Sunset in the Sahel: Adventures at the Great Green Wall and Other Thoughts

“This guy is actually crazy.” Moutarru, the CIEE staff member traveling in the passenger’s seat, took advantage of a particularly unhurried herd of cattle to run around to the bed of the pickup and relay this warning to the ten of us crammed into the back there. He was talking about the driver of the pickup, a man who had made our caravan of trucks wait for two hours before he showed up, and who had then proceeded to back into a pole mere moments before we were ushered into his truck. There had been other harbingers too – “watch out for the trees” and “the door, it opens often” (in reference to the back hatch, against which some of us were leaning) – but Moutarru’s words confirmed our nagging suspicions that our driver was not exactly the most sane fellow. Of course, we were also the only one of the four trucks to have sped off-road, separating from the rest of the group as we bumped over the Sahel, raising a magnificent trail of dust that lingered behind us in the sunset.

 

It was Friday the thirteenth, and we were on our way to la Grande Muraille Verte in the very north of Senegal. The GMV, or the Great Green Wall, is an anti-desertification project being implemented by the African Union, hypothetically in all of the countries of the Sahel, which is the arid, savannah-like region south of the Sahara Desert. As the most stable country in this area, Senegal has spearheaded the project, and has established several outposts from which tree-planting supplies can be spread across a swath of government-regulated land. My program was going for the weekend, a group of fifty toubabs, to plant trees.

 

The grasses stretched as far as the eye could see on our crazy ride to the outpost, the horizon interrupted only by baobabs, acacias, and the occasional thatched traditional compound with huts circled around fires where dinners were no doubt simmering. We sped across a barely-there road with ferocious abandon, our knees banging together, hair whipping every which way, and bugs getting stuck everywhere. Every pothole was a feat of bracing as the driver slowed only slightly to honk impatiently at every livestock who dared to cross our path – and not only livestock, as we discovered when we disrupted the Friday prayers of a group of Muslim herdsmen gathered on prayer mats in the midst of the grasses. We think our truck accidentally ran over one of their axes or staffs, because suddenly all of them sprang to their feet and started shouting after us. I felt like I was in a dream, watching this scene unfold as though it were a movie instead of the actual bizarre reality of my life.

 

How could we process this accidental cultural faux pas as clueless Americans being shipped from one place to another? Did driving past museum-like villages in a truck o’ toubabs, without interaction, make us imperialist? Were we having an “authentic” African experience? Is there any such thing as authenticity before the demand for authentic experience is made? Does the environmental impact of our exhaust-spewing trip to the Great Green Wall offset our potential to do any good in that regard? We chewed on these questions and more as the sun set gloriously, painting the sky with colors that outlined the baobabs and the villages. Everywhere I go here in Senegal, I find myself struggling with the complexities of development and the complexities of studying development as a transplanted, privileged American. My classes are interesting, and I’m constantly relating what I’m learning at school to what I’m discovering outside of school. Such connections are especially easy to make when I step outside the routine into which I’ve settled during the week, like on our dirty and adventurous excursion this weekend.

 

The adventure of that first truck ride continued longer than we’d initially expected, though by now we should have known that “about one hour” definitely means “at least two and a half hours” on Senegal time.  The moon, though several days away from being full, rose astonishingly bright, and we watched as each star came out above the Seussian trees. One of many attempts to rearrange our backpacks and our cramping limbs revealed that my harmonica was in an accessible pocket, so this was produced and contentedly played for a while as we tried to identify the constellations under African skies. Of course, my harmonica repertoire is pretty limited to American folk tunes; I was struck by the somehow-not-so-strange strangeness of “Home on the Range” drifting across the Sahel. How at once I was so at home and so far away!

 

We ended up reaching camp thirty minutes before the other trucks, dusty but very much alive (and in fact not as dusty as those whose truck had been traveling behind the exhaust of two others, so perhaps our crazy driver was onto something after all). A couple of us went to explore the outpost’s surroundings with our headlamps and ended up talking over a fence to a gaggle of boys from the neighboring village. These children were ethnically Pulaar, but we were able to have a meager conversation with them in our introductory-level Wolof – I was rather proud of my constructed sentences using vocabulary from class, even though they also spoke French so we needn’t have bothered. I made friends with the twelve-year-old obvious leader of the pack when I shone my light on my scary face in a creepy joke. (This friendship blossomed later in the night when I didn’t know where to find the water for my bucket bath, and this kid Papis appeared out of nowhere and offered to fill my bucket from an algae-infested basin; I kindly declined as a more knowledgeable worker showed me the tank of water for us toubabs, but I thanked Papis for his enthusiasm and he followed me around for a bit longer.)

 

After a late feast of roast goat (which had probably been roaming around the compound the day before), we settled into bed under mosquito nets. I was sleeping on a cot in a little screened-in foyer of a cabin, but some lucky ducks (or not so lucky; I heard mixed reviews) were in army-style tents. I awoke the next morning at the crack of dawn and watched the light pour over the fence straight to my bed.

 

For breakfast we had the freshest, warmest bread I’ve had yet in Senegal, and we all received oversized white t-shirts and baseball caps, both of which read “M.E.D.D. A.N.G.M.V.” in green letters. It took us a while to figure out this ridiculous acronym, but I think it stands for “Ministère de l’Environnement et du Développement Durable Agence Nationale de la Grande Muraille Verte.” We felt extremely toubab in our matching outfits, me especially so when my hat blew off during the morning pickup-truck ride out to the planting fields. (Thankfully the truck behind mine had decided to play Mario Kart and pick up all the lost caps.)

 

We spent the morning planting trees. This consisted of walking along rather scattered trenches, finding a spot where a hole had been dug, using a small blunt razor to cut open a seedling packet, and packing dirt all around the baby tree. Inevitably, there were more of us than could actually be useful at any given time, which was a bit frustrating but which I had expected from previous experience in service ventures. Between the tiny burrs that stuck absolutely everywhere and the expansiveness of the grassland, I kept thinking I was in the prairie near my neighborhood in Indiana. Since we were visiting during rainy season, the anti-desertification aims of the Great Green Wall hardly seemed necessary, but we learned that in the dry months the soil becomes loose and dusty. Planting trees, with their deep stretching roots, helps to keep the soil in place and thus keep vegetation in place.

 

The project is about more than just preserving the Sahel’s ecosystem, though. Talking with the Senegalese rangers who have dedicated their lives to this work, we learned that the Great Green Wall also tries to engage local populations on a social and economic level, paying herdsmen to dig trenches and drive around on pickups to throw sapling packets into the holes. Some of the trees being planted are supposed to be able to provide income for locals in the future, too – on Saturday evening, we were driven to see a field of Arabic gum trees that were part of the Great Green Wall’s first season in 2007. It was cool to see the strong young trees and picture those I had personally planted that day looking like that in a few years. The rangers explained that in a few more years, those Arabic gum trees will yield a harvest that the local population can sell for use in chewing gum and other products. Though I’m a little skeptical about the practicality of such long-term plans and would have liked to talk more with locals themselves about several other aspects of this project’s implementation, I couldn’t help but admire the sense of community among the people involved with the Great Green Wall.

 

Only time will tell if the mentality of the Senegalese people toward the environment can change as quickly as these trees grow. Before we left on our six-hour bus ride to the Wall, we had listened to a presentation by the leaders of Y’En A Marre, a popular movement in Senegal that works to raise political participation and effect tangible change by using rap and hip-hop music. The movement’s founders, several famous Senegalese artists, were insistent that change starts at an individual level. (I thought it was interesting that one of the examples they gave was that if people want better public transportation, they should stop getting on too-crowded buses – I happened to have had my wallet stolen from my backpack a few days before on a Tata bus that was so crowded I couldn’t move or breathe. The aftermath of this theft was no fun, canceling credit cards and explaining my toubab-ness to both my host family and my real family, but at least my passport, visa, and one card were safe in a separate place. I now know that you absolutely mustn’t keep your wallet in your front pocket, and I am now more hesitant to fling myself onto overstuffed public transportation, which is pretty much all public transportation.) Y’En A Marre was really awesome – they’ve been thrown into jail and have funded their campaigns themselves for several years – and their enthusiasm for bettering their country feeds my interest in understanding more completely the systems of development and poverty and corruption.

 

It’s also making me think more about the concept of mentality. I really believe that attitude is the only thing you can really control, and it’s just as important on a national level as it is on and individual level. Even in the context of studying abroad, I’m finding that attitude really can make a difference between a good day and a terrible day. A smile and a laugh can go such a long way, whether you have to be rescued by the guard after being locked in the school building while Skyping home or whether you have to ask uncomfortable questions of your host family like “could you perhaps prepare some laax without the yogurt sauce [that makes me want to gag]?” or “would it be possible to do the laundry [for only the second time since I’ve been here] before I leave for South Africa on Saturday?” (You know what else goes a long way? Conditional tense.)

 

Yes, I am going to South Africa on Saturday. I got a really sweet airline deal – the South African government subsidizes flights so technically my time in Dakar thus far has been one gigantic layover – and I’m going to visit my friend Sarah at the University of Stellenbosch for my fall break. It’s going to be so amazing, and I’m so excited! It’s literal craziness that fall break is already next week. I haven’t spent one full weekend with my host family – though I’m not at all complaining about our wonderful excursions, the time is really flying and I really want to immerse myself even more.

 

The mundane and the profound coexist here, alternating in my life as the TV programs alternate between Qur’anic exegesis and American music videos. Moments like that one on the back of the pickup truck on Friday night are at once surreal and seeped in the realest of realities. The dirt that coated my entire body like a second skin was certainly real enough. And the thought of a cold shower once I reached “home” – my host family’s house in Sacré Coeur 3 – that was a propelling thought, the reality of which makes me appreciate how much I’ve done and seen and learned and grown in the one month since I arrived in Senegal.

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