Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunlight, organized

I have been a gardener for quite a few years now.  Not only do I find a whole lot of satisfaction in the physicality of it, and the calluses that I earn every year, I also really enjoy understanding how my little agroecosystem works.  I understand nitrogen fixation, the value of both determinate and indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, soil organic matter, and the benefits of mulching.  I’ve got a special place in my heart for carbon to nitrogen ratios and good, finished compost.  MMMMM.  Compost.
I understand the mechanics of how plants grow.  You give a plant some water, nutrients, and sunlight and through the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide is converted into organic compounds.  It is all quite well understood and documented in the textbooks.  It is so well-described, in fact, that you’d think it all works like a machine -- linear, assured, and, therefore, easily controllable.  A follows B follows C. 
But, despite how well I understand it, I am always amazed when a seed that I planted actually sprouts.  I am always pleasantly surprised, and a little relieved, when I see those first leaves pushing up through the surface of the soil, and I can’t help but think of it as a miracle each and every time it happens.  Even more miraculous is that the tiny little seed, which turns into a plant, that I then care for, will bear fruit.  One cannot stand in the garden, eating the first tomato of the season and think of it as an ‘organic compound.’  Manna from heaven is more like it.  And I mean that literally.  What is the fruit of a plant, but sunlight, organized?
There’s so much involved in the simple act of planting a seed that cannot be articulated through language, and that cannot be explained through scientific processes.  It feels miraculous.  And just because it’s a miracle that I’ve been a part of doesn’t diminish its mystery. It just makes it mundane, in the sense that it is “of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.”  I’m participating in, and even encouraging, a miracle that I don’t entirely understand, but in which I’m deeply implicated.  And because I am implicated, my fingerprints are all over it.  My garden is, to a great extent, an expression of me.  No, that’s not quite right…it’s an expression of my values and of my relationship with the sun and the soil and, by extension, the rich and diverse life contained therein.
As much as we’d like to think that food production is objective and value-less, it is not.  That we are implicated means that food producing systems bear cultural marks.  They are, in fact, deeply cultural artifacts, laden with social values.  Think about what American style food production systems say about us and what we value.  They are about uniformity, quantitative output, and efficiency.  A focus on those qualities leads one to believe that producing food is the same as producing Fords.  But, valuing those qualities means that other qualities, inherent in food production whether we acknowledge them or not, are obscured.  In other food production systems, for example, diversity is more highly valued, since diversity can help to ensure an available food supply across a wide range of environmental circumstances: if one crop fails, another survives and people do not starve.  A food production system that is guided more by the quality of diversity will look and act differently than one guided by uniformity.
The other day, I went to visit a woman named Saly who is part of my research study.  In her small courtyard she is raising turkeys, two varieties of chickens, sheep, and rabbits.  The courtyard itself was a hive of activity.  There were about six kids running around trying to corral the chickens, two people doing laundry and two women pounding rice to get the hulls off.  The rice was from the southern part of Senegal, which is where this family is from and where the food system is grounded in a rice culture.  While I was standing there, trying to take in all that was going on around me, Saly brought me a handful of rice, which still had the hull on, and she said, "LOOK at this rice." It was as if she wanted me to see something amazing there.   And it was amazing.  It was such a moment of insight for me…this food...this sustenance…is so incredibly important and wonderful and beautiful.  As mundane food and eating are, they are sacred. It's our (very physical) connection with all the rest of it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Senegal Limps

I often write about how much I love Senegal.  And I really do love it.  I feel so lucky that it has been a part of my life, and I am grateful for what it’s given me.  I am well-aware that I have gained more here than what I’ve given back.  I actually don’t feel like I can give much back except to write about it.  I like to at least pretend that a few people will read and perhaps more strongly empathize with the daily struggles of people in this part of the world, and that, somehow, it will make a difference. 
But, despite my love for this place, I am ready to go.  I am worn out and frustrated, at least for today.  I figure it is good to feel this and good to write it down because I’ll need to be reminded of this feeling as I write my dissertation.  I’ll need to remember this frustration, which I share with my neighbors and all the people I meet in the course of a day, because it’s part of the story of how people are existing here. 
We are in the third week of a continually deteriorating power situation.  The day before it got really, really bad was the only day that we’ve had power all day with no break in service since we’ve been here.  It was as if they gave us a little gift to prepare us for what was to come. Yesterday we had power for a little less than two hours.  Today, I got out of bed at 5:30 am, hoping to write a few emails and catch up on the news before I had to get the kids up and before the power went out again.  It went off at around 7 am.
Our cooking gas ran out today.  When I went to replace it, I found that the price had increased by 22% since last month.  I am funded by a Fulbright.  I can handle it, but how can a Senegalese person, who can’t work because there is no power, handle it? 
Every time I go to visit one of the gardeners in my research study, I hope to find that he’s been able to purchase the seeds he keeps saying he will purchase, and which he needs to start his garden.  As so many people are in this growing town, he is a day laborer.  When he works, he makes $2-3/day.  But he doesn’t work every day and has not been able to get the money together to spend a couple of dollars on seeds. 
This isn’t really a post I want to use to critique or implicate the international development machine or global corporate capitalism, and I hope it comes off less as complaining, and more as an expression of temporary frustration and dismay.  I have the luxury of knowing that, for me, this difficult situation ends in May.  But, for people here, their efforts to pursue their own paths to development and well-being will continue to be stymied.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read an academic paper on how frustration must figure into socioeconomic development.  Though, I suppose you can just read the news and see that for some, it might cause them to want to blow something up, kill a bunch of people, or set themselves alight. 

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Senegal is a religious country.  Most people are Muslim.  Daily life is imbued with religious symbols and practices.  When you greet, you say ‘assalamu alaikum,’ which means ‘peace be upon you,’ and, very often, before starting some activity, you say ‘bismillah,’ which invokes Allah.

Khady is a woman who works for us, i.e. ‘the maid’ for lack of a better term.  She is both fiery and pious.  She's a second wife and lives in the city to earn money for her family back home in the village, including her husband, where work options are pretty limited in the dry season when people aren't farming.  She wears a headscarf and I think I've only seen her hair twice in the four months we've been here, and I've never seen her knees.

Khady utters ‘bismillah’ before she takes the first bite of whatever she’s eating.  Grace has taken to saying it, too.  We’ve never been a praying family, and not religious, either, but I like the idea of saying something before eating just to recognize that we are about take sustenance into our bodies.  I think it orients one to being mindful and to ground oneself in the mundane, but necessary and wonderful, act of eating.

This morning, I happened to be in the kitchen when Khady started to sweep.  I heard her whisper, ‘Bismillah.’  She said it so quietly that had I been a few steps further away from her I would not have heard it.  I expressed surprise and asked her why, and she said that she must be thankful that God has given her health to work.

Being a maid is not what Khady wants to do.  Before I met her, she was just taking in laundry and, from what I gather, just scraping along.  The thought that she’ll have to go back to that is discouraging for me, and even more discouraging for Khady, and we’re talking about what options she has when we leave.  But, that she approaches the day, even the toil, with gratitude is a beautiful lesson for me.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Power and Development

The research goes splendidly.  How can you go wrong when you work with farmers and gardeners?  I’m loving the work and loving what I’m learning.  I have zero complaints on that front.

I do, however, wish to complain about the power situation.  And the water situation.  Those situations, in a word, suck.  Much, much worse than when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the early 90’s.  A day doesn’t go by when we are without power for an extended period of time.  Sometimes, we’ll almost get through a day, and I’ll think, “Ooo…today’s the day.  Today we’ll have power for the entire day.”  Alas.

Powering the water pumps obviously takes electricity, so that gets cut off, too.  Lately, they’ve only been turning on the water at night.  Once it starts flowing, very often around midnight, I’ll get out of bed and refill the barrels and buckets so that we have water for the next day.  For the record, I’m not alone in my complaining.  It’s a national pastime.  Just last week, the opposition party got back to the streets to voice their dismay, and the other day was filled with some ‘manifestations’ in Dakar, in which the protesters burned a bunch of stuff to try to get someone’s attention.

People here blame it on the president.  The president blames it on failing machinery.  It seems apparent to me that it is a problem of oil.  Electricity in Senegal is largely produced via the burning of oil, and I figure the expense of it means that sometimes the government just runs out of money. Senelec, which is the state-run electricity distributor, buys most of its oil from Societe Africaine de Raffinage (SAR), which is located here in Senegal.  That majority of that corporation is owned by foreign multinationals (Total-54.6%, Shell-25%, and Mobile 11.8%).  The rest (8.6%) is owned by the state.  SAR is protected by a number of government subsidies, which, obviously, would be borne by the Senegalese people.

Someone’s getting rich, but it isn’t your average Senegalese person.  And economic development?  Forget about it.  How does that happen if you don’t have the basics?  I’m rather amazed by the Senegalese people, who are continually able to make something out of nothing each and every day.  It’s pretty inspirational and has even made me consider going back to international development work (just for a second, though).

*update, for the last 3 days the power situation has been much better.  A few hours here or there.  Hopefully it will hold out, inchallah.