2015 harvest, mini food forest and final welding project…


In this post I’ll show some pictures from the 2015 harvest and explain a couple of small projects completed as my service came to a close.

“Post harvest” is a term I was unfamiliar with but gained a healthy respect for while in Gambia. The post harvest in Gambia typically included multiple dryings, threshings, winnowings, poundings, and cleanings before finally cooking. The Gambians were masters at this post-harvest work and we often awoke to the sound of women pounding grain as the sun rose, a constant “thud, thud, thud.” Although I was familiar with the post harvest process from the 2014 farm season the difficult process still humbled me and gave me great respect for the people that provide themselves food without modern machinery.

I learned a lot during my last rainy season. The food forest was a big project and I was happy to see it off to a great start, with lots of planning and hard work matched by a strong rainy season. Most of our 25 big trees survived and we put over 10 tons of organic material on the 1/3 acre plot. As I transitioned out of my service the farm was left to my counterparts and the next volunteer to maintain or let nature take its course. I tightened up the protective fence as best I could and then raced to finish up last minute projects: a mini foodforest/polyculture in my compound and a final welding experiment to help with weeding.

Here are the pictures.


This Baobab tree responds to the rains by putting on lots of new leaves. People often came to our garden harvest these leaves for food. I once saw a 60 year old woman climb over 5 meters to the leaves to harvest them with her knife.


A view of the garden during rainy season, very green. Our bushy sunflower plants were growing strong and providing fodder for bees. Also notice the 2 water reservoirs we installed in the garden, which significantly cut down the hours it took to water our garden beds. 


Pumpkins grow great during the rains and are ready for eating or sold to processors of vegetable oil. Each year my friend and counterpart Modou rents this land behind the mosque to grow his pumpkins.


Our 2015 harvest of millet. These will dry in this storage room then processed to remove the seed from the stalk and then finally the husk from the kernel.


After a long day harvesting in the rice fields the women return to the compound. Its a moment at the end of a hard days work and they’re usually greeted by  welcoming cheers of “Good work!” I loved going to talk with my host mothers to congratulate them and talk about rice and how the fields were looking this year.


Throwing down the heavy bundles of rice.


The rice husks behind the rice milling machine pile up tall during harvest as more people bring rice for milling. The rice mill inside removes the hard husks from the edible kernel; a labor intensive process often done by hand. The families that live near a rice milling machine and can afford to pay for the service can save themselves hours of work.


After picked from the field and transported home, these black eyed peas are left to dry in the hot sun. They are later shelled and stored.


We had grown a small plot of “findo” in our fields this year and now it was ready for harvest. We grew findo over the entire land last year; it’s a small grass that produces a very small but nutritious edible seed, a somewhat fancier grain once reserved for chiefs or special occasions. After we cut the grass, dried it and threshed the seed from the stalks the findo looks like this. The next step is to further thresh, pound and winnow the grain.


I cleaned up the findo by rubbing it between my hands; this would further separate the findo from other weed seeds, sticks and dirt.


The findo seed is very small and still has the husk on it at this point. The edible kernel of findo is actually white, covered by a brownish/red husk.


Here is the threshed and winnowed findo ready to be pounded. To winnow findo you simply pour it from one bucket into another while the wind was blowing. This action would separate the heavier seed from the lighter chaff: the seeds fall down into the bucket while the chaff is blown away by the wind. Care must be taken so you don’t lose any of your seed to strong gusts of wind that can blow the seed away from the bucket and into the dirt. At the stage shown above only the husk and the edible portion of the findo remain. It’s ready to be pounded. 


Since findo is such a small seed the machines required to mill it are not common. Further, not many people grow findo as compared to rice so it may not be economical to invest in a small grain milling machine. For those reasons findo is most often pounded by hand using a mortar and pestle. The work of pounding grain is slow and monotonous but there’s no other option. Pounding is a culture in Gambia and while I pounded the findo many people cheered for me or stopped by to help me pound. At times 3 women, each with their own pestle, would pound grain. My host family took the time to teach me how to pound and help out. Often we’d have 4 people around the mortar, each of us pounding the findo 50 times while passing the pestle around. The rice bags shown in the picture were placed near the mortar to catch any seed that flew out.


After hours of pounding and winnowing the husks away in the wind the findo looks like this. Now the majority of the work is done and its ready to be cleaned and eaten or stored for later use.


I had told my friend that when I finished pounding the findo I would bring her some so we could eat lunch together. She also offered to show me how to clean it. She washed and rinsed the findo using a large calabash, 5 times in all, to make sure there was no dirt or sand left with the findo. She assured me that I wouldn’t taste even one grain of sand during lunch and she kept her word!


After washing the findo several times you can see how clean and white it becomes.


Cleaned findo ready to be taken home and cooked. So that’s the end of the findo process. It was a long road from prepping the field, to sowing seed, to harvest and all the post-harvest work but it was all worth it and we ended up with great food and stories when all was said and done.


With the findo pounded and ready to go, I had much time to spend with family and do other small projects. One of those was a small food forest in front of my house. This gave me a chance to make something permanent in my compound and teach people about compost and polyculture. In this small space we had planted sweet potato, black eyed peas, bananas and two nitrogen fixing species (leaucaena and sesbania bispinosa).


Any green waste I could get my hands on I took. Since Gambians sweep every morning my family members supplied me with those leaves whenever I wanted. We also tossed old watermelon rinds, mangos and rice in there. I found an old banana tree in the street and added that too.


I taught the kids of the compound about compost and how things would break down to improve the soil over time. Mostly they had fun throwing any kind of seeds and twigs in there.


A final layer of mango leaves goes down. These leaves were in a pile ready to be burned but I taught the person that they can be used to build the soil up instead.


The project of the mini food forest in front of my house was basically free but did take a couple dollars to buy screen to keep the goats out.


After reading a manual on how to grow rice efficiently I set out on building a within row weeder. Weeding the farms by hand is one of the most labor intense jobs during the rainy season. It takes hours, must be repeated 2-3 times during the season and is done with various sized hand hoes. I felt obligated to experiment with another way to weed and hurried to finish this project before I left. The above picture shows the beginning of the building process. The plan was to mount the wheel to the frame and then attach many rebar spikes to the wheel. 


After 2 or so hours of hacksaw work we had our 75 rebar “spikes” and were ready to start welding them onto the wheel. The guys at the shop all pitched in to help me and make sure the project went smoothly, even letting me weld on a few spikes myself.   


Almost finished with the rows. 


The finished weeder! Well actually this is version 1.0; we rolled this to the farm and then decided that it needed more spikes if it was going to effectively kill weeds in one pass. So we rolled it back to the metal shop and doubled the amount of spikes, putting a new row of 5 spikes between each of the original rows. It meant more time with the hacksaw and vice but it was worth it to make it right. We used a lot of rebar to make this thing. In total, after doubling the rows we ended up using 16.8m of rebar, 55ft! The good thing was that the weeder was getting heavier and would be more likely to smash and kill the weeds.


Here is the completed weeder as Modou tests it out. You should of seen the looks we got as we rolled this thing down the main street in town; it was clanking so loudly on the concrete that people would stop conversations and just stare. At one point a group of children started following us, putting sticks and anything they could find into the spikes. Thankfully all the welds held tight and it destroyed all the children’s sticks with ease. This was definitely one of the strangest and most enjoyable projects I’d done. However, we’ll have to wait until next rainy season to really test if it effectively kills weeds! I wont be around but I hope its the start of something good for my friends there.


As the 2015 farming season comes to a close I’m left with a lot of time to reflect on my service and if my original intentions for volunteering were met, shifted or redefined. I thought a lot about the nature of helping and how best to do that. I think helping is mostly about timing: knowing when and how much to help with some grace, heck, with some style or wit even! Just helping, what a subject for discussion. Stay tuned and thanks for following along.




Tree Check in the food forest


In this blog post we’ll get to see the trees and how they’ve grown after getting a few months of rain. I’ll post the pictures in a sequence from when they were first planted to how they looked when I left.

Most of our trees did really well and we took data every week on several species. We were trying to figure out if it was worth it to dig and prepare outplant holes or if the trees would be fine without them in the bare unprepared Gambian soil. So, if anybody is interested I have the graphs showing the rate of growth for the same species grown with and without a prepared outplant hole. Also have the “from seed” and “from cutting” growth rates for a couple of our leaucaena. Just send me a message or email and I’ll get them to you.

Ok, let’s get to it.


As usual there was some trial and error with a few of our trees getting sad after transplanting, or in this case a couple months after the initial transplant. So this one was due for a replacement and one day we stopped hoping it was going to be ok and said “it’s gotta go, let’s do it.” Luckily we had a spare in the nursery and it helps to have backups in cases like this.  


Here’s the new one in its place. This one stayed happy and healthy and started growing new strong shoots within a couple days. 


This is our gliricidia from ECHO seed company (aka “mother of cacao” or “quick stick”). We had high hopes for this tree so it got a big outplant hole and lots of good natural soil inputs. We were getting a great rainy season so were all excited to see just how tall this “fast growing” tree would get.  


While the gliricidia started off slow, likely establishing its root system, after about 2 months it reached a meter and started shooting upwards much faster. Compare the gliricidia to the sesbania bispinosa behind it in this picture and then look at the next picture. 


The gliricidia after a few months growth is now about as tall as the sesbania next to it. 


As the rains became less frequent the glricidia still grew well and added another 80 or so cm in the last month. It was likely that the soil 1 meter down remained damp and cool for a week or two after a heavy rain, which means that our tree could keep growing even when the rains stopped. 


The first tallow tree we put in this outplant hole split into a type of forked trunk so we replaced it with one that was better shaped. Although this tree is slow growing it got a great couple months of rain and were hoping it survives the upcoming dry season. 

L (2)

Here’s a permaculture allstar: leucaena. We had high expectations for this tree and it definitely met them. One of our fastest growing trees in the food forest. Thanks to ECHO seed company for providing us the free seed. 


A couple months after we outplanted the leucaena it was taller than my counterpart and it was growing 10-20cm a week. You can see how much new growth was happening all the time when you look at the newer lighter green leaves all around. 


And after about 4 months in the ground our prize leaucaena looked like this. We kept taking data on how tall it was every week but at this point we stopped when I could no longer reach the top while standing on a bucket. I have a graph of the rate of growth if anybody is interested. 


After 6 months to a year your african mahoghanys should be somewhere around a meter tall and ready for outplant. We put ours out and it was off to a good, but very slow, start. The nature of these trees is just to grow very very slowly. 


After a few months our african mahoghany was healthy and happy. 


Just 100 meters from our 1 year old mahoghany was this giant! We like to think that our new mahoghany would grow faster if it had a good example to look up to. 


This was one of our favorite trees on the farm: a grafted mango with the tough “sierra leone” variety roots down below and tasty “kent” variety budwood up top. Although it didn’t grow very tall it did develop a nice full set of leaves and the graft wound healed well. Now we’ll see if grafted mango can really knock 3-5 years off the the time till fruiting.  


Another favorite of ours, the handy pigeon pea. We used this as a quick growing, nitrogen fixing, windbreak. We put vettiver in between the pigeon pea because we had it and thought it would get more good roots in the soil and help as a lower windbreak. 


Within a couple months are pigeon pea was around 2 meters tall and stopping the wind from flying into the farm. We even had to do a light “chop and drop” on some of it because it was shading out our slower growing trees.  


Near the end of the rains, after about 4 months in the ground, our pigeon pea was well filled out and near 3 meters tall. If you’ve never used pigeon pea before I highly recommend it. 


Very fast growth rate, doesn’t interfere when planted in the garden, fixes nitrogen, drought tolerant, alley cropping, bee and animal fodder, and good for chop and drops: sesbania species. We had read and heard that this species of tree was a beast and prepared a small army of them to go out into our food forest and garden. 


Off to a bad start. During the first week in it’s new home a goat had got into the farm and eaten our sesbania grandiflora. My counterpart and I went to work on strengthening the fence the next day, which basically means hours and hours of climbing and machete work, then carrying heavy logs to the farm, then hammer and nails to attach it. Goats are great fence testers but generally considered the most stubborn evil pests around farms.  


Luckily sesbania is tough and our tree snapped back to life quickly. Despite this initial setback it grew back extremely fast. 


After 3 months in a proper outplant hole our sesbania grandiflora was the tallest tree in the food forest. 


We liked the sesbania grandiflora so much that we also put one in the garden. It’s hard to believe but this tree is only 5 months old. Modou is standing by the tree and I told him “ok, I’m not going to be here at the time, but when this tree flowers and sets seed you have to collect it and plant a lot at your farm.” Of course after we saw how this tree grew he enthusiastically agreed. It’s a small part of service but simply researching and introducing a new tree can really change things around for people. Just think of how, for almost no money, someone could practically reforest an area in short time with these trees. A farmer could also improve the soil fertility of fields, feed animals, or create a small woodlot to use for firewood. Sometimes, or perhaps always, the simplest solutions are the best.In this instance, a tiny seed the size of a dime. Amazing.  

Food forest part 4: It’s raining, plants are growing, we’re weeding and adding more compost.


Greetings everyone and thank you for coming back and checking in with me and alohagambia. It’s been a while since I’ve updated the blog and a wild ride in the last 6 months. The short story is that I finished up the food forest, my peace corps service, said good bye to my friends, family and farm in Gambia and headed to South America to learn more about the land and culture in the Sierra Nevada and Andes mountains. I will definitely do a blog post about what I learned down there, but first I want to wrap up the food forest thread and explain how I finished my time in Gambia. Also I want you to check out how far the food forest came along after a few months of rain!

In this post I’ll get you up to speed on the food forest by explaining what happened after the initial planning, field prep and planting (i.e. about 2-3 months into the rainy season: around November 2015). The field was prepared, the outplant holes were dug, trees planted and now we just needed to maintenance the field by weeding, keeping the fence up and adding some more compost. So, without further delay I’ll post some pictures and explain. Please post comments or questions below and i’ll get back with you, thanks.


Modou brews attaya for us as we work in the food forest.


Modou and I worked a lot in the last month: keeping the weeds down and doing maintenance. He was a great farmer to work with and we were tired and happy to be almost done with the farm this year. When everything is green, the birds are singing, wind blowing and your farm is looking good it seems that all is right with the world.


The door is on, food forest is mostly weeded and looking good.


We were always chopping more neem branches to keep the fence tight and protected from animals.


Here it is: the food forest at year 1. I hope to come back, climb this same tree and take the same photo in a few years, then in 10 then in 20 years.


Look how the rain can transform Gambia into a beautiful green landscape.


We sow a small plot of ‘finger millet’ aka ‘dragons claw millet.’ Gambians know millet well, the kind that looks like a tall candlestick, but this variety really interested them.


The millet is interplanted with beans.


Finger millet and beans well on their way and close to harvest.


We took the soil test from this plot so we did legumes here to help increase nitrogen.


While we sowed findo over the whole farm in 2014, in 2015 we did only a small plot of it, maybe 7x18m.


Our pigeon pea windbreak on the east side grew really well. I definitely recommend pigeon pea for any farm because it grows fast, fixes N in the soil, provides food for humans and animals and makes a great chop and drop tree.


I’d never seen sesame until we planted it this year, only the seeds on bread or hamburger buns. Here they use the seeds to make oil and they sell for a good price.


We had started our best compost pile 4 months before and its ready to be spread now. This pile was huge and we were really excited about helping the land with it. It ended up weighing somewhere around 5000kg.


Informed by the soil test, and that the Gambian soil needed a lot of help we added many new things to this compost: charred bones for phosphorous, wood ash for potassium and raising pH, decomposed rice husks for silicone, cow and chicken manure for nitrogen, some crushed oyster shells, biochar and anything else we could find. It was tough work, but free, and we ended up with several thousand pounds of our best compost ever.


Hauling the compost into the food forest.


The compost is pretty well finished and ready to be spread on the field.


Counting the number of buckets so we could figure out the exact amount of compost we made and added. We added about 5 tons here.


Its slow work with the bucket, wheelbarrow and an ipod but its humbling and I couldn’t ask for a better job to do. I have to admit that I was dreaming of a tractor often. But its good to do it the hard way by hand because i’ll really appreciate it later when I have more tools.


The pile of compost was split into 4 equal parts for each of the 4 rows of the farm.


Each row got a good amount of compost spread onto it late in the rainy season. Luckily we got a couple more rains after the compost went on. We also added some more crushed oyster shell along with the compost.


Our door to the food forest blew off but the land is looking good and having no door did make it easier to haul things in and out of the farm.


As the rains stopped plants started to dry up, die and leave their remains and seeds there until next rainy season. We were happy to be done and proud of our small farm and food forest out in the Gambian bush.


Food Forest part 3: Meet the trees


Greetings everyone,

In the last two posts I outlined the idea for the food forest and how we prepared the field. In this post i’ll go over the trees that we added  to the food forest. This will include the long term species that we hope will live for a long time and the other species that are helping the land but may not last more than a year or two.

We have many species that serve many functions: provide food, fix nitrogen in the soil, drop leaf matter that will decompose, provide a windbreak or aerate soil with deep roots.  I’ll use the common names that I know but will also provide the scientific names that I remember. Apologies for any mistakes I make about the trees, i’m going off memory, let me know if any of the information is incorrect or you have advice regarding any of these trees.

In the spirit of farm humility and honesty i’ll also include what trees got sick, were eaten or died during the first few months in the food forest. We’re definitely still learning what works out here in Gambia so I’ll share what we found. Luckily, with farming, we’ll always be learning.

So, let’s introduce you to what’s happening in here:

First up is the mother of Africa: Baobab. This tree provides fruit to eat, leaves for sauces, bee fodder, rope, a tobacco substitute and red dye. It is also very important culturally. This tree truly symbolizes Africa. It’s also drought tolerant and grows well in any soils.


These our the 51 eucalyptus trees we planted for a winbreak. We planted them on the eastern side of the food forest as that’s where the strong ‘harmattan’ winds will come from in a couple months. According to our manuals and books, livestock do not eat these trees, maybe the minty taste is unpleasant. However, all of these trees leaves were stripped in the first week. I’m guessing it was goats. We’re not sure if they’ll live.


Yellow cassia has yellow flowers that provide bee fodder, leaves are unpalatable to cows and it grows fast. This cassia was big when we transferred it (maybe 4 feet) and we thought it would be fine but it ended up getting sick and dying. So we put a new smaller cassia in there that is doing better.


We tried a few cuttings as well: on the left is a leucaena cutting and on the right is a gliricidia cutting (mother of cacao). The leucaena was a last ditch effort and ended up dying a couple weeks later. The mother of cacao is still alive but I think will definitely die during dry season.


Fast growing, good for timber, great animal fodder and drought tolerant: gmelina/malayna (white teak). This tree started well, then the leaves turned black and dropped, then new growth came and it’s going strong. Maybe the outplant hole was too “fresh” with amendments (compost, manure, biochar, oystershell, wood ash, etc.)


Sesbania grandiflora (agati) grows extremely fast, fixes nitrogen, doesn’t interfere with nearby growing crops and tolerates a large variety of soils. This tree looks bad because a goat jumped into the food forest and ate it. Now, just 2 months later its 8′ tall.


Grafted mango, “Kent” variety. This is our underdog of the farm; it’s growing so well, it got the largest outplant hole (1m wide x 1.1m deep) and will provide the quickest and best food (delicious mangos within 2-4 years). We’re really hoping this survives the 8 month dry season, and even if it looks like its dead, we’re hoping it comes back to life when it rains again. I told my counterpart “do not water this mango! we gotta see if 1 rainy season and the big outplant hole is really enough to keep it alive.” We’ll miss this guy if he goes.


Sweet sop – provides nice fruit in 2-3 years, tolerates wide range of soil. This one actually died about 2 months into the rainy season (termites were eating it) . We replaced it with another sweet sop tree.


Tallow tree. This tree is in the back corner because it’s going to become a huge tree! It’ll provide fruit and tons of shade because of it’s large canopy. We had a tough call to make with this one; as you can see it’s forked, a big Y, so 1 month into the rainy season we pulled it out and replaced it with another tallow that had a single straight trunk. It was a nervous day of tree surgery transplant but it worked out really well – we relocated this tallow and now the new one is growing taller and stronger.


Guava will put fruit out in 2-3 years, is drought tolerant and provides bee fodder.


This is delonix regia if i remember correctly, we call it flambouyant. It grows really fast and is a nice ornamental with red flowers, nice wide canopy and big seed pods used in local art (to make shaker musical instruments).


This tree is a beast: this is our mother of cacao (gliricidia) that we planted from seed. We’d been nursing this one for 3 months before we outplanted it. This tree is growing extremely fast (10-15cm each week). This tree provides bee fodder, fixes nitrogen, and grows a lot of leaf biomass for animals to eat or to ‘chop and drop’ onto your field. They call this tree ‘quick stick’ as well as you can take cutting, put them in the ground, and they’ll grow into fence posts practically. This tree is used to provide nitrogen and shade to cocoa and coffee as well, hence the name mother of cacao.


Moringa. We put moringa in the alleys to fix nitrogen but we also thought we’d give it a big outplant hole to see how it could grow when given lots of space. Eat the leaves, eat the seeds, purify water, feed animals, feed bees, fix nitrogen, tolerate drought, grow fast, lubricate your squeaky door with the seed oil – this tree does it all.


Desert date (“sumpo” in mandinka). This tree is extremely drought tolerant (needs only 200-400mm rain/year). In Gambia we get 800-1000mm a year so we think this one will definitely survive.


I know this tree as “lenko.” This tree was given to me by ‘friends of nature’ here in the gambia; they are an NGO that provides indigenous trees for free to people that will outplant them. Apparently lenko was common in Gambia but not anymore, and these trees had to be brought in from Guinea. It’s growing pretty well and people know that it’s a great tree for construction timber.


This is our “seed leucaena” because we nursed this one from seed and gave it a big outplant hole to grow up in. Our other leucaenas were not nursed as carefully and put directly in the dirt (no prepared outplant hole). This tree is great! It’s drought tolerant, is growing extremely fast (4-6″ per week), fixes nitrogen, provides bee fodder, and provides food for animals or humans. This tree also got eaten by a goat in it’s first week in the food forest. So it had a slow start but is now taller than me.


Ironwood (mandinka “kembo”) tree. We put two of these in our food forest, this one ended up dying but the other one 40 meters away is doing great. Same sun, rain, outplant hole etc. – so, who knows what happened? Gambians use this tree for firewood, to make charcoal or build with as the wood is really strong. Interestingly, the tree provides food (edible flowers) and fixes nitrogen.


This is our only soursop tree in the food forest. It’s growing well and should fruit in 2-3 years if it survives the dry season. The leaves of soursop smell peppery and are shiny (it’s sweetstop relative leaves are dull and don’t smell).


Doesn’t look like much, but this tree has come a long way in the last few weeks. This is our other big boy in the back corner: african mahoghany (mandinka “jallow”). This tree is great for timber, bee fodder, is drought tolerant and grows huge! The canopy can be 30 meters wide.


Indian Jujube provides food, is drought tolerant and grows fast. We have 3 of these in the food forest and they are doing well. The tree also looks nice.


This is the controversial “bush mango.” Some people love it some people hate it. I once gave bush mango fruit to my host father as a gift and he said “our people don’t eat this!” It’s often cooked and eaten like a meat replacement of sorts. We wanted to try one in the food forest here because its native to Africa and gives us more diversity and food.


So that takes care of our big trees. We hope those trees shown above will survive the heat, grow tall, produce food for us and the bees and compete to fill out a nice canopy in the next 10 years. That’s the dream.

Next, i’ll go over some of the other support species in the food forest: nitrogen fixers in the alleys, live fencing trees and soil stabilizers.

We put 100+ acacias around the inside perimeter of the fence. This is one of them: acacia nilotica (gum arabic tree). These trees are growing very fast and will fix nitrogen, provide bee fodder, keep animals out with its thorns, are drought tolerant and you can brush your teeth with the twigs.


We tried a few big leucaena cuttings in the alleys. Here you can see the main cutting on the right and the new sprout and branch on the left. This cutting survived and is growing very fast. One thing we’ll have to see is if the cutting is blown down in the wind; whereas a tree grown from seed develops a dominant taproot to support it, cuttings roots grow more laterally which makes them less stable. Either way, it’s cool to see that you can cut a tree branch off, plant it, and have a 1 meter tall tree growing in a couple weeks.


We also put leucaena seedlings in the alleys to help us fix more nitrogen.


This is apple ring acacia (faidherbia albida). This tree is really important in sub-sahara africa because it’s often the only tree that provides animal fodder. It’s extremely drought tolerant thanks to the long tap root that develops before it grows above ground (tap roots can reach 30m underground). This tree helps our live fence.


This is sesbania bispinosa (prickly sesban). This tree grows to 3 meters tall in 4 months, fixes nitrogen, doesn’t compete with nearby plants, can be used for firewood, suppresses weed growth around it, provides seeds for collection in 6 months. Our prickly sesban is the top performer in the food forest: tallest, fastest, widest and toughest (none have died). This type of sesbania will die within the year though. Still, for quicky annual alley crop nitrogen fixing, this tree is tough to beat.


Grass like vetiver sends roots deep to stabilize and aerate soil, as well as provide a low windbreak. Pigeon pea grows quick, provides food, fixes nitrogen and is also a windbreak. Notice that this row is planted very tightly with vetiver and pigeon pea. We put this row closest to the east side of the food forest as this will serve a dual purpose: fix nitrogen and provide a windbreak for everything behind it.


Ok, that wraps up the introduction. Did you meet everyone? Do you remember everybody’s names and what they do for a living? Ok, thank you for checking in, post comments or questions below. -stephen

Food Forest part 2: Field prep and setup


In this blog post I’ll review what we did to set up the food forest. We had the land, we had 3 people to work and we had a big idea; this post shows the start of the activities to make our idea happen. I’ll cover how we farmed “big” last year, the “small” multi-species food forest idea for this year, what trees and crops we picked, digging holes, the soil test and results, applying soil amendments and planting of the first crops.

There’s a lot of pictures below so I’ll try to keep this intro short and start describing the setup process through all the pictures. If you’re thinking of questions or comments as you read through please share them below; I appreciate them and they help us learn by putting me on the spot to come up with answers. Really I’m just learning about all this stuff myself through trial and error; I’m no expert.

Ok, let’s see how the setup goes:

This is Modou and I sowing millet seeds last year. We tried to grow a lot of food and had a huge farm plot to work with (1.5Ha/3.7acres). Looking back I remember that it seemed like a good idea – grow a lot of food on a lot of land. But the labor was too much for us and we fell behind. The 2014 rain was also weak so we didn’t end up with much food given all the work we did.


Fast forward to 2015 and we have a new idea for our food forest: smaller land, more food. ‘Overstack’ the system with many different species, tight spacing and manage a smaller amount of land to build fertility. At least that was the idea. We planned to have 5 lines/alleys of nitrogen fixing trees, with 5 big trees in each alley and crops in between. The picture below is our starting point, the blank slate.


So the first thing to do was select the ‘big’ trees that would grow into our tall food producing trees. These were the trees that were drought tolerant and would hopefully survive the hot season until the 2016 rains came. We had 40 or so possible tree species and then narrowed it down to 19 species, 14 of which would provide some type of food. And so the 25 stars of our show were cared for over the last 4-12 months in order to be ready for out-planting. In a future blog post i’ll introduce you to the trees we picked and give some information on why we think they’ll work well. Here is a picture of our food forest tree nursery; we called it the ‘tree hospital’ because these trees needed the most care.


So we started digging “outplant” holes for the 25 big trees. The land was cleared and we didn’t burn any of the brush; instead, we just raked, threw it over the fence and made it into a new compost pile (seen in the left center of this picture).3

Holes were dug for a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours at night. We would pour water to soften the hard packed dirt then come back and dig down another 15″ or so. The manuals recommendation for outplant holes was anywhere between 20-100cm wide and 20-100cm deep. Most of our outplant holes ended up being  70-90cm wide and 80-100cm deep. The picture below shows a clean field with red dirt piles from digging.


My counterparts and I dug the dirt out and put it in piles, each pile is 1 bucket worth of dirt. This was done so we could see the amount of dirt in each hole, then we could put the right amount of compost, manure, biochar etc. back in the hole. In total we dug out 545 buckets of dirt, what weighs out to be 7630kg or 16,820lbs. It wasn’t horrible to do, just monotonous and slowwww…with some blister type hand pain and aches.


Let me give you an example of how the “outplant hole” thought process went. The picture below is an outplant hole for an indian jujube tree; the hole is about 90cm wide and 100cm deep. We pulled 32 buckets out of this hole (8 of black top soil, 24 of red clay type subsoil). To fill it back up we decided to try using around 25% soil amendments and 75% original top and sub soil. There’s some different ideas about what amendments to put back in the outplant hole but we’ll just need to experiment to see what really works. Some say put 75% compost/manure/etc. in the hole, some say put a cow bone and handful of biochar. We first wanted to put a huge amount of manure etc. to speed up growth/root development before hot season but then later chose to put less amendments, thinking that a lot of these trees were native and used to infertile sandy soil anyways.(It was also a well timed piece of email advice to say something like “whoa, that’s way too much, be careful! It could create ammonia and be growth negative, etc.” It’s true, I wouldn’t want my living space filled up with 75% manure etc. So, again, thanks to Bob Shaffer for that save; I owe ya yet again and wouldn’t be doing very well without the mentoring of smarter farmers like you willing to share and help me.) So, to fill this hole we ended up mixing together the following: 8 buckets black top soil,19 buckets red subsoil, 2.5 buckets rice husk biochar (‘activated’ with cow manure first), 1.5 buckets compost, 1 bucket wood ash and a handful of powdered oyster shell. Stir well and hope for the best, maybe add a prayer or two! As i type this i’m thinking “that was a lot of biochar…” but I remember thinking I want a lot of water retention and as much growth as possible before the rains stop so that’s why I went heavy on it. I thought “if i can make a 1×1 meter sponge and soak it with 3 months of rains, then that’s gotta stay damp way past when the rains stop.” We’ll see if it works.


So our days filled with sorting the dirt for each outplant hole and organizing what we’d fill it with. All the holes we’re supposed to be prepped 1-2 months before the first rains and we finished them on July 7th then outplanted our trees on August 9th. Our outplanting was a few weeks later than I would’ve preferred but the work was much. At the end of the day, not counting compost/biochar/manure/ash/oyster shell preparation, we figured  out that it took us 54.5 hours to dig the 25 outplant holes.


The first rains had come, the outplant holes were ‘maturing,’ and now it was time to take care of the field. We had sent a soil test out and got the results back; in short, everything looked very deficient and the land would need a lot of help for several years before it would recover. pH was an acidic 5.6, organic matter was 0.9% and very low levels of N,P,K, Ca,Mg, etc. But we gotta start somewhere; i emailed Bob on big island again and we set about making discussing and brainstorming a plan. First thing we did was top dress the 5 alleys with compost. Below you can see the 5 rows where are 25 trees would go and the space between where we would sow crops.


Next up was powdered oyster shell to try increase the pH. We spread 50kg on the field and would add another 50kg 3 months later.


Gotta take a moment to give credit to my friend and counterpart Modou Kassama – he really stuck with me through the whole tiring process. To his credit he was extremely open to the idea of the food forest and has been supportive the whole time. He’d brew attaya, help me with my mandinka and work hard.


Oyster shell is down and we wait for another rain to mix it in.


My other counterpart Momodou Jatta waters our compost pile (for you nature farming folks, we had put OHN in the watering cans to help charge up the compost). This was the pile that we would spread over the food forest floor.


Bucket by bucket we threw the big compost pile over the wall into the food forest. We would later fix a door, but until then, the fastest way was to throw it where it needed to go. On the plus side we got to count and weigh how much compost we had: 191 buckets, weighing 5895lbs. We thought “this has to be a good start” and we’re happy because we made the pile for free.


The compost was now in the food forest plot and ready to be spread. When people felt the compost they really we’re impressed by the texture and color. When we told them we had 2674kg of it and it was all free they were surprised. We heard great “one-liners” from people: “O! This soil is very nice!” and “that’s it! I will never buy chemical fertilizer again!”


The compost is evenly spread around the field.


We then raked out the compost.


Next up was the biochar. I gotta give yet another shout out to Josiah Hunt of Hawaii Biochar Products for helping support with ideas and recommendations. We took the advice and first activated out carbonized rice husks with manure, composting it for a couple months before applying it to our field. This is the pile of biochar we ended up with.


We had about 76 buckets of biochar, with 4 sections to cover, so each section got 19 buckets worth.


Piles of biochar arranged at the foot of each section.


The biochar is raked out and now the field is well covered.


At this point the field is prepared: outplant holes are dug and the soil amendments are spread around. There’s 110lbs of oyster shell on the field, 5895lbs of compost and 500+lbs activated biochar. It was now time to plow.


Jatta (left) and Kassama (right) start plowing the land with our school’s donkey. The hope is that we’ll mix in all that good compost, oyster shell and biochar we put on the surface.


It’s really true what they say about donkeys: very stubborn. You can get a lot of animals to keep working far past when their comfortable but at this moment she was completely done and it was getting hot anyways so we were all ready for a break. She worked really hard for us though, especially given the fact that she was pregnant.


By this point, the rains have been coming for a few weeks so everywhere is changing to green. It took us a few days to plow the whole field. Still, it’s better than having to hire the tractor to plow those 3.7 acres like we did last year. I wasn’t really any good with the plow or the donkey so my counterparts took charge of this project; to them it’s like riding a bike given that they’ve done it since the time they were about 10 years old.


We also had to keep up on fence maintenance so animals don’t get in. We cut lots of neem branches for this reason.


Jatta helps take care of the fence. You can see the wide gaps at the bottom of the fence – very easy for a baby pig or goat to pass through. It’s not a huge concern now, as animals are better controlled during the rainy season, but will be during hot season (especially if our food forest ends up being one of the few remaining places with green things to eat).


We added more sticks each week and soon the fence began looking tighter and more solid. A goat or two did get in but it’s been about 6 weeks without any other animals entering.


We had grown a plant called sisal to use as part of our ‘live fencing.’ The sisal looks like agave and is very stiff and thorny, not to mention drought tolerant. The plan was to put it on the outside of the fence to block out animals. This is a bed of sisal plants. We removed them and transplanted them on this day.


We put 314 sisal plants around the outside perimeter of the fence.


We had other ‘live fencing’ species that we would plant on the inside of the fence. These were mostly acacias – drought tolerant, thorny, nitrogen fixing trees that do well in poor soil.


We put 90 live fencing trees around the inside perimeter of the fence. We didn’t dig any special type of outplant holes for these trees. These two trees are acacia nilotica (“baano” in mandinka).


We needed a door to get into the food forest. We also wanted the door so we could completely fence the field, as our makeshift wood gate was chopped up for firewood last year. Luckily the guys at the welding shop have no problem quickly making a door. From left to right we have the sheep being fattened for tobaski, the door for a food forest and the grinder shooting sparks. In Gambia there’s always an interesting mix of things happening.


We painted the door this day and when it was dry I brought the wheel barrow to roll it back to the school.


On it’s way…


Modou Kassama is also a mason so he was the one to fix the door. You can see where the old wood gate was on the left and where the new door will be.


A couple days later the new door is there. We close off the food forest completely and are relieved to do so. Now we just need to keep the fence tight.


Another thing that happened during this time was our attempt to kill this neem tree. The tree is next to the food forest and has no real use or benefit for us, except maybe some shade. While we did feel bad for trying to kill it (ok, it was only I that felt bad for killing it, my friends were apathetic and yelled “kill it. burn it, it has no use here!”). I said my apologies and justified that it was ok because we started 100+ new trees in the same area. Still, to be hacking away at it with a hand hoe, covered in dirt and bark, it was a somewhat brutal experience. That tree was here before me so who was I to come along and kill it. Etc. etc. etc. Ok, so yeah you get it – we wanted this thing dead. Even now, it’ll take up to a year before it dies and we may have to go back there to hack it up more.


My teva shoes also died during this time. These shoes held up pretty well and i gotta thank teva for that, i think they even provide a discount for pc volunteers. Anyways, i’d had these sown up and repaired too many times and retired them to my little brother.


The door is in, the field is plowed and now we start digging holes in the 5 alleys for our nitrogen fixing trees. We’ll put various trees and plants in between our 25 big trees to help aerate the ground, stabilize soil, fix nitrogen, provide drainage and feed bees.


These are some of our sesbania bispinosa seedlings – we got these seeds from ECHO seed company (who supply 10 free seed packets/year to active aid workers). These trees can grow to 4 meters tall in 4 months, provide seed in 6 months and are great for quickly fixing nitrogen. We were all really excited to try these in the food forest and they’ve turned out to be really impressive. They will die this year but we have another type of sesbania (s.grandiflora) that will live on. Other trees we used to alley crop include moringa, pigeon pea, mother of cacao and leucaena.


Vetiver grass sends it roots deep to loosen up hard soil or stabilize it in high wind and rain areas. I wanted to put as many plants as possible in the food forest so we added these thinking “the more roots and activity we can get going below ground, the better.” To ‘overstack’ the system was the goal and these vetiver filled in a lot of space for us as well as provided a low windbreak.


We had sowed the entire field with the grain ‘findo’ last year but this year we decided to do just a small section.


Final picture. So, at this point we’ve done the following: prepped the outplant holes for our 25 big trees, prepped the field with compost/biochar/oyster shell, planted our alleys with the big trees and nitrogen fixers, sowed the findo in the center section, sowed sesame (jatta in blue shirt is sowing), we have beans in the other plots, have put ‘live fencing’ on the inside (acacia species) and outside (sisal) of our ‘dead fence’ (neem) and are trying to keep up with the weeding. As seen in the pic below the outplant holes are filling up with water and hopefully holding a lot of it deep down where the sun can’t get to it.


In the next post I’ll go through the trees we decided to outplant and the reasons for doing so. Thank you for reading and your support of the work happening in our small corner of the world. Till next time,


Go big before you go home: Food forest part 1


When I was back in Michigan and growing up we talked about fast cars and sport bikes, which ‘system’ of subwoofers hit harder when you played Outkast’s Aquemini album, and how high you could crank the boost on a Mitsubishi gt3000 while running 93-octane without detonating. When I started hanging out and talking with farmers in Hawaii we talked about ambitious farmers having 1000 species on 30 acres, nitrogen fixing ‘mother of cacao’ trees alley cropped to provide shade for drip irrigated organic Kona coffee, a hamakua coast farmer who healed his land with natural farmings’ IMO, and symbiotic farming systems providing pest control, higher yields and food such as incorporating ducks into a wetland taro field to eat snails and provide meat. Now that I’m here in Gambia we puff our chests out and talk about how many bags of groundnuts we harvested last year, how much we can sell 1 ‘kent’ variety mango for at the market or who’s got the best cashew orchard for export to India.

Although the content and context changes, its similar everywhere: most of us are proud of what we do and we find friends that share and support the same interests. I actually like the innocence and ego behind it because in a way we’re all still a group of kids saying “Look at this! Mines the best! I can do that better than you.” This plays out into who’s got the best or biggest tractor, antique collection, TV, meatloaf recipe, sports car, bowling average, bourbon or cigar collection. Many wise mothers, wives and girlfriends looked at us men, shook their heads and laughed as they said “Boys with their toys.” It’s great and I’m sure if I ever buy a minivan and become a family man I will stay rebellious and try to put a turbocharger on it so it goes faster.

So as I prepare to wrap up my service here I had the urge to do something really big before I leave. It’s my last chance and I have the full 2015 rainy season to work, whereas last year I took a break to head back to Michigan to see if I could catch the biggest salmon (I didn’t of course, damn!). I wanted to really push it and put together a big plan.

The concept of a ‘food forest’ had been unknown to me up until a year ago. Even ‘permaculture’ itself, a system of agriculture and social design, was foreign to me. Interest grew and permaculture videos started circulating amongst a few pcv’s, we started watching natural farming youtube videos, learned about swales, food forests and what a ‘chop and drop’ technique was (i.e. chopping leaves of fast growing trees or shrubs to provide nitrogen and leaf litter to decompose on the ground.). All this activity was simmering, boosted by Fukuoka’s natural farming books circling around (e.g. One Straw Revolution), a Californian pcv joining and sharing experience, Master Cho with Korean Natural Farming and indigenous microorganisms (IMO) and then finally a PCV getting the chance to go to Jordan for a permaculture design course, bringing back enthusiasm and more great ideas. So really it seems in just a couple years with these last 2 groups of Ag. pcvs we’ve somehow steered the ship towards greener more natural farming pastures. Fortunately the PC staff are also really supportive of this and jumping on board with us, even organizing a 3-day ‘permagarden’ training that brought in an expert to teach us more about locally possible and sustainable garden designs. Finally, the Gambians farming here are also seeing the disadvantages of farming the same way year after year to produce lower yields and are recognizing the need for a new way without expensive chemical fertilizers.

Development doesn’t really ever ‘finish’ like a casserole, but I feel like this movement could really be the start of a paradigm shift towards a better way of life for Gambian farmers and gardeners. When you’re learning to help, I feel that the start and implementation of a new idea is a success in itself. Just trying a lot of different approaches and experimenting is a great way to move forward, it’s dynamic, it’s variable, it’s progress.That’s where we’re at right now with natural farming and permaculture here and that’s where my mind was when I was thinking about my last rainy season and how I could best help.

My idea was to actually show Gambian farmers an example farm they could copy or modify to suit their needs; a template of sorts. Since I had studied learning theory and behavior philosophy I knew that talks, meetings, pamphlets, discussions and coffee weren’t going to change a lot. I needed something more than a picture of people shaking hands and free t-shirts. I imagined people walking by the farm and asking questions: “What are you doing here? Why this? Why are there so many trees? Why don’t you make a bigger farm?” I wanted to show people a farm space that required very little money, was building soil fertility naturally, could be farmed for several years before it turned into a food forest and was small enough to be easily managed. The soil fertility plan came from soil test results we got back from the states and I was much helped by my soil guru Bob Shaffer on big island; I owe him a lot as he helped me make sense of the results and start a program of rehab for the infertile land. Even my counterparts would excitedly ask me “Did you hear from Bob? What did he say about the wood ash?” So that’s the soil fertility plan; The design plan was a 8-month pre-rainy season brainstorming process with anyone who would sit down and listen. I also owe a lot to the many pcv’s and PC staff that sat down with me to draw maps and pictures, research the functions of trees, offer insight on drought tolerance during hot season and encouraged me to really ‘overstack’ the system by putting way more plants and trees in then seems appropriate. Load it up and you can always cut them out or reduce them later. Thanks to all.

So, here is the condensed picture version of what the plan is:

2014 Rainy season: The 30x40m farm plot was full of findo and looked like this:


2015 Hot season: the farm plot is dry as a bone after 6 months without rain. At this point the food forest design was 80% done and we needed to start clearing the land, digging the outplant holes for trees and mending the fence.


These are the 25 big trees that we put in the food forest. At this point in the process we had collected seed, planted and cared for all of our ‘big trees.’ There are 25 outplant holes, 19 different tree species going in, with 14 of those species providing some kind of food. Some of these trees require 6 months or more in the nursery so we had to plan far in advance for our July 2015 outplant date. For example, African mahogany stays in the nursery for 1 year and is outplanted when it’s 1 meter tall so we had to have one we sowed in July 2014 ready to go for July 2015. The planning and logistics for all the different species was crazy! It was also, by far, the biggest intellectual challenge I’ve had here.


That’s the rough outline: take the nice green trees and put them in the dry field when the rain comes in July 2015. Sounds easy but it was an incredible amount of work and coordination. I’ll outline the setup of the food forest in my next blog. Thank you for reading and send me comments or questions below,


Year in review…one year older, Gambian, wiser, dirtier, confused, Mandinka, able to help……..


I’ve been in service about a year and a half by now and wanted to put together a collection of photos of what I’ve been fortunate enough to learn and see as a volunteer. There are lot’s of pictures below so i’ll let them do the talking and keep the words to a minimum.

I did want to mention that even at my 1 year mark I felt like I’d come a long way – When I joined Peace Corps, I felt I was in a good spot in life to start service and help people. As compared to my understanding, language skills and ability to connect and help people at my year mark, I was definitely a rookie. It’s nice to be settled in and have that time behind you. I think on some level, even if you don’t notice it, a part of you remains in shock while your in a place so foreign to everything you know. But as time goes on you learn to carry that as a passenger or even forget it’s there.

Ok, picture time.

Invited to a conference where I first learned about beekeeping.1

Attended a training at a place called BeeCause that helps teach about appropriate beekeeping.


I learned how to build hives and go beekeeping with other PCVs from all over West Africa.2a

I was able to borrow the services of this firetruck and it’s ladder to collect honey from 25 feet up in a baobab tree.


This is the baobab tree where we collected the honey from. The hive is in the center of the picture about 2/3 toward top of the pic.4

My counterpart and I started beekeeping at the school6

We soon built more hives that where newer and better designed.6a

Eventually we had 4 hives and both my counterparts had attended workshops at BeeCause through peace corps supported ‘tech exchangeds’ so we were all pretty good at beekeeping.


In training village around November 2013 I first drink attaya and start learning Mandinka. My language classmate Malcolm brews.DSC_5523

To teach natural farming I learn to gather the local materials needed to make soil amendments. Here the women provide me with enough fish heads, bones and guts to make 11 liters fish amino acid (FAA).


I attend my first celebration and group prayer after Ramadan. My host brother Usaeno (center) helps show me how to pray. I pray with my family a couple times a year on special occasions. Overall, I start learning about Islam and wonder a lot about the nature of world religions and their importance to people. Also notice the huge beard in the photo :).


I find local tailors, carpenters, welders, shopkeepers, restaurants etc. in my town of Farafenni. Here my tailor Sosi Njai makes a hooded shirt out of a traditional fabric from Mali.


About 2 months after Ramadan, we celebrate Tobaski.DSC00836

After 5-6 hours the bull is killed, skinned and divided among 6 families. This is another heavy day thinking about meat, animal rights, vegetarian, etc. I don’t get too bummed with it though and eat lots of meat with my family.


The ferry nearest USA in west gambia reopens and PCVs are allowed to travel that route again, making the trip into Banjul much easier. These big ships import tons of rice, mayonnaise and sugar. It makes me wonder about farming, supply & demand.


The beard goes and the kids stay; I come to the realization that ‘if you can’t beat em, join em.’ even though I dont’ always pull it off, and you may very well be able to beat them or have someone do it for you (sorry for any offense, it’s true though, it’s really ‘spare the rod, spoil the child out here.’)


My host father in training village teaches me where peanuts really come from. In Mandinka their called ‘tio.’ My planters eating mind is blown when he walks in with this.


Trade attaya for dubstep. Abdulay is my host brother in training village and helps me learn more about attaya.


Once is farafenni, i learn to brew attaya with the help of my host brother Baba and sister Fatou.DSC07835

Entertainment = futbol games at the video club.DSC07894

My attitude towards animals changes after a year of seeing many sheep, rams, chickens etc. killed. This is a conversation starter for sure but it’s everyday life here.DSC08683

I learn Mandinka by making flashcards and tutoring.DSC09107

Try some cultural things like dying fingers.


I hear uncensored views about the state of things here and the wish of many to leave by any means necessary. I first learn about ‘going the back way’ to Italy or Spain and the tragedy of that corrupt business.


Natural farming is tried and then later taught. On the count of three, everybody say “IMO.”DSC09642

I find an adventure pal and best bud in Modou. He takes me out fishing.


And teaches me how to kill and skin chickensmk1

My host father in training village, Musa, comes to my naming ceremony and gives me the Gambian name “Mohammad Gassama.”


My first host mother, Wonto, and grandmother Tala. They feed me during training and make sure I’m ok for my first 2 months in country.


Wanto brings me breakfast everyday during my language training. It’s usually rice or millet porridge.3

This is my little brother in training village. Mohammad Gassama, small version. I usually got called “big mohammad” to differentiate.


I get a new host father when I move to farafenni and begin my service. This is Molamin Barrow; attaya master and Islamic sage.


A new set of brothers, sisters and cousins await me in my permanent site. This is my neighbor Cherno.


One of my 3 host mothers in my compound. Amin Njie teaches me a lot about farming, works 10x harder then me, stays up later  and gets up earlier and tells me I don’t have a brain: she rocks.


My compound in farafenni is bigger: about 15-20 people most times.These are some little sisters of mine.


My older sister Awa asks for a photo and poses with the phone. I come to appreciate Gambians because they do stuff like this.


I head out to the bush for new years and upon returning my host brother Mustapha wants to try on the “big bag!”


Mustapha is a great kid and i’m trying to help him become a farming prodigy. Here he is removing a mango seed from the husk.


Mustapha comes beekeeping with me.


My little sisters get beads and get ready to stroll around town asking for donations. This is called ‘saliboo’ and happens the day after Ramadan ends. I’ll soon cut the beard btw.


My first garden at the back of my training site.1

When I move to permanent site I get a bigger garden.1a

And soon dig a lot of beds…5

I grow lot’s of things, these beds are for maize.


My first rainy season in Gambia – all green. What a relief to have rain!


Peace corps Environment program assistant “Bah2” teaches us about staple crops and farming practices in Gambia.


I soon try my hand in farming and learn A LOT. It’s one thing when you come here bright eyed saying “I want to farm!” and another thing when your dead tired from the plow, it’s 95 degrees, and you’ve got 1/8 of your field done. Lol, yeah, farming is no joke, especially here.


I liked compost at the start and made a lot.9

Later, I made bigger piles of compost, even adding my pesky shirt sleeves for more carbon. Sidenote: look at the banana in this pic and the one above.


We started first making compost in smaller piles and watering it with left over plastic containers.


After a while we made huge compost piles and had watering cans to work with. Basic supplies made the job much better.


Peace corps sponsored field trips to other farms and gardens so we could learn more.


Eventually we were selected as a site for some garden trainings.


Our tree nursery started pretty empty a year ago.


Then grew to have more than 600 trees and some 40 varieties.15

I learned about chickens when the school bought 300 to sell for meat.


I wanted to bring a little bit of Hawaii to Gambia so tried to find trees that reminded me of the islands and plant them in the garden. This is an avocado; a very difficult tree to grow here given it’s soft roots.


I did manage to find some passion fruit (lilikoi) and these vines have done great; they are now over 15 feet long and setting fruit for the second time.


My bed when I first arrived at site.1

As time went on I turned the house into more of a home with furniture etc.


A stand for a clay pot to keep drinking water cool.3

I bought another bed for guests and a bench. The house now is still pretty minimal but I’m not living out of suitcases anymore.


Christmas is not forgotten and we celebrate with other PCVs.5

I begin doing metal work with the school welding teacher. The projects started small, like this canning rack.1

After a year we did bigger projects. We rented this ‘gele gele’ to transport the generator and metal to another village so we could work there.


Working at the village of another PCV, building a shade house for the school garden.


This is the agriculture group that I came into country with. We’ve all changed very much, not just in our physical appearance. Even Seth, our peace corps volunteer leader (bottom right) has gone back to the U.S. after serving here for more than 3 years.


On the day our permanent sites are announced, PC blindfolds us and marches us into a room where a large map of the Gambia is drawn on the floor.


We are then placed on the map where our sites will be. Site announcement is really fun and the first time you get to see where you will be for the next two years. If you see a friend close by you think “great!” And if you’re way out in the bush you may think “s***!”


We learn about gardening and get manuals in order to teach others about gardening and farming. We all laugh at first because Gambians are such better gardeners and farmers than us :).


On a random chance I get to learn how to survey the land and control for erosion. Peace Corps has a lot of random opportunities like this. It’s kind of like a vocational summer camp if you’re open to it.


We have an “All Vol” conference and say goodbye to our country director Leon (center). We will get a new country director as Leon goes onto lead another PC post.


Open mics are venues for collaborations and parties. PCV’s a few times a year when new volunteers ‘swear in’ and it’s a great time to see old friends who’ve been at site for months. Nick can rap really well so we put together a snappy song about heat, public transport and the side effects of malaria medication.


In the last year i get the local surf scene and beach break mastered. :(, yeah, enough said. Not a lot of ‘aloha’ in these waves.


The longboard breaks and we look for better surf and new boards up in Senegal.


We find a surf camp in Dakar on N’gor Island and head there for a vacation. Senegal is like another world, esp Dakar.3

The waves in Dakar are much better.We surf the famous “N’gor right” from the classic surfing movie Endless Summer.


We are fortunate to get another board and transport it back to the Gambia; the PCV surfing scene lives on!5

Over a year ago I was on a boat with my brother in Michigan. This catfish was caught a couple weeks before I left for Gambia.


Philadelphia was the site of ‘staging’ where we met for 2 days, met the people we’d go to Africa with, and got our last pizza and beer before shipping out :).


On the bus ride to the airport. Ipod, jeans, shoes are all very fresh pre-Gambia. The whole bus was full of excitement: we wanted to go help and save the world! A lot of us still do :).


After 10 months in country I’m lucky enough to fly back and go salmon fishing with the family. It was a really nice break and a return to the states to spend time with the family. The fish in the states is huge! One of my favorite moments was when my family surprised me at the airport with balloons and ‘welcome home’ signs!


My niece is big and so smart; I catch up with the family, eat dinner with the grandparents and share stories about my experience in Gambia.4a

Compare my ‘catch’ in Gambia, with that of the one above. As they say here “America is nice!”


On my way home from salmon fishing I have a stopover in brussels and hit the lanes.4b

I push back the flight back to Gambia and extend my vacation for a week to see Brussels. This man refuses to talk to me.5

I play guitar with this Polish man and really enjoy the city of Gent. It’s great to have one more week vacation before I head back to Gambia.


When you start you get a bottle of bleach and instructions to put 4 drops in each liter of water. And look how clean that nalgene was!


After a year the nalgene is much dirtier and the bleach is gone. Your stomach may get “Gambianized” after a while, such that your issues decrease and you can eat and drink a wider range of things without surprises.2

Your service is basically sponsored by Santex if you want to stay heathy and avoid weird infections or skin problems. There is also ‘detol’ but I prefer santex. Overall, taking care of your body becomes a huge part of your service; you get worked over here in many ways and if you don’t stay healthy you can’t really help anyone and you’ll be miserable. Thinking about it, the pcvs are so brave and go through so many difficult things with getting sick.We’re a tough bunch not to quit and stick it out.


The only lychee product I can find is this juice in Banjul. It’s a far cry from the trees on big island but still worth a picture and good memory of a different, more natural, time with lychee.


Brand new bike and helmet. You get your wheels when your new in peace corps.


The bike is really important for getting around as we can’t drive or ride motorcycles. It can take you far away from everything and everyone else so you can find peace and a little alone time.4

SR71 after a year…all black all the time, despite the heat has become a habit and hobby for me.5

I learn the many ways we share culture. Many times the best parts of service happen on a whim.6

As with peanut, I learn where rice comes from and the immense work that comes with growing and harvesting it.


The first farm season leaves me with a lot of experience and a lot more findo. Again, i think farming is something that’s ‘revealed’ to you during the experience, not taught to you before.


I pound my findo and end up with the finished grain to share with others. One of the best things was to share this special food with others after all the work that went into it.  9

And, coincidentally, just this morning (August 3rd, 2015) I cleared some land and sowed findo again for this years rainy season. So, that’s a good note to end on – full circle from sowing, to harvest, to resowing. Let’s see what germinates during my last 5 months here.

Thank you for reading, -stephen