This past December, I had an interview posted on my friend Mike’s website, We discussed my role in malaria prevention and awareness work throughout my Peace Corps service, what I’ve been doing in my 3rd year for Stomping Out Malaria in Africa, life as a 3rd year, GAD work, etc. It’s a lengthy interview so this post is simply to give you the link to the page: here. Enjoy!


Volunteers should not disclose their sexual orientation to their host family members, particularly early in service. Such a confession may be a source of danger or discomfort. There is no tolerance for public displays of gay or lesbian affection in Senegal and homosexual acts remain illegal here. Homosexuality is not accepted in Senegal, neither in the culture nor in law, even between consenting adults. Volunteers who may be accused of homosexuality risk physical threats or harassment that may reach a point that the volunteer may have to leave the country because of safety concerns.

If you have accepted your invitation to serve in Peace Corps Senegal, typically you will have two to three months to prepare before flying to DC or Philly for your staging. In those two to three months, the paperwork you have to fill out, packets you should read, and conference calls with PC Senegal administration can keep you so busy that it’s easy to forget you’re actually going and in fact not just reading pdfs.

Amongst the mounds of literature you’ll receive, the first paragraph in this post is the only statement you will receive from Peace Corps or Peace Corps Senegal concerning your sexuality and how it may affect your life while serving for two years in Senegal. Read it again and think for a moment – that is all you get. Packing lists? Here’s twenty. Information on Senegal and language cheat sheets? Have this 2GB folder of pdfs. That one paragraph though, sums up everything PC has to say to you about being gay. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Terrifying, actually, especially if the only other thing you’ve ever heard concerning homosexuals in Africa is what often circulates in the western media: the president of Gambia saying gays should be beheaded (he later rescinded this comment); that you can receive the death penalty for homosexual acts in Uganda; that a marabou (religious leader) in Senegal proclaimed that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and thus should be thrown off of the top of a tall building. Would you reconsider getting on the plane to Senegal if you were gay? I would.

Three years ago, when I was a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) living in Thies and Mbour Senegal, not one session during our nine weeks of training discussed sexuality and how to approach the topic in Senegal. It didn’t seem weird at the time – our staff assumed that as young, mostly liberal, western-thinking adults, we were all open and comfortable with not only our own sexuality but also the diversity of those around us. Luckily for my training group, the staff assumed right and my stage (refresher: stagaire in French means intern or trainee, so training groups are “stages”) adjusted smoothly to life in village. Training groups after us did not bode as well.

Flash forward to November 2010: it’s the annual Gender and Development (GAD) conference that takes place the day before our annual All Volunteer Conference. Volunteers from across West Africa come to Senegal for the conferences, and Alhumdulilliah that they do because that year was the year PC Gambia introduced us to the Safezone training curriculum. As my half-awake blog post on Quest for a Safezone, Part 1 explained, this curriculum was originally created for PC host-country national staff. What I did not mention in that post was what the Safezone staff training helped us realize: we were dedicating an entire day to our PC staff to talk about about gender diversity in the Peace Corps, yet our PCTs were getting nothing. Moment of inspiration – we should create a shortened version for PSTs! (Such an obvious move looking back now, but before it actually began to happen, the absence of such a training wasn’t noticed, until it was noticeably necessary.) April and I discussed this idea after the staff training was completed and had soon put together an hour-long training for the current group of agriculture PCTs.

Flash forward again to the beginning of March 2012: this training for PCTs was one of the reasons I was in Thies the beginning of the month. Reviewing the outline of the session, it looked simple and thorough enough: we’d start by reviewing the statement from the PC Senegal handbook, then discuss possible adjustment issues for PCTs to life in Senegal – especially those who identify along the LGBT continuum, and then review laws and social conceptions of homosexuals in Gambia and Senegal. (Forgot to mention- this PST group has trainees heading to Senegal and The Gambia training in Thies, for more see here.) We assumed one of the last parts of our presentation would be the most hard-hitting for a lot of the trainees. This part was about keeping volunteers safe while serving in Senegal or the Gambia – and how to do so, they  must remain “in the closet” during their service. We assumed right.

It’s easy to understand why coming to grasp with the idea that you have to remain in the closet for two years would be difficult. Maybe you’re coming from a city like San Francisco where the LGBT community is not only accepted but also celebrated, and now you’re being told to go back to the time you were struggling with accepting who you are by hiding the fact that you’re gay. Or perhaps you’ve lived in rural Ohio where the only pubic options was to be straight but found the courage to tell your family and close friends that you’re gay before coming to Senegal. A huge weight was lifted off your chest; it’s like seven years of frustration, hate, and fear just melted away. Now you’re in Senegal, adjusting to the heat, the food, the language – and they tell you to not talk about the “gay thing” you just came to terms with. Put yourself in these people’s shoes: “While serving in Senegal or the Gambia, you must remain ‘in the closet’ for your own personal safety” – that statement is like a punch in the gut. But it’s unfortunately a true one, volunteers do have to stay in the closed because the current social climate in Senegal and the Gambia does not support homosexuals, and we don’t want anyone getting hurt. (That isn’t to say that volunteers are still free to do what they deem best: there have been a number of volunteers who’ve gotten close enough to their families that they’ve felt comfortable coming out to them.)

As you may expect, the session got pretty quiet during this conversation. To help people open up and discuss what they or their peers could be facing over the next two years, we passed out testimonials written by PCVs from across West Africa. The testimonials spoke on things like being gay in the PC, coming out at home, and being afraid to come out at site. To get the trainees more involved, we passed the testimonials out randomly amongst them, then had everyone reading one stood up and read it aloud to their stage-mates. When they finished, they sat down and rejoined the group until the last one was read. Here’s a few examples of testimonials:

 I’ve come out to my friends at home, but only to a few of my family members. My mom is totally supportive though I’m scared to tell my dad for fear that he will no longer talk to me and it will ruin our relationship. I know I have tell him eventually and can’t keep hiding the fact that I’m gay, but at the same time I love him and am afraid of losing him.

I haven’t come out to my family because I’ve heard them talk about gay people in the media, acquaintances, things like that. Knowing what they say about these people, I would never feel comfortable telling them about my sexuality. They just wouldn’t understand, and they could never accept it. Why come out to them when it would just invite cruelty I don’t think I could handle.

In Senegal it is much different to be sexually attracted to girls than in the States. First of all homosexuality is illegal. Secondly I feel that the women here would not be receptive due to the culture. I’m barely comfortable with any label in the states and will definitely go without one here. Culturally women walk around topless and it is not considered sexual. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get my attention. All I can do is turn my head though, it’s not like I can say, “Wow you have really nice tits and I’m attracted to you. Could you please put your shirt on?”

I got really lucky in the parent department because both of them were hugely supportive when I came out. In fact, they may have been too supportive; in middle school my dad confronted me about my sexuality, and then in high school my mom couldn’t understand why I waiting so long to tell my friends. That might have formed my perception of being gay in Senegal; the hardest part for me is hiding something about myself from people. How can I be close to someone if I’m hiding an integral part of myself from him or her? It’s incredibly depressing to think that someone I think is my friend may hate me if he or she found out the truth about me.

It’s hard to feel fully integrated when you can’t share a vital part of who you are.


As intended, hearing these personal stories stirred up a lot of emotions. I’ll be honest, there are a few testimonies that I avoid reading because I have a hard time reading them aloud without tearing up; it’s a sentiment that was shared among the PCTs as many eyes were red by the end of the reading. Still, no one wanted to talk, so April and I discussed why we work in Safezone perspective. Revealing a bit of ourselves to the group did the trick: one trainee got up to simply applaud all of his peers who had gone through the process of coming out: “I know I don’t have the guts to stick up for the gay community all the time, so I can’t even imagine the kind of courage you guys have.” “Obviously this isn’t the place or time to try and come out,” another trainee said, “but if you’re struggling with the self-hate and doubt and pain of not knowing who you are, don’t suffer any longer – talk to us, talk to me, we’re here for you. You can’t make it through these two years without us.”

This conversation went on for 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to witness. These people had met each other five days before and were sharing facets of themselves that were so intimate, some of their closest family and friends back home wouldn’t know what they were talking about. April and I were so proud of them. Not only were they opening up to each other, but they were beginning the process of becoming allies for each other – something they will undoubtedly need throughout their service. These PCTs are truly a phenomenal group of people.

For me, one of the most poignant comments during the session came towards the end. Looking slightly uncomfortable and visibly upset, a girl from the corner said, “I’m really glad we’re having this training so early because I’m beginning to realize that I’m going to have to go from being a bisexual atheist to a straight Christian in order to integrate here. That’s fine – but it’ll be a huge change, so I’m glad we’re talking about it now while we still have 8 weeks to go.”

Again, why the hell we never did this session for trainees before I’ll never know, but at least now we’ll never miss another group. Seeing how much the Safezone training and other diversity initiatives PC Senegal has taken up over the past year have affected the volunteer community has made me really proud to be a part of the team who’ve put these trainings together and hassled PC Admin to make sure they’re included in every training plan. After this year of hard work and success, I really think that our diversity initiates can only get better, but that’s not really up to me. It’s up to those 67 people we just trained who will be running the show sooner than they think.

It’s 00:56 here, which supposedly means that I should be snoozing but I’m a bit too wound up to sleep. Not wound up in the too-stressed-to-stop-my-mind-from-reeling way I was from this past November through February, but in a I’m-so-excited-about-things-that-are-awesome-that-may-or-may-not-happen wound up way. Don’t get me wrong, I 100% prefer to be kept up by thoughts of a good nature rather than the taxing ones, but the late night tossing does make me worry for tomorrow’s workday. Either way, since I’m committed to being awake (or more importantly to a late night snack) I may as well use the time to catch up with you.

I’ve decided that instead of giving all of you out there in interweb land a play-by-play of the past seven or so months as originally planned, I’m just going to highlight interesting events and projects that have busied my time since we last spoke. You’re really not that interested in what I did over home leave anyway, are you? Me neither. (Ok if you are, here it goes in bits: seafood, lots of rootbeer, lots of draft beer, my brother’s grilling, cheese, [noticing a pattern?] Boston, cigars, north end, bars, pizza, family reunion, Maine, driving, NYC, soft pretzels, DC, PC HQ office, dancing, more NYC, more cigars, comedy show, live band, Mexican food, more draft beer, 3am Chinese food, mom’s condo, awesomely bad daytime TV, shopping, rootbeer, wedding on the Cape, dancing, good whiskey, cigars, sleeping, ice cream, massive order, back to Dakar in the gut of rainy season. Got to see all of my favorite people save about five, and the whole trip reminded me how much I missed you all and what exactly I missed about being en Amerik [which was apparently surprisingly easy to forget after 2.5 years].)

Anyway, back to interesting events and projects. In PC Senegal land there exists an organization called SeneGAD. SeneGAD (GAD for short) stands for Senegal Gender and Development, which is a group made up of volunteers who lead the country’s gender-based initiatives (girls’ camps, girls’ scholarships, men as allies/partners in female rights advocacy, talibe work, etc.). Though I wholeheartedly support GAD work, I’d never got involved in SeneGAD during my two years as a wee health volunteer down in Kolda. Then one day in Dakar, I was wondering around the PC office in my new 3rd year PCVL shoes and came across a sign for Safezone allies. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Safezone is the name for LGBT awareness and sensitivity trainings as well as support groups that exist in many universities, organizations, and PC countries. Since LGBT rights are something that are important to me and since I’d worked pretty extensively with gender rights in Boston (FYSOP Gender Focus, focus on your gender!), I decided to heed the call at the bottom of the list asking for additional volunteers who would be interested in being listed as allies. And that is where things took an intriguing turn.

Through conversations with the volunteer who was leading the Safezone initiative, April, I learned that Safezone allies were running a training for the Host-Country National (HCN) staff of PC Senegal. This was interesting indeed: a Safezone training for our Senegalese staff? In Senegal, where Imams proclaim in major newspapers that homosexuals are responsible for all of the country’s problems and so should be thrown off of a tall building? Where gay men are so taboo that two men can walk down the street holding hands and no one would dare to think they’re anything but friends because the idea of homosexuality is so far removed from the general consciousness? Well, all of that considered, the first staff training apparently went really well, “but that’s because it was the staff all-star group – all of the medical staff and language instructors who’ve been working with PC for years. This next group may be more difficult,” April explained. This next group was the other half of our training center’s language instructors and staff, and they were getting trained that Thursday. I agreed to help out.

A few mornings later I was prepping a training room with five of my good PCV buddies. They had all led the first Safezone training, so they divvied out the easier parts of the training agenda to me (vocabulary game and testimonial introductions) reserving the more touchy areas for the vets (what “causes” homosexuality? How do you feel about homosexuality? What do we expect from you in terms of support as a PC Senegal staff member?). Before the HCN staff arrived, we also planned out how we’d deal with the awkward moments that were sure to come: what if everyone is too embarrassed to talk? What if everyone is too afraid to talk? What if someone is aggressively homophobic? How are we going to respond to the religious views on homosexuality in Senegal? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that these potential sticky training scenarios didn’t make me a bit nervous – they were significantly different in nature to the conflicts I’d dealt with when working Boston when working in gender rights and I didn’t feel very prepared. Plus, I didn’t know the majority of the new language instructors who were attending the training, so I didn’t have much clout to diffuse any sticky situations with. That and it was a bit obvious from everyone’s expressions when they filed in that they either a) weren’t sure why they had to be at this training, or b) were not interested in talking about the gays, never mind the Bs and the Ts.

But then, everything started to go smoothly. I opened the training with a vocabulary game that had participants match words with their definitions and then present to the group their matched definitions in their own words (interesting first activity when the words were ones like “transsexual,” “outing,” and “civil union”). My friend Steve continued the training, talking about the history of gay rights in America, around the world, and in Senegal. The staff told us about stereotypes they’d heard regarding homosexuals from their friends growing up, explained the Senegalese mindset on gays, and delved deeper into the religious community’s views of gay men and lesbians. And no one freaked out, no one was visibly uncomfortable, – people were engaged and even curious. BOOP light bulb: in a culture where homosexuality is as taboo as it is here in Senegal, this training was the first time that most of the staff in attendance were able to discuss homosexuality in a safe and honest environment.

Opinions and questions started pouring out: “I don’t think you can choose if you’re gay or not,” and “but aren’t lesbian women just women who were abused by men and so decided to be with women instead?” The discussion turned into a fascinating critique of cultural norms, gender stereotypes, and sexuality, and as they day progressed I was more and more thankful that I’d agreed to help. It’s easy after 2+ years as a PCV to get lazy about the culture you’ve integrated into. Not necessarily because you “know it all,” but more that the frequency of surprising cultural moments diminish to the point that what was at first foreign is now your new normal. This training though, brought me back to my wide-eyed days; this training was letting me into a facet of Senegalese culture that I’d never ventured to face before.

One of the most poignant moments of the training was when me and the five other PCVs leading the training got up in the front of the room and read a series of PCV testimonials (some testimonials are included in this blog post). Background: PC’s Safezone training was originally developed in Panama, then made its way around the globe, throughout West Africa, into the Gambia and onto us. Along the way, it collected PCV testimonials. They covered topics about what it was like being a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps, how volunteers got kicked out when they came out to their parents in America, how it’s awkward to be a lesbian volunteer in a culture where women typically don’t wear shirts, and how painful it was to live with a family you grew to love to the bone during your service yet that you were still petrified to tell you were gay because of how their culture dictated their likely reaction. The testimonials were candid, written with clear voice, some funny, some honest to the point that they were difficult to read without tearing up, and as we read everyone in the room was entranced. It was one of those moments where when we stopped reading, the silence in the room seemed to vibrate in the air around until someone sniffed or scuffed a chair, breaking the trance.

The training ended about an hour later with the staff having the option to list themselves as Safezone “allies,” or people who are advocates for LGBT volunteers in Senegal. This is a big move for a Senegalese person to make – openly listing that they support gay volunteers (well not openly openly – the list isn’t published anywhere, we just disperse it among the PC Senegal community. It’s still a big deal though). To our delight, we had a few of the staff sign up. Awesome!

Believe it or not I have more to tell you about Safezone and diversity and such, but sleep has caught up with me now (almost 2, woops) so I’ll save those words for another day. As a parting gift, I leave you all with a cheer from my days as a Gender Focus FYSOP coordinator:

Gender 1, focus all, let’s all do the GF call.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 2, focus 3, let’s fight for equality.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 4, focus 5, let’s all do the GF jive.

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 6, focus 7, boys and girls make out with Kevin!

Go GF go GF GO! Go GF go GF GO!

Gender 8, focus 9 STOP: it’s GF time.


Le sigh, I miss college sometimes.

A year late – here it finally is! I mentioned this video we made for last spring’s training, and have since been pestered by volunteers and friends/family alike to upload it. Then I forgot about it completely. Then this past week I was sifting around my external hard drive looking for something else pertaining to mosquito nets and stumbled upon the video. So, I’ve at long last uploaded it. Please excuse the poor video quality  – it would have been 438 minutes to upload the .dv version and that’s not going to happen when there’s only one computer with internet for 13 people.

About the video: April of 2010, Kellen, Dave, Chris Breezy, and myself  were called upon to teach the latest wave of health and environmental education trainees about the massive-esque mosquito net distributions that were taking place in southern Senegal.  You may remember these such distributions that I was involved in – they were the beginning of my malaria affair. If I’d only known then…  Anyway, upon considering our task, we decided the best way to enlighten the trainees in the ways of net distributions would be via video, photos and song. At 10pm we started the video snippet, at 4am the link below was the result.  Enjoy!

(If I ever have fast interwebs again I promise to upload the non-fuzzy version.)

Hi everyone!  My friends Geoff and David (volunteers in my region) have come up with a fantastic project and now a bunch of us are joining in!  All the details and descriptions are in the video below, and as a side-note, yes: I am participating as well, my name just missed the video cut.

Either way, you should definitely WATCH the video, laugh at our miserable donkey-riding skills, and if you feel so inclined, DONATE!  If you do want to donate though, please be sure to read the information and instructions from Geoff and David that I’ve listed below the video. Enjoy!

About your donation:
Volunteers, in conjunction with Peace Corps Senegal’s country director, have established a new fund entitled the Gardens of Moringa Fund. Monies donated to this fund will be made available to community groups, women’s groups, and school gardens across all of Senegal for small garden improvements (fence repairs, basic tools, protective equipment, seed bank materials etc) or the introduction of new gardening technologies (hand crank well pumps, treadle pumps, improved variety seeds, etc) that do not exceed $150.

This fund will be available to all Peace Corps Senegal Volunteers to do what they do best – assess at the community level the most motivated and deserving of groups or schools within their own community. A 20% financial community contribution per project will be mandatory to ensure a sense of ownership and increased responsibility on the part of the local community. Senegal’s country Director will personally assess the merits of all applications submitted to the Peace Corps office in Dakar and make all final decisions regarding the acceptances or rejections of those applications.

Upon the successful dispersal of funds for small garden improvements or technological innovations the nearest volunteer to the receiving community group, women’s group, or school garden will be required to cultivate an intensive bed of Moringa Oliefera for the purpose of leaf production and consumption as well as hold an informational session for local community members that will cover the same information session for local community members that will cover the same information as that discussed in the 13 towns and health posts of the Kolda Donkey Rally. After the successful completion of these steps and the appropriate documentation has been provided to the Peace Corps Senegal office, Peace Corps Volunteers will then be allowed to apply for additional funding provided Gardens of Moringa Fund under the same parameters previously mentioned.

How to donate:

If you’re interested in supporting our efforts, please visit the following website: Senegal Country Fund Websiteyou MUST designate the donation to the “Gardens of Moringa Fund” in the comments section of this page.

1- Enter the amount you are willing to donate in the box on the right side of your screen, 2- Click DONATE, 3- Fill out required information, 4- since this donation will be going to the general Senegal country fund IT IS CRITICAL  YOU DESIGNATE THE DONATION TO THE GARDENS OF MORINGA FUND IN THE COMMENTS SECTION OF THIS PAGE! 5- Give someone a hug, you deserve it :) Your financial support of this project would represent both your support of our goals to eliminate malnutrition here in Senegal as well as your support of Peace Corps Senegal’s abilities to effectively identify and assist those most in need of your assistance.

Thank you,

David Shames, Geoff Burmeister

Mr. Simon’s class is a new class I’m exchanging letters with this year.  They are a 7th grade class outside of Boston.  Below is my second letter to them.

Dear Mr. Simon and Class,

The most comfortable sept places. My friend is peaking out from the least comfortable back row

Hey guys? How’s everything going state-side?  Things are crazy-busy here, as I’ve had to travel all over Senegal the past few months for work.  It’s been cool to see parts of the country I’ve never seen before, like the far north where people live in the desert and the only trees that grow have needles for leaves, but traveling here is also very tiring.  95% of my travel takes place in cars called “sept places,” which is French for “7 seats.”   The cars are basically huge, over-grown station wagons that bumble along roads filled with pot-holes.  It took me 19 hours to get up north last month!  At least after traveling here, traveling in the states will be easy.

We’re entering cold season here, which means nights in the low 60s… freezing!  Seriously, it’s cold when you consider that \our summers (or “hot season” as we call it here) gets up to 136 degrees.  These evenings, I sleep in long pants, socks, long sleeves, a hat, and with 3 blankets on.  It is nice compared to sweating all night in the hot season, but with cold season also comes bed-bugs, so those are no good. Every 3 or 4 nights, I have to pour boiling water all over my bed and sheets and walls around my bed to try and kill them, but I swear, bed bugs NEVER die.  I despise them.

Rice and leaf sauce! Mmmmm

One really nice thing about cold season is that our food is really\good because the harvest from the rainy season is in.  Usually, we eat either millet (which is a grain) or rice with some sort of sauce over it, usually leaf or peanut-based.  Wealthier Senegalese families put oil and lots of vegetables and meant into their food, but since my village is poor, our food is usually just a sauce over rice or millet.  At first, I’ll be honest, it’s not that great, but you get used to it, and believe it or not, eventually even crave leaf sauce!  Weird, I know.  The food starts to run out by April though, so we begin cutting meals and eating smaller portions until the next harvest in the fall.  My village has to grow the majority of the food they eat, which, no matter how hard they work, seems impossible sometimes.  We live about 18 kilometers form the main road where the weekly market and little shops are, and considering that no one in my village has cars or motos, 18k can be a really long walk (or bike ride).  For my contribution to the family I live with, I buy vegetables and beans every week, which makes the food a bit better.  Either way, let’s just say I crave pizza, cheese burgers and burritos a lot.

I just got back form a big conference called the West African All Volunteer Conference.  It’s an annual gathering for Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) from all over West Africa, though most attendees are from Senegal.  This year though, volunteers from Cape Verde, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Mali flew in, (the Gambian volunteers drove).

One of the sustainable technologies presented at All Vol - a briquette press, which makes "bricks" to burn for cooking fires out of organic waste. One way to fight deforestation, yay!

The conference is basically a huge, two-day series of presentation on innovative projects that different PCVs are doing and around-able discussion on how we can improve what we’re already doing.  My country director (basically by big-boss, the CEO or PC Senegal) and Senegalese bosses even came.  Though the days can be long, it’s really interesting to hear about other volunteers’ work, and wonderful to see friends of mine that I only see twice a year.

I even presented this year!  My talk was with my friend Annicka, and we presented on behavior change methods and theory.  Sounds boring, right? I know.  Actually, it’s pretty simple and pretty interesting (in my opinion as well).  Basically our talk discussed ideas on how you can get people to consider new ideas or habits that may benefit their health or daily lives without immediately writing the new idea off because it’s unfamiliar.  For example, in my village, people have a lot of problems with cuts and wounds getting infected.  In traditional medicine, people here will put sap or a leaf paste over wounds, and wrap them in cloths.  As you may guess, this often leads to infections and their wounds get worse.  The thing is, I can’t just run around my village telling everyone that they’re treating their wounds wrong because they would never listen to me.  Think about it – if you parents had been telling you since you were born that sugar is healthy, and then someone fro a different country, who barely speaks your language, and that you’ve only known for three months, told you that your parents were wrong and that you should eat carrots instead would you listen to them? Probably not.

What Annicka and I presented on then, was how to lead people to their own conclusions instead of tell them these new ideas.  For example, instead of telling someone that they should wash their wounds with a clean cloth and hot weather, I them how to clean their wounds properly, and then, once their wounds heal instead of getting infected, let them decide which method of wound-care they prefer.

The cool thing is, once someone likes the way I’ve taught them to clean their wounds (for example), they usually then become advocates of the method, and teach their friends and families.  And new ideas coming from Senegalese people is always better received than new ideas coming from the crazy white person in their village, right?  People in my village teaching each other ideas is a heck of a lot more sustainable than me yapping about ideas for the two years I’m here.  Make sense?  All-around good stuff.

Well, I have to jet off to the garage to get back to my site.  I’ve included a few stickers in your envelope.  In Senegal, people like the put these stickers all over their cars, so I’ve put stickers all over my bicycle.  Enjoy!

Happy holidays and New Years!

Your friend in Senegal,

Now that the rains are coming every few days here in Kolda, the village is all a buzz with activity.  The men are harnessing up their cows and donkeys so that they can begin to till the soil in their fields, the women are mapping out their rainy season gardens and gossiping about how much rice they’re each going to be able to grow this year, and peace corps volunteers everywhere are creating pepinieres.

Fodé Bayo's village pepiniere

What’s a pepiniere? (Pronounced pep-in-yeahr.)  A pepiniere is a collection of little black sacks that hold tree seeds and young trees until they are ready to be planted in the great wild beyond (or someone’s garden, compound, etc.). In other words, a pepiniere is a tree nursery.

Last year around this time when I was a timid new volunteer in my village, I created a pepiniere of about 80 Moringa olefiera trees with a bunch of the village kiddies, only to have all save eight die when I had to leave village for a month for my in-service training back in Thies.  Weeds are powerful plants here, and they grow the way girls rush to catch the bouquet during a wedding reception.

This year, I took full-advantage of Kolda being the agro-forestry capital of PC Senegal volunteers and gathered a bunch of sacks and seeds to bring back to Fodé Bayo.  I knew I wanted a village-wide pepiniere, but sitting in my hut surrounded by all the sacks and seeds, had no idea how to go about dividing up the goods.

So, as my brother started building the bamboo fencing that would enclose our future pepiniere area, my counterpart and I traded ideas.  How about three representatives from each compound? No, not fair – some compounds have 43 people while others have only seven.  Ok then, maybe just whoever shows up? HA! And receive a mad-rush when everyone hears we’re giving things away? Hell no.  I still have another ten months to happily live here.  How about then… diving up the goods by the number of old dudes in each compound?  What? That’s an… absolutely brilliant idea.

Idrissa, Fodé Bayo's chief, stuffing a pepiniere sack

In my village, (and most I’m assuming but don’t know for sure), each compound has it’s reigning old dudes and old ladies.  These people are the ones who chill on their shade structures all day, yelling at all us young what-have-yous as we go about our day, and who always have the final say in family bickerments.  Naturally, larger compounds have more old dudes, and smaller ones have fewer.  So, divvying out my pepiniere sacks and seeds by number of old dudes in each compound not only got me on the good side with the homies who all hold weight in the village (“Here, I would like you to come to my pepiniere training two mornings from now so that I can give you everything you’ll need to grow big wonderful trees”) and also created a fair representation of each compound in the village pepiniere.

Smashing cow poopage

After wandering around to each compound with my counterpart, we had a list of 23 old dudes who either would themselves show up, or send a young strapping representative to create their own little pepiniere.  I then spent the next afternoon dividing up my stash: 30 little pepiniere bags (perfect for lucena and Moringa seeds) and 30 big pepiniere bags (perfect for mango and cashew trees) to go to each old dude (or their rep), along with 60 Moringa seeds, 120 lucena seeds, and a bag of jatropha seeds to be used in their fields for live fencing as a cadeau for creating a good pepiniere, (though I didn’t tell them that ahead of time).

Sifting 1 shovel of poop + 1 shovel of sand = baller soil

9am on the day of the pep party, the sun was already a comfy 118 degrees, and as everyone started gathering around the newly fenced off pepiniere area, I set a few of the younger guys to smashing manure.  (Because of course, one cannot make lovely soil out of sand without adding a fragrant mix of dried cow poop!)  We then set up little teams of men to sift one shovel of sand and one shovel of smashed manure to create the perfect mix of Kolda soil.  After this was finished, I passed out 23 sets of 30 little pep bags to everyone in attendance, and over a mad rush to put the freshly made soil in their little bags, instructed that two Moringa and four lucena seeds go to each bag, and that you must push the bottom corners of your sacks in less they tumble over when the rains begin to pound.   “Yeah yeah yeah Ñamoo, move over Idrissa is getting all the good soil.”

Though slightly chaotic a process and amidst steadily growing streams of sweat, everyone got at least twenty sacks filled, placed in the pepiniere area, and watered by 10:30.  My old village chief even came out, smashed some poop, and filled a few bags before delegating the rest of the work to my younger brother!  He’s a cool old dude, maybe the coolest in village.

Mad rush to fill sacks with the newly created soil

After the initial pile of pretty dirt was finished, most people went to hide from the hot-ass sun, but at least twelve of us stayed on to fill the rest of the sacks.  I created my own little pepiniere with my brother who built the fence.  Since this pepiniere party occurred a few weeks ago, as of today, my brother and I have 30 Moringa and lucena trees, some reaching towards 10 inches high, a bunch of baby mango sprouts, a few cashew sprouts, and as of Monday, will have sacked a bunch of mandarin trees as well. Citrus tends to be a touchy thing to grow, since the trees need to sit in the sacks for two years, can die very easily, and the seeds can go bad very quickly before you even get the whole process started.  That said, everyone wants citrus trees to eat and sell from, so last Wednesday, I went to Diobae (pronounced jow-bay), the biggest open-air market in West Africa, to buy 2 kilos of mandarins for their seeds.  Did you know that if you eat two kilos mandarins in one sitting to collect their seeds, your mouth begins to feel like cotton by the end of it all?  Hmm.

So now everyone’s watering their pep sacks, (and if they’re not, they’re getting made fun of by everyone else who is!), and Fodé Bayo has about 500 new little trees on their way.  Lucena and Moringa will be ready to go in the ground by the end of July, and by then the rains will have probably knocked our pep fence over anyway, but I think, and my village would agree, that it was all worth it.

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