Peace Corps year 1


The rainy season has transformed my village’s surroundings from tall, golden brown (i.e. dead) grass to a carpet of neon green sprouts. Farmers are in full swing—most of the millet and corn already planted, they’re now seeding peanuts and cotton. This is all accomplished despite cranky or sometimes nonexistent equipment. Children lead horses, donkeys, or cattle as the men or older boys guide ancient, rusty plows and seeders covered in flaking yellow paint. They bang plow blades into place with axe heads and rarely have the correct seeding disc for whatever crop they want to plant that day.

Coming into Peace Corps with the extensive agricultural background of a film degree, all I have to compare this to are tall, lush sugarcane fields seen from Louisiana highways. I admit to arriving with my fair share of new agey, organic shopping, yuppified ideas about the romance of working the soil—living closely with the land, fully engaged in the production of one’s own sustenance. The circle of life and whatnot.

I am sorry to report that there is nothing sexy about subsistence farming. There is nothing romantic about working with your hands in the earth—that dirt is hot and dry and your hands will crack and bleed. The rain comes early, it comes late, it comes too often or not often enough. Bugs eat the seed, bugs eat the sprouts, bugs eat the ripened grains. The only crop they have sufficient pesticides and fertilizers for is cotton, since SODEFITEX sells equipment and supplies to farmers on credit, taking the cost out of payment for their final harvest.

Not only are the Senegalese farmers producers, they’re producers working without the benefits of easy consumption. All the products that seem to materialize on store shelves in the U.S.—flour, rope, planks of wood—must be produced in the village. Flour pounded from grain, rope woven from strips of rice sack, wooden planks chopped by hand from trees cut down by hand—”Third World” may no longer be the preferred terminology, but looking out from the boundaries of life in rural Africa, America might as well be a separate planet.

So the question would be: Where should development agencies work within this context, to bridge that divide in what ways?

On a completely unrelated note, I was walking back to the Peace Corps house, past a group of men standing around a construction site, when one called out a greeting and then told me that one of the other men wanted to talk to me. Knowing full well what was coming, I walked back to where they were. A slightly older guy asked me where my “man” was and, despite my answer that he was “over there” (pointing towards the house), then naturally suggested that I consider him as a potential husband.

My response to this (frequent) conversation varies. If I’m in a bad mood, I just walk away. If I’m in a mood to view marriage proposals as entertaining instead of just obnoxious, I’ll joke with the guy: Can you cook?… Ok, but you’ll have to give my father sixty cows., etc. This time, however, I was prepared—one of the PCV-assembled Pulaar verb lists includes an example phrase for each verb, and one had stuck in my mind as potentially useful.

So, after a bit of “What about me?” / “I’ve got a man.” / “Yeah, but what about me?” I told him—in Pulaar, in front of the dozen or so other men, while giving him a dismissive wave of the hand and turning to walk away—

“You? You’re older than my grandfather!”

They all howled with laughter, and me, I left victorious.

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