I spoke, at least briefly, to most of the people in the compound, and they were kind to me with my limited Pulaar. I danced and clowned for them, and when Hamidy put on a tape of Dvorak’s New World Symphony I sang along with it. A woman told us that Whitney speaks better than I do, and I play better than she does. I was pleased, but I know this is in part because while I can freely dance and play the fool, if Whitney did the same she would hear about it for months. During her first week here she did dance a lot, and the discussion of it, joking about it, and requests for more dancing during the months afterwards taught her to be more mild mannered.
The visit was rejuvenating, making me feel new excitement and affection for my surroundings. When it was time to go home, Hamidy sharpened his machete and biked with me back to Kolda.