Summarize Gambia Service……..

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I’d received the Tao Te Ching as a gift a few years back and just got around to reading the book this last week. The book often speaks of restraint. This has made me think about how much of my relationship with Gambia to share, keep to myself,  sacred, just for me or just for my family there. I wonder if its ever really worth it to try to preserve events, loves and ideas of the past? It’s like a picture of nature, it never really does it justice. But maybe it’s better than nothing and that warrants the effort to preserve and share.

I was watching some old videos I took in Gambia this morning – of family and friends cooking lunch or sitting around talking and brewing attaya (green tea) – and there was a part of me that felt gross about it, ashamed at objectifying other people’s way of life as a topic of interest for me; using their life as a subject that I would explore then leave. Now I did give and reciprocate a lot during my time in Gambia but I think there’s still something like an undercurrent inside me that’s always keeping me a little sad, and keeping me wondering about my family and friends there. After thinking about what that is I guess that it’s some type of compassion; the result of close proximity and involvement with others that prevents me from slapping my hands together and exclaiming “well that’s that, success!” I can’t really say “goodbye and i’m done,” and I can’t fully disconnect from the fate of my friends there for some reason. I catch myself daydreaming often about them and wondering if they’re really happier than us here or if the idea of simplicity and depth of culture is actually a thin cover over the struggles, lack of opportunity, sickness and poverty. Maybe I romanticize their lifestyle to make myself feel better even? I’m still not sure. The videos I watched this morning possibly brought up the fact that our lives were intertwined so tightly for a couple years that we, i don’t know, turned into each other a little and as such I can’t ignore the fact that my family is still there, same as before I arrived, working hard and trying to improve their lives. And because they are there, a part of me is still out there, and I can’t drop them and forget. It may actually be something akin to survivor’s guilt with me wondering “why do I get to live here with comfort, great opportunity and good fortune? Why me instead of them?” In fact, I think that’s it,, and if I’m so fortunate, how am I showing gratitude for the chances I’ve received?”

So my service reminds me of higher academia a bit, in that when you leave you end up having more questions than answers. And that’s what i’m wondering about trying to write this blog post. Questions like, does it cheapen substantial things when you invite others to know it? Has it always been in vain to try get you up to speed and in the know, or is it still part of my service to share this part of my life out with others? Are my expectations unrealistic in thinking that you’d understand and relate with it? Should I just keep answering inquiries about Africa with the joke”Oh it was hot out there!” and get back with the program in the states? Leaving Gambia does feel like a loss and the process something approaching grief and, as most of us know, that is, ultimately, an individual construct to work with. But what was lost really? Skinner wrote that we don’t actually miss a person, place or object in itself but we miss the chances they occasion/allow for us to behave a certain way. So, maybe that’s what I miss; I valued the way I thought, talked and acted in Gambia and to a large extent I can’t behave that way anymore. The people, places and things of the US occasion different behaviors, different values, etc. But you can mix the two, both histories, and I will. So, if Gambia was pure blue and the states pure red I’m now going to see what shade of purple I end up.

It’s been just over a year since I left The Gambia. As I was organizing old pictures I was thinking about doing a final wrap up blog post. This was a little overwhelming because there were like 3400 pictures and equal amount of things I could say that happened. It’s really taken a year to process it all – and i’m not done – it’s been pretty non-stop since leaving – 6 months post-service travel, grandfather’s funeral, relocation back to Hawaii and getting set up farming here. So, to me it seems I’ve not really had big stretches of time to sit and think about what happened. Writing all this definitely helps though. When i do think about it, I just catch myself thinking “wait, what just happened!?” Really, it’s all like a dream to me, a passing memory, an idea that was borne, rippled out into approximations of pragmatism, behavioral theory and “helping” then faded into some kind of feel good service nostalgia. I still find myself thinking and speaking in mandinka, when I walk with my dog I brainstorm ways to give back to my people there. I send them developed 4×6 pictures of what I’m doing now, with some chocolate and tree seeds. I try to show appreciation in quiet moments of gratitude and i’ve found that talking with other returned peace corps volunteers (RPCVs) provides the most comfort and understanding. I feel like I now understand a little bit the solidarity between war vets or any group of people with shared experience. It bonds people and picks your audience. I dropped back into the states and looked around, somewhat desperately, for people like me: other PCVs, development works, people who’d traveled internationally. It was especially skipping off the atmosphere to reintegrate to the states while the elections were happening too. So, to sum it up it kind of went from leaving Gambia and saying in gratitude and awe “what happened there?!” to getting back to the USA and saying somewhat annoyed “What is happening here!?” And then maybe the transitional part to play out “OK, what do I do here?!”

It’s still a work in progress to process all this and balance the two sides but what a good setup for growth and development right? I’m grateful i dont have to sleep under a bug net, take malaria meds daily or ride my bike in 120F weather; nope, i turn on the AC while driving in my car and yell “America is niiiiiicccceeee!” It is. It really is. And the challenges are so much further up maslows hierarchy of needs that i’m playing a whole different game here, with big money & bills, expectations of others being ramped up, family, a tractor instead of donkey, future, wife and kids potential. It’s all heavy and it’s all kinda great, the range of life. I’m excited to see the truths and lessons that transcend contexts. I know they’re there and i’m keeping some as secrets for myself.

As I’ve thought about what I’ve gained from my service in Gambia I see that above all it was the relationships and perspective, which can also just be seen as relationship to self and the world. If i had to sum it up i’d say that there were 5 main relationships borne in Gambia:

  1. My best friend Modou
  2. My host mother Fatou
  3. My welding mentor Ma
  4. Myself to the land/farm/nature or environment in general
  5. My wide eyed growing Gambian self coalesced with the ‘self’ I’d built in USA up to the point I entered Gambia (this one’s tricky but stay with me). It’s basically that what I thought I was with my straight A’s, teeth, god and ego gold stars gets completely reevaluated and I had to build an identity and self-worth distinct from most everything I’d narrated to myself thus far. If my pre-gambia ideas and “self” was a comfortable couch i’d been lounging on, Gambia lit the whole thing on fire as I yelled “hey i was sitting there!”

I’ll emphasize the above in the pictures below.

The perspective that changed during my time in Gambia is probably my favorite surprise guest at this point in my life – it’s the way of talking about the world and how I fit into it now that’s so unique and enjoyable to me. It comes down to the language used and ideas thought that lead to the behaviors enacted. The order is something like ‘noticing’ any sights, sounds, smells etc. then the thoughts, language, behaviors that set up long term habits or actions that determine values. What I liked about Peace Corps Gambia is that I got to develop and grow in a relatively safe place, very free with respect to time, social pressure or expectation. It’s essentially like having the whole dance floor or amusement park to yourself – you get to go wild, be weird, form new identities out of your anonymity and can change focus or directions from one day to the next. While this can lead to some anxiety, as there is some comfort in having your path dictated to some extent, being told what to do, when I got past the fear of the great unknown/open/void and saw the opportunity in front of me I felt great! I could kind of make up my world; it was all open to me! It’s that perspective, the music playing in your head, the intangible ideas and outlooks you have when looking at the same cardboard box as 10 other folks and seeing it differently that I most appreciate and i think we should nurture. This advocates for the keep it sacred and secret approach.

So, while I originally thought to keep the blog to the 5 or 10 most profound, earth shattering, mind warping conceptual pictures that will lead to existential breakthrough and “OMG” moments of insight, I actually was thinking that if perspective is the biggest gift I got, then I’m going to put a bunch of pictures up here and say a little something about each one and what it means to me, what I thought or think about it now 3 years later in some instances. So, my summary attempt is actually turning into “my perspective on over one hundred pictures from the west african country Gambia between October 2013 and December 2015.” I will try to keep the captions interesting, in the sense that i’m super honest about any biases, prejudices and wonders I had surrounding the various events (its not gonna be all cleaned up like “PC was an amazing experience that demonstrates the value of cross cultural development and teamwork!”) I think too, since you’ve followed me along my journey then you would appreciate some of the gritty details at this point: i’m all done and i’m safe and I pulled it off really well, so let me tell you some of the stuff you may have wondered about. It was an amazing experience, no doubt, but it was mostly sweat, dirt, challenge, heat, books, catharsis, journal burning, trash burning, skin burning, pounded freshly harvest rice burning, and ‘i can’t believe i did that’ reflection. When I got back to Hawaii my friend said “I thought you would definitely do it and finish it, but I didn’t think you would enjoy it as much.” Neither did I to be honest.

Ok, here it is, my perspective free roll; the wrap up post. I will likely bring Gambia back into the blog for reflection and as a sounding board for my future farm activities, which will be the content of the blog from here on, but for now lets put some pictures up and talk about what happened.

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I’d not heard of Gambia until the Peace Corps recruiter sent me the email with my acceptance and welcome letter. Like most PCVs did, I opened up a new internet tab and googled “Gambia” to see where I was headed. I also googled “Gambia surf” and was pleasantly surprised to find that you could surf there. The country was perfect I thought – small and never far from water, either the ocean waves or the river’s fishing. I was so excited to be going to Africa because it was guarantee going to be extremely different than where I was from, I assumed I could help a lot teaching rural folks about natural farming, and I knew that with radical environment shifts comes substantial learning, growth and shifts in perspective. The night I found out I remember driving to Target in Hilo and buying a 6-pack of heineken, a box of lucky charms and the DVD Roots. In hindsight it was kind of a silly attempt to learn about Gambia but I loved the sincere eagerness and attempt (Beer, cereal and Roots – what else could I need!?). From that point on my focus was on Gambia and preparing for the transition out of Hawaii and the US. I honed my natural farming skills, finished my job, downloaded mandinka language mp3s and prepared as best I could for life in Gambia. From Hawaii I’d go back to Michigan and North Carolina to visit family then fly to Gambia.

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Too late to turn back now – October 2013 – about 20 “volunteers to be” take the bus from Philadelphia to JFK airport to fly to Belgium then fly to Gambia. Everything new: new friends, new jeans, Teva shoes, gummy bears, argyle luggage marker, fears,  Ipod case. Along with the giddy excitement a part of you searches the bus to find other likable balanced individuals that confirm you’ve made a good rational choice. We’re looking around at each other like “this is a good idea right!? Right…..?”

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Foreigners are called “toubabs” in Gambia, not insultingly, but descriptively. Here are a bunch of toubabs under a mango tree attending one of the main pre-service training (PST) sessions. One great thing about PC is that you meet such interesting and good people that become your best friends and support systems, to the right Gene is explaining how hot it is and Becca on the left is just happy to be there :). Remember the word “toubab” because i’ll use it often to refer to Caucasian folks, and I’ve grown quite fond of the term. One strategy to avoid the frustration from being called a toubab 100 times a day is to just accept it and start using it yourself.

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These are the 2013-2015 Agriculture sector PCVs. We were in country only a few days at this point and took a group picture at our training village Jenoi. As a sector, along with Health and Education PCVs, were called AgFo’s, short for agriculture/forestry or sometimes called dirty AgFo’s, which i always liked, as I think the stereotype for our sector is woodsy, hippie, dirty and free spirit. We’re all looking pretty clean here since we’re new in country. Lower right – that’s our peace corps volunteer leader (PCVL) Seth; he was one of my good friends out there and was a great influence on us trainees. Seth had extended his service and stayed in country well over 3 years before leaving. He was a great person to chat with for perspective, advice or anything and we still stay in touch to this day. They say in Peace Corps you make friends for life and I think that’s true.

 

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In Gambian culture children are named a week after they are born, the newborn’s hair is removed and a name is announced to all in attendance of the naming ceremony. If you’ve seen the children held up toward the stars in the Roots series you’ll remember that naming children and names in general are very significant to Gambian culture. In our naming ceremony they didn’t actually shave all of our hair but we did get Gambian names. My host father gave me my name: Mohammad Gassama. This is the start of the shedding of your old identity, with only about 1% of the people I’d met knowing my real name “Stephen.”

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My host father Musa Gassama at the naming ceremony. Musa gave me the name “mohammad” and I took his surname since I was living in his compound (i.e. “kunda). I stayed in Gassama Kunda for about 2 months during my pre-service training.

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Attention. In school I had learned that one of the functions of behavior is to get attention. it’s good to get attention right?! Feels good…..in moderation. I had no idea the amount of attention I’d get during my service and how I’d struggle with the flood of it. It was impossible to blend in for me or remain anonymous in any way, everyday was intense in this regard and led to both the indulgence of ego as well as shutting down at times. In the picture above, these folks came to watch the toubabs get their names at the naming ceremony. If you’ve never been looked at like this, imagine it, it’s really shocking actually.  As a white male growing up in middle SES Michigan I’ve rarely felt like a minority or that out of place in my life, but Gambia was full on – even the young children get at you and check you out, straight curiosity, no smiles, no polite looking away as we’re taught, they look through you almost and it checks your convictions and serves a reminder that I was the one who went to Gambia, I wasn’t invited or asked by the people there to come over and help us and teach us your ways, it’s not really as romantic as that. It was my idea to go try to help so it’s on me to change and grow because the train of Gambia and its culture is rolling and you better get with it. And to a large extent I don’t ‘belong’ there, it’s true, and you gotta assume you’re the “one of these things is not like the other” thing when you become the focus of so many people. As a side note, this picture makes me appreciate Gambians because they’re really true to themselves and stay with that, not really much playing to the camera, or at least it’s not as automatic in this case.

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This is my host family in training village, Dad, mom and two little siblings. Musa is holding my namesake which we called “child Mohammad” and I was “big Mohammad.” One of those great Gambian photos where you can tell photograph culture is not a priority.

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LCF – language & culture facilitator. Kunta was my and 3 others LCF and our guide to Mandinka language and Gambian culture. Every weekday for about 5 hours we did language training – the biggest part of our pre-service training. Kunta was a great teacher and good friend to me because I could really ask him anything and get real about touchy issues surrounding development work and culture.

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With no plumbing or running water near the houses we collected from a well or pump. That makes your shower and your washing machine the same thing: a bucket. It was transported 20L at a time in older oil jugs called bidongs (the yellow jug on the right). A lot of life involves bidongs, they’re kinda like the go to transport system. The rice bag also. Traditionally collecting water was a woman’s job and i definitely got a few looks and laughs trying to carry my own.

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As one of our training assignments we AgFo folks had to double dig a garden bed and sow vegetable seeds. This was my backyard in my training village house.

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Put the 4 drops of bleach in the liter of water and drink the water. Repeat for duration of your service. Compliance? Umm, partial. One way you can tell how new PCVs are in country is by how clean their nalgenes, shoes, clothes and bodies are. When the new volunteers would arrive from the states us older PCVs would pull each other aside and laugh “look how clean and new they look!”

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This is the street in front of my training house. Look at the fence on the right and the brick wall on the left. Why this road is important is because there’s no cars so people walk by all day and that simple act stitches you into a communal lifestyle. Coming from an individualistic society this was a big change.

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“America” is where us toubabs are from. The USA is impossibly big to really understand when Gambia is around 15-30 miles tall and 290 miles long. I showed my people where I grew up in Michigan, showed them where I lived in Hawaii and then they asked me if i’d ever seen Obama and where does he live! Obama is pretty much a pop hero in Gambia, there’s even an “Obama” brand of pens sold as most shops.

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I did miss Hawaii, surfing, my friends there, my dog, the rain and I  thought a lot about it. I didn’t know it at the time of leaving but my time in Hawaii and the bits of attitude, culture and perspective I picked up there would really help me in Gambia. I think because Hawaii is more country living, people first and small town communal lifestyle. I was also somewhat of a foreigner there so I had to stay humble, listen and base relationships on trust, which was exactly what happened in Gambia. My language teacher Kunta would always greet me with a hug and an “aloha bro!”

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As a PCV you get a new trek bicycle, helmet mandatory. You get a language manual (for me Mandinka) and a book of daily activities you should do while in training (e.g., go to the shop and negotiate the price on food, take local transport to the market, go talk to your tailor about clothing). Gambia PCVs used to be able to drive motorbikes but it was determined to be too dangerous. Still, some PCVs break the rules, riding motorcycles or their bikes into other countries! It’s not that difficult to ride out of Gambia because it’s so small.

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There were 8 Mandinka speaking volunteers in my training village (called Kiang Kaiaf) and sometimes we would meet up to practice language together. One interesting cultural thing about Gambia is that when guests arrive you will quickly put chairs out for them. Nobody really sits inside during the day so it’s chairs and maybe water, you always try to give your guest a seat. In the states there’s usually set couches and chairs that don’t move, in Gambia it’s good that their portable so you can follow the shade under trees and roofs as the days passes. These are some of my mandinka training friends, all of whom made it through 2 years and 2 months, finishing the full service.

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Throughout training the PC team try to figure out what volunteer will be placed at what site. Everybody wonders where they will end up for two years and the PC training team try to do interviews and get to know you to determine if you’d like a big city, rural setting, would be OK riding your bike long distances or would prefer a small family in a small setting etc. All the trainees wonder where we will end up and finally the day comes when we’re all marched blindfolded to a giant map of Gambia drawn on the floor. The PC training team then places you on the part of the map that corresponds with your permanent site. Then you count 1,2,3 and take the blindfolds off to reveal where you will be living and who will be near you! Sometimes the friends you made during those first 2 months of training stay close and sometimes you see them get placed way out in the bush! I remember a PCV joking to a friend that was placed way out in the boonies “well, see in a couple years!”

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After two months of intensive language and cultural training you attend a swear-in ceremony at the US ambassador’s house and officially become a peace corps volunteer, as opposed to a peace corps trainee. You then can excitedly tell your people in the states to change your address from PCT to PCV! The swear-in ceremony is broadcast over Gambian television networks and you get a certificate with your name on it, perhaps a picture with your PC country director Leon, and then you have a party night with the other PCVs then move out to your permanent site within a day or two. For me there was a big sense of accomplishment at this point, I was thinking “OK, i’m an official PCV, let me get at these 2 years now! Put me in the main event and let me see how I do!”

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This is Gambia. Situated completely inside of Senegal. The capital is Banjul and you can see where my site was, half way upcountry on the north bank of the river – Farafenni is the name of the town. The name comes from the fact that the town was started on the corner, or tail end, of a large rice field; in Mandinka “faro” is rice field and “fennye” is tail, so my town, Farofennye/Farafenni, is the corner/tail of the rice field. Some people joked that it was called Falofenni: donkey’s tail. There’s a little deeper story too if you want to know, the nickname of Farafenni is Chaku Bantang. This is because the wife of the founder of the town was named Chaku, and she planted a silk cotton tree (md: bantango) at the first compound built in town. So they called the tree and town “Chaku’s silk cotton” or “Chaku Bantang.” The founder of the town was a mandinka man named Wally Diba as far as I understand and it was interesting to know that my house was in the Mandinka section of the town, one of the oldest parts, and just a few hundred feet from where the original silk cotton tree was planted. My host mother’s surname was also Diba, so I felt I was in a special town, in a special part of that town, with special people. This all made me realize that the names of places and people carry on their stories.

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“Site visit.” This is where you go visit your official site for the first time, you see the place where you will be for 2 years. Here my counterpart Momodou shows me around the farm. It’s kind of a mix of all sensors activated to predict how you’ll do for the next 24 months and it comes out a split of “o wow!” and “o sh**!” My site had huge potential with respect to farming. All of the land in this picture was available for projects and there were already bees under that big tree on the left.

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Here are the bees. I was happy to see that the school was already keeping bees. The apiary was under a huge African mahogany tree (khaya senegalensis). As service went on my counterpart and I were invited to beekeeping workshops, caught more bees and built more hives, at one point having 5 colonized hives under this tree. Once somebody even stole one of our hives – we suspected it was the bakers that use the hive boxes for mixing large amounts of dough for bread! Gotta watch those bakers! Actually it was our fault for assuming that nobody would take an uncolonized box, and what we learned is that when there are bees in the box they act as their own security and prevent theft. Still, we planned to do a mission to visit all the bakers in town, buying bread, and scoping out their shops for out beehive. We never found it though!

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Bees in one of our new Kenyan Top Bar hives (KTBs). Hmm when I look at this picture I see that the less involved you are with something the more you can romanticize about it. Upon first glance and interaction bees seem great! They are for sure, but when you get more involved with them and they light you up a few times it’s another story. African bees are no joke in terms of aggression, noise, etc. I got worked over so hard in Gambia, and these bees don’t let you get away with anything – like I tried to do a quick job in my sneakers, with pants tucked in my socks and I got worked! Within 3 minutes i had been stung about 14 times on my ankles, through my socks, and my feet were going numb as i was 7 feet up on a ladder in a cashew tree. I made it down safe, job incomplete, but I was sure humbled. African bees are legit!

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Gambia has an Atlantic coast and faces the east coast of the US. Here the sun sets in the west and we look for surf. At times there was waves and I could help people learn how to surf. The real trick was to head north to Dakar, Senegal and surf some serious waves! Just 10 hours away was Dakar and a whole different scene. Our peace corps house in the capital was a 10 minute walk from the beach so we’d have plenty of days at the beach. The peace corps house, the transit house we called it, was such a relief to visit because it had AC, couches, a big television and DVD player, hot showers and was close to shops and restaurants. It was also a blast anytime you got to spend time with other PCVs.

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This is my best friend Modou taking me through the bush to go throw net for fish. He’s such a classic to me – classic good guy, classic African, father, provider, farmer, bushman, hunter, fisherman, handyman, friend and support. He’s done so much: was a taxi driver in Gambia’s capital, a fisherman on the river for 10 years, a farmer his whole life and I am so grateful he took me under his wing and decided to be my friend. I was such a dork out there in Gambia and he stuck with me for my whole service! I couldn’t do anything, like a baby out there for so long and I was so obviously an outsider but just about every day we hung out and he never seemed to be embarrassed or ashamed of cruising with me on bikes through the streets or inviting me to a party of his family etc.. He taught me so much just by being himself. I can’t say enough about him but I will put little gems of wisdom here and there in attempt to introduce him to you. I’ll be talking about modou for the rest of my life, I’m sure of that.

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Modou puts a reed into a ball of corn flour. When the fish bite it the reed shakes and then he throws the weighted net on top of the reed to catch the fish. We caught tilapia here.

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This is a tributary that leads to the large river Gambia; the river that cuts through the center of the country. Modou became my hero in a lot of ways. He always taught me African proverbs and never asked me for anything, not once in 2 years did he ever ask for a thing, it was amazing especially because he deserved a lot and, if you don’t know, you get asked for things all the time, as a toubab, people ask you to marry them, to help get them to America, for your bike, for your Nalgene bottle, for you to introduce them to a toubab wife, for your pen, for candy etc. It’s not a bad thing, it’s what happens when most people have just about nothing and they see a toubab stroll by, but for Modou to skip all that for such a long time was really special and demonstrated his character and humility. And we just hung out all the time, working in the garden in the morning and watching 80’s chuck norris films like Delta Force over dinner and attaya at night. One thing Modou would always do is to ‘push you out’ in that he would walk with you a  little bit when you left his compound, maybe to the street or to the corner of the block, always saying “thank you mohammad.”

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My sister Stephanie in the states had started the welding/metal fab tradition among us siblings and I kept it going in Gambia at a local welding shop. This art ring was a gift to her to say thanks for the inspiration. Why is this little art piece more important than it seems? – because hobbies and varied activities were the key to a balanced service; for me I had to keep multiple irons in the fire because likely one is melting or blowing up or not iron or actually made of rice! In other words, it was bad to monocrop your identity or role as a PCV because it leads to a system less resilient and that’s not a good thing in the wild world of 3rd world development work. For example, if a mother instructed gang of 5 year olds stole all the cashews at the farm I could say “screw this stupid farm” and go laugh and weld with the guys at the shop, and then go to the farm the next day. Having many hobbies helped you ride out the bad times in one area of your life.

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Any guesses? Do you guys remember this one from my earlier blog? Cultural agriculture traditions were some of my favorite things to talk with people about. I was taught by a Mandinka farmer named Saikou in Jenoi and my Jolla counterpart Momodou that for the luck of your farm you will bury the above items in your field. The slippers are good luck because they get away with stepping on everything but nothing ever steps on them. The garlic, salt and hot pepper are to sting the mouths of people passing by and cursing your farm and therefore protect it from ill will. Another tradition is to start serious farm work on a tuesday! I hope to carry on some of these traditions as I continue to farm.

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Stay open to all things – animals, ideas, people, experiences etc. That was the mantra.

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I just think – “what has eight legs and is powered by a whip?” A tractor in Gambia. Plowing the fields for my first real attempt at farming – Gambia, August 2014. This is one of those pictures that turned out really good. Modou is manning the whip in this picture. It’s true that donkey’s do get to a point where no matter how hard you whip them they just kinda give up, call it stubborn or just plain exhaustion and helplessness. I think I whipped the donkey a couple times and modou fired me from the job because I didn’t do it hard enough.

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The farm crew, first rainy season – 2014. See what I’m saying about one of these things is not like the other!? Yea, no chance to blend in, this picture says it all, ha and my beard is pretty ridiculous. Anyways, the secret thing to these guys is that i’d ask them huge life questions and they always gave great answers. I asked them “should i live in the states and farm?” and they would say things like “Yes, we need more farmers, and less talk talk talk. People like to talk, they don’t like to work. Working hard is good.” And i’m thinking “well, that’s that!” 🙂 Their perspectives were refreshingly uncomplicated, especially as my service came to a close, we brainstormed what to do with my life together and they provided a lot of kind gentle support, never preachy or unsolicited.

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When you want to build a fence upcountry you’re given a machete and sent out to the bush to cut fence posts. These are neem tree branches and shouldn’t be consumed quickly by the termites due to their bitterness. Building this fence was one of the toughest jobs I did in Gambia – 153 upright posts all cut by machete up in trees from 10-35ft in the air. I guess it is risking your life for a fence, but in Gambia it’s pretty normal so it doesn’t stick out the way it would is the states. I remember listening to a lot of incubus during this fence work, and I could do 15-25 posts a day until my hands were totally numb from digging.

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You need a fence to keep the goats, pigs, and cows out of your farm. And it must be made well in advance of the rains so you have to rush to construct it and dig in very dry and sandy dirt. My first farm here was about 1/3 acre. I’m just really grateful that I had the space and a few helpers available to me for building this fence. The school gave me permission to make this farm and I couldn’t have done it without the guys help, it was just too much work for one man really. When I was putting this fence together I made a promise that I would never complain about putting up a fence with wire and t-posts in the states :). Pounding the first two feet of a fresh green t-post into soil? What a dream!

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I learned the term “broilers” when we bought 300 chickens to raise and sell for meat. The real truth behind this photo is that it was a manic race to sell all the birds before we ran out of food to feed them. So we cut the price of the birds to push them quicker, pounded are own millet to supplement the dwindling feed, and even rolled them around town in a wheelbarrow trying to sell them. “Hey, guy, how about a chicken for dinner tonight!?” Timing is everything and we didn’t really pull this one off successfully. I had a mentor at SIU named BFG and his words were ringing in my ear at this moment: “it’s the implementation of the idea where you fail or succeed!” Everyone loves a good emotional high sitting around the table (“yea lets do chickens! it’ll be great!”) but grinding it out, especially with these birds, was a real drag and we definitely blew it.

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This chicken was brought home to my host mother as a gift. I walked home from the school, about a mile walk, not too far, but carrying the chicken made it strange and most people gave me smiles and waves or made a passing comment about how they were coming over for dinner!  Sidepoint: it may be hard to tell because i’m usually tall and thin but in this picture I am about 28lbs lighter than when i first came into country.  I felt like the chicken – very stringy and lean.

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It seems all over the world there are tendencies for the light skinned to want to be a little darker and the dark skinned want to be a little lighter. In Gambia, the younger women would buy products like this and straighten hair etc. to get that euro toubab look. There’s a lot that could be said about this but it’s a jump off point for an in person conversation perhaps. I will say that all over the world people struggle with self acceptance; it cuts across race, location, SES and age.

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My service site and farm were at a high school so I was able to teach classes about agriculture occasionally. Does anything stick out to you about this picture?

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I feel grateful that friends and family spent time with me, helped me practice language, took me ceremonies and helped me navigate the country or simple community event. I have to chalk it up to the fact that there’s less ego out there; I mean if you were egotistical and going to a party where everyone looked, acted and thought like my host brother here on the right would you really wanna take the guy on the left? Ha, i say no way! And ya know I would’ve really blended in had it not been for the Levis! yeah right :). I felt really welcomed and accepted in Gambia and people made a lot of effort to include me in their culture. 

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The infamous “gele gele” – public transport in its most disturbing incarnation! Ask any 3rd world PCV about public transport and guarantee they’ll laugh and have a great story. Put a cow in the gele gele, a ram on the roof, pay off the cops to let you pass, a leaky basket of fish, whole axles falling off, 28 people inside, boy with broken tibia transported to a medicine man in the bush……o yes it all happens on the gele gele.

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When you get the front seat in the gele gele you’re really feeling great! It feels like an african safari or like you’re in a motorcycle diaries type movie. If it’s a hot day the air feels like a blow drier pointed at your face but you take pleasure in the simple act of going for a ride. One important change that happened in Gambia is that my standards really changed. It really took less to make me happy and I found enjoyment in such simple small things or experiences. A cold coke, dunking your head in a tub of water, or taking shotgun in a rumbling diesel van without a seatbelt all are fun, simple as that. It’s like the quality of the experience really amplified out there because you were IN the environment, 100% in it, as opposed to more isolated from it or just skimming along the surface attempting to dodge the uncomfortable parts like had become a habit of mine in the states. In Gambia the uncomfortable was unavoidable and that shifted the baseline such that a cold coke or electric fan, for example, was a large and extremely pleasant change in the situation. 

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Hygiene is strange. Really I think the PC approach for toubabs is to carpet bomb your whole body with strong chemicals, both inside and out, in an attempt to prevent serious illness. It’s recommended to put 4 drops of bleach in each liter of water you drink, you take malaria meds for 2 years 2 months, and then super strong final cleaning detox meds when you finish service along with fecal and aids test to make sure you’re clean to depart. We’re all given a PC medical kit with things like oral rehydration salts for diarrhea, ciprofloxacin for antibiotics, pre-natal vitamins and a whole bunch of other stuff to try keep healthy out there. “Santex” was the go to daily defense and desperate effort to stop heat rash. Still, it seems no matter what I tried I’d still end up sick once every 3 months for about 4-5 days. So what happens when you’re sick? One different cultural thing is that in Gambia the sick are not left alone, but frequently checked on and seen by the family, and this was frustrating for PCVs who feel horrible and just want to be left alone, as opposed to visited by the village elder and told to “come, get up and greet the Alkaloo!” Ha, don’t you just want company all day when you feel like you’re dying, dripping in sweat and can’t move!? The highest fever I got in Gambia was 104.1 if I remember correctly and there was this one time where I swear I was hallucinating riding my bike home, like I was in an alternate universe, because I was coming down with some sickness. I remember having a really trippy chat with the local dentist/gynecologist (yes, it’s the same guy) and laughing because it felt so much like I was in a dream and extremely slap happy. 

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Gambians really do like PCVs! Even naming their restaurants after them in this case :). This is Omar’s place and a favorite amongst PCVs, located in the captial of Banjul, a short walk from both peace corps office and transit house. Omar is an old time favorite and an extremely nice guy who makes really great food. Sidepoint: One of the things that happens to PCVs is that you start seeing everything “in country” as normal and regular no matter how bizarre or novel, like how this restaurant looks for example. It doesn’t really stick out, but you do a double take and you can’t help but laugh and be like “wait, what!? That’s the restaurant?”

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BE WEIRD and DO YOU! It’s OK! This was one of the best things about anonymity and living in Gambia – you can really do pretty much whatever you want and avoid a lot of the inescapable judgement and criticism that makes it hard to do the same in the US.  In fact, it’s likely that you’ll catch a lot of compliments for your new style of talk, dress, dance, acting etc. It takes some testing of the water but after a while you get to stretch those muscles and let your freak flag fly if ya want to! PCVs shave their heads, or don’t shave at all, get traditional tattoos, take on new identities, stay and get married, retreat from life and read all the time, become a farmer, drive donkey carts, or anything you want! To explain this, I was told by another PCV that we already stick out so much and people think we’re a bit crazy for coming all the way out there so you can just abandon full integration and enjoy the opportunity to not conform. And while I didn’t get too wild or different, for me and my norms I did push the envelope in a lot of ways. For example, in the photo above I am a white guy in Africa, with a huge beard, huge mullet, orange dyed finger tips, eating an old tuna sandwich, drinking Nescafe under a mango tree: unusual and wonderful! And that’s just the morning, who knows what other situations I’d get myself into this day.  You would also catch a lot of compliments for the new things you tried. It was a big relief actually, you can skip the showers and shaving and just relax with all that pressure of how to look and act “right” or “normal.” I imagine it was even a bigger relief for female PCVs, and when you hung out together it was likely that both guys and gals were so dirty, sick, tired, hot, intrigued and confused that you just felt great because you were totally on the same page and vulnerable with them so there was a great sense of commradery and very little shame or affectation. 

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Modou helps me pound grain in a small mortar and pestle, which is the like the mainstay kitchen tool in Gambia. We pounded some sprouted sorghum grain this time. 

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Modou poses for a pic on my first animal killing day (I owe modou a lot too for always posing for all my pictures; he never refused and I developed a lot of them for him to keep before I left). We killed our fair share of chickens at the school; in gambia the animals are killed with a knife to the throat, or machete in the case of bigger animals like a cow. The guys even let me kill one and taught me how to carve it up. I believe that according to Islam I’m not supposed to kill animals that we will eat because i’m not muslim but another person said that it was ok as long as I said the correct prayer before doing so. That’s momodou bah, our school shepherd, in the background. While modou was mandinka, like me, momodou bah is a Fula and that tribe is known for being shepherds of cattle. They’re also the tribe to go talk to if you need some milk.

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One of the goals of Peace Corps is to share US culture with host country nationals (HCNs) as well as share host country culture with people in the US. It doesn’t have to be anything complex though, perhaps the name of your mother as in the picture above. Little did my mom know but on this day, 3000 miles or so away, there were four guys sitting under a mahogany tree trying to pronounce her name; something like “saaaan jjjrah.” This blog also helps me share Gambian culture with my people in the states. 

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“Food bowl.” Boom! This is a wonderful foodbowl by the way, about as good as they get! See all the fish and veg, and green leaf sauce? Super good one here. In Gambia you eat sitting or crouched around the foodbowl on the floor, coming together with your people to share a meal. A lot of times people will remove the cover of the foodbowl and say “bissmillah” then start eating. Most use their hands, I used a spoon, and you stay in your section of the bowl for the most part. If you’re in good with your host mother, or are an older male, people may break apart the vegetables and fish and throw them in your section of the bowl. I always liked that little part of eating together, being taken care of and helped without any words exchanged. Portion control is a difficult because you have a huge amount of food in front of you with no clear end point! 

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Here is a more simple foodbowl so you can see the range as compared to above. This is a nice seasoned rice with fish and hibiscus leaf sauce. I remember reading fukuoka and he said that we’ve lost the ability to enjoy simple flavors: grains, plain tea, etc. 1st point: as foodbowls wore out you just hoped the pain wouldn’t chip off in the food. 2nd: look at the toubab spoon on the right! I rarely ate with my hand.

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One little cultural thing that happened was that if you had a guest, like I was here at Modou’s compound, Gambians would serve them a separate food bowl just for themselves. I’m not sure why this happened, I asked Modou and he said it’s just to make sure they’re comfortable and so they don’t have to eat with so many people. Modou would always have me sit in a separate room and his wife would bring me this little bowl with my own individual serving. But then we’d call out to each other to “come eat lunch” and they’d call back to me “come eat lunch here.” Calling people over to eat is an important cultural thing in Gambia and it happens all the time. Gambians want you to eat with them and even if you just left one food bowl they will call you over to another one, stating “hey you didn’t eat, come eat lunch, eat more!”

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This is my host mother Fatou teaching me how to pound grains in the mortar and pestle. We pounded a lot of grain in the compound and it was always a fun day when me, the toubab man, would pound. “Mohammad be turo la” the kids of the compound would say, or “Mohammad is pounding.” Often someone may be passing the compound on the street out front and upon looking in and seeing me pounding grain, a traditionally female job, would yell out “hey!” or “good work!” or just stop and look for a bit then laugh a bit and walk on. Everybody would want to help me pound, especially the my little sisters and we would count numbers, 1, 2, 3…etc. alternating english and mandinka. So a few words about Fatou, she’s another really special person to me, my Gambian host mother and an inspiration to me in her kindness and strength, the prototypical matriarch in the compound. Fatou and I would talk most nights after dinner, just her and I, maybe just for a few minutes but she always held that space for me and we really bonded in moments like those. 

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At the school one day our resident Nigerian preacher brings an owl he caught into the garden to show the farmers. This just sounds like a sufjan stevens song title to me! There’s always something interesting happening and sometimes it comes to you. Owls symbolize transition between life and death and I took an owl feather back to the states without knowing that it would come into play the last time I saw my grandfather.

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A large part of Gambia that goes unnoticed is the open spaces, the empty majority of the landscape, “the bush” as it was called, or “wulo kono” in mandinka. I was told by my host family that the bush is not safe, there’s hyenas and monkeys that can attack you, as well as devils and spirits. I think living in a large town overshadowed the fact that Gambia was actually pretty calm and quiet once you got past the outskirts of the town. I liked this part of Gambia because you could walk for an hour and only see a friendly passerby waving from a distance, other than that you were alone with the trees and sound of the birds.

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As our first rainy season approached we Ag PCVs had to learn how to farm, Gambia style. This picture shows a few Gambians training the agriculture PCVs on how to run a seeder. Gambia style trainings were so relaxed and efficien – lay out a prayer mat for the PCVs to sit on, get a knowledgeable farmer up there to explain how the seeder works and then go out to the field to practice sowing seeds. No pamphlets, no PowerPoint and then we go play volleyball. It’s a good way to do things and reminds me that effective teaching can be done quickly with few words. The laid back attitude and openness of our training team unified us; there was no large distinction between PCVs and staff, at least you didn’t feel it, and we all seemed like a big group of friends working together. Shout out to Bah2, kneeling down by the seeder, for being such a great teacher and friend to all of us. Bah2 had great one liners like, “O, me I am very powerful!” 🙂

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Older sister gives little brother a bath.

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I was lucky to find Noni in my town and put it in an old mayo jar.

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Noni getting funky in an old mayo jar.

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Noni tinctures. I used the Noni fruit to make various tinctures using vodka and brandy. There were many ways in which my time in Hawaii came into play and had a positive influence on my service and recognizing and using Noni was one of them. We used the mango, apple, noni and vodka tincture to help with colds.

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If you’re a toubab, they will come! Kids are everywhere in Gambia and they will find you! The great thing is that if you are in a playful mood or want to joke around these kids are definitely game for that. In Gambia you can make a game out of anything with kids and they’ll hang out with you all day. If you want privacy though you better go further into the bush to try escape! Most kids will pose or throw some kind of “cool dude” hand sign. Also, you’ll get touched alot if you’re a toubab, like check out the kid on the far right, taken advantage of my moment of stillness to cop a feel of my arm! Ha, get off me ya little monsters! 

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Most PCVs read A LOT of books! Books get traded around, favorites are picked, authors discussed and book lists are compiled. Some PCVs had read around 80 books in their first year of service! During my time I read about 56 and I thought I was cooking but some others doubled that; how could you not end up a little smarter or interesting after all that reading time!? Some of my favorites included: Animal Speak, Desert Solitaire, Dune, Pablo Neruda, The templars, two kings and a Pope, and Autobiography of a Yogi. The worst book i slogged through was a 750pg bomb on christian prophets! I’m not saying it was bad in itself but this one was definitely handed to me by a preacher and taken on more as a challenge than a leisurely pursuit. I never stopped reading a book and I’d never skip ahead, always finishing the one i started before going onto the next. That’s the style I developed in Gambia. I’m also still having to catch up on some PC books I didn’t get to, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the seemingly impossibly boring to finish Guns, germs and steel. I will beat you GG&S! 

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Honey was called “liyo” in mandinka and was a hot product to have in the streets of Farafenni. The good thing about being the beekeepers was that we could always get first pick of the harvest and help out our friends and our people before the public release so to speak. So, it’s good to know the name of your farmer, it’s good to be friends with the blue collar folks and its good to stay in the dirt with the people that are really keeping the wheels greased and things working. It’s like the movie Titanic, the best times are had down in the steerage deck with common folks, not up top with cigars, brandy and stuffy suits. Being on the grassroots level was a big focus of my service; i didnt’ want to be in the meetings with the principal, playing the part of the smiling token toubab, i wanted to be with my friend modou at the farm, in the heat, dirty and laughing, climbing up trees to shake branches and get mangoes. I wanted to get deep in my community, stay at site, and forego involvement with a lot of the PC events and committees, which can lead one to get the label “site rat.” After a while you see which PCVs are a site rats, in that you don’t see them unless you go to their site :).   

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Honey. It was always a great day at the farm when we were processing honey. One funny, seemingly unimportant, item here is the spatula, brought back from a trip to the states, and a game changer in regards to scraping all the honey out of the containers. It’s just really funny when I, tommy toubab, come back from the states and introduce the super simple but game changing spatula to up country beekeepers. I can just hear modou saying in Gambian style english “HEYYY! i must get me one of these spatulas, it’s very nice!” And you know I hooked them up with some spatulas! 

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If i ever write a book about Gambia I swear I’m going to call it “Toubab tries to plant avocado upcountry.” Ha, here’s another avo in the frying pan! If ya dont know, “up country” in Gambia is eastward, inland, away from the atlantic and cool conditions. So the further upcountry you go the hotter it is and avocado are notoriously tricky to nurse through the upcountry heat; you either underwater and they fry or then overwater and soggify their roots. Despite all our efforts and fancy outplant holes, none of them made it. When I left we had 3 grafted avos in the nursery that we never ouplanted, letting them grow through their pots right into the ground where they stood, under the shade, and I think these may have made it but i’ll have to go back and see!

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Teaching my counterpart momodou and best friend modou how to graft mango. This was the kind of “development work” that I liked: a simple skill taught in 15 minutes that will have a huge positive impact on their future and can even be passed down to their children and grandchildren: it’ll help everyone come up. Gambians rock because you show them one thing and they really run with it! A week later modou had 60 mango seedlings in the nursery and he said “i’m going to graft them all and have a big orchard!” Right on. 

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Welding fail: this rake broke within the first 30 seconds of using it. I failed my welding mentor Ma! One thing i did learn about myself, as made clear by my shoddy welding and this rake, is that if i don’t react in the normal “still/silent/disbelief/look down at the ground” route I’m actually a “thrower” in that when something doesn’t work or breaks or I get really angry I’ll chuck it – I’ve found that I’ll either go for max distance out into the bush, or if a wall is near i’ll try to obliterate it against the hard concrete. Anyone else……? -crickets- or “yea man me too!” 🙂

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Luckily the school I was placed at had a huge fenced in garden. I was given free reign to do whatever i want here and it became a fun and weird agriculture lab to try anything for 2 years. No rules, no set time, no real demands and a couple guys that would help me with labor and any crazy idea i had. Really, it was the best set up I could ever ask for. I think I really cut my teeth in the peace corps in regard to farming and especially in this garden – learning to machete, double dig garden beds, fetch water, sow seeds, flip compost, prune, manage the nursery, endlessly gather cow manure and wheelbarrow it, companion plant, etc. Shout out to my people in Hawaii that I stayed in touch with for ideas and info about things I could try out here – Bob, Josiah, Jon E. and Drake especially. 

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We all busted it in the garden to get beds double dug and amended with compost, manure, biochar etc. Here are my main two guys momodou and modou charging it, 5pm heat and still an hour of work to do. Gambians will put you to shame with their ability to work! All the baby vitamins I ate growing up, fluoride toothpaste and green leaf veggies and I still couldn’t hold a candle to a Gambian with none of that stuff in their history. Love these guys, even in Ramadan, fasting from food and water all day, many will still work a hard morning. It’s amazing. These people are tough! And that makes me………..um?………….still learning to be tough, and that’s the truth! My host mom used to laugh when I got sick and say “Mohammad, your body doesn’t know work!” Ha, she was right! 

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In the spirit of the “Ag Lab” garden we have another day of strange stuff going on: IMO in the foreground cooking and biochar in the background. And if you look far back on the left, under the baobab tree you can see the farm crew visiting with a teacher that came by. If you haven’t guessed already, they’re definitely brewing attaya. When the biocahr takes 4-5hours you gotta pass the time somehow.

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This is how the garden looked when I first arrived.

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And after a couple months this is how the garden looked. If i could go back and do it again i’d have made 25% of the amount of garden beds and just focused on doing a really good job with those. Instead I saw all the space and wanted to fill it up and take advantage of the fact that I had water and people to help me. This was a mistake though because just to water the beds twice a day, some 96 of them planted at times, took way too much labor time, and our water came from a slow flowing hose. So this was an important farm and life lesson. I learned that it’s very easy and emotionally fun to start projects, seeds, cuttings but it’s really tough to maintain all that and stay diligent throughout the entire life of the plant. I love the idea of fresh carrots much more than the day to day grind of watering them. 90 or so days, twice a day, in scorching heat, plus weeding, all for carrots!? shoot, lets just buy the damn carrots! lol, that’s the point you get to. And as I start to farm here in the states I’m seeing that it’s things like compromise, restraint, good planning and self awareness that’ll sustain a farm, idea, relationship. It’s another instance in Gambia where I thought i’d go out to help and teach but really it was me who was given the lesson.

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I’d not thought too much of this hole upon first glance. It’s just a hole right!? It was originally dug by students to make pit compost. But, as things do, it changed function for me after two events: 1. i’d watched a permaculture video where a story was told about burying a horse under a grape vine, and 2. my counterpart said he had thrown a dead pig out in the bush. Although the pig had been in the sun for a day I went and grabbed it and put it in this hole, burying it with lots of IMO, biochar and compost. 50lbs of organic matter instantly added; but my thought was how long would it take to break down and be ok for plants and trees to sink their roots into? The stinking, maggoty,  bloated and baked pig was probably one of the grossest things i’d moved around and I really felt bad because I wheeled it past modou as he was praying! Ah, he said no problem though. 

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This is my little host brother Mustafa. We planted this mango together in an old bakers yeast bag. Mustafa had a dog named “sobie” and always called me for lunch when it was ready, saying “Mohammmad??? Kontongo….” This guy is seriously handsome and really brave, going beekeeping with me at the school once. Since I was the youngest sibling in my family I really enjoyed having a little brother for a couple years, someone who looked up to me and would tag along with me to play hacky sack, ride my bike or go get a soda.

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Naming ceremonies were one type of event you were often invited too and it was kind of an honor to hold the new baby. Usually a naming ceremony would happen about a week after the child was born.

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Language instruction. Peace Corps would reimburse you if you took language lessons with a local teacher. Learning the language is important for all aspects of service. Sure I could use Mandinka to talk with other Gambians, go to the market etc but the best part of knowing the language is when it allowed me to become part of the scene – a joke, a naming ceremony or just a chat under a mango tree about stars. Mandinka language is so dear to me and I still find myself thinking it and speaking it aloud when I’m working. I rented the DVD Roots the other day and it’s nice to be able to understand the Mandinka in that. And it’s deep too, with proverbs and specific vocab words or concepts I’d not heard of until i arrived in Gambia. E.g., there’s a specific word to use to describe when someone rushes off from a meal such as lunch or dinner and then forgets something like their keys and has to come back into the room to grab them. I just did this yesterday with my hat, leaving it on a friends chair and having to go back and grab it. In mandinka you would say this certain word when they come back in the room, i like that. Ask me to speak or teach you some Mandinka if you see me around. 

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Metal work! This is my metal fabrication and welding guru Ma Janha! This guy is great and was so patient with teaching me about welding and metal fab. Here we are in the schools metal shop where he worked during the day. We just finished making those book ends on the table. At night he went to his own metal shop and worked on whatever jobs the people of Farafenni needed done. Ma was so smart and just cracked me up because he was so calm all the time and dressed like a 70s surfer with cool boat shoes and slacks, riding around on a maroon sport bike. How many times was I welding and making an absolute mess of things, welding in the wrong spot because i’d blinded myself with the arc or just burning holes in all the metal from being heavy handed!? And he would just say calmly, “oooooh, nooo, Stephen, that’s not the way…..You gotta do it real light. Easy easy…” 🙂

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I’d learned to use a grinding wheel at the welding shops in Farafenni. One of my favorite items in the shop was that anvil bolted to a big tree trunk in the background. I’m not at the skill level i’d like to be with metal but I think over the next few years I can keep hammering over an anvil, buy a lil buzz box, and get to where I want to be.

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This was one of the first welding projects I did at the shop with the guys. These are jibida holders, the jibida being a large clay pot used for holding water. My host mother fatou guessed that they were holders for drums. Drinking water and drumming are both really important in Gambia :). I would make a few of these for fellow PCVs in the months to come; the best part is to make the top ring, taking a straight rod and beating it with a hammer into a near perfect circle.

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This is Ma’s shop in town and a place where I had a lot of fun, taking a break from being a farmer to be a welding PCV. I spent this day at the shop with forearms burning from all the hacksaw work to cut these pieces. For some reason it was always a struggle to find a sharp hacksaw blade, so you kinda had to grudge through the metal with a dull blade. Ha, when i think about it, Gambians are so smart, that the guys probably just waited until I couldn’t take it anymore and would give them 50 dalasi to go buy a new blade! When you’re new at the welding shop, as I was, you don’t have much skill so you’re given simple jobs, one of them being simple cutting with the hacksaw. As you try other jobs and gain more skill you work your way up the ranks.

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More hacksaw work at Ma’s shop, with his little brother supervising my first attempt at mitre cuts for a farm tool handle. In Gambia certain professions stayed within the families, and the janha’s were shopkeepers and welders, with 4 generations of them doing metal work and having several shops in Gambia. So I was in good hands with these guys. Plus, they were always very patient with me and let me make all kinds of strange things there. 

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One unique practice I learned in Gambia at the shop was how to cut metal with a hammer and chisel. It was slow but rewarding when you finished. We would have 3-4 chisels laying around the shop and undoubtedly one of them was the sharpest and best so we’d try to grab that one. This sheet metal was relatively easy to cut. Working in the dirt with metal is a fond memory for me; sparks flying and attaya brewing. 

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I believe my mother sent me this PEACE pin. It was put on my bag and I found that putting a peace pin on your backpack is a lot easier than going out and making peace. One great thing is that the mission of peace corps is “world peace and friendship” and that’s something I can get on board with. And putting the pin on the bag is a good start if nothing else. How do you best help and how can you make peace are questions i’m still wondering about and encourage others to think about. 

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This picture was from my original “fail blog.” We had set this catcher box up in a tree to catch bees that we would later transfer into a full size hive. When i came back to check it a few days later I’d found that someone had thrown a rock at it, knocking off all the top bars and scaring the bees from it in the process. After building, painting, baiting and hanging the box, catching bees and thinking you got it all set, to have the rock thrown at it, likely by a student for a quick laugh or dare, is a real drag. I think maybe it highlights my assumptions and expectations (i.e. someone wouldn’t just destroy this box, i’m here to help and learn and with that intention nothing bad will happen, people respect what i’m doing and will show that through their actions), and those both got a reality check during my service. I’m laughing now, detached, thinking the kids were probably prodding each other on yelling “smash the toubabs bee box!” lol, well ya can’t blame em for raging I guess!

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Care packages. You hear about care packages before you get to country but don’t really understand how valuable they are until a few months at permanent site. Not only are they tasty and nutritious but they also are familiar and remind you of your home and the people there that are supporting you. The drink mix to add some flavor to plain water, the books to give you a mental health day where you can read and do nothing, the beef jerky for protein and the powder for heat rash and swamp foot. Sure the packages would take 2 months to get to you but they were a real godsend. My people in the states sent me lots of packages so I was really lucky! If you made it to the capital, Banjul, you could check the mail room at the main PC office and pickup your mail before “mail run” would happen. Near the end of my service I started opening my gift boxes with my host family and it was a great cross cultural activity to share the items and explain things seen in US magazines. 

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Ahhhhhh! Stephanie, i could’ve killed you for all this stupid glitter you packed in there lol! But, as always, Steph, my sister, does things with style and has a great sense of humor so this ended up being one of my favorite care package items, and i love the note she wrote on there too. Family support was a big help for me and everybody really came through for me. I always had a letter, an email, a gift box or a comment on this blog to encourage me.

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About 1 year into my service the neck of my guitar broke. I used to compulsively bend my neck from stress and I found that in Gambia I stopped doing this for some reason. This became the model for how I wanted to live my life post peace corps; simple, nature filled, low stress, full of books and music, in the environment with friends doing service instead of thinking and talking about what I value until i could do it for a few hours on the weekend. I wanted to live the PC lifestyle post PC to the greatest extent possible and I’ve made choices to try to do that. 

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This man stole my beekeeping boots! Ha, and I’m kind of proud of him for doing so in a strange way, it’s funny to me all the times he said “I haven’t seen them” and then my counterpart saw them in his house! We all shared a meal there together a few days later and then I think I even saw them! But what are ya gonna do, call him out while your a guest in his house? In Gambia there’s a little joke that older Fula men (Fula is one of the main tribes in Gambia) are always carrying a bag for some reason and it’s definitely true here. What is in the bag mister!?

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Some bantabas (outdoor sitting places) are made from sticks and covered with leaves and grass to provide shade. One day the mango on the left will be big enough to shade the whole bantaba. I was lucky to be invited to this village by Modou; his mother lives here so we rode our bikes here a couple times a year to visit her and catch up with his relatives. It was a village right next to the Gambia river and about 6 miles away from my house in Farafenni. Whenever you travel or visit someone it’s the custom to bring “silifando” which is a small gift from the road; we brought attaya tea and the woman sitting on the bantaba is brewing it.

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Modou and I get ready to spend the day at his mother’s village. Gambian hospitality is such that two chairs are brought out for us, placed in the shade, attaya is brewed, hand fans are provided and we sit and talk until lunch time. It’s hard to imagine but we sat here for the next 6 hours. Even I can’t remember what we were doing the whole time. People come by and visit and greet you, you eat, you talk and then you brew attaya again perhaps and then the sun was setting and we rode home.

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One month before I was due to leave country I returned to my training village, Kaiaf, to catch up with my training family and get this picture with my host father Musa. I gave Musa a copy of the farming book I wrote and spent the day with my people there. It was nice to be back in Kaiaf, i felt like a son that had moved to another town and finally returned to a proud family. I spoke Mandinka much better, had lots of stories, had farmed and really felt sad that I would be leaving. While I was away Musa and the family had hosted 3 other volunteers and had a new baby, which they named casey after another PCV. It was sad to say goodbye to Musa, as he gave me my name and was my first father figure in Gambia, and I was also the first volunteer he ever hosted. Although I was encouraged to change my name when I moved to permanent site, I kept the surname “Gassama” in honor of Musa and the name he provided during the naming ceremony. Names are important in Gambia and my loyalty to him and the impression my first family made on me warranted me keeping the Gassama name.

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Two things that are great and stick out to me in this photo – the gambian ingenuity of brewing attaya on a stove made from an old tomato paste pot and using that black flipflop on the ground to fan the coals. Second, the shoes modou (on the left) wore to work on the farm. Classic style there and modou owning it and somehow pulling it off like it’s no big deal! lol I know modou didn’t think about it at all but man we really had a laugh about his shoes.

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The mason was able to add another couple layers of blocks to my wall and give me a little bit more privacy from the street. This is the porch in front of my house, where many of bean sandwiches and nescafes were consumed. See that jumble of wires in the upper left of the photo – that’s the electricity meter, connected to larger wires on poles and eventually to a generator near the center of town. We had electricity at night and in the morning in Farafenni and when I left they were working on building a new generator that would provide power 24/7. There was actually a part of me that was disappointed that I had part time electricity as I’d fantasized about being in a bush village, in a grass hut, mastering the local language, reading 200 books, writing a novel and having a spiritual epiphany brought by harsh living conditions and simplicity. Instead I did half of all that, made some great beats on my laptop, wrote a farming manual and caught lots of cold drinks and movie nights with my people. It was perfect how it ended up.

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My friend Grigor sends me his “templar” book, and a fresh 20 to use as a book mark! Grigor held down the homefront, taking care of the farm and my dog frida while I was away. Ok so the 20spot, toubab money, hey it’s very powerful! If I had USD I would take it to the Lebanese guys who owned the supermarket in town and they would convert it into Gambian Dalasi for me. When I was there the conversion was about 40 dalasi for each dollar. I was given a stipend of about $160 dollars a month so $20 was a good increase.

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At the start of my service this is what our tree nursery looked like.

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More trees are added to the nursery. Eventually we had something like 400 trees or plants in here. Again, easy to sow seeds and brag about large stock numbers, difficult to outplant and maintain all of them.

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Here’s the nursery at its later stages, getting a little packed with lots of trees. When we would host garden trainings at the farm we’d say “and everybody gets a free cashew tree to take home and plant!” just trying to get these trees outta here!

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Make compost, that’s the mission. If nothing else I think I helped a lot of people realize the benefit of piling up a bunch of different material as a technique for improving the soil. Did i tell Gambians about 30:1 carbon:nitrogen ratios and the ultra fast berkeley method? Not really. Mostly i told them to pile all the stuff they usually burnt and just leave it. Flip it if you want to or have the energy, or add manure and water too it if possible. My favorite thing was to dig a hole in the piles and have Gambians put their hands inside to feel the heat. This was a real mind blower for farmers who have never felt how hot a compost pile can get. One teacher even said “I will never burn my field again, and will make compost every year. It really helps the crops.” 

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This is the video club! Anytime in the day I could grab a sandwich and a cold drink and go watch a football game. I was lucky to live in a bigger town, and could even get a beer. At times, like for the world cup, the televisions were running off a generator. One of the hottest times I’d experienced was in this room with 120 people, standing room only, watching a world cup game.

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On this day I was dropped off at my new house in Farafenni! With two trunks and a bike and a few bags you start your site visit – the time where you get a few days to see your permanent site. My house was huge! Most PCVs houses/huts were half the size of my front room alone, and i also had two back rooms. I had a large front porch and a back with a shower. I got really lucky with my site placement. I later talked with my training team and asked them why they put me there and they said that they knew the large town of Farafenni would be challenging for many PCVs but they thought me being a guy (this would make me safer and be hassled less), a little bit older, and having the right counterpart and school farm setting would be a good match. I’m so grateful I ended up in Farafenni, it was perfect for me. Thousands of people, manic excitement and attention, fried chicken and cold soda, huge garden and farm, beer, tourist bird watchers, welding sparks, christian raised pork, trans africa rallies, runaway goats, and a tall white guy from michigan now called mohammad in the mix of it all, scrapping it out! Yea, bring it on i say! I handled it all and really rocked it!

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2 years 2 months under a bug net. I’m so appreciative now that i don’t have to crawl in and out of bed under these things anymore. I feel so free in bed and uncaged. The net is a little claustrophobic but you get used to it. One thing to watch out for with these nets is that when their really new the treatment on them is so strong that it’ll make your eyes and your face burn. Some PCVs woke up in the middle of the night with a burning face and ran to the bathroom to try wash away the burn. Word to the wise – air out that bug net before you sleep under it. I’m just really happy I don’t have to sleep under these things anymore. And believe it or not, that mauna kea hoody on the door was worn quite often – most nights on the bantaba and during rainy season. 

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I had to put this picture in here because it’s not a poised cool guy shot like some of my other ones and it really captures something. In the accidental picture taken here i think you see the state of sweating and general tiredness and slight confusion that was my normal mode of operations. And i’m on a huge ferry floating across the river Gambia. I’m probably thinking what am i doing out here, on that big dumb blue boat lol, and why for so long!? honestly you get to a point where you catch yourself thinking “geez louise, what am i doing here!” and then right at that moment some little kid yells “toubab! give me your bottle!” lol and it all works and makes you laugh because it’s so ridiculous. It’s a well known fact amongst PCVs that in a single day, perhaps single afternoon, you can cry laughing about a story with your host family, actually cry out of frustration and confusion and then possibly tear up because perhaps you saw how special what your doing is. The rapid change of situations and emotions can be extremely fast – from the bottom of your range all the way to the top in a moment. Gambia is pushy and it’s so good for you. 

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A piece of bamboo holds up the wick as beeswax is poured in to make a candle. When the wax solidifies we cut the tape that’s holding the bamboo halves together and have a candle. Simple good and smart.

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This is one of my favorite pictures because it captures what peace corps is really like to some extent. The PC guys in DC would never run this in one of their pamphlets they use to recruit people but this is what a lot of the times are like – silly, fun, educational and eh just trying our best to help. In this picture it’s after lunch at our beekeeping training and one PCV is yawning tired, next to him one of the Gambian instructors is actually sleeping, and in the foreground our PCV friend from Guinea has put the block of beeswax we were passing around on his head! It’s all so perfect and real. I think that’s what I learned from my service and travel, that underneath all situations there’s a funny and uniquely human side of life that’s really enjoyable and special. It’s the joke made when the interview is over, or the exhausted laugh when everything well planned falls apart. Peace corps is really great and special, but not for the reasons you guess it will be before you get in country. I didn’t imagine I’d be in this situation before leaving but it’s a real gem to me now :). 

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My host grandmother, tala, shows me who’s boss and unknowingly makes this picture so much better! This is my  host family in Kaiaf, my hosts for the 2-month pre-service training, grandmother out front, daughter behind in the white tank top and granddaughter to the left in the yellow, along with adopted grandson in the black t-shirt.

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My host father Musa went to the fields this day and brings me back a bunch of groundnut (i.e. peanuts). When he walked in my hut and held these up I was thinking “what is that!?” I’d not really known how or where groundnuts grew until I came to Gambia. I’m ending with this picture because it represents the best part of my service and time in Gambia; the simple lifestyle with others and nature that leads to connection. That’s it. Connection was the point of my time there and that’s what happened.

Stay tuned for future posts…..and thank you for sharing the journey and sticking with me. -stephen

2015 harvest, mini food forest and final welding project…

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Throwing down the heavy bundles of rice.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.   

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Almost finished with the rows. 

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.  

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

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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.  

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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. 

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

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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

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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. 

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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.  

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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. 

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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.  

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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. 

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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. 

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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.  

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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The millet is interplanted with beans.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hauling the compost into the food forest.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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The compost is evenly spread around the field.

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We then raked out the compost.

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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.

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

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Piles of biochar arranged at the foot of each section.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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On it’s way…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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,

Stephen

Go big before you go home: Food forest part 1

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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,

Stephen