New Continent, New Family

9-18-17 Keur Birima, Senegal.

 (wrote on the 18th, but uploaded 21st – Limited internet)

Last Sunday (10-9) I left the comfort of the Tostan Training Center and headed out to meet my host family for the next seven months. Earlier in the week I had received a small packet about my host family and community that I would be living in: my new home was a (very) small village called Keur Birima population 300, 23 of which would be my host family. I would have two main apprenticeships lined up: working on the family ranch/ farm, and teaching English in the primary school when school starts in late October. I was Thrilled to hear this, I had wanted to be remote and rural as possible, and it looked like that would soon become my everyday reality.

                It was hard saying goodbye to everyone that morning, even though we would be seeing each other in just six days. The bonds I have made to everyone in the cohort are incredible strong, I wanted to be able to share my experience with all my companions, but I knew that that would not be the case. I was going to be very alone for the next few days. Other Fellows in my cohort are relatively close to each other and would be able to see each other during the week, but Keur Birima is the most remote placement, I would not have the luxury of seeing any of my friends, or speaking English; I felt honored. At noon that day I stood at the entrance of my new home and watched the dust settle as my world of comfort, security, and everything I had ever known drove away, leaving me with completely and totally alone in a foreign land.

Sounds poetic right? The feeling of abandonment lasted a total of 15 seconds, then I turned around to the open arms of an inviting, welcoming home and Family (yes, all 23 of them). I spent my first afternoon getting a tour of the family farm from my brother Ndongo. The farm is a little slice of heaven. We grow peanuts, corn, bananas, and a lot of mangos. The sad reality though is that you can’t just pick a mango off a tree and eat it right then; you need to wait three days after picking it, then it’s ripe and ready to eat. Needless to say, mangos are currently a large proportion of my diet. On our farm we also have about 30 longhorn cattle, three horses, two herds of sheep (more on these guys later), a killer goose, and several donkeys that aimlessly wander around. Ndongo also gave me a tour of my new hometown, Keur Birima, it was then that I realized that the estimate of 300 was a bit off. There is one mosque, and 5 family compounds, two of which are my family’s. There’s not more than 50 people. Awesome.

My new host family is amazing, everyone from my dad to my eight-year-old brother tries to make sure that I’m comfortable at all times. Even with a massive language barrier surrounding every interaction I am still able to laugh and joke around with anyone. Let me give an example: First night I was there, after dinner I was giving my host dad a few small thank-you gifts that I had brought from home. One of the gifts I had brought was a small jar of Oregon grown and made huckleberry jam; as I was handing it to my dad I dropped it and it completely shattered everywhere on the concrete floor sending shards of glass and jam everywhere. There was a moment of terrifying complete silence, then everybody burst out laughing. At first I thought they were laughing at me until I realized they were laughing with me.  It was an interesting way to break the ice, but it worked. I also received a Senegalese name! My name is Ndongo Fall. Yes, my brother named me after himself, but the rest of my family rejects that and says I’m named after the Ndongo in Daara J. Family, a popular musical group in Senegal.

During the first week I learned the workings of the farm inside and out, but mostly I learned about sheep. The exact type of grass that sheep like, how use a scythe to cut approximately 400,000 lbs (give or take) of grass each day, when to water and feed the sheep, which sheep need medicine, what it feels like when the lead male of the heard rams you at full speed, all important things. I’m in charge of both herds of sheep at different points of the day, in total it’s about 35 sheep. I’m a shepherd on a mango farm in West Africa. Yup

One exciting moment from the first week was when we had to wrangle a full-grown bull to get ready to be sold. This consisted of sama Baay (my dad) yelling orders and laughing as four of my and I lassoed a bull roughly the size of a dump truck, and dragged it out in front of the compound. A few points to remember for next time I’m lassoing a bull with horns as big as the sword of Excalibur—know how to use a lasso, know where I’m supposed to be taking the bull, wear shoes, know the Wolof words for “move”, “run”, “let the rope go”, and “rope-burn”; small things like that. Another highlight happened one afternoon when I was headed out to feed my sheep in the afternoon. I walked out the back entrance of the compound to find two dragons sunbathing only a few feet in front of me. After treading air for several seconds, I made landfall in a thorn bush several meters away from the dragons. Okay, they weren’t dragons, I later found out that they are called “burr” in Wolof, or Saharan Monitor lizards. Both of lizards I saw were close to four feet long and had me a little “startled” even though as soon as they saw me they ran away. I’ll call these moments “learning experiences”.

                Right now in Senegal it is getting to the end of the wet season, which means that soon there will be no food for the sheep to eat. To help prepare for the dry season we have begun creating a stockpile of hay. Another thing we have a lot of excess of in Keur Birima is millet. Lots and lots of millet. Sheep eat millet, stalk and all. Preserving millet for up to six months is simple enough—hack the stalks into inch long pellets with machetes then throw it in an airtight bag with some salt to help preserve it. If you are not familiar with millet stalks, imagine a plant similar in shape and size to corn, but the stalks have a similar consistency and toughness equal to bamboo. This made for a rather long day of hacking about a quarter million millet stalks to bits. This process was made much easier with the rope-burns I got from the bull incident the day before. “Learning experience”.

Way out here on the farm I get very little internet access. It is such a good feeling being disconnected. I’m no stranger to not having internet; I prefer it honestly, I still have never owned a real cell phone, but for safety (insurance) reasons Global Citizen Year provided me with a phone, so in case of emergencies I can call for help. So, I’m living in rural Senegal as a shepherd and I’m more connected than I’ve ever been before. Small amounts of irony there. Since I am connected I do get messages from my mom once every few days, one particular message she sent to remind me to keep good hygiene since I’m living off the beaten path. I calmly reminded her that I have VERY strict hygiene. My left hand is my wiping hand, while my right hand is for eating out of a bowl on the ground shared by seven or eight of my siblings. She was very reassured.

                One day after chopping millet for approximately two eons I got home to find a new lamb! She’s so cute! I named her Fauna. However, the next day Fauna was sick, so Ndongo and I had to rush her to the vet. This meant walking the mile to the main road where we could hitchhike into town. After the vet visit we took a taxi back out to the turnoff to the farm, and walked the mile back home. All of this was completed while holding a bawling lamb who’s only mission is to pee and poo everywhere on you. I couldn’t get mad; Fauna is too adorable.

                Over the weekend all the Fellows in Senegal met up for two days to debrief our first week. Getting myself to the hotel in Theis was simple enough, I just had to walk about a mile to the town along the main road where a prearranged driver would be waiting for me, courtesy of Global Citizen Year. I got about halfway to the road when I got a call from my team leader James; there had been logistical mix-up and my driver was not going to be there.  No problem, public transportation in rural Senegal is easy enough; wave a 500 Fcfa bill (a bit less than a dollar) at a car passing by, and hop in. There was not much traffic that morning, so I just started walking in the direction of Theis. After roughly a mile of walking I heard the rumble of a diesel engine approaching. I flagged them down and hopped in. The car didn’t start. After a bit of tinkering it still wouldn’t start. I decided to abandon this car and continue walking. Another mile down the road I flagged down a second car. This one made it a full 150 yards before it died and started puking fluid everywhere. I got out to assess the damage. I saw three different colors of fluid, one of which was red which I know is transmission fluid so I immediately knew that this car was busted. After another mile of walking the third time was the charm, I made it all the way to Theis in that car, just to get into another taxi to take me exactly where I was going. Four cars and two and a half hours to get 40 kilometers, new personal record.

 The rest of the weekend went more smoothly than my transit. It was so great to see everyone after a long week. It was so fun hearing everybody else’s stories along with telling my own. The whole weekend went by too fast and all too soon I was saying goodbye again. I’ll see everybody again next weekend but that seems like a lifetime away. Heading back out to the farm was much easier than leaving, only two cars! As I was walking down the dirt road back to the farm I ran into my brother Ibrahim while he was out herding our cattle, he welcomed me back and we talked (as best I could) about our weekends. When I got back to the compound everybody came up to me shaking my hand, asking how my weekend was, if I had eaten lunch, there were smiles all around. As I was in my room unpacking my backpack from the weekend, I couldn’t help but smile, it really did feel like I was home.


Cool things I’ve seen pt. 2-

                -A donkey buck my younger brother

                -Dung Beetle

                -a sheep eat a full corn cob (in one bite)

                -Nick channel his culture shock into extremely aggressive humor


Erik out.