Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Visiting farmers – a conglomeration of biking, sand, crops, wind, water, handshakes, and peace only

A big part of my work as an ag PCV here in Senegal is to extend seed for improved varieties of field crops (rice, corn, cowpea, millet, and sorghum). As I wrote about in an earlier post, I gave seed to 100 farmers back in May. In PC Senegal’s seed extension program we are supposed to regularly visit the farmers we extend seed to so that we can not only collect data (which is used for PC reports and used by ISRA, the ag research institute that develops these improved seed varieties here in Senegal) but also so that we can talk about their farming practices and, when necessary, give them advice on fertilizers (chemical and organic), thinning, weeding, pests, harvesting, etc. We do our best to make sure these are interactive conversations so that we, the PCVs, are not doing all the talking and telling, though; we take these opportunities to get to know our farmers, their various agricultural practices, why they do what they do, and brainstorm different things they could try to improve the soil, their crops, and, thereby, their yields. While most PCVs (who have usually around 10 farmers their first rainy season, and maybe up to 25 their second rainy season) try to see their farmers every other week or every third week, I knew way back in May when I was planning for the rainy season that this wasn’t realistic because of the large number of farmers I would be visiting and because of the fact that I would be home for 3 weeks in October, right at the end of the rainy season. Instead, I figured it was much more realistic to plan on being able to visit all my farmers 3 times before I went home – once soon after they had planted to make sure I was able to record an accurate planting date (most of the farmers are illiterate so they can’t write this information down, and many of them also barely even know “toubob” months – i.e., the Roman calendar – since their holidays and other major events are more influenced by “Wolof” months – i.e., the Islamic calendar), then again in the middle of the rainy season to see how the crops were growing, and a third time right before I went home to mark out a 2x2m yield calculation plot. There are several problems with this plan, the main ones being that I didn’t realize how crappy the “roads” would get once the rains really kicked in and I didn’t know that I would be leaving Kayemor several times for several days at a time to help out with various trainings and events (ex., the English camp and helping with training for the new PCTs in Thiès). Therefore, I was able to see almost everyone twice before I went home: I saw (essentially) everyone during July and August (I say “essentially” because sometimes farmers aren’t at home when I go to visit them and if no one around knows where their field is, then I have to count it as a visit even though I haven’t really seen them – and I can’t just come back the next day like many people suggest because I have so many farmers in so many villages to visit that I have almost every day planned out for where I need to go and whom I need to see), and I saw as many people as possible again in September but I didn’t have time to see everyone.

Since the sun gets hot quickly in Senegal, I try to leave my hut by 7am (8am at the latest). Then I typically bike out to the farthest village I’m visiting for the day, making my way back to Kayemor as the morning wears on. When I get to the village, I ask around for the farmers I’m looking for (unless I happen to know where they live, but that’s pretty rare). During this process of finding the farmer I obviously have to greet any and every one I meet (because greeting is such an important thing in their culture), which means I say “How are you?” “I’m here only. Peace only,” countless times. It’s kind of unnerving how easy it is for me (and them) to say “Peace only,” when I’m not necessarily in peace at all. Since most of the time the farmer isn’t at home, his/her family sends out a kid to find him/her either around in the village or in a field, so I end up continuing these greetings for numerous long minutes (sometimes upwards of 20 minutes). When the farmer finally comes back, we walk out to his/her field to see the crop, walk back to the village, and I find the next farmer to visit. The thing that takes the longest in all this is waiting for the farmer to be found and/or walking out to the field. Sometimes the farmer can’t be found and I’m forced to move on to the next farmer, or the farmer’s field is so far away that he/she recommends we not go all the way out there. Once I’ve seen all the farmers in that village, I move on to the next village and continue the process. Sometimes I’ll be able to see 3 villages by noon, but usually the earliest I get back is 1pm, sometimes I don’t get back until 2 or 3. That’s when I guzzle 2 or 3 water bottles full of water (I always bring at least 1 water bottle with me, if not 2) and take a cool bucket bath. After lunch I always make sure to record everything in my field crop notebook, because I often just take notes shorthand when I’m out in the field and need to make sure I don’t forget stuff by doing that. When I first started going out visiting farmers in July, I would go out in the evenings, too, around 5pm, to see farmers. I stopped doing that during Ramadan, though, because all the farmers were fasting so the last thing they wanted to do was get up and go out to the fields, even if we were only going to walk out there and see the field for a few minutes.

I am exhausted at the end of every day from all this biking and walking and sweating in the sun, so I’m often in bed by 9pm. Probably the hardest part of all this, besides the hot sun, is biking on the “roads” in the bush. The roads are a mix of sand, rock, water, crops, thorny trees, livestock, and people: I’m biking through sand, then over rocks, then through puddles (or wading through water up to my waist), avoiding thorns and thorny trees, cows, kids and charettes, all while keeping my eyes up enough to be able to judge which part of the road – or side of the road – to take to find the best terrain for biking and for avoiding these things.

As you can imagine, biking out to 22 villages in the bush in Senegal will provide you will some pretty good stories, though I will be the first to admit that the vast majority of this time is spent trudging through muddy water, rattling up and down rocky outcrops, and toiling through long stretches of sand. But every once in a while something exciting happens – something more exciting, that is, than finally getting through the longest stretch of the softest sand I think I’ve experienced, and hope to ever experience (even if in a future experience I’m not expected to bike through it, or even traverse it all, but just sit and let it sift through my toes). While I think these were relatively exciting stories, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the best story teller (or even an average one) so I’m afraid I may have dulled them down so they are no longer exciting. But, if you’re still curious about my once-exciting-now-potentially-boring experiences in the bush while visiting farmers, read on.

“I wish I had a map.”

There are three main reasons why you have no idea how many times I’ve thought – and even said – to myself, “Boy, I wish I had a map.” One, before starting these farmer visits, I had never been to the vast majority of these villages. Two, there are many bush “roads” (which, to be perfectly honest, are more like paths than roads) and not always a lot of people – if anyone – on them. Three, I don’t have the best sense of direction. Therefore, when preparing for all these village visits I did my best to draw out a rough sketch of where all the villages are, based on descriptions by my host father. And then I almost always asked everyone I met (unless I was absolutely certain where I was) if the road I was on was indeed the one that leads to the village I was going to next. Countless times I have come to an intersection where the road splits and don’t have the faintest idea which way I should go. I have always gotten lucky, I guess, since only once have I ever been told that the road I had chosen wasn’t the right one and that happened less than 100 meters after turning down that road so I was able to easily cut through the brush and get on the right road. I was lucky, that is, until late August.

One day in late August, I had already visited 4 villages that morning so I was hurrying because I still had 2 more villages I wanted to visit and it was getting late and, of course, there was no cloud in the sky to shade me from the intense sun, when I came upon a split in the road. The one to the right lead off to an area that had a grouping of baobob trees a little ways in the distance and the one to the left lead off to more fields and scraggly brush. While my gut feeling was to go right, I thought that this was being corrupted by the fact that the shade of the trees looked so mightily enticing to me, so, the right thing to do, I decided, was to go left. So that is what I did. Soon after this, though, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach, for no apparent reason (as far as I could tell logically anyway), that seemed to be trying to tell me that I had made a mistake by going left instead of right, but, seeing as I, first of all, was in a hurry and therefore didn’t want to have to turn around and go back and, second of all, don’t like being told I have made a mistake, least of all by a mindless feeling in my stomach, I kept going. I thought it was a little strange that I had yet to see anyone on this road yet, but then I reasoned to myself that it was already past noon, which is the time of day when the number of people out on the roads starts going down because most of the people that were out working in their fields in the morning have gone back home already because the sun is so hot, and, since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky the sun felt particularly hot today, so most people would do everything they could to avoid traveling right now. Thus, I would say (and do) as Dory said (and she and Marvin did) in the movie “Finding Nemo” – or rather a terrestrial version of what they did – just keep biking…just keep biking…just keep biking…

The brush gradually began to get more and more scarce and more and more scraggly looking – and then the road suddenly opened up to a vast sandy plain that gradually sloped in to what I quickly realized to be the Babylon River (which is the river I cross on the main road to Kayemor). This wasn’t what I expected to run into, to say the least. But just a little way up river (in the direction I was heading) I saw some cows, so I figured there must be some Pulaar herders around, and I was correct. When I reached the herders, I asked them if this was the way to the village I was trying to reach – and if there was a road back up away from the river that I should take. They were not all that talkative and simply said that yes, this was the right way, and yes there is a road and if I continue a bit farther I will reach the path the leads to it. Feeling slightly relieved, but not overly confident in their response, I continued on. After a few more minutes I still had not seen the path they were referring to, but there were some more herders a little farther on, so I asked them. They said essentially the same thing, and when I probed further about the nature of this “path” they said that I would see it – I couldn’t miss it. Well, they were wrong. I missed it. I biked all the way until the sandy plain became a flooded plain and there was no way to keep going forward that didn’t involve wading through waist-high water or weaving my way through a mass of thorny trees and bushes (which are the only things that grow in this salt-ridden environment – the river is slightly salty). A little way off I saw something orange, which I thought might be a person’s t-shirt, so I made my way that direction. It was in fact a person’s t-shirt – with a body to fill the t-shirt out. Luckily this isn’t C.S.I., and the person was alive and well – weeding her rice patch. She didn’t respond when I yelled at her several times, so, concluding communicating with her was a lost cause, I turned around and decided I might have better luck seeing this evasive path going the other way. And, with great relief, I did – I found it just a few minutes later, mostly hidden by a particularly large thorny bush. Not long after that I entered the village I was looking for. I’m not looking forward to going back to visit these villages – clearly next time I will do my best to get as detailed instructions as possible about which road to take and which roads not to take.

Save a mouse: scare a snake

When almost to Sotokoye a mouse (or possibly a small lizard – it ran by me so fast it was hard for me to tell) ran at me and then right under my bike, which I thought was strange since most animals run away from me. A second later, though, I realized why: a snake had been stalking it and it must have just realized that, so it took off – luckily (for the that is), the snake was more scared of me, than it was interested in catching its prey, so it took off, too. (Just so you all don’t think I’m scaring away massive, dangerous snakes, this one was probably no more than a foot long, though I didn’t get a good look at it, and, I’m guessing, not dangerous, or at least not that dangerous because it was so scared of me on my fast moving bike.)

Common Courtesy/Leash Required

Many of you have probably been involved in a situation similar to the one I will describe here: a person is out running or biking on a path when she approaches a man out walking his dog. The man, respectful of the approaching woman’s potential wariness of running/biking past a dog because of the possibility that the dog will want to jump up and greet her, stops and shortens his dog’s leash so he is sitting next to him. Without missing a stride, the woman graciously greets the man – and his dog – and continues on her way. When the woman is a safe distance past the man, he releases his tight grip on the shortened leash, and he and his dog continue on their way.

There are enormous possible variations to this situation, involving different combinations of people and dogs, different sizes and shapes of dogs, different amenities such as kids and strollers, and different surroundings. However, I think I can probably pretty safely say that the majority of people reading this blog have never been involved in a situation where the “moving” person was on a bike and the “dog-walking” person was actually “walking” a cow or goat. I, on the other hand, can now proudly say I have been the “moving” person in just such a situation several times: when I’m out biking between villages I often come across older women, boys, or young men out “walking” a cow or goat – i.e., they’re bringing the animal out to the bush to tie it up so it can graze but not eat people’s crops. Somehow the common courtesy of stopping and keeping your animal close translates to this culture/situation, which is interesting and nice, though I’m not as wary about a cow or goat wanting to “jump up” and greet me as I have been of many dogs in America.

Cows in Conflict

Just as often as I come across someone out walking a cow or goat, I run (or rather) bike into a small herd of cows being loosely herded by a couple men or boys. While most of the cows are typically off in the brush a little grazing as they move, there’s always a handful or two that are just strolling down the middle of the road. Normally I just slow down a bit and they get out of my way, some faster than others. But one time, two cows were fighting right in the middle of the road: one with its rear legs on the far side of the road and the other with its rear legs on the opposite side of the road, with their heads clanging together (not all that forcefully though) every so often as they apparently tried to sort out a disagreement. These two cows were too focused on their head-to-head combat to feel the need to get out of my way, forcing me to veer off the road into the brush. I had to get off my bike to avoid a few thorny bushes (I’ve had enough flat tires from those thorns to know to do anything in my power to avoid getting close to them), which got me slightly irritated – couldn’t those cows have paused their rather jarring method of conflict resolution for a just a second or two and move a few steps off to one side of the road to allow me to pass on by in peace?

Alternate Transportation

Typically when I got out to a field I walk out to the field with the farmer whose field I’m visiting or a relatively (usually a child). One day I walked a good 20 minutes out into the bush with a boy to see a field (most fields are no more than a 10 minute walk away, 15 minutes at the most). While it was a productive field visit and I was glad we made the hike, I wasn’t looking forward to walking back, mostly because I still had many farmers to visit that morning. I was therefore pleased when I saw a charette going our direction when we were just a couple hundred yards from the road. The guy driving the charette was more than happy to let us hop on top of his bags of weeds for horse feed. This was a particularly pleasant event because not only was the time to get back to the village cut in half, but I also had something soft to sit on while we were bouncing around on the road, though I did have to focus on not sliding off the bag of weeds – and the charette itself.

When there’s no bridge

There are several different roads that I have to take to visit farmers that, by the middle of the rainy season (i.e., by mid-August), are covered in water for long sections – water that is often almost up to my waist. While you’d think it would be a nice opportunity for me to cool off in the water, usually the water isn’t that cool (remember how hot I’ve said the sun is, and that since there’s so much water in these places it’s moving very slowly, if at all). But, it does wash the dirt and dust off my legs, so they’re clean for a few minutes afterward.

Disappearing Roads and Falling Bags

I was on my way out to a village, Ndiayene, that isn’t too far from the village I had just visited, Sonkorong. I thought I knew which road to take to get to Ndiayene but I asked some women when I was leaving Sonkorong to make sure I was going on the right one, and the women pointed me down the road that I thought was the right one. But when I’d been on the road for longer than I thought I should have been I was second-guessing my certainty about the road I was on – and wondering if it was possible that I had somehow veered off the right road. After a bit longer I finally reached a village, but I knew it wasn’t the village I was looking for. It turns out it was another village that I needed to visit, Keur Samba Diamma, so it worked out fine, but I still don’t know how I missed Ndiayene. People in Keur Samba Diamma said that there is only one road between there and Sonkorong and that Ndiayene is on that road, which is the situation I found when I was going back on the road on my way to Ndiayene, so, like I said, I still don’t know how I missed Ndiayene the first time.

When I got home after visiting these three villages, it was hot (what’s new?) and late – a little after 2 pm – and I was so ready to be home, drink some cold water, take a bucket bath, and make lunch for myself. But when I got off my bike and looked at the storage place on the back of my bike to get the key to my hut out, my bag wasn’t there. I immediately realized that it must have fallen off my bike at some point between Sonkorong and Kayemor. This surprised me, but only a little – I could see how that could have happened because my sack isn’t that big and the old, cut-up bike tire tubes I use to hold my bag there are stretchy and loose enough to allow my sack to fall off – and the road is so bumpy and rough and I’m constantly being jostled on my bike as well as making sharp turns to avoid rocks or to avoid from falling over when I hit a deep patch of sand. With a few seconds thought I decided it was best to take off right then and there and go back to look for my sack, regardless of how much I wanted to take a cool bucket bath and relax. I wanted to bike quickly so I could find my bag, but I didn’t want to pass by it if it had somehow gotten jostled enough to be thrown into the weeds along the side of the road. The more I biked the more worried I got – I had 2 things in the bag: my camera and my notebook that I record all my seed extension information. I was worried about my camera because I didn’t want to have to buy another camera (money is not something we PCVs come by very easily), but I was more worried about my notebook because of all the information that I had written there that I didn’t want to lose. I had entered a fair amount of the information in an excel spreadsheet I’m keeping for my seed extension work, but I hadn’t yet entered any information for probably about 1/4 of my farmers, and had more information to enter for about 1/3 of my farmers. The more I thought about it, the more worried I got; but I forced myself to calm down because getting worried wasn’t going to help me find it any faster, and it was probably making me sweat more (if that’s possible – I was already sweating buckets) and I didn’t need to get more dehydrated than I already was. I passed a couple guys out herding cows on my way and asked them about it, but they didn’t have any idea about my bag. When I got a village between Kayemor and Sonkorong, I asked all the people out sitting around talking or doing laundry or whatever, but none of them had seen my bag either. By the time I entered Sonkorong I was really concerned and thought my bag was a gonner – especially when the first group of guys I came to in Sonkorong hadn’t seen my bag either, and acted really concerned when I told them it had fallen off my bike (because of the fact that there are so many kids around who could have grabbed it and taken it and/or broken anything in it), but then a guy just a little further into the village saw me and yelled at me that another guy in the village, who I know, had my bag. What a relief! Apparently this guy had tried calling my host dad, but didn’t reach him, so he called my counterpart and told him to tell me (when I reached Kayemor) that he had my bag and would have someone bring it to me later that day. By the time he called this guy, though, I had already reached Kayemor, realized by bag had fallen off my bike, and turned around to go back to Sonkorong. When I got the bag I check to make sure nothing was missing or broken, and nothing was.

While I was having this conversation with the man who found my bag, one of the farmers that I gave seed to came up and greeted me, then said that I had not yet been to her field. I said this was true, because the first time I had been to Sonkorong she had said that the road to her field was flooded so we couldn’t go out there, and then today she hadn’t been at home when I had stopped by earlier in the morning. She asked me when I was going to visit her field, and I just sort of off-handedly said, “We can go now.” I figured since it was the middle of the afternoon and the sun was hot (few clouds in the sky this day, too) and they were all fasting that she wouldn’t want to go and would just say I could go another time. Her first response I expected: “The sun is hot.” I said, “Yes, that’s true.” Then she said, “And it’s time for the afternoon prayer right now.” “Yes,” I said, “I can see that.” (Many people had gathered around the mosque, which was right behind where we were standing.) Then the guy who found my bag piped it, trying to be helpful, saying, “Ok, go sit down over there in the shade until we’re done praying, and then the two of you can go to the field.” And that was how we both got roped into doing something neither of us particularly wanted to do, but neither of us could refuse now. So I sat down in the shade and dreamed of cold water and taking a bucket bath while my farmer prayed. When she was done, she came over and said once again, “The sun is hot.” And, again, I said, “Yes, that’s true.” But I wasn’t about to back down now, after waiting a good 20 minutes (in which time I could have been halfway home), and say we could do it another time. So we went to her field. And it wasn’t too bad – what’s another 40 minutes out sweating in the sun when you’ve been out there for 7 hours already. Needless to say, by the time I got home, I was hot, sweaty, slightly sunburned, and incredibly dehydrated. I guzzled enough water to fill a small pond, took a cool bucket bath (the bucket of water I use to bathe with I now leave outside at night and then bring inside in the morning so the water is nice and cool for bathing with), and ate the only food I could make that was cold: vanilla pudding, with a few graham crackers thrown in to make it a little more substantial. Never have pudding or graham crackers tasted so good.


I’m guessing all of you have had some sort of activity that involves a very repetitive motion, such as the swaying/rocking of a boat or the sharp turns involved in alpine skiing, that you still feel like you’re doing that motion when you lay down to sleep. Well, the pedaling, bumping, dodging, jarring, and gripping became so ingrained after a few days of visiting farmers that I quickly felt like I was still doing that when I laid down to go to sleep. It’s hard to fall asleep when you feel like you’re still pedaling hard through sand, bumping over rocks, dodging thorny bushes and grazing livestock, being jarred by series upon series of mini-ravines and gripping the bike handles as hard as you can, all while feeling like you’re sweating profusely as the hot African sun beats down on you. As hard as it is to fall asleep, actually falling asleep doesn’t bring any relief because these repetitive motions become expressed as vivid dreams – you dream that you are still out on those bush roads, still pedaling, bumping, dodging, jarring, and gripping as much as ever. Only sheer exhaustion from repeating these actions over and over and over again can bring relief.

Ok, to be perfectly honest, all this biking isn’t as bad as I perhaps just made it sound, but I definitely did still feel like I was out pedaling hard on the bush roads when I was lying still in my bed, and I definitely did have dreams that I was jarring along the bush roads. Over time, though, I became used to the pedaling, bumping, etc. and no longer felt like I was doing it at night, nor dreamt about it.

Sinking sand and rising vulgarity

Many times when I’m out biking I get frustrated with the bad roads and start repeating vulgarities in my head. If there was a machine attached to my head recording all my thoughts and another machine attached to my bike recording how many centimeters of sand my bike tires were currently sunk down in, I’m pretty sure there would be a strong correlation between the two, such that as the depth of sand in which my tires were sunk increased, the degree of vulgarity of the words I was repeating in my head would worsen. In general, I certainly don’t have a dirty mouth, but there is just something about being out in that hot African sun, sweating buckets, and having to bike on terrain that is more like an obstacle course than a road, that brings out the vulgar thoughts.

I guess the only thing that can be concluded from this is not that… nor… but that I should quit the Peace Corps and build a stadium for an Extreme Sports arena. I certainly would make a lot more money than I am now, and I think there are plenty of crazy extreme sports fans out there that would pay good money to come out here and, once I built a few ramps, watch crazy bikers get their bodies torn to pieces on the terrain. Anyone out there interested in throwing some starter money my way??? :)

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