Monthly Archives: May 2011

sunugaal (our boat) or where it’s less hot than mali.

After four months in Mali and living through the apex of the hot season (read: 105 degrees or more every day), I could not have been happier to board a plane to Senegal. Five days of temperate, ocean weather, amazing food, old friends and colleagues, and my family! Perfection embodied.

Senegal, especially Dakar, is not exactly what might come to mind when you think of vacation destinations, but it is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. It’s also still very much lacking on the development scale. So when you plunk a group of foreigners in the middle of the city, you create an instant target for anyone who has anything to sell (which, in Dakar, is everyone.)

artisan talent on Gorée

On our first full day we went to the island of Gorée, which is the old historic slave departure island, but also home to a small community of artisans. The artwork is beautiful – if a little bit overpriced – and the intensity of entrepreneurial sweet talk is impressive. At least three women made friends with us on the boat over, ending the conversation by making us promise to visit their boutiques, which we were more or less forced to do. S’ok, though, Mom and I got some really pretty earrings, and we bought a batik table cloth to serve as a beach blanket for the rest of the trip.

I had promised my brother giant mangoes – and actually lugged three of them with me because Mali is rather famous for the size of its mangoes – so we feasted on mangoes and avocados, delicious Lebanese food, and some of the best ceebu jën, mafé and yassa I’ve had in a long time.

i'm not mad, i promise.

The Marché Sandaga delivered on everything it is known for: guys who follow you and guide you around for no other reason than boredom and the vague hope you will buy something from their boutique (or their father’s/cousin’s/aunt’s boutique); music blaring from CD (and cassette) shops; people shouting left and right; buses running down the narrow streets constantly threatening to run you over; back alleys filled with beautiful artwork and anything else you could ever think of. As annoying as it can be, and as much as I know we paid too much for most things, there is a big part of me that was so nostalgic for it, that it was nice. The little bit of Wolof I know got put to good use, much to the amusement of anyone within earshot, and joking around with the Dakarois about the differences between Senegal and Mali was hilarious – mostly because the insults are the same from both sides of the border. A few small paintings, six yards of cloth, a t-shirt and a few statues later, we were all so exhausted, we went back to the hotel and didn’t reemerge until dinner.

We visited the Renaissance Africaine monument (absolutely ridiculous), ate dinner with my Senegalese family (absolutely delicious), went to a few different beaches, and admired the sheer beauty and color of Dakar and the people that live there. Not to generalize, but Senegalese – and especially Dakarois – are some of the best and most colorfully dressed people I’ve ever seen.

35% of the ticket sales go directly to President Wade

Although I hadn’t been there since 2008, it was like I had never left. Dakar has changed a lot over the past few years, and parts of it weren’t even recognizable, but walking around felt sort of like going back home, and seeing old friends and family was wonderful. I think it was a bit overwhelming for my family, but hopefully the delicious food and beautiful beaches made up for it a little. My mom is already talking about our next vacation somewhere in Africa; I am dreaming up something involving gorillas, the Eastern Congo, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

karl and khadija eating binta's best!

On Monday morning I got back to my apartment in Bamako after only 4 hours of sleep, losing my favorite ring down the drain at the hotel, and being ripped off by the cabbie on the way back from the airport. I was greeted by 100 degree weather coupled with the humidity from the previous week’s rains, and a hamper full of dirty laundry. Awesome.

So today I skipped work, went to the market, talked to a jeweler about making me a new ring, bought some avocados and mangoes, and tried to ignore the sweat running down my back…

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Strangely Delicious Avocado Concoctions

It is undeniably avocado season here; I am the happiest girl alive. Any initial disappointment and skepticism resulting from a couple of bad avocado experiences has completely dissipated. Far too much time has been spent dreaming up different and bizarre avocado recipes, but the results have been excellent. Don’t judge it before you try it.

destined for greatness.

1. Avocado (roughly mashed), cucumber (diced), curry powder, salt and pepper. Mix, enjoy.

2. Mango (cubed), avocado, a dollop of the hottest hot sauce you can get your hands on, feta cheese. (I think this is my favorite.)

3. Avocado mashed up with some creamy cheese (goats cheese, laughing cow cheese, whatever you have) and some hot sauce; about 1/2 cup of rehydrated hijiki or wakame seaweed; pasta. Mix it all together. Trust me on this one.

4. Avocado, yogurt (or ricotta cheese to make it thicker/richer), a little lime juice, a little honey. (Which, if you are in Mali, is about as dark and intense as molasses.) Maple syrup would also be delish, and dried or fresh coconut is an excellent addition if you happen to have it on hand. Blend everything together. Best. Smoothie. Ever.

5. One red onion, caramelized; one giant ripe avocado, sliced; a few pieces of whole grain bread, toasted. Stack as high as possible; salt and pepper to taste; try not to make a mess all over your face.

Avocado is one of those things that doesn’t need much help to be delicious, but that doesn’t stop me from experimenting. The fruit is wonderful on it’s own, and in any number of savory, salty, and sugary iterations… all I know is that my intake exceeds anything that the FDA would put on a pyramid. I am ok with that.

Fields around the City: Urban Ag in Bamako

sweet potato sunset

I have been sitting on this post for a while now; it was three months ago, to be exact, when I started writing it. Part of it is guilt about not having made much progress with my supposed ‘research project’ on urban ag. Part of it is a genuine lack of certainty about what exactly my thoughts are on urban ag, and what I could possibly write to contribute to the discussion. Which is why I am going back to school. For a long-ass time.

Starting in April, I spent a few weeks working with an urban ag co-op in Bamako. We sat under a mango tree for several hours a day talking about their issues and problems – illiteracy, c0-op organization, lobbying power and lack of agency concerning legislation about agriculture practices in Bamako, land tenure and insecurity, water issues, lack of resources, lack of NGO presence. The list goes on. I met with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, the Chamber of Agriculture, the Regional Direction of Agriculture, and talked with researchers, ministers, officials, attachés, ad nauseum. The particular co-op we were working with is extraordinarily well organized, has a clear vision of where they want to go, and has some pretty significant connections within Bamako (their former president is now the president of the Chamber of Agriculture in the District of Bamako). But that doesn’t get them far when the system is not built to support them.

diagramming different organizational strategies

Bamako is one of the most rapidly growing cities in Africa; construction of offices and hotels and apartments takes precedent over land used to grow lettuce or beets, and farmers (who don’t, incidentally, pay income tax) don’t really have much power in the face of huge Libyan or Chinese companies that come in to build their massive complexes; the government doesn’t give weight enough to the potential problems with relegating producers to the periphery (or farther) of the city (i.e. how will the food be transported in to the city because what good does a vegetable market do 35 km from Bamako if the food is needed in Bamako?); a co-op expect is not really well positioned to move forward if out of 40 members, only 2 are somewhat literate; technical assistance and extension agents are there, but have only a vague sense of what is really needed and don’t work on an individual level with the producers. To further render difficult the task, the individualist mentality, built from the scarcity paradigm, tends to reign supreme: people group together not for the benefit of the group, but for the gains they can get, as an individual, by aligning themselves with other people. In other words, each member of the co-op is acting as a single unit that happens to be loosely associated with the larger group; land is cultivated individually, resources are owned individually, inputs are acquired individually – the only thing cooperative about the co-op, is their capacity to access things like NGO financing and trainings.

urban compost - the potential is huge.

All of this is quite daunting, and has caused me more than one existential crisis of the ‘what-the-hell-am-i-doing-here-anyway’ persuasion. The co-op I was working with in April, when it came right down to it, really just wanted resources. Someone to landscape new farming plots they had bought outside of the city; an organization to finance a tractor; organized transportation in and out of Bamako once they are inevitably kicked out of the city. And who am I to judge them for wanting these things? The problem becomes creating a sustainable development model from these things. Getting an NGO to buy you a tractor does not automatically teach you how to operate said piece of machinery, and said NGO will not help you when it falls into disrepair. There are organizations doing literacy trainings and capacity building work  but the problem is that the linkages don’t exist between the organizations in place and the co-ops that could really benefit from their services. State budgets are not constructed in a way to support long term growth, but look to shorter solutions to ‘reduce hunger’ or ‘increase productivity’. It’s a systemic problem that runs the length of the development chain – there are gaps and shortages and breaks in communication and mismanagement of funds and the list goes on.

But back to urban agriculture itself. Until the governments of cities realize how vital it is to the survival of ever-expanding urban populations, it will not be prioritized amongst city planners and zoning officials. If a city doesn’t demands that it be able to feed itself, it will constantly be relying on resources from an ever-more-scarce population of rural producers that often don’t have the means to produce even enough for themselves. Until we put a heavy enough emphasis on sustainable and safe food systems, come up with the innovations need to create these systems, are empowered enough to become a part of what we’ve created, we will forever rely on the currently negligent systems in places that have repeatedly and consistently failed.

So there’s my diatribe. (Excuse me while I step off my soap box and regain some composure.)

There is a way that this can work, and there are places and people and cities putting the process is in motion. The world is not an impossible puzzle to figure out; it’s just a complicated one. The fundamental need to feed ourselves – while slowly being moved to the top of the priority list of policymakers and other key people in the mix – is a need that will not go away. Cities cannot rely on rural areas to provide for them while continuously grow bigger and bigger and leaving behind a shrinking population of farmers. So abandoned lots in Detroit and Baltimore will become food gardens, and plots not yet turned into apartments or offices in Bamako will produce onions and carrots and sweet potatoes. Chickens and goats will be raised next to kindergartens, and it’ll all be cobbled together somehow. Eventually, though, the green space in cities will hopefully be fruit trees and cabbage patches rather than decorative ivy; city zoning will take agricultural production into consideration; and the concept of eating locally will be supported by governments and states, not just NYTimes op-ed columnists and CSA members.

gardens and football games