Women’s Garden Update

The hot season is swiftly and sweatily moving upon Ndorong-Sereer. We desperately need more trees in this town. While each family compound has one or two massive shade trees providing relief from this heat, the public spaces and unpaved paths are left bare and vulnerable. Parents are yelling at kids to not play so vigorously in the sun, and during the hours between noon and four, working outside is highly discouraged. To make the heat more bearable, we’ve decided to plant 300 trees in the public spaces of Ndorong-Sereer. We set up a tree nursery in the women’s garden and the women have begun filling tree sacks. There are 102 women in the garden and each woman will have 20 tree sacks and twenty trees (a felangaa Roog). A portion of the trees will be for the town, a portion will be for the live fence to protect the garden, and a portion will be fruit trees for the women to bring back to their compounds.

Women preparing the soil mix for the tree sacks. Two parts sifted sand and one part sifted cow manure, mix together, add water until moist, and fill until full. Each group brought their own sifted sand and manure to expedite the process.

Women preparing the soil mix for the tree sacks. Two parts sifted sand and one part sifted cow manure, mix together, add water until moist, and fill until full. Each group brought their own sifted sand and manure to expedite the process.


Women filling the tree sacks. Each woman is responsible for 10 small tree sacks and 10 large tree sacks. The small tree sacks can support the root systems of thorny live fencing species, shade trees, and smaller fruit trees until outplanting. The large sacks are for planting mangoes and cashews.

Women filling the tree sacks. Each woman is responsible for 10 small tree sacks and 10 large tree sacks. The small tree sacks can support the root systems of thorny live fencing species, shade trees, and smaller fruit trees until outplanting. The large sacks are for planting mangoes and cashews.


A 1x1x0.1m trench dug to prevent the tree sacks from tipping over. This entire trench will be filled with sacks.

A 1x1x0.1m trench dug to prevent the tree sacks from tipping over. This entire trench will be filled with sacks.

In addition to the trees, the women will start pepinieres for rainy season crops including cassava, bitter tomato, hot pepper, potatoes, and perhaps another round of eggplant. The currently planted eggplant is doing very well and starting to flower. It’s been intercropped with lettuce and replaced many of the dying cabbages. The cabbages have been ravaged and deformed by grasshoppers and onions are looking pretty puny. For the onions we’re thinking of making a compost tea, which is essentially soaking a large sack manure or compost in a barrel of water for a few weeks and then watering the plants for an extra boost of fertilizer. The tomatoes are the women’s pride and joy since they are growing vigorously and heavy with soon-to-be ripened fruits. The women also mulched with peanut shells but didn’t like the aesthetic so removed them. We’ll try millet chaff next time.

Eggplant intercropped with lettuce. The lettuce is on the perimeter of the beds.

Eggplant intercropped with lettuce. The lettuce is on the perimeter of the beds.


Okra growing along the berm of the bed. As it grows taller, it will provide shade for the other vegetables in the bed.

Okra growing along the berm of the bed. As it grows taller, it will provide shade for the other vegetables in the bed.


Corn planted along the berm of the bed. The corn grows very quickly and provides shade for the onions (note how small the onions are). In the background are the tomato beds.

Corn planted along the berm of the bed. The corn grows very quickly and provides shade for the onions (note how small the onions are). In the background are the tomato beds.


The tomatoes are thriving in the heat. Wish I could say the same.

The tomatoes are thriving in the heat. Wish I could say the same.

Word Play

 

 

 Learning Sereer has given me the privilege to develop an intimate understanding of Sereer culture and way of life. As with any language, there are words in Sereer that can’t be directly translated or captured in English. These are words for experiences or emotions which are entirely absent or whose definition has to be circumnavigated with synonyms and examples that cannot fully capture the potency and exactness of its meaning. For example, there is a word that describes the happiness you feel when warmed by the morning sun. While there are remarkably specific words for obscure feelings or experiences, at the same time, Sereer can be limiting in expressing what in English we consider very real and frequent emotions, like frustration. Frustration simply does not exist in the vocabulary, and the nearest relative is the word which means both an anger and sadness to the brink of tears. Before learning Sereer, I never realized how many words in English can dissect and distinguish emotions, translate specific moods, and represent profound feeling, depth, and complexity. It’s like having one of the most complete, diverse, and esoteric color wheels in the world. Sereer, however, is an entirely different palette, since there are only a few words to paint with. Many words commonly found in the English emotional inventory are dulled, blended, and blurred into levity or vagueness. The ambiguity is not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different and an intriguing contrast. Below are some words I found especially interesting in their definition or pronounciation.

a buga: to want, to like, to love

a doma: to be difficult, to hurt or be in pain

a fela: to be pleasing, to be delicious, to be entertaining

a mosa: beautiful, exceptional

gim: to believe, to sing

war: to have to do something, to kill

naan: to hear, to understand

delem: tongue, word

teex: wood, medicine

jaffe jaffe: problem

bugee bugee: goals, aspiration

xom xom: knowledge, experience

a jega solo: it has importance

njietnyaakoox: happiness from letting the sun warm you in the morning

A felangaa Roog: maybe, if it is pleases or entertains God

Sereer is also language that resides in the hypothetical happenstance, the eternal maybe, a mentality of indefiniteness. There is no ‘when’, only ‘if’, and whether the situation will happen as planned is always subject to God’s fancy. It is no longer a surprise that the word ‘to have to do something’ and ‘to kill’ are the same word; ‘war’. Discerning the distance of time and space is one of my favorite language quirks to play with. You can describe the distance of a well or village and the expanse of time of by the speaker’s emphasis of ‘aaaaa’. For example maaga = far; maaaaaaga = very far::  yaaga = a long time ago, perhaps last year, yaaaaaga= very long time ago, likely 50 years. Similar to other languages in Senegal, Sereer is frequently punctuated by feeling. You will often hear ‘whyee’ at the end of a favor, a thank you, or a command. It’s not an actual word, just a noise to express a range of feeling from gratitude to exasperation. ‘Koi’ is another feeling sound which describes a sense of endearment and polite playfulness between relatives and strangers. Just as we have ‘really’ and ‘very’ to accentuate the magnitude and intensity of a verb or adjective, Sereer has a repetitive form. If someone really wants or loves something you say ‘abugabug’, if something is really short ‘arabarab’, really large ‘amagnamagin’, very beautiful ‘amosamos’, or something spoken that is very important ‘alayalay’.

As people move to larger cities where Wolof and French are the languages of business and leisure, the Sereer language is beginning to slowly disappear. Even in my road town, many Sereer children speak only Wolof and French since they are not taught Sereer by their parents. However, there are still many Sereer radio stations, musicians, Sereer books, and even several Catholic masses delivered in Sereer. I hope to continue practicing Sereer back in the states and am currently writing down as many Sereer words and proverbs as I can to contribute to a revised Sereer dictionary to help preserve this unique language.

Ndorong-Sereer Women’s Garden

With the help of my counterpart, Bassirou Ndiaye, a motivated farmer, Cherkh Fall, and 72 rambunctious women, what basically was an abandoned lot strangled with weeds has transformed into a burgeoning garden. Bassirou and Cherkh have done an awesome job in teaching the women how to double-dig, level, amend, seed and water the garden beds, which is no small feat (think impromptu dance circles, surprise showers with watering cans, lewd charades with the garden tools, amidst a constant deafening chatter). The women organized themselves into groups of 6 to help each other double-dig beds, establish a watering schedule, and decide on which seeds to purchase. Each group has dug and amended two beds in which they direct seeded carrots and transplanted lettuce. In the next few weeks we will transplant the tomatoes, cabbage, onions, eggplant, and bitter tomato growing in the pepinieres. 

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Double-dug and amended garden beds (4x1m) for lettuce transplants. The women brought old and ripped mosquito nets to shade and protect the beds from birds and insects.Image

 

My counter-part, Bassirou Ndiaye, helping transplant lettuce.

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Mannae transplanting lettuce into her group’s garden bed.

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Cherkh Fall helping level out a garden bed. Cherkh and my counter-part have been an immense help in establishing the women’s garden and teaching the women improved gardening skills. 

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Double-dug and amended lettuce pepiniere

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Double-dug and amended onion pepinieres. The onion pepiniere shaded with the mosquito net had a better germination rate and grew more vigorously than the onion pepiniere without a mosquito net covering.

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Compost pit (1x1m). It shrunk by a third in two weeks. The great thing about a compost pit is that it maintains more moisture and stimulates below ground insect and animal activity. As creatures tunnel to reach the compost, their poop, larvae, and dead bodies further contribute to the nutrient content of the soil and compost. They also help break up the heavily compacted soil.

Prosey and Domestic

My family's CBT compound. My room is on the far right.

My family’s CBT compound. My room is on the far right.

A small poem about my CBT stay.

Time Well Spent (No Charge)

Resting beneath the patient shade, through the sway of the cotton soft breeze,

 A single wooden post stands center in the still vacant yard, its silent shadow casts a slant spoke, a sundial for the palindromic hours.

An ill mended moldy millet fence sketches the perimeter while a neat grid of concrete bocks await money’s inertia.

The vacant yard, content and placid,

Absent are the ripples of desire.

 

 

 

Garden of Sereernity

During each CBT stay, in addition to living with the family, we complete a series of Trainee Directed Activities (TDA), which differ for each sector. For our TDA, our group created a garden endowed The Garden of Sereernity.

 The Garden on Sereernity contains:

2 Compost piles

Three 3x1m beds growing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bissap, bitter tomato, green onion, okra, eggplant, hot pepper, turnip, cabbage, and carrots.

Four 2x2m beds growing rice, beans, corn, sorghum and millet.

1 1x1m bed for seeding transplants (which we’ve transplanted!) with lettuce, green onions, tomatoes, cabbage, hot pepper, eggplant, okra, and bitter tomato.

1 1×1 Moringa intensive bed

Tree nursery growing Acacia nillotica (a thorny live fence species)

It’s beautiful.

Pictures of the Garden of Sereernity

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Compost piles hard at work decomposing. Both used to be 1x1m uniform squares and are now mounds less than half a meter tall. The one on the left is an older pile (~1 month old) that’s just been turned, the right is a few weeks old.

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Moringa Intensive Bed. The upper right corner isn’t doing so hot because of its proximity to the eucalyptus tree, an allelopathic species, which releases biochemicals into the soil through its roots and leaves which can hinder the growth of nearby plants.

 

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Inside the Moringa bed. The main purpose of this bed is to create a high density of leaves which can be easily harvested. Once the trees reach 1m, they will be stripped, cut back, and then regrow, branching out and producing more leaves.

 

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4x4m beds of field crops. Far left is corn, middle is millet, closest to fence are beans, top right corner is rice, and bottom right corner is sorghum. Half of each bed is mulched and the other half is left bare to tangibly demonstrate the benefits of using leaf mulch to improve water retention. It was very clear by the end of our stay that the plants on the mulched half grew more vigorously since the soil retained more water and remained cooler throughout the day.

 

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Three 3x1m garden beds, double dug and amended with compost, wood ash, and manure. Fellow Sereer’s, Cecelia and Brennan, in the background.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day in the Life during Cross-Cultural Based Training (CBT)

Before venturing off to our permanent sites for the next two years, as part of our training we live with a host family as a crash-course in local language and Senegalese culture.  Each volunteer lives in a household (and ideally surrounded by a community) where their local language is spoken. We have four CBT stays throughout the training period; the first is a 5 day stay, the second 10 days, the third (and longest) is 16 days, and then a farewell stay of 3 days. In order to give a sense of my initial stay at CBT, I want you to imagine a Senegalese in their 20’s, showing up at your doorstep with all of their belongings to live and eat with your family for the next two months. Apart from cordial greetings, they only know how to say: “What is that?”, “I want”, and “It is delicious”. You can hopefully imagine how great you will be at charades by the end of this stay. I just finished my third and longest CBT stay and am finally at the
language level where I can tell my family what I did that day, what I used to do for fun in the U.S., and how I can’t wait to visit them in the future. For us volunteers learning the Sereer language, our CBT stay was in the small roadside town of Keur Balla, a brand new site which has never before hosted Peace Corps trainees. A typical day at CBT often resembles this:

7:30am -8:00am – Wake up, wash up, brush teeth, make myself presentable. Greet my family from the eldest to youngest.

8:00am – 9:00am – After greetings, I usually help around our compound by watering the trees (Moringa, mango, papaya, guava, lemon, orange), taking the donkey to the field, opening up the coops and gathering eggs, and playing with our dog, Minu, to keep him from tormenting the baby chicks. Afterwards, I eat breakfast. Breakfast is typically a baguette with butter accompanied by Café Touba, (chickory-spiced coffee with, unfortunately, less caffeine than its opaqueness would imply), however, on better days, breakfast is an egg and spaghetti sandwich, heavily peppered and smothered in spicy mayonnaise.  

9:00am – 1:00pm – Walk down to the house of Assane’s host family for intensive Sereer language training and culture.

1:00pm – 3:00pm – Return home and greet my family with afternoon greetings, review notes from language class, and play with my baby brother and nephew until lunch. Lunch is typically fish, rice, and vegetables sometimes with a sauce. The fish is usually a small whitefish served whole, fried and stuffed with crushed basil. Veggies commonly found in the bowl are steamed carrots, boiled potatoes, cooked cassava, half an eggplant, small bitter tomato, hot pepper, and Dikon radish. Also, a tart deep green sauce with the consistency of stringy spinach made from bissap leaves is dolloped next to our personal crescent of eating space. Lunch is served in a large communal bowl and set on the ground where guests and older members sit on mid-shin high wooden benches and younger members kneel. Spoons are optional, and surprisingly less effective at splitting fish and vegetables than using your right hand.

3:00pm – 4:00pm – Make a round or two of Attaya (An hour long process of cooking Senegalese tea).

4:00pm – 7:00pm – Walk down Assane’s house for more language and culture learning. After class we water our garden and check on the plants.

7:00pm – 9:00pm – Work on Sereer language homework, help out my brothers and sisters with their English, math, and science homework, eat dinner. In Sereer families, nearly every dinner consists of a finely ground, millet couscous called Saatch. This is accompanied either by a spicy fish, peanut, or Moringa sauce or warm sweetened milk.

9:00pm – 10:00pm – At the end of the day, I make Attaya, review Sereer, read, and then hit the hay (literally, I sleep on a millet stalk bed). And since there’s no electricity or internet service, the evenings’ entertainment consist of chatting, listening to the radio, and quietly gazing at the stars.

Pictures of My Host Family

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From left to right: Ya (Mom) Seega with baby Jin on her lap, my cousin Fatou, Grandma Mariama, my youngest sister Mamjaara, and aunt Adame.

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Middle sister Sophie and baby Fallou.

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Youngest sister Mamjaara, eldest sister Lala, my eldest brother Lamine, baby brother Jin. 

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Family dog Minu. Ear and tail cropping are popular augmentations to dogs, as is trimming the manes of horses and donkeys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Apology to My Readers

I want to apologize for the lack of posts on my blog for the past few months, the internet at the training center takes frequent coffee breaks and when it does decide to work, its like watching a sloth cross the highway…I have posts and pictures and they will be up very soon.

A few brief highlights of my experience so far:

I am learning Sereer with two other volunteers

My site is at Ndorong-Sereer, a small rural town of 800-ish people. I am relatively close to mangroves and there are many monkeys wandering around and up to no good. Look it up on Google Earth!

We have finished our garden and even taught a garden demo, pics will be up soon!

I met my work partner from Ndorong-Sereer, he’s very motivated and eager to introduce me to the town.

I ride my family’s donkey on the regular and have been taking care of it for the past month. We’re on a first name basis.

I’m swearing in as a volunteer in two weeks! 

More updates coming very soon, I promise. 

 

 

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