So you all know I’m a Peace Corps volunteer. But what does that look like? What kind of work do I do on a daily or weekly basis? And why?
As an Urban Agriculture volunteer I do a lot of the same work as other ag volunteers, but in a different setting with different challenges. According to Wikipedia, “Urban agriculture, urban farming or urban gardening is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_agriculture). It can also involve animal husbandry. My work revolves around facilitating the learning and success of farmers and gardeners whose job it is to provide food to their city and their families.
The main goal of the Peace Corps agriculture program is food security. The definition of food security is “all people, at all times, having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/global-initiatives/feed-future/).
This is all to say – people everywhere have the right to good food. Good food means different things to different people, depending where you live, what culture you participate in, and your own personal preferences.
However it is our job as agriculture volunteers to work towards that goal for as many people as we can. We are here to be facilitators and change agents and educators – to spread knowledge and ideas and hopefully increase our community’s food security.
My work as an Urban Ag involves a small-ish gardens within the metropolitan area of Tambacounda. Tamba is a relatively large city, with about 100,000 people (this being based on a few-years-old census). Despite being built-up, paved, full of motos and trucks, Tamba still hosts many beautiful gardens, tucked into neighborhoods, between family compounds.
My counterpart, a Peace Corps assigned work partner, mentor, and community connection, is a Senegalese woman who is in charge of the demonstration garden at the Agriculture Bureau of the city. She is quite the rockstar; jambaar – warrior/strong person in Wolof. She grows a lot of food, eagerly teaches other women in the area, and keeps coming up with new ideas to expand her knowledge and business opportunities.
So what am I doing here, especially with such great people already doing such good food work? I ask myself this sometimes. And what I’ve come up with so far is that my role as a PC volunteer is a facilitator, a connector, and an extender.
I can facilitate trainings for a women’s group by calling everyone involved, setting dates, coordinating lunch – being a person with the time and organizational strategies to make it happen. This is not to say that my counterpart or any other Senegalese farmer couldn’t do this themselves. Because they most definitely can. However it is the case that farmers and gardeners here have very busy lives – they have a full-time career of growing food and taking care of families. Free time is often a luxury.
So – that is one reason I am here. To be the person whose job it is to do the things my work partners and counterparts don’t have time for. To step in a make some calls when they run out of phone credit. To write down dates and times in a calendar if they are illiterate.
I am also a connector. As a volunteer with the Peace Corps I am inherently part of a large network of people. All of my fellow volunteers, Peace Corps staff, and the various other people we meet along the way. If a work partner has a question I can’t answer I can connect them to my boss who has a vast wealth of agricultural knowledge. Being here to make those links is an important part of my job because, first of all, the staff at Peace Corps can’t possibly travel to every remote village or even large city at the drop of a hat. There are so many communities that we work with, some very far from Dakar and Theis where Peace Corps is based. It is here again that I can step in and say, “Let me give them a call”, or “I’ll ask when I’m in Thies for training”.
And finally, an extender. Since my position is actually ‘Urban Agriculture Extension Agent” I feel this role follows quite logically. In order to become a volunteer we went through many weeks of training, learning how to make things grow here in Senegal. And we continue to get together for meetings and learning. It is the knowledge and skills that I glean from these training and summits that I can extend to others when I return home to my community. Again, it is impractical to bring hundreds of farmers and gardeners into Thies to learn about agriculture. It makes much more sense to have specialized volunteers live and work in communities where they can meet with farmers and extend the techniques at their farms, in their own fields.
As we extend these techniques it is our responsibility to put capacity-building at the forefront of our plans. Rather than telling a person what the best spacing for okra we instead try to teach and show and empower them to then teach others. After we leave, those work partners and friends of two years should be able to continue our work – we want to make our jobs obsolete.
But why, you might ask. Why Urban Agriculture? Why is it important?
While there are many gardeners and farmers in many of the urban centers of Senegal, food security is still an issue. Fruits and vegetables are easier to access in a city, with regular markets, both big and small. However having enough money to purchase these food items is often an issue. As UAggies one of things we teach is microgardening, or gardening in containers. These techniques make use of small or otherwise useless spaces, such as a concrete courtyard or empty tires. We teach how to make soil with manure (found everywhere from roaming herds of sheep, goats and the occasional donkey cart), peanut shells (again a very common ingredient in Senegal), charcoal powder (many people cook entirely or partially over charcoal stoves), and whatever sand or dirt people can scoop up. We encourage the use of empty containers leftover from cooking oil or tomato paste. In this way families can supplement their vegetable intake by growing lettuce, herbs, peppers, beets – really almost anything – in a space previously deemed agriculturally useless.
Another thing we do, along with our Agroforestry volunteer friends, is to establish tree nurseries and eventually plant them in garden or home compounds. Since most Senegalese families spend much of their time outside, cooking, sitting and talking, doing laundry, it is important to have shade. Especially during hot season when the highs hover around 110 F for weeks on end. Trees can be shade producers, fruit producers, leaf producers (for leaf sauce, a typical dinner meal served over millet couscous), and of course essential for the health of the environment. Having just one large tree in a compound can make all the difference.
My counterpart is really passionate about helping women become gardeners and thereby increase their income and health of their families. Her mother is the president of a women’s garden that my counterpart and I also have a few beds in. It is with this group that I hope to do trainings to extend new techniques and strategies for problems. Having a space to grow produce, whether that be mint, lettuce, or tomatoes, on a scale large enough to sell at the market is an important source of money for many of the women. The members of the group pay a small membership fee and then have access to the land and the water. It is a beautiful space that just keeps getting greener and lusher.
Often the multifaceted aspect of my job stresses me out. There are so many directions I can take with my service, I kinda want to take all of them, but that is hardly possible if I want to do them justice. And then there are times when one project is really exciting me and that’s all I want to do! So hopefully as the months continue to pass (at lightning speed) I will find a happy middle ground and really get invested in a few important projects. I will keep you updated!