Thursday, July 19, 2012

Senegalese Currency

Senegal uses the cfa; it works well as a currency. The dirty slips of paper have negligible intrinsic worth, but when you hand a bill to someone, they have complete faith that they can hand that same dirty slip to someone else and that person will see it as valuable. A loaf of bread is 100cfa, which the baker can then use to buy a box of tea. It works well.
So why is is that Senegal decided they needed a second form of currency? Or more specifically I believe this currency is an outdated monetary form that Senegal has refused to get rid of. Maybe before globalization, the rush towards development, and imposing capitalist markets this worked ok, but now I can't help but to see their second currency as only a hindrance.

Livestock. As far as I can tell, when a Senegalese person looks at a cow, or a goat, or a chicken they do not see meat, or work animals, or pets. They see money. The amount of money ranges depending on the health and size of the animal. It would also depend on your bargaining skills and the wealth of the person buying the animal, but let's say for example that a chicken is 3,000cfa, a goat is 15,000cfa, and a cow is 50,000cfa. That's what they see instead of four legs, a wet nose, a long tail, huge horns, and glassy eyes. It might at first seem like an acceptable form of currency, especially since all of Senegal seems to think this way. If you were to buy a chicken for 3,000cfa, you could reasonably imagine getting another 3,000cfa if you then sold it. There's even the advantage of being able to buy a baby goat for say 5,000cfa and later selling it for 15,000cfa once it's grown. Like the stalk market, a good investment you expect to increase in value. People do this instead of opening bank accounts. A mother will buy her daughter a baby goat to take with her when she gets married in case times get tough and she needs to sell it. Little kids will raise chickens because they're certainly not going to get an allowance. You only need to look at a man's heard of cows to know how wealthy he is. This isn't money you can touch now, it's a savings account for whatever comes up in the future.

This might seem like an intelligent and responsible way to save and even make a little money. Especially with the social pressure that comes with actually having spending money in a society like Senegal's. Except of course, one tiny little detail. Animals die. Maybe two little details: many Senegalese people do not get enough nutrients. People are so desperate to save money that they've taken livestock numbers beyond useful amounts. Usually when supply increases, all other things equal, the price goes down. In this case price cannot go down because it's a currency and people are overly faithful that a cow has a set price. The alternative, that they realize they have way more cows than they have demand for, would effectively cause their currency to lose value and create inflation. Not a great option either. But by not realizing that their cows are worth much less than they believe, there are people who are malnourished. You cannot eat a cow because then you'd be spending 50,000cfa, way more than you can afford to spend on meat, so you go without, keeping your money and your protein deficient meal. You go without, go without, go without, and then hot season comes, your cow doesn't get much food or water, and dies. Now you've lost your money and are still malnourished. This seems ridiculous, and you might think I'm exaggerating, surely they must understand and eat their meat before it dies, but this is not the case.

Whenever my parents call they laugh at the roosters crowing in the background. I could not plant a vegetable garden in my back yard because whenever I put seeds in the ground, a few hours later they'd be eaten by chickens. I used to take bucket baths in front of an audience of 4 chickens that roosted on my fence. I have never lived around so much poultry. But the number of times I have eaten chicken in village in my two years here: twice. Once the women killed a chicken, cooked it, waited until the children went to bed, and ate it. Another time I had a friend visit on her birthday and I gave money to kill two chickens for our lunch, and my host father biked two villages over to find someone willing to sell two of their chickens. Everyone else wanted to keep their “account” and refused the money. We don't eat eggs either. The only time I've eaten eggs in village was when I found 6 behind my room and cooked them myself. They all want their chickens to lay eggs that will then grow into more chickens, birthing savings accounts. A whole new meaning to nest egg (or possibly the original meaning). This might make sense, if we ever sold or ate a chicken. Instead they just die. Dogs eat them, they get old, they get diseases. I've seen my host grandmother carrying dead chickens out from her back yard, where they went to die from some disease. We've killed a few more goats and sheep than we have chickens. But of course our most expensive sheep, a ram my mother invested in and fattened up, which she was going to sell at Tabaski, using the profits to send her daughter to high school, was taken from her by my host father. He didn't have money for a ram, hadn't had the foresight to buy a small one when they were cheap before the holiday, but didn't want the shame of not eating one on Tabaski. So instead he took my host mothers and killed that for free. She of course was still responsible for finding money to send her daughter to school, which she came to me for, but ended up losing money on her livestock investment. He has yet to pay her back, almost a year later, even though he's found money to spend lots of time in Tamba and buy multiple cell phones. In this case there's not much my host mother could have done, culturally acceptable gender inequality means he'll probably never pay her back, stealing is a whole other issue. But imagine she had cash instead of a sheep. Maybe she could have hidden it. Maybe she could have had a secret bank account with a pin number he didn't know. Some women's groups have programs where they all give a small amount each week and wait for a large sum to divide it back up or rotate who gets the pot each meeting. Maybe he would have taken only a portion of her money. But with her sheep he saw it and wanted it and killed it, done.

I try hard not to judge what I see here in Senegal, it's not my culture and I can never fully understand it, but this seems to be a glaring problem with Senegalese village economics. As a former vegetarian, I am emphatically yelling: Eat more meat S

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Last Breath

Most people believe that your last breath marks your transition from life to death. That may be so, I don't want to get into a philosophical discussion about what is living and what is dead, but I do want to point out that sometimes there is another breath, long after death, that people tend not to know about. I'm going to start by saying that dead things smell bad. And big dead things smell really bad. And if you've caught me in a particular mood here you've probably heard me complain about how awful it is to pass by a dead cow. The smell is repulsive. Unfortunately, this being the starving season, so far from the rains of last year, cows are now regularly dying from lack of food and water. It's disappointing to see farmers loose such a valuable resource, that and it smells gross.

I can't figure out if cows usually just die on the outskirts of villages, in the now dry ephemeral streams where they can spend their last moments envisioning lifesaving torrents of water, or if farmers carry them there so that the cows aren't dead in the middle of villages. Probably a mixture of both. Either way, right now there are two dead cows right next to the master farmer garden where I have my big tree pepiniere. The one cow has been decomposing there now for over two weeks and although it still smells, I can now at least venture into the corner closest to where it lies if necessary. The other one is fresh, one or two days old. It's bad, the curdling smell of rotting flesh distracts me while I try to water. My stomach shrinks up and reminds me painfully that I do not want to eat. My nose feels like it's been a little damaged by the putrid air it has to filter. But that's nothing compared to the last breath that is about to come.

When I get to the garden the cow is bloated. It's stomach is huge and disproportionate and reminds me of a blister. But when the breeze suddenly carries with it a scent that is too audacious to ignore, the stomach is back to a normal size. The final breath has dropped.

What exactly was in that stomach, I'm not sure, but what escaped it was stench. Stench so awful that Souleman and I gave up watering. The already disgusting smell of death mixed with what you might imagine the farts of a room full of sweaty overweight men with compromised digestive tracts from eating nothing except beer, beans, and Cheetos while they stay up all night playing video games. Picture the lowest tide, but for some reason a steamy layer of dead fish lines the hot and humid beach, the stench sticking to your body, carried on flies who try to get in to your ears and eyes. As if you opened a fridge full of only rotting leftovers and spoiled milk after cracking two dozen bad eggs in your kitchen where you've recently eaten a package of strong French cheese. It was bad. Thankfully I believe that sigh of sulfurous doom was the true last breath that this cow will ever exhale.


The bugs are out again. I've accumulated a few more bug stories throughout the year, here they are:

One day I noticed a line of tiny black ants crawling across my floor. I sweep my room every morning, so I know they weren't there earlier. They followed an invisible path to my trunk, which they disappeared underneath. Maybe I should have been tipped off since the road was one way. I lifted up the trunk to see where they all might be headed. A perfect outline of the trunk was filled in with black. But not a solid black, a moving, swarming, bustling black that, even though it stayed within bounds and was solid in color, did not appear stationary. A shadow of ants. With their roof suddenly relocated they began to search for it. Imagine thousands of ants suddenly and simultaneously leaving their previous parallelogram boundaries in search of some other arbitrary spot. I call it diaspora of the rectangle. They each chose a random trajectory and immediately set out. Up my walls, in every direction, over my feet. Imagine watching a shadow come to life and then, since normal laws of physics are already broken, you become fearful it will envelop the entire room. It kind of overwhelmed me and I didn't know what to do, or how to get rid of the ants. I couldn't even imagine where to start. I called my host uncle, who came in and, much more pragmatically, grabbed a broom and just started sweeping. It obviously didn't matter where you started, they were everywhere, just that you start. I followed suit and the two of us were able to clean away most of the ants within 10 minutes.
I still can't imagine why they were there, food can't really get underneath a trunk, and although it was next to my water filter, I hadn't spilled water there recently. And how did so many get there so fast. The whole thing is kind of mysterious to me, even though when I tell other Senegalese people about it, the only mystery they find is why I would bother recounting this boring story, “And...?”. Hopefully American blog readers will find it a little more interesting.

Another day I heard a buzzing noise that decidedly wasn't my cell phone. I followed the noise and found a fly trapped in a spider web. The spider was approaching but the fly was making no progress escaping. Then the spider started spinning it's web around the fly. It's legs were moving so fast and you wouldn't be able to tell what it was doing except for the fly slowly became covered in a white layer. The fly kept buzzing, but as time went on it became less energetic. Then the fly came in for a bite, I guess one laced with poison. More weaving, more biting, weaving, biting, and the whole time the fly is becoming more and more subdued, until the spider won, leaving only a marked silence behind.

Another day I had just woken up and was sitting in bed, for some reason staring at a stink bug that was walking along in the dirt near my door; apparently I was not the only one watching. The door was open wide so I couldn't see the other side. Just as the bug began to walk underneath the door, a fat purple tongue shot down and the bug was gone. Lizard breakfast.

And then the other night I saw the biggest spider I've ever seen inside a room. It was skinny, but that only helped to exaggerate the already disproportionally fat pincers. And it was extremely fast. I've never seen such a fast spider and can't figure out why they need to be fast. The fact that I had just read a short story by Stephen King probably only made me more jumpy. The spider was so big that I could hear it brushing up against things when it sprinted behind my table. I tried to kill it but was too slow. Spider at large. I definitely had trouble sleeping that night.

Fruit Drier Saga Continued

Sometimes you just have to recognize that a relationship is over and cut the ties cleanly. Sometimes you have to learn that the hard way.

I let my solar fruit drier sit for almost a year. We needed time apart to let things cool off. To come so close to successful assembly, only to fail once again, is an exhausting emotional ride. Then one day out of the blue, a farmer that I've worked with in the past expressed interest in using the drier in his orchard. He had a plethora of cashew apples and mangoes and a French tourist had convinced him that there was a large market for dried fruit. I jumped at the chance and we got the fruit drier working in just two days! It's amazing how much easier things are to do here when you have an invested local helping you out. We immediately stared drying things: cashew apples galore, tomatoes, and were excited to try mangoes. We held an appropriate technology open field day where we displayed the fruit drier and gave everyone dried cashew apples, which were gone by the end of the day (delicious). The local food transformation organization expressed interest, asking for pictures of the drier and for a sack of dried cashew apples that they could experiment with. Another Senegalese development agency asked for plans for the drier. I was excited and was beginning to count this as a success. It really seemed like people were interested.

Grafted mangoes were finally beginning to ripen, which are the only kind you can really dry here since the local varieties are too fibrous to cut appropriately. I saw the farmer I had given the drier to in my road town and told him I was going to buy a bunch of these grafted mangoes so we could test them out in the drier the next day. He was just as excited as I was. He wasn't going to be in his orchard then but told me his son would be willing to help me. The next day after lunch I cut up a whole bowl full of mangoes to bring to the garden. The whole time I daydreamed about dried mango treats being sold on the side of the road, exporting bags of Senegalese dried mango, and letting my friends try this fruit I had worked throughout two years to create! When I got to the garden with my full bowl, carefully protected from the flies, I saw the fruit drier, but in a peculiar state. Instead of how I had left it, it was in 4 different pieces, scattered on the ground where it had once stood. I left.

I talked to the farmer later, what happened? Why didn't you at least tell me when I saw you? He said that a wind tunnel had broken it and that he wasn't aware that it was broken when he saw me. Call me jaded but I don't actually believe him on either account. In reality the only thing I'm surprised about is how little I was actually upset at failing again.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reasons to be Terrified of Toads (continued)

- They have no importance.
- They are ugly.


Here is my long awaited oatmeal post. I told you I would need an entire post to talk about the oatmeal I make in the mornings and here it goes. In the States I was relatively tame with my oatmeal. Here, anything's game!

All oatmeals are cooked fresh and to order. Boiling water poured over your choice of mixed ingredients and ready in minutes.

Classic Oatmeal
Quaker oats mixed with milk powder, peanut butter, full bodied eucalyptus honey, plump raisins, imported dried fruit from America, and a sprinkling of moringa powder
Monkey Oatmeal
Your classic oatmeal with mashed tree ripened bananas
Quaker oats, milk powder, peanut butter, and cocoa powder for a creamy rich taste that starts your morning off with class
Tropical Sunrise
Quaker oats, milk powder, unsweetened shredded coconut, diced mango, authentic Cape Cod Craisins, and a dash of spicy wild acacia honey

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bird Hunting

As there are many ways to skin a cat, there are as many ways to kill a bird. Here is a short comparison of a few of the ways:

I often bike in the mornings to a neighboring village to work with one of the farmers there. The mornings are beautiful: the coolest part of the day, birds still have energy to sing, as you bike the air is refreshing, people are cheerful, and I am once again optimistic that today will be successful. And then I pass overweight Frenchmen shooting doves in Africa because they've got money to burn and testosterone to spare. They come bounding up in their trucks, sparse hair blowing in the wind as they hold their heads out the window and dream about conquering adventures. They drive a few hundred meters off of the road, forging ahead to new discoveries (of a modest farmer's corn field). There they disembark, stalking their claim, getting a feel for the lay of this foreign and harsh land. And then they shoot. And shoot. And shoot and shoot and shoot. They don't bother to find their trappings, they don't eat dirty relatives of the thinly muscled pigeon, or even really bother to move. A few steps to the left a few to the right. If you scare a flock of them into flight, there's no need to scout out your prey. And as it rains dead birds, they feed the masses. Young Senegalese boys run around collecting the carnage for lunch. Look, they have fed the hungry with their hard work and generous hearts! All hail the foreign hunter! He brings cado cado cados! There is not much that will ruin a day faster than watching people kill doves for no real reason, although I have to admit that the stench of rotting cow that now lines that road is a close second. Senegal does not have much. It does have beautiful birds. I wish that people would not take that from us as well.

I do not paint that picture to make you think that only foreigners come in and kill Senegal's wildlife. Certainly Senegalese kill the animals around themselves with little more purpose. The other evening I was sitting and reading in my compound when about 30 Senegalese children come running in, screaming. They are hot on the trail of something. It's gone behind my grandmother's hut and they follow with sticks and rocks and a purpose. I ask my mom what's going on and she says it's a bad thing that kills people. She assures me that they'll catch and kill it, so not to worry. When it's done and stoned I ask if I can see what caused such uproar, and before they burn it, they consent to let me see. A baby owl. I was unaware that owls killed people...

But some of the ways animals are killed here are much more interesting and uplifting. There is a bird here, the Franklin (wholo in Jaxanke), that is shaped somewhat like a chicken and apparently has very tasty meat. Unfortunately I have not had the chance to eat one yet, and I think that is because my host brothers are still young. Franklin's are killed only when the sun is at it's hottest, when they're tired and slow. They sleep in the bush on the ground and although they can fly, they usually go short distances from one clump of brush to another. When a village wants to go Franklin hunting, they'll organize a whole group of young men to go out together. Each man will carry a stick and they'll wack the bushes with it to scare anything out of them. If a Franklin flies out the race is on. The men will chase the bird until one finally corners and catches it. Not only are they catching dinner, it is like a game where teamwork is required and the winners get the meat. It is a testament to human strength. We can survive the heat and sun, work together, race a bird, and catch it. I do not mind the killing of animals, but there are different ways of going about it; this seems like one of the most honorable ways possible.