Day 3: Tuesday, 5 March 2013
Toubakouta, Fatick, Senegal
Simply put, one of the most extraordinary days of my life.
After breakfast, and after having accidentally put instant coffee in my yogurt mistaking it for brown sugar, I checked out and walked the few short blocks to the CLUSA offices. About an hour later, and having a migraine begin to emerge, we were picked up by the Wula Nafaa truck and taken to the their offices. We made a quick stop at the pharmacy were I got some sort of tablet. Not knowing it was for dissolving into water, I popped the giant tablet into my mouth and immediately felt it dissolving on my tongue. For the next few minutes I drank as much water as I could until it was gone. The headache never totally went away, but it was pushed way into the background during the days events.
Four of us; Yaguemar, myself, Laurent (the Wula Naffa project manager) and our driver, set out for villages south of Kaolack. They way out of town was breathtaking. Such abject poverty I had never seen. It reminded me of the worst slums I had ever seen pictures of in any other part of the world. Thankfully, we were through it fairly quickly, over the river and into what could only be described as rangelands; flat savannah dotted with small herds of cattle, sheep and goats. A short while into that drive, we abruptly exited the paved road onto dirt and haven’t strayed since. The small towns I had seen along the way were megalopolis’ in comparison to the villages with thatch-roofed, concrete huts. Every few miles we would come across an enclave. Some were larger than others, with up to twenty such huts. Others were smaller with only a few. It was in one of the moderately-sized ones that we had our first meeting. Sitting in plastic patio chairs and a bench made of the branch of baobab tree we sat with three village farmers. They were gracious in their appreciation for my pronunciation of “salam malekum,” the greeting in Wolof borrowed from the Arabic and with smiles give the response, “malekum salam.” Senegal is a secular country, but 95% of the population is Muslim. Reminders are always in sight as nearly every village of a any reasonable size has a mosque; some no larger than a garage in the U.S., men in Muslim garb and even the occasional writing in Arabic. Yaguemar explained to me that the Senegalese Muslims are extremely tolerant of all others as well as vice-versa. Often, he says, Muslims invite Catholics to their holiday feasts as they are often invited to catholic observances in return. There is much mutual respect.
The meeting is quite successful. Yaguemar and I continue to perfect our rapport and with few stumbles we all feel heard and understood. Handshakes, dolled out in excess, are exchanged and we are once again on our way. We turn back toward and adjacent village about a mile away that serves as the prefect for the area. And agent of the Ministry of Agriculture has her office there and we attempt to have an impromptu meeting with her. She reluctantly agrees. I am escorted into a small very rustic building. The interior does not completely match the exterior as it has a large moderately ornate desk. She sits behind it in her brightly-colored wrapped-dress with matching head treatment with as flat a look on her face as she could have. She has been neglected by those practicing Conservation Farming, and now that they need something from her, she is not terribly moved to do so. I ask some questions to elicit her feelings about the CF farmers and I eventually get an answer from her. Later, Laurent asks if I had ever been in the military or the police. I ask why and he says its because I kept asking the same question in a different enough manner that she eventually opened up. When I told him no, just politics, we laughed.
We then headed south on deeply-rutted roads for the next two hours, finally reaching the Hotel Keur Saloum on the river bank in the village of Toubakouta. It is a beautiful, small resort. We have just enough time to drop our bags before heading out to lunch nearby. It was a restaurant in the village but looked like someone’s home (as I believe it was). We had barely sat down when the platter of mafe (pronounced mah-Fay) was brought out. Spoons were disseminated and we each began to eat right from the platter in the traditional Senegalese manner. Mafe is beef cooked in a peanut sauce poured over rice with root vegetables. It was delicious.
It was decided at the table to leave directly for the last meting of the day. An hours journey through more savannah brought us to another village. Here, under a large tree with an enormous canopy was the village meeting place. About two dozen large branches carefully finished so as to fit together much like a raft, gave shade to about 8 farmers. As the greetings ensued, more and more arrived until it eventually topped nearly 30.
We went through the introduction of me and why I was there and proceeded with my questions to them. They were a much more reserved group than the three I met with earlier in the day, but I still received valuable information. After about 45 minutes, the call from the mosque, only 100 or so feet away, came. We paused for the initial prayer — the second as we opened the meeting with one as well — and then spent another 10 or so minutes wrapping up so as to let the devout wash their hands and feet and continue with the evening prayers inside. The hood of our truck, parked only 20 or so feet away under another impressive baobab tree gave me some valuable writing space to quickly get an outline of my presentation for which we were on this fact-finding tour out of my head and onto paper. During this time I also took the opportunity to take a few photos. The children of Senegal are fascinated by photos. They beg to have their picture taken and squeal with delight at seeing themselves on the little screens. After several rounds of handshakes, thank you’s and goodbyes, we finally started back for the hotel.
We made one detour along the way so I could be shown a large side project of the Wula Naffa for the benefit of the village women of the surrounding area (primarily for the women but not exclusively). A large plot, approximately 7 acres or so had been cultivated as a community garden. While the millet that is farmed in the CF method is for sustenance (peanuts are grown as the cash crop), this plot, sub-divided into smaller plots of a few yards wide and across, are for the planting and cultivating of vegetables to not only supplement family needs, but the remainder can be sold at weekly markets adding a small income stream.
It is here that magic happens. Rather than my small camera or my camera-phone, I decide to use the iPad for photos and some video. I start taking video of some children ranging in ages from 6 or 7 to tweeners pulling water from a well. They notice and begin trying to catch my attention. Before long they all fled the well to come and watch themselves on the screen. Such sheer unadulterated joy I have never truly felt. After watching they want me to take more of them to which they again come fleeing back to watch themselves. For one take I coax them into chanting “Hi, Jack,” for a greeting back to Jack.
The more I try and break away to return to the truck, the more they try to get one more last picture. By the time I reach the truck, over 25 kids have swarmed around, waving and shouting their cheers, thanks and farewells. Our driver at one point had to get out to shoo some kids off the back of the truck and some others cheering behind so we could back up.
I was assured that tomorrow will be much less taxing as this day. I’m rather disappointed.