Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Kids Love This Stuff (A Breakfast of Champions)

To recap the past few days briefly :

Saturday night at 10:30, I got a phone call from my boss, Bara, confirming that I’d be doing a field visit the next day to the west of Mali in a city called Kayes (pronounced like ‘eye’ with a k in front). Kayes is about an 8 hour drive from Bamako, and the epicenter of small ruminant (goats and sheep) production in Mali. As has been pointed out to me, it’s rather amazing that there is an epicenter for goat and sheep production within a country; the sheer quantity of these beautiful little animals in the region is astounding. So we (myself, Judy who is here to do a training on the subject, Cheikh the researcher/expert in the field, and our driver, Boureima) set out on Sunday at around 8am.

Arrived in Kayes, we visited a few producers and more goats and sheep over the course of about 4 hours than I think I have in my entire life. And I could definitely tell you more about breeds and cross breeding and characteristics of the different breeds than you care to hear. Believe me.

I held a newborn goat (literally 3 hours old) and felt the milk in its belly, making sure it had gotten the colostrum essential in the first few hours of life. Saw a sheep that costs up to $1500 simply because it’s a handsome fellow and is quite sought after among breeders.

this one was born the day before

they were amazingly content to be in the back of the truck

Monday morning we set out back for Bamako. Judy and I are waiting at the hotel where we overnighted for Cheikh and Boureima to come back with the truck and… three female goats.. and.. two twin newborn kid goats… and… 10 litres of goats milk, freshly milked and pasteurized that morning. Right.

Needless to say, the journey back took a little longer with five live animals (and their shepherd) in the back of the pickup. We crossed the Senegal River leaving Kayes (which I haven’t seen since I swam across it in 2007!) and crossed the Niger back into Bamako about nine hours later. When I got home, I promptly bought some vinegar at my favorite little boutiki and made goat’s milk ricotta from two litres of the seven in my fridge. Yesterday, I got a starter and made a vat of yogurt.

le fleuve sénégal, kayes

Since Tuesday I’ve been translating the training in Bamako for veterinarians working with goats and sheep into French. A big problem is with aborted pregnancies and infant mortality, yet they want to amp up production in the region because the market for meat and milk is lucrative, and wide open. It’s fascinating to sit in a room spitting out information about something in which I have almost no previous experience, because at the same time I’m translating, I’m learning all sorts of crazy things. (If the membrane of a goat’s eye is light pink or white, it could mean they have stomach worms and are anemic. Measures should be taken immediately to deworm them, or the animal could die.)

From a pedagogical perspective, the week has been hugely productive. But let’s be honest here. The most important thing to remember is : nothing but a little heated goats milk with cinnamon for breakfast is positively divine. Goats milk has this reputation for smelling bad and not tasting good, which, I admit, I bought into for a long time. But I swear it is the sweetest tasting milk/yogurt/cheese I have ever had. And the fact that I know exactly where it came from, how it was produced, and under what conditions the animals were raised, makes the whole process that much better. There’s no better way to be connected to your food than to see la chèvre milking her newborn kid, and then to drink that milk, or maybe the milk from a different female goat, with my breakfast of baguette and Nescafé.

See more goats and sheep here…

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The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

Faces in the Crowd: A Field Visit in Sikasso

This week I spent four days on a field visit in the south in the region of Sikasso. We met with several different cooperatives – both women and men. I took pictures galore.

meeting with women's rice co-op

In the first village, there were over 200 people that came to the meeting.

one of the secretaries

I was seriously impressed by their organization and their eagerness to advance in all aspects: business management, agriculture techniques, commercialization, marketing…

notetaking

They talked about rice seed varieties and the need for more training on seed multiplication techniques.

kids are cute

Having already had training in packing and storage techniques, they store bags of rice for several months, presumably to sell on the market in the off-season when prices are higher. Excellent in theory, but good connections to markets and transportation are challenges.

There is also a desire for post-harvest processing capacity. Without the machine to ‘décortiquer’ – to hull – the rice, the women aren’t making nearly as much money as they could. There is solar power capacity in this village, currently being used to pump water into a water tower. This solar power could also be used to power a hulling machine – I mean, why not?

best rice i've ever eaten

We ate with them after the meeting: rice with a tomato sauce filled with onions, cabbage, locally grown eggplant, and some fish that I conveniently ignored.

the men of n'pegnéss0

The men in N’Pegnésso are involved in potato farming. A barrage – a dam – has already been constructed to allow for flood irrigation of about 30 hectares (out of 600) of the land.

cows get thirsty too

Rice is grown during l’hivernage – the rainy season, potatoes are grown during the dry season (which is now), and whole herds of cattle graze the land.

In Zoloko, the second village we visited that day, about 175 women were interested in starting a co-op with rice culture and maraîchage, market gardening. They are in the very beginning stages of starting this co-op, and to be honest, I left that village a little disheartened. Out of almost 200 women, not a one spoke up. One man spoke for them all. And only three people in the entire village had basic reading/writing skills. Can we empower women, teach people to read and write, impart leadership skills, *and* reinforce capacity on a business level, at the same time that we do agriculture extension and community building? Please.

where's the white girl?

I wonder sometimes if Mali’s current situation – very much at the bottom of the development totem pole – places it outside of practical agricultural development solutions. An irrigation system being implemented in Rwanda, for example, might not have any relevance here, simply because the costs for implementing it really outweigh the benefits. Or because the amount of water available during the rainy season doesn’t add up to what would make it a realistic installation. Just an example.

future rice and potato growers of mali

Anyway, the next day we visited another co-op of women – again rice culture and market gardening. A much more promising venture, and again, really encouraging to see the initiative and drive of so many women. I’m not sure what the point of this post was; to be honest, I think I just wanted an excuse to put up a bunch of pictures. So take from it what you will.

first to arrive, last to leave

Sweet Potatoes by Hand: Small-Scale Urban Agriculture

Today is Saturday, my second full weekend in this city. I don’t know very many people in Bamako outside of my colleagues and a couple of Peace Corps volunteers here and there, so basically I had the entire day in front of me. The perfect opportunity to do a little city-field research.

I’m working for an NGO that works with smallholder farmers and farmers’ cooperatives, but my big agricultural passion (yes, I’m going to completely dork out here) is urban agriculture and urban food systems. Bamako is a city of about 2 million people and the fastest growing city in Africa, at that. Other cities across the continent are also expanding at such a rapid rate that the urban systems in place are not equipped to provide for the growing populations. As it is, unemployment is extremely high; people with degrees are jobless or working in unskilled labor, hoping for something better.

Urban ag is (and has for quite some time) been a way to fill in a lot of gaps: it offers job opportunities, feeds people and their families, supplies markets with much-needed produce that is often difficult to transport from rural areas (poor road systems, lack of cold storage, small-scale producers with limited means to move their goods), and helps to green cities that are often dusty, dirty, and littered with trash. And the influx of rural people brings with it a lot of agricultural know-how, to add to a population that is usually already quite agriculturally inclined.

yams and onions and cinder blocks

Mamadou Touré is managing two small plots of land just down the road from my apartment. The owner of this urban garden, Sanou Coulibaly, has been there for over sixty years, since sometime in the 1940s, but is too old to do all of the hard labor herself. Unfortunately for me, Mme. Coulibaly, who was cutting the green shoots off of freshly pulled onions, doesn’t speak much French, and the seven words I know in Bambara would not have really made for much of an interview, so I spoke with M. Touré instead.

M. Touré has been working on these small plots for several years now. He is growing patates (yams), onions and lettuce, mostly because that’s what grows easily and is easy to sell. Every day, anywhere between eight and ten women will come to this mini urban farm and buy the produce that is harvested to sell on the markets – the same neighborhood markets where I buy my produce. It’s an independent operation – not part of any co-op or association, so all of the organizing is done on a person-to-person basis, and very much depends on the relationships between the market women and these urban gardeners. From what I understood, the women are the ones who determine the price for what they buy. Especially considering the size of this operation – there’s no cold storage or post-harvest production, whatever isn’t sold or eaten goes to waste.

That’s not to say there’s a lot of loss here. M. Touré also feeds his family with what is grown; the same goes for Mme. Coulibaly and the five or six other people I saw working there. As I sat in the shade under a giant tree with a few of these people, a bunch of baby chicks ran around us in that crazy uncoordinated way they have, meaning there are big chickens somewhere, laying eggs and probably being eaten, too.

The two plots – which amounted to about a hectare of land – is irrigated by hand from a well dug under that same tree. Bamako’s water table is high enough that well water is readily available. That doesn’t make it easy, however. When I asked what challenges or obstacles he faced in this business, he looked around at all the beds and mused that if he had a motorized pump for the well, things would be much better. He sometimes works until 3 or 4am, just to get everything watered and to pick what will be sold the next day. Urban ag offers possibilities, but it’s not exactly a glamorous life.

After leaving this small venture, I went to one of the markets where M. Touré’s vegetables are sold. A head of lettuce for fifty cents, two eggs for just about half that. As I looked around me at this market, I realized that most of the produce that was there was probably grown within five or ten miles of where I stood. This extensive network of farmers and market women has established itself in a way to take care of a city that isn’t entirely able to take care of itself. I’m going to talk to another woman a little later this evening who has a small plot next door to my building, and hope to venture out near the river soon where several hectares of land are being used to feed the people of this huge city.

Every time I pass by one of these urban plots, I think about the grocery stores back home and the fact that I have no clue where my broccoli or leeks or tomatoes came from. But it’s quite possible that the onion I sautéed for lunch today was one that Mme. Coulibaly picked from her garden sometime earlier this week.

“What’s that?” you ask…

 

hungry anyone?

That, my lovelies, is breakfast. Fresh mangoes and coconut.