Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ross Bethio Visit/Stay (10/16/2008-10/19/2008)

Our first attempt at some sort of a “rural visit” began with a visit to Ross Bethio. Ross Bethio is about an hour northeast of St. Louis (75km) and was rural in the sense of a midwestern farm town that most people just drive through on road trips…not exactly what we were all expecting. We were all expecting huts and no running water, but instead when we arrived in the 2 gas station, 12 boutique, 3 welder, 1 mosque town, we pulled into a “gated compound-like hotel” or “conference-like facility with bedrooms”, where we would be spending three nights and four days.

The straight out of the 1970s, bright pink, art-deco building was well furnished, had “running water”, eight bedrooms, a “restaurant”, and numerous other amenities (roof access and a wonderful view of the farm fields). However, don’t think that we were in any sort of five star resort; it was just a lot nicer than our expectations. Overall, the best part about the visit and stay was the opportunity to get to know the Senegalese students better. It was nice to get out of the formal classroom setting at FEPRODES, and have a three-day field experience (which helped put the content of our “La Vallee du Fleuve, lieu de Culture et de Developpement” Course in better perspective). Our three-day visit was highlighted by: (1) Kassack Nord, (2) Les périmètres de la SAED and Thilène, (3) A Charbon Vert Factory, (4) La Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise (CSS), (5) rooftop shenanigans Senegal-American style, and (6) les pneus crevés (flat tires).

1. Wait…there are theme songs for Toubabs in Senegal?

Kassack Nord is what could be considered HUD housing (Senegal version), in the sense that the village infrastructure has been completely funded by the government. Kassack Nord is a village just outside the Ross Bethio area and is home to numerous homes, a school that enrolls 327 students, a clinic, various other structures to accommodate the population of 3000, and (most importantly for our visit’s purposes) a very extensive irrigation system. The irrigation system was developed by the government and is used to bring water from the river valley into the rice fields. Unfortunately, the government created rice fields have generated a limited source of revenue for the community, and, furthermore, provided the village with just barely enough food. The village, as our professor has said, is all of the problems of Senegal in one place. Kassack Nord does not have electricity, a good running water system, and when we arrived we could see the hunger in many of the children’s eyes. The village has been forced to choose education over health, and this choice is very visible.

So, theme songs… When we got off the bus at Kassack Nord, we were greeted by what appeared to be the entire village (or at least the entire village under the age of 16) and two loud speakers playing Senegalese hip-hop/rap/something music (later we were told that the village played the music using the energy from a car battery, since they do not have electricity). It was quite a welcome, and as we descended the bus we were greeted with TOUBAB! TOUBAB! and lots of smiles and handshakes (even the Senegalese students were welcomed in this fashion, or at least more or less). We all got off and, like toubab, we took pictures and videos of the children and used our limited Wolof, later to find out that most of them only spoke Pulaar (another regional language in Senegal). We were off the bus for about 15-20 minutes before we got back on to head to the rice fields, where we would see the irrigation system and the harvesting of rice. As we got back on the bus…more music!

So, more theme songs… YES! When we returned from our trip to the rice fields, music, screaming children, and clapping elders again greeted us. We were given a tour of Kasack Nord (the schools, the medical/clinic facilities, the housing plan, etc.) and then had the opportunity to talk with the local government about their role in constructing the village, the village’s influence in Senegal, and how they have used the river valley to their advantage. We were also served beverages and cookies…definitely a highlight because it was about 3PM and we still hadn’t eaten lunch (breakfast was at 8AM) and the weather was about 85-90…in mid-October!

2. Back to the homeland…the rice fields

At Kassack Nord, I learned how rice is grown and harvested! I was “back in the homeland”, as many of the others enjoyed saying. Anyways, it was really interesting to see how the village was able to irrigate such a dry area of land into an extremely green and lush rice field. The government chose this region because of its impermeable soil that is perfect for rice culture. We were shown the various pump stations and secondary canal systems, as well as the machine that removes the rice from the stalk. On each rice stalk there is about a teaspoon of rice, so you can imagine how many acres of rice fields there were. Senegal has started to grow its own rice because it is becoming more and more costly to import from Asia. As our professor likes to say, “Senegal is without a doubt the largest consumer of rice, after China”…I can attest to that statement and say that I have eaten pounds of rice in my first two months (probably about 1-2 cups of rice per meal)!

Also, at les périmètres de la SAED I was able to work on the rice fields; I helped/tried to water the rice fields using a tube, and after about 20 attempts was successful. At SAED, they water the fields with 1-inch tubes, using physics and suction of air to pull the water from the canal over a small mound into the rice field. It is extremely interesting, and seems completely counterintuitive that water is going up a hill against gravity...but somehow it works. After I embarrassed myself, we watched a group of farmers take harvested rice stalks and put them in a machine that removed the rice grains.

3. Typha to Charbon Vert!?

Typha: a water plant that has been extremely devastating to the river valley region; it started to grow in the river valley after the building of the Diama dam and has caused problems with fish populations.
Charbon: charcoal (in French).
Vert: green (in French).

So, there is a company associated with SAED, in the Ross Bethio region, that uses typha and turns it into charcoal. This factory was very interesting because it illustrates how the Senegalese are using a devastating plant and turning it into something that every person in Senegal uses on a daily basis. I did not know that anything like this existed or could be done, so I found this visit very beneficial. Unfortunately, it was so late in the day that many of us were extremely tired and could not appreciate the visit as much as I think we would have liked to. I am definitely going to look more into how this charcoal is made and whether or not it is good for the environment. When we were in the factory, it appeared as if they might have been using more energy to make the charcoal then the charcoal actually produces. Also, it seemed that they were polluting a lot when they were burning the typha. It made it very apparent as to a huge difference between the US and Senegal—the lack of government regulation. There are no environmental laws, and I do not think the government is going to take any steps in the near future to correct their mistakes. This is just one of many differences that I am experiencing by living in a third world country.

4. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Senegal edition)

By far the sweetest day that I have had in Senegal (pun intended)! We visited the Compagnie Sucrière Sénégalaise (CSS) on 10/17/2008 and saw acres of sugar cane fields, the molasses/alcohol factory, and learned about how sugar cane is turned into cubes, grains, molasses, alcohol, etc…

We started our visit by being denied access into CSS, but after we were let in we headed to the sugar cane fields. The fields were huge and the sugar cane was at least 10-12 feet high. We were told about how the sugar cane is cut with a machete, and how it takes one man an entire day to cut down 2 hectares (200m2). As we were going from field to field we kept looking at each other trying to figure out when we were going to actually get to sample/eat the sugar cane…when we finally did arrive at the “chosen” field we were like little kids in a candy store. We broke the stalks and peeled back the hard stem casing and started to chew on the stringy center. It was my first time trying sugar cane…and it was delicious! We all looked like panda bears in a bamboo forest, except we were eating sugar cane, covered in cane juice, and had nowhere to wash our sticky hands. I think that everyone enjoyed eating the sugar cane and I know that some of the Senegalese students even took full stalks home with them! Another highlight of the CSS visit was getting to ride in the back of a pick-up truck! On a hot day in Senegal it was so nice to be able to cool off in a truck bed. Unfortunately, I got a lot of dust in my eyes, but it was worth it in the end.

5. Diversity Day

Note to self, Ross Bethio is not Dakar and does not have any sort of nightlife. We (as in the Americans) decided to look for “beverages” in Ross Bethio, so that we could have a proper celebration of American and not-so Senegalese values! During our last night in Ross Bethio, we (Americans) bought our “beverages” from what appeared to be the back room of someone’s house. We then had a roof party with the Senegalese students…and as Amelia likes to say we “integrated” ourselves. Well, it was a lot of fun because basically all of the American students made fools of themselves in front of the Senegalese students, though we know they appreciated and loved every second of it. The Senegalese students were dancing with us and singing our American hip-hop and rap songs that were played...Akon and Beyonce are definitely favorites in Senegal!

The roof party was also highlighted by Alejandra, Myra, and my ethnic nicknames that we decided to give each other…every ethnic food from quesadillas to wonton soup to kimchi to baguettes to queso cheese… (FYI: Alejandra is Venezuelan, Myra is French and Mexican, and I am Chinese.) This entertained us for a good hour or so, and it still does… my little kimchi. my little queso-baguette. my little wonton soup. my little egg roll with duck sauce. my little queso. my little quesadilla. my little strudel. my little rotten potato. my little yassa poulet. my little fried ice cream. my little beef and broccoli. my little blanched asparagus…oh the list goes on.

We made a lot of progress and “broke the ice” with the Senegalese students after our experience with them at Ross Bethio. Everything from this roof top party to Kalen and I learning how to make attaya with Ousman to Anna talking with Mairetou about “appropriate” skirt lengths to Thomas teaching Penda and Ndeye-Fatou how to play Texas Hold’em to learning the “ventilateur” dance.

6. Les pneus…CREVES!

I can check off my list of things to do in Senegal: (1) get stranded on a road in the middle of Senegal because of a flat tire, (2) get stranded on a road in the middle of Senegal and have to change buses because the spare tire has already been used, and (3) start walking 15km because it might be faster than waiting for the replacement bus to come.

We got two flat tires over the course of three days…that’s what happens when your bus goes off-roading like a four-wheel drive hummer! The first flat tire we got was on our way from CSS to our “hotel-like compound”. It was really exciting because we all got off and wondered around the “Serengeti of Senegal”, looking for lions, tigers, elephants, gazelles, and other big game animals (like donkeys, goats, and sheep). We found the latter three. Our second flat tire occurred 15km outside of St. Louis on our way home from Ross Bethio. By this time, we were already used to the drill of getting off the bus and waiting patiently. However, instead of waiting, Anna, Anne-Marie, Amelia, Djibril, Absa, and myself started to walk back…thinking that walking 15km might be faster than waiting.

The walk…well it lasted about 30 minutes, and after 1.5km we stopped to pick thorns off of Djibril’s trousers. Amelia, Anne-Marie, and I decided that it would be a good idea to wander off the road and go exploring…Djibril insisted that we not go anywhere, warning us of serpents…we continued and Djibril followed. Djibril, somehow, ended up in a thorn bush and his trousers were covered with little thorns. He said, “C’est a cause de toi que there are thorns on my trousers”. Amelia then proceeded to pick them off of him like he was a five year old (he is 29). We ended up having to get on the replacement bus and did not get to walk back…

Well, that’s my update for the week, or at least until something else worthy of a blog entry happens! FYI: this blog entry is being awarded “THE LONGEST BLOG ENTRY TO DATE AWARD”!


10 days until HALLOWEEN
11/12 days until we return to Dakar
13 days until I can go to the post office in Dakar to pay X CFA to pick up my absentee ballot
14 days until ELECTION DAY…go blue!
29 days until THANKSGIVING
49 days until TABASKI and another NEW OUTFIT!
61 days until I leave SENEGAL…what!? ☹ I have only been in Senegal for 45 days…

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