Everything I had hoped for, but nothing I expected

UC 2013 Trip

Africa was everything I had hoped for but nothing I expected. You can study a country for an entire semester, as our class did, and still be completely blown away upon arrival. The very first group of students of the University of Cincinnati’s S-Project (Sustainability Social Entrepreneurship in Senegal) arrived in the city of Dakar, Senegal on December 12, 2013. For the next ten days, we had a whirlwind of experiences that gave us a new outlook on life, as well as the purpose of our project. I will now attempt to express what I took away from the trip into words.

Generosity: We had heard that Senegal is the “Land of Hospitality,” but did not understand the extent to which that is true. Our hosts, Dany and Herma Bode, gave up their elbow room around their dinner table and dedicated so much time and effort to housing us and keeping us much more comfortable than we anticipated and deserved. When we visited a village in the town of Djilor, we were fed lunch and dinner, and families gave up their beds so that we would have a place to sleep. Saidu Ba, the director of Aywa International, told us that the people of the village go hungry so that the guests are fed. Whatever we left on our plates would be their meal. Seeing such generosity, hospitality, and kindness from relative strangers really gives you a reality check on the importance we place on material goods. Americans go into countries such as Senegal wanting to make a difference and tell the people that to uplift themselves, they must save their money. We found out that this is an unrealistic and very Western minded concept. Money is not commonly saved in Africa because whenever people have money left over after feeding their family and paying the bills, there are always other family members and people in their community who need help. The Senegalese help each other to survive; they can’t allow themselves to become more successful if the people around them are suffering.

Community: In the village in Djilor, we got to experience the togetherness of a true community. A few of the women sat with big metal tubs and pots and drummed beautiful rhythms as people danced in the Senegalese’s unique way. Hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in a big circle and clapped and cheered each other on as people danced in the center. Everyone knows and loves each other and they come together and have fun after a long, hard day of work. Most of us had never experienced anything like this, except for the occasional awkward block parties at home.

Family: Three other students and I were a part of the “Women’s group,” the group going to Senegal with the focus of uplifting the women of the country. Our plan was to interview women to hear their stories and to see how we could best help them in the future. We went in expecting to hear stories of hardship and abuse, but instead found strong, hard-working women, laboring day after day, some well into their old age, to make enough money for their families. They didn’t complain for a second about their lives, but instead gushed over how much they love their families and their community. Instead of finding victims, we found the epitome of strength. This strength was rooted in the love for family, the only truly permanent tie between humans. Needless to say, I appreciate my own family much more now.

Now that we have spent time in Senegal and gotten to see life through the eyes of the people we want to help, The S-Project is now more equipped to make a real difference. Above all, we are extremely grateful to all the people that made this trip possible and helped make the experience truly life-changing.

 

UC Forward 2015 Trip Log – Day 1

By Mary Cate McIntyre

We had a great first outing in Senegal! After breakfast, we took a drive to see how oils are extracted from local plants like the baobab tree and hibiscus plant. While on site, we got to watch a woman soaking the dried hibiscus leaves in preparation for processing. We were then shown the machine used to press and extract oil from the seeds. The baobab oil we witnessed being extracted will be shipped to France, Spain or the US for commercial sale.

The next stop on our journey was to the village of Dany’s old friend, Ndeye. We were welcomed wholeheartedly by the entire village. After Ndeye and her family gave us a tour of their village and surrounding land, we were presented with an amazing feast of rice, chicken and watermelon. As we began to leave the village, the community gathered around us and started singing. All it took was one woman to grab a metal bowl and start drumming to get all of us to take turns dancing in the middle of the crowd.

We ended with a quiet dinner, some card games, and a Wolof/English language exchange between Alfred, Jibby and all the students.

Upcycling Concepts

1. Outdoor hanging plant
The idea of this is to draw interest to the building and add a sustainable aesthetic to the exterior. Information on the different plants could be painted behind or hung so people can learn from even just passing. Locals could also buy seedlings of plants within “pots” like these to begin growing their own produce. This has been done locally with an aquaponics method to teach locals about the benefits of cyclical agriculture systems containing fish.

Bottle Planters

2. Cushions using quilted fabrics and recycled material for cushion
This product would be a great use of recyclable materials in a marketable product. By using a large number of bottles, there is a lot of waste being removed from the landfill. Possibly, to increase the strength of what the cushion could support, the bottles would be filled with plastic bags. Covering the cushion would be a means of recycling local fabric, and potentially creating a quilt out of various fabrics. Various versions of this product could be made using liter sized plastic bottles, individual sized plastic bottles, and even cans. Another potential for this product would be replacing the fabric on the outside surface (the non-circular part) with a plastic “fabric” made from ironing plastic bags together, reinforcing the fact that this is a recycled product. This could also be used as seating around Aywa’s new center.

Bottle Furniture

Flowing Well Water

At some point during this afternoon, we crossed back into Senegal. All but our driver jostled between conscious and unconscious states of West African transportation-induced nausea as the sun above and the black tarmac below baked our bodies from the inside out while the dust collected over the salt crystals, remnants of our bodies’ sweat that was meant to cool our core, however, evaporated from our skin, before such cooling could be experienced.

Up until this point, the reason for this sojourn was for me to visit with my host family and for the others to experience village life and the Pulaar culture indigenous to the southern most reaches of Senegal, which stretched into northern Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Now that we were in the Foundjoune region of Senegal which is characterized by mangroves and a high water nap making it easier to cultivate larger crops, we had the intimate opportunity of seeing AYWA projects in action, and practices and technologies being employed by fishermen, cash-crop farmers, and women tending to their family’s small-plot vegetable gardens.

The following day we boarded a large pirogue that was capable of taking all of us ‘boys’ out and across a large and fairly desolate bay to the west that is protected by an expanse of marshy, quicksand-like muddy inlets whose tidal action drained and fed the mangroves as far as one could see. At some point we beached our craft that was powered by an AYWA adjusted motor capable of consuming biofuel that includes Jatropha, and set out by foot through this great expanse. And, in this experience, I found myself for perhaps the first time in all my time in Senegal, alone with my thoughts as my mates went on ahead and I breathed in the tranquility this serene environment bestowed on me, a unique experience in a country that is communal and social in nearly every aspect of daily life.

That afternoon we headed to a village that Dany had been working with for many seasons. In this village we were greeted with drums and screaming children feeding off the energy that only visitors can evoke. As our van drove through the millet stalk-lined compounds, and out to the fields beyond, an energy of dance, song and noise led this procession until at last we stopped our van at the women’s dry season garden. After we greeted each woman who was laboriously pulling water from the well and then lifting the large bucket on to her head with the aid of the others, they would walk a short distance to where they would dump the water onto their garden, splashing water and soil, not to mention seedlings in some cases all about. Although this was a Mandinka village, I spotted a Pulaar woman with whom I could communicate. I asked her about garden, her family and the difficult nature of the work that was required to tend to her garden’s needs. She made it clear that the task of watering her garden was the most laborious.

As I was chatting with this woman, the Malika Monkeys were pulling the generator and pump down from the roof of the van and assembling it near the well. They added gas and primer, attached a large plastic hose while sinking the other end into the well water below and with a few pulls of the ignition chord, the generator violently came alive and in an instant, water was being sucked from the well and splashing into over a dozen multi-colored buckets on the ground. As fast as the water rushed forth, the women grabbed their buckets and sped to their garden plots to dump their water, and returned even faster in order to take advantage of the free-flowing water that did not to need to be hand-drawn from the well. With the women singing and helping one another transport the water in pairs to their respective plots, the children danced, screamed, and got so wound up that many would find themselves slipping in the mud forming around the buckets and then getting yelled at by the women whose feet were busy rushing water to and fro.

For maybe 15 minutes the women raced and as it appeared that all the plots were sufficiently watered and the buckets were not being poured on their gardens, but being transported back to their compounds, the pump was shut off, and the air that was just filled with the pump’s noise was replaced by a dance of gratitude and clapping as the women thanked us for not only making this day better, but for testing this technology at their village with the prospect of buying a pump of their own at some future date.

When we finally made it back to Malika, we were exhausted, but all were more familiar with this great country, its beautiful multi-faceted ecosystems and with the varied projects AYWA had cultivated throughout the peanut basin area of Senegal.

Once I was stateside after this whirlwind tour of several regions of Senegal, I was motivated to get more involved with AYWA. And although I have a lofty title within this Organization, the success is due to Dany and his staff, the Malika Monkeys, who manipulate technologies to work in rural village settings and most importantly, the women and men in these villages who are willing and trusting enough to embrace new ideas and share their experiences with neighboring villages so that innovation can spread. To all of these individuals, I thank you for your efforts as development work becomes ever more challenging if the implementation at this grass roots level is not successful.

A Night in Sarre Yero Diao

Reconnecting with my family was a joyous occasion. Over the past ten years, since I was there last with my wife, it was evident that my family had acquired a substantial amount of wealth, and more importantly, they were healthy which was not only a great relief, it was an occasion to celebrate. After our initial greetings, I took our crew to tour the village which included six other families. As is the custom, we greeted each and every one of the family members, including the new Chief, who took over for his father who passed away five years earlier. We then toured the fields with my ‘brother,’ Omarou, spent a considerable amount of time in their newly planted cashew orchard which is becoming a very lucrative cash crop, and then meandered down to the Cassamance River which flanks Sarre Yero Diao to the north and west for a dip with dozens of boys who rejoiced at the novel experience of swimming with their visitors.

That evening, my host mother, Yorba, created two amazing rice and meat dishes complete with an array of vegetables which we had procured from the market earlier that afternoon, and in savoring these creations which were served in large bowls around which we squatted and ate, I marveled at the fact that this feast was all prepared over two small fires in two great pots. Truly difficult to imagine how this was all made possible, even though I had been watching and chatting with the elderly women and others who I knew as girls, but were now mothers with their babies tied on their backs with sarongs.

Over the next several hours and late into the evening I chatted and translated our dialogue to our crew while we took turns drawing water from a new well which was located in our family’s compound so that we could take ‘bucket baths’ which cooled down our sweaty travel-weary bodies. Next we bedded down on the bamboo structures situated under the mango trees that filtered the bright light of the moon, which like the sun, seemed more omnipresent and alive as its hunger for attention burned through our eyelids while the children’s laughter and play could be heard all around us. Eventually, all at once, the village became a muffled silence as the stars morphed into an ever-familiar tapestry of light.

Sadly, this was a quick visit. My family was confused and upset that they did not know I was coming, but this was to be expected as they have never received any of my letters over the years, however, explaining to them in the best Pulaar I could muster that we were leaving the following morning was a difficult ‘concept’ for them to comprehend. And, knowingly how bizarre this immediate departure seemed to them in that I had travelled so far and to only stay one night is simply not an aspect of their culture as one visits for many nights after having travelled any great distance, my family was thankful that I had come so far for the sole purpose of visiting them. That said, and with mutual adoration, we were all loaded up, and with the children sending us off with a song and a dance, we continued northwest toward The Gambian border over a crumbled cement and potholed dirt ‘road’ that is still unimproved and is just as unforgettable as it was when I last travelled this route some 20 plus years ago.

While we waited to ferry across the Gambia River, I was surprised to learn that the four ‘Malika Monkeys’ who were with us and had grown up in the suburbs of Dakar, had not only never been to that region of Senegal, or for that matter, never been that far from their home, they had also never spent the night in such a rural village. I was filled with a calm satisfaction in having successfully entertained these ‘city-dwelling’ Senegalese, who for the most part did not speak or understand Pulaar, in such a remote setting that was still all too familiar to me.

Although we all enjoyed different aspects of the sights and adventures we experienced, a common highlight was the evening spent in my former host village, Sarre Yero Djiao. All agreed that not only did my host family epitomize the welcoming and easygoing nature of the Pulaar people, my host family’s desire to reconnect with me and meet the needs of my group, was a gracious experience none of us will forget.

Returning to Sarre Yero Diao

It had been 20 years ago, almost to the day that began my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal, West Africa when I stepped off the plane pre-dawn and inhaled the humid, yet unmistakably sweet and acrid air of Dakar. After grabbing my bag and fumbling with my French through Customs, I was greeted by Dany and his friend Wilber. Fighting the fatigue that can overcome one’s body while driving from any point in Senegal to any other point, we arrived at Dany’s mother’s home in Malika which is on the north-eastern outskirts of the ever growing capital, Dakar. After a tour of Herma’s compound, Dany’s mother, and greeting all of the Malika Monkeys, a name given to the young men working as artisans for and with Dany, Herma showed me to my room. Within minutes I was dozing off to the sounds of these young men filling the early morning air with laughter, music, drumming and of course the sometimes sharp, yet mechanical noises that only a welding, wood sculpting and machine shop could produce.

I awoke a few hours later to the West African heat penetrating my bedroom while oddly enough, the droning of men working in the neighboring shop continued on. I showered, had some breakfast with Herma and Dany and some other guests, then wandered out into the bustling streets of Malika to reconnect with the people of Senegal whose vibrant, and sometimes very loud way of communicating I had dearly missed. As my Pulaar language skills resurfaced, I became more excited for the adventure to come: a five-day whirlwind tour of Senegal to visit AYWA demonstration plots and projects, while also driving to the Cassamance Region in the southern part of the country to visit my Peace Corps host family and village of Sarre Yero Diao, who are among the most gentle people I have ever had the privilege of meeting and getting to know over a two-year period so many years ago.

Although we were late in our departure the following morning which is just the way it is when a van is being loaded with a water pump, a generator, other supplies and seven guys, we headed south towards Cassamance which was a new experience for all, but one other member in our group, Seydou, as none of the others, including Dany had ever been to this region.

As travel in Senegal is always an adventure and never predictable, we arrived much later than we had desired, but more importantly, we were safe in Tambacounda where we stayed the night. The following morning we grabbed some wooden street-side benches and breakfast which consisted of two eggs ‘poached’ in oil with some onions and Maggi seasoning folded into millet bread. This was a breakfast I had been looking forward to for weeks! Later that afternoon, we arrived in Kolda where we had Yassa Poulet (chicken, onions and rice), seasoned to perfection with red peppers that burnt our tongues. Our eyes teared up as the late afternoon sun beat down upon the bamboo roof overhead, catalyzing the need to drink as much water as we were all sweating. Yet we seemed to be losing this battle as we opted for Flag beers which tasted great, but left us slightly lethargic and dehydrated. We continued on to shop for a large and varied amount of food items and other gifts for my former host family, the chief and the children who were only 22 kilometers further to the west and had no idea my entourage and I were en route.

Adventures in African Accounting

As part of Vanderbilt’s Project Pyramid team, my partner Scott and I took on the task of helping out the Malika Monkeys with their accounting practices.  The first thing to know about finances in Africa is that, generally speaking, record keeping in Africa doesn’t resemble accounting practices in the United States.  There’s a great book called African Friends and Money Matters that goes into detail here (and in my opinion, a must-read for any groups looking to work with entrepreneurs in Africa), but our biggest takeaways have been:

1) Money is shared amongst family and friends to a much greater extent in Africa than in the U.S.  To that end, the success of a village or family will always outweigh an individual’s success.

2) Keeping written records is not as widespread in African finances as it is in the states.  Often times, businessmen and women in Africa keep track of finances in their heads, and this works well for their needs.  That’s not to say nothing is written down, though.  Here’s an example of a detailed accounting sheet from a farmer we met:

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Scott and I read about both these points prior to taking off for Dakar, and our experience on the ground confirmed what we had read.  Still, there are some compelling reasons to keep a close track of finances.  First of all, doing so helps a salesperson know which items are best-sellers, which items cost the least amount of money to make, and so on.  Second, having written records is necessary for organizations like AYWA to apply for grants and membership to fair trade organizations.

With this in mind, we set out to help Abdoulaye with his business accounting in hopes that one day he’ll be able to teach the rest of the Malika Monkeys.  Even though Abdoulaye hadn’t kept written financial records for sometime, he was willing and eager to take a go at tracking costs and receipts on his laptop.  With Abdoulaye’s input, we created a spreadsheet that tracks materials, production time, quantity and sales totals for his products.  For the past few weeks, he’s been using the spreadsheet to track costs and receipts.  Through the power of dropbox, we’ve been able to troubleshoot any problems that have come up thus far and look forward to continuing to work with him in the future.

Exploring the Potential for Pumps

Agriculture is a huge part of Senegal’s economy, but many Senegalese live below the poverty line. AYWA is attempting to improve the agriculture sector and the lives of farmers throughout the country by developing mobile motorized water pumps that can save farmers significant amounts of time while increasing their crop yield. In partnership with the Peace Corps and USAID, AYWA’s staff designed and produced a high-quality diesel pump that can be transported between water sources, addressing the very real burden that farmers face when attempting to carry stationary pumps between wells during the hot summer months.
Project Pyramid is working with AYWA to research how broad the market for these pumps is, potential funding sources for farmers, and ways to decrease the cost of producing the pumps. Through marketing and strategic partnerships, the pumps will become a new- and strong- arena in which AYWA can support farmers throughout Senegal make more and better produce.
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Commercializing West African Oils

Balanite, more commonly known as the desert date, is indigenous to Senegal.  The healing and cosmetic properties of the oil pressed from the nut have a long and storied tradition, dating back to Cleopatra.  However, it has largely been used locally, and has not yet been brought to the global market on a large scale.  AYWA is looking to change that.

In collaboration with a The Ohio State University and Vanderbilt University, AYWA is mapping the process of Balanite Oil production from nut collection through export and sale to global markets.  Currently the nuts are being collected in villages by the women and children, cracked with a machete, and pressed in a hot hand crank press.  The women then sell the oil in the local market, where it is mainly used for cooking.

We are currently exploring options to mechanize the cracking and pressing processes to meet higher quality standards required by the cosmetic producers.  This will allow the women in the villages to sell a higher quality product and capture more of the value from this valuable and readily available nut.

AYWA_Bridgepress3

 

Project Pyramid: Moving Forward

We weren’t the first group of well-intentioned graduate students who set out to make a difference, and we certainly won’t be the last, but still this trip felt like more than just a one-off service opportunity. Thanks to Herma’s hospitality, Brian’s guidance, and AYWA’s vision, our time in Senegal was filled with purpose, none greater than building relationships with AYWA’s local entrepreneurs. Our time in Senegal exists not so much as a memory than as a new outlook; our eyes and hearts expanded by the unconditional friendship to which we were privy.

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