Monday, July 30, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 10-11 Dar Es Salaam and Kedougou (Senegal)

At one point in time, I considered joining the Peace Corps. One of the things that scared me off was an elective innocently called "Medical and Veterinary Entomology"... or as I liked to think of it, "101 Reasons Not to Join the Peace Corps." I'd always been fascinated by relationships between diseases and their insect vectors, and I thought, hey, malaria is pretty interesting! But then you learn about West Nile and dengue and yellow fever (all mosquito-borne) ... and African night time sleeping sickness (tsetse fly) ... and let's not ever forget the horrifying flesh-eating pictures of Leishmaniasis (sand fly). Seriously, DON'T google it. It's one thing to study these things in a vacuum. It's another thing to share the class with a couple of students - and former Peace Corps volunteers - who piped up with the occasional, "Yeah, I know someone who got that"... or worse, "They eventually found a doctor, who removed 21 larvae from his sinuses." That one still keeps me up at night.

Fast forward to the present, the Farmer-to-Farmer Program lets me try out that old Peace Corps dream... within the comforts of a shorter term commitment, a coordinator who speaks the local language, and travel insurance that covers medical evacuation. This assignment has allowed me to go and teach small farmers how to better feed their families in remote villages in Africa. How cool! Then that Peace Corps nightmare reared its ugly head.

It had started out with stomach cramps. I mostly ignored it, being somewhat of the opinion that your luck will run out eventually when traveling in the developing world. We had driven 2 hours down bumpy roads and puddles. Was it car sickness? We were in a field outside the village of Dar Es Salaam, looking for insects and diseases, handling plants, and chatting with the growers for about 20 minutes... until we found out that this field had just been sprayed with insecticides!?! Every pesticide has a restricted entry interval, or the time period after spraying when no one can enter the field without the appropriate protective equipment. We were still well within the dangerous period so I insisted that everyone exit immediately. I washed as best as I could at the time and encouraged others to do the same. We interviewed the growers about their practices and problems, feeling a little sorry for the fellow who applied the pesticides. He probably felt like he was being interrogated. They passed around mint tea in communal cups. Was this the reason for my digestive tract issues? Was it the pesticide exposure? I removed the contaminated clothing, had a cold shower, and washed my shoes as soon as possible. But as I lay at the hotel with a headache and severe body aches, my inability to sleep for 10 hours was plenty of time to review all I could remember about exposure symptoms (from another class - on insecticide toxicology). The scientist in me couldn't help but see the irony - and wax philosophic - about potentially being accidentally poisoned by the exact substances that I had researched for years under the strictest of safety protocols. I was almost relieved when the high fever set in, since it pushed my diagnosis towards something infectious. A bad night of mosquitoes a few nights back before we got a new bed net got thinking about new questions, like "What were the symptoms for those diseases?" and "What were their incubation times?" In the end and most fortunately, the well-stocked pharmacy that is my first aid kit managed to get me through the night. Having endured some exasperated looks from Rich at its bulk while backpacking, it really came through for me this time. Even the thermometer! Within 24 hours, I was feeling decidedly better.

The volunteer coordinator did offer to take me to the doctor or the hospital, but frankly, it was fatiguing to even walk the 3 feet to the bathroom. Of course, I would have gone if I hadn't improved the next day. Alls well that ends well!  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 7-9 Saraya (Senegal)

Saraya is a village about 60 km northeast of Kedougou. Since trucks from the gold-mining industry and trade to land-locked Mali travel the same route, the roads are quite good to this remote village. We went to the hut of the president of one of the women groups to introduce ourselves, and all told, we ended up stopping by two more places to greet other important members of the community. The president and a couple of other ladies led us to the fields where we got the lay of the land.

One section is farmed by over 100 growers with the women's group Benk Hardy, and the other section has plots for over 40 growers belonging to another group, Tessito. The layout and organization are similar to the fields in Fadiga, but many of the same crops were further along here. They were probably benefiting from the extra rain in the area... but so were the weeds. This causes hefty competition for space, water (mentioned by many growers here as the biggest limiting factor), and other nutrients as well as creating reservoirs for diseases and insect pests to survive and increase in. In addition to the crops seen elsewhere, the Saraya fields have tomato, haricot bean, and sorrel (the source of that tasty drink I had in Tambacounda). Many of the same insects and diseases we've seen earlier occur in Saraya, too, but are present in differing degrees. On the positive side, termites aren't an issue - yet! - and the growers have been doing a better job keeping out the livestock (cows, pygmy goats, sheep, chickens, and donkeys), which tend to roam pretty freely all over Senegal.

Taking the time to visit fields in every location is really important. It helps you start to build a relationship with the growers, allows you to tailor training and recommendations to their specific concerns, and reinforces the importance of monitoring for good crop management. One village had access to chemical fertilizer. Another had big problems with what was only a minor pest in other fields. In Saraya, growers there had experience preparing homemade pesticides. They already knew how to make a solution out of the leaves of the locally-growing neem tree, the extract of which, in the developed world, is sold commercially as an effective insecticide/repellent.

Training in the village took place in the local school, where the more formal setting would help minimize interruptions and distractions. Other challenges we've faced throughout this assignment are language and basic literacy. While schools are taught in French, there is still a strong preference for the local language, and probably only 1 in 10 growers seemed comfortable conversing in French. Also, almost all of the growers were women, and it is not uncommon for girls to marry young in rural Senegal, so finishing school may be up to the discretion of their husbands. As such, my English words got translated into French by the Farmer-to-Farmer coordinator and then again into the local Pulaar by the KEOH representative. Besides everything taking three times longer to say, there were also gaps in understanding and approximations that had to be made. I worked out simple analogies with eating and human health to relate to crop protection. I thought hard about how to present highly technical concepts like relative differences in susceptibility, systematic scouting, and plant taxonomy. I consciously limited writing any words down. Instead, I relied very heavily on those English-teaching standards - miming and drawing pictures! My pathetic excuse for a leafhopper made me wish I'd taken that insect illustration class at Purdue. Hope the growers could make sense of my doodles! Fortunately for me, a few local "linkers" were in the audience. Similar to agricultural extension agents in the U.S., they - along with the KEOH rep - will be the ones following up in Saraya as well as going on to other groups to share my training and recommendations... and drawings. Eek!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 5-6 Fadiga (Senegal)

We returned to the village of Fadiga. The fields we had visited the day before belonged to a group of women growers (over 100 in their organization). Each woman has a small plot, similar to a community garden in the States or an allotment in the U.K. We started off with training on integrated pest management, or IPM, in a sort of open shelter under a thatched roof. IPM is an ecologically-based approach to managing insects and diseases in a crop using a combination of monitoring, prevention, and control practices. It should be a good fit for these women even with the limited resources at their disposal (e.g. watering cans and simple hand tools). Identification of the problems, crop rotation, seed bed preparation, and homemade pesticides were some of the topics we covered.

The training was not without hiccups. Our timing was a disadvantage. The rainy season is just beginning in Senegal, which means that all these growers who have been waiting for the first drops for weeks are now eager to get their seeds in the ground. In the States, I don't think anyone holding training during planting season could hope to have much attendance. In Fadiga, the women are no less busy. In one session, a couple of the growers were participating in the training AND shelling peanuts for cooking AND breastfeeding all at the same time. How is that for multi-tasking?

Secondly, Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country, and we are in the final stretch before the holy month of Ramadan begins in mid-July. Naturally, folks are trying to get ahead on their work - and their celebrations - before the tough times of fasting from sun up to sun down begin (Catholics, think of it like a hardcore Lent). For example, it's a Senegalese tradition to hold a naming ceremony for a baby a week after he/she was born. Everyone in the village as well as out-of-town friends and family are invited to a big celebration of food and music. While naming ceremonies still are permitted during Ramadan (unlike weddings), one can imagine they're a much more somber affair... so one was taking place in Fadiga one morning we were there. Since it is also an important sign of respect to greet everyone you meet upon arrival, people in their party clothes kept coming by the hut to shake hands. Really a lovely custom, but a tad bit disruptive in the training.

One of the days we visited Fadiga also was a Friday, the Muslim holy day. Men and old women in the village normally go to the mosque for prayers in the afternoon. Luckily, we were able to adapt and do the scouting session (i.e. make observations) in the fields with the women another day. Despite all the hitches, the growers received solid training in crop protection concepts and techniques, and I got some insights into the local culture!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program, Day 3-4: Kedougou, Fadiga, Thiankou Malal, and Dindefelo Falls (Senegal)

Kedougou is the name of the town and region where I will be based for my assignment. The region has a border with Mali to the east and Guinea to the south. There are more foreigners in town, too, because of international investment in the gold mining industry as well as activity by the U.S. Peace Corps and NGO's. Although the official language in Senegal is French, and most Senegalese speak Wolof (the largest indigenous language) as a native or second tongue, Pulaar is the language of choice in this region... Explaining to visitors that they'll hear Catalan, not Castellano, in Barcelona seems a lot less confusing. As a side note, Catalans might be amused to know that "nyam nyam," as in the sound you make eating cal├žots, has Wolof roots!

Conversations in the USAID office here in Kedougou happen in all 3 languages. I mostly sit back and wait for someone to explain. While USAID has several programs around Senegal, including the Yaajende Development Project for improving food security, mine is the first Farmer-to-Farmer assignment working in this region. The office supplied us with useful information and lent us some training materials (e.g. a backpack pesticide sprayer). We also went to meet the host contacts/beneficiary organization KEOH (Kedougou Surrounding and Guidance for Human Development) at their headquarters, where we discussed scheduling training and field visits.

Two KEOH guys came along in the truck the next day as we headed out to visit some fields. We stopped in Fadiga to look at fields where the women in the village grow crops to feed their own families as well as to sell at market. Vegetables like eggplant, hot pepper, and okra grow in small plots alongside mint and another leafy plant used in cooking called boro boro. Despite lacking much formal education and training, it's clear that the women are on to some good ideas. Building on these, I have hopes that I can provide them with solid techniques as well as give recommendations for their pest problems. Likewise in Thiankou Malal, we saw positive practices and challenges in the fields of the village's chief. Similar crops were growing as in Fadiga, albeit on a much larger scale and with access to much more upscale resources (e.g. an animal-driven plow). It never ceases to amaze me what experiences I have had that will come to inform an assignment. One of the problem insects in Fadiga was flea beetle, which was my first research project in entomology... way back in high school! Another blast from the past came when I asked the grower in Thiankou Milal which okra variety he was planting. He pulled out a empty can of Clemson Spineless - the one we used to grow in North Carolina!

We'll be working hard through the end of my assignment (no stops for the weekend!) so we decided to do a tiny bit of sight-seeing in the area for an hour. Not far from the last field we visited lies the Dindefelo Falls. Located in Niokolo-Koba National Park, first there is a 2 km walk through bush and woods, lovely and cool after the heat of the day. Sporting greenery in the crevices, two vertical rock faces meet in a corner, and the water falls from a lush wooded plateau 100 m (~ 30 stories) into a clear pool below. It's a beautiful and tranquil spot even now, and I imagine it only grows more impressive as the rainy season continues.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 1 - 2 Kaolack, Tambacounda, and Kedougou (Senegal)

After a French breakfast of coffee and croissant, we head out for some administrative business at the USAID office in Kaolack. The city is about 3 hours southeast of Dakar. The roads are remarkably good for the most part. The land is flat and parched and red with clay soils. One of the small towns we pass has capitalized on this with many of the roadside stalls displaying ceramic tiles as wares. A common sight in the dry land is the baobab tree, whose enormous girth threatens to give those California redwoods a run for their money. Along with the lion, the mighty baobab is an important symbol of Senegal. We didn't see any lions, but that might have to do with the huge tracts of land cleared and already marked as parcels for new construction. As we neared the Saloum river, shallow stretches of water appeared on either side of the highway, along with big white mounds where locals have been harvesting salt. Different sections are worked by different people, and the harvest is so plentiful that salt dominates the cargo of the semi-trucks that pass us. Some is destined for neighboring Mali, and some even gets to Europe for salting roads.

Delays at the bank meant we needed to stay overnight in Kaolack. The upside was getting a fantastic meal at place nearby. A typical Senegalese meal is some kind of meat or fish in a generous sauce on a heap of rice or couscous. It sounds simple enough, maybe even boring, but it is not! My first foray was thiou kary, a sort of beef stew with all the love and tenderness of hours of slow-cooking. It brought back memories for me since it basically was a dead ringer for that Filipino favorite mechado. The only difference being the occasional chunk of a sweetish yam. Now that sounds like comfort food to me.

Another morning, another drive brings us to another USAID office in Tambacounda. It's really just a pit stop on the march eastward. Lunch is in a real local place for local people. Butchering is happening roadside and everything. Maafe is on the menu: some kind of red meat and African eggplant (texture like our eggplant, but maybe looks more like a mini-pumpkin and has very faint bitter taste) in a tomato and peanut (aka "groundnut" in many parts of Africa) sauce on a bed of white rice. I also got to try sorrel, a delicious and refreshing reddish-purple drink made from steeped leaves. Another win for Senegalese dining!

The scenery changes gradually as we continue onward. The rainy season has come just a tiny bit sooner this way, and shades of green go from just faint patches on the ground to full blown carpets. More shrubs and leafy trees appear, competing with the giant termite mounds in the landscape. As we near Kedougou in the far southeastern corner of the country, the road rises and falls into actual hills. Though Kedougou was our destination all along, it was great to be able to see the full swath of Senegalese countryside.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Farmer-to-Farmer Program: Day 0 Paris (France) and Dakar (Senegal)

My journey started with a leg to Paris, which is somewhat fitting as Senegal was formerly a French colony. I waved my boarding pass in front of an electronic kiosk, which told me my connecting gate – K49. It was all very handy until I realized I only saw signs for Terminals A through G. Luckily, my layover was long enough that I could ask at information (so you're telling me K is in Terminal E?), stand in the ridiculous queue to go through customs and security again (harried passengers engaged in the most bold and unrepentant line-cutting I've ever seen), and look over the dismal yet expensive options at the food court. There was a chic boutique selling a rainbow of macarons, but such feathery delicacies don't really make for a solid lunch. I found a better selection at a takeaway place further down, which also offered 5 or 6 fruit tart options!

Dakar, the capital of Senegal, lies on the west coast bordering the Atlantic Ocean. In the U.S., it made my radar only as the place where the NPR lady with the cool accent (Ofeibea Quist-Arcton) usually reports from. Europeans mostly know of Dakar as the finish line for the Dakar Rally, an off-road race which ran annually for 30 years from Paris to the Senegalese capital. I was hoping that my stay would expand on my knowledge of the city, but arriving late, my experiences were limited. The immigration line was long, flanked by imposing military guards in berets, but it was nice they opened a special one for families traveling with children. I was a little disappointed that they didn't examine my yellow fever vaccination book. I've been carrying that thing with me for years since it records all my other vaccinations, but this time I actually had the yellow fever stamp! But the mosquito netting in the hotel room - and the little beasties trying to get in - reminded me to still be cautious. Oh my medical and veterinary entomology course, what would have I done without you? Yellow fever and dengue and malaria, oh my!