Heather in Senegal

Sunday, April 06, 2008

I just got back from visiting my friend Laura in her village. It's such a pleasure to be in a place where I can speak Pulaar, bask in the beauty of Senegal, and have no work or social stress. I'm never so relaxed as I am in other people's villages. I love lounging in another volunteer's backyard (village volunteers have fenced in land around their toilet holes), out of sight but within earshot of Pulaars and the animals, reading in the shade or having a long rambling conversation. I might do virtually the same thing in Kolda, but never without some level of guilt about excluding the Pulaars. In most villages that I've visited, the locals understand that I have traveled far to talk with my friend, and they might joke about how we ramble on for hours in our fast English, but they appreciate that we need this and might go so far as to instruct my friend on how to be a good host.
We went to the nearby cashew-apple orchard every day. I regret that I did not bring my camera. When Laura gives me her photos I'll load them to this site. The orchard was planted one generation ago on a spot where a few fields meet, making it a sudden burst of trees on an otherwise flat landscape. We would go after lunch, in the heat of the day, so the orchard looked like a heaven-sent oasis. As soon as we got under the leafy awning the temperature dropped significantly. I've only ever bought cashew-apples in town, so I had to be taught to pick them. The first step was obvious: we told the kids who followed us to get us some apples. Then we started hunting along with them, and Laura taught me to scour the ground for small bursts of the red and yellow skins. No one plucks these apples from trees; they are only believed to be ripe if they have fallen. Some of the boys hurried this along by climbing up the trees (vertical, limbless trunks, and the boys looked as if they were walking up stairs) and shaking the high branches until apples rained down. At first I would pick up an apple, see it was half-eaten, and drop it, but Laura and the boys quickly corrected me. The birds only go for the best, so a half-eaten apple is considered a great find.
The orchard's caretaker is a middle-aged deaf man whose father planted the orchard. He sweeps the ground daily, making apples easier to find, and giving snakes, who are attracted to cashew trees, fewer places to hide. He keeps a bucket of water on hand so people can dip in the apples and rinse them off. Of course, before eating an apple one must twist off the cashew. He asks that diners toss these in a pile, and he sells them in town. One time when we came he was collecting honey from the woven structures he had attached to the trees, and another time he and the boys were cutting stalks into thin strips that will be woven into rope. He owns one of the gardens in the village. In all, he and his wife have one of the wealthiest compounds in the village. He was never taught an official sign language, but Laura and I were able to converse with him via the boys, who seemed to be able to communicate perfectly with him.
An NGO helped a womens group in Laura's village start a garden shortly before she came. When they divided plots for this spring's crop Laura asked for a section. She was away when they divided the plots, and saved nothing for her. When they saw she was hurt to be excluded they explained that they thought she would just help with everyone's. The group's leader gave Laura a small corner of her own plot. So, every morning and afternoon she had to go water. I slept through the morning shifts but helped in the afternoon. I loved how the women got such a kick out of me. It wasn't enough that they got one toubob who speaks Pulaar, but now another appears? We exchanged the usual teasings and jokes, and additionally they taunted me about not being able to pull water from the well. So, of course, in I stepped, and in no time was pulling in rhythm with one of the women. Faster than the eye could see, our hands were flying over each other's to pull the rope. The others cheered me on, and delighted at their approval, I insisted on pulling until all the buckets were full. Tom Sawyer and these Pulaar women.
Every morning and every afternoon the women line up by the well, have arguments about the line, pull innumerable buckets of water, and lug the pails to their garden plots. It won't end this ordeal, but I talked to a few of the women about mulching, and this should help. The women got it, and were quick to tell pass it on to the women who were still hauling water. "It'll block the sun and keep the ground wet longer," "the material will decompose and help the soil," "it'll reduce the number of weeds," - it feels so good when they really get it and are excited about it. Once they saw I knew something about gardening they asked if I had any advice on their pest problem. The next day Laura and I brought garlic and soap to the garden, one of her friends brought a pounder, and we made and applied an organic pesticide. I answered a few other questions about gardenting. It was glorious to be the visiting specialist.
Mostly, Laura and I walked. Her family chastised her for taking her guest out in the heat of the day, but we both loved strolling deep in the bush. We found a cemetery in which each grave was surrounded by waist-high walls of wooden stakes sunk into the ground. We sat under a mango tree until a bull pacing near us started giving us dirty looks and facing us with a disconcerting stance. Locals here will shoo bulls away as they would cats, and I have never heard of a bull goring anyone, but I figured I'd feel silly later explaining a gash in my side with, "I didn't think big horned bulls did that kind of thing," so we moved on. He promptly sat in our spot. We traversed fields, followed cow paths, speculated on the changes to come with the rains, and sweat rediculous amounts. It was lovely.
Laura's family gave us lunches, and we had dinner with one of her coworkers. The meals were delicious affairs, but by the second day I was craving vegetables. I do like village life. People are kinder there. Everyone knows you. The landscape is far prettier than in the city. The air is cooler. I could live there. But it may be a better place to visit.


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