The end: A new beginning

It’s been a while since I last posted a blog. Lots of happened since: started a PhD, living and working in a new place and meeting new people, and learning and training to become a researcher. I am about to begin my fieldwork in Rwanda once more. Like I have done before, through this blog, I plan to share with you “what it’s like to be and to work” in the field. (feel free to comment) Things rarely go smoothly in the field, and you have to “hustle” to get your research work done. I’ve been fortunate in my previous fieldwork but how will it be this time? Well, we’ll find out!

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23 September 2014, UK –

Today was my research outline seminar. It’s been already a full year since I started my PhD research at IDS (Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex). The research outline seminar (ROS) is where I get to share with other research fellows and colleagues why my proposed study is a worthwhile endeavour, what are the research questions and how I plan to answer these questions in the field. After an half-an-hour presentation, I was privileged to hear many constructive feedback and comments from research fellows and colleagues.

What’s next? I need to address the points raised during the ROS and have a more detailed blueprint of my research plan: selection of research questions, methods, and data instruments; relevance and feasibility of fieldwork sites and local stay arrangements; and research approval application and visa. Well, the fieldwork has already begun…c’est parti!

Cashew nut processing: from trees to treats

Project objective: Enhancing Sustainable Economic Development Through Value Added Processing & Market Access.”

 

One of the livelihood diversification strategies of the SAEV project is to introduce fruit and nut trees in the beneficiary villages. There is a strong dependence on wet season field crops, and the lack of edible fruit and nut trees in the community makes a strong case for both improving income generation opportunity and household food security.

Currently, the CLCOP nursery is selecting and preparing tree seedlings for distribution in August. One of them is cashew tree. The local climate is favourable for cashew production, and the processed nuts sell at a premium price both in rural and urban markets. Also, cashew nut processing work is often done by women – a significant income generating opportunity, particularly for women.

I found a women’s economic interest group (Groupement d’Intérêt Économique in French, GIE) called Bokk Diom who are successfully operating and marketing processed cashew nuts at Passy in Fatick region (about 40 minutes away by vehicle from Wack Ngouna). The GIE of Bokk Diom has been operating since 1987 and has over 35 active women members. Their organisation (and their product) has been recognised by both regional and national “Prix d’excellence” and their products are sold in Dakar and other various urban regions in Sénégal. To learn from their successful experience, I visited the GIE as well as the Federation of cashew planters and producers of Sénégal (also in Passy) and several cashew orchards. The principal objective of this visit was to learn through field observation and experience (by actively participating in the processing work) from a well-established women’s cooperative group as a mentoring partner for the SAEV women groups.

Working with women members at Bbok Diom was an eye-opening experience. The processing work is laborious and can be harsh to your body: firing oil-rich nut shells and cracking them by hand and exposure to smoke are all risks that one must assume in this work. Also, cashew shells contain high levels of anacardic acid and if spattered on the skin, though painless, it burns instantly (I learned the hard way). The workers wear gloves, but the cotton gloves don’t last long against hot oil and acid. Something should be done to protect them better. On average, each member works over eight hours to process ten to 15 kilogrammes of nuts a day. A remarkable concentration and patience.

Here is a visual journey of cashew nut transformation and processing.

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Pic. 1. Cashew orchard
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Pic.2. Sorting out raw cashew nuts for roasting
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Pic. 3. Traditional roasting method
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Pic. 4. First roast
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Pic. 5.  Cracking by hand
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Pic. 6. First layer of shell removed
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Pic. 7 & 8. Secondary roasting using traditional stove
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Pic. 9. Peeling the cashew peel
(Mère Fatou Bop on left and Seynabou Niang on right, president and vice-president of the GIE Bbok Diom, respectively)
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Pic.10. Ready for packaging (and tasting!)

Koutango mango

Koutango is about eight kilometres away from Wack Ngouna.

The village is nestled in the valley, and their well water is accessible throughout the year, which is a blessing if you have a vegetable garden or an orchard. It is also the home of “Professeur” Dia, my Senegalese godfather who gave me his family name. He is from Casamance, a southern province of Sénégal where it is well known for (besides independence-movement militias) its fruits and fair weather. He started a farm school (champ d’école in French) in Koutango nearly 40 years ago. Back then, nobody believed that fruits from Casamance could be grown in the area (Saloum region is known for its hot weather and arid landscape). So, he ignored this common belief and planted fruit trees: mango, passion fruit, lemon, tangerine, banana, pineapple, coconut, dakh, sapodilla and many others.

Today, his farm school is like a jungle – but of fruit trees. A real paradise he calls, “La Petite Casamance“. Whenever I visit this place, I can instantly feel relaxed and rejuvenated. Maybe it’s the beautiful music notes of birds, or it’s the shade of old forest garden. This year, the forest has a bumper mango production. There are so many that have fallen – even after filling everyone’s desire (including birds and ants) – that the forest smells like over-ripe mango. I am still amazed at different varieties of mangos that exist (the sweetest of all is peach mango – we don’t even bother to peel).

Regarding rural development and food security perspective, however, I realise how much of great food that we are wasting – over 60 percent may be lost at the orchard just because there is no refrigeration and adequate post-harvest storage facility. Moreover, there is lack of market channeling and transportation. Professeur Dia knows all this: his next project (if he can find the means) is to transform his surplus mangos into mango juice and jam. Meanwhile, he is trying to lessen the spoilage rate by working with village women. In fact, he offers work-for-mango scheme – anyone can come help with the orchard work, and they are entitled to all-you-can-pick mango. Of course, I gladly volunteered!Koutango is about eight kilometres away from Wack Ngouna.

 

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Pic. 1. Professeur Dia – a natural farmer
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Pic. 2. A mango tree bearing abundantly
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Pic.3. Over ripened mangos
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Pic.4. Current storage room
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Pic. 5. Eating peach mango from Koutango (photo credit: Professeur Dia)

Fieldwork update

To fully immerse into the local farming context, I tried farming, gardening and fieldwork.

I agree that doing-it-yourself is one of the most direct and long-lasting methods of learning. Like John Lennon says in Imagine: “It’s easier if you try”. So the importance and roles of farm visits and farm schools are recognised in our AEV project model. We are planning on organising a farmers’ visit to a nearby ‘champs d’école’ of orchard and vegetable garden in Koutango (more on this in the forthcoming blog).

The local project manager and a great friend, Abdou Koma Ba and I started a backyard vegetable garden. We cleared the backyard clean – used to be a household dump yard. With the guidance and teachings from Meissa (our project nursery specialist), we built over 12 beds (1.5 m wide and over 8 m long). The transformation was quite remarkable. From nothing, invisible life force began changing the face of our garden, but more importantly, it inspired us to believe in our efforts and vision of small-scale gardening in the rural community of Wack Ngouna.

 

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Photo 1. Jardin à Ground Zero

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Photo 2. Jardin – avant
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Photo 3. Jardin – maintenant
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Photo 4. Pépinière – avant
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Photo 4. Pépinière – aujourd’hui
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Photo 5. Et le pépinière apprenti
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Photo 6. (Green) thumb’s up
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Photo 7. Walking with the horse (millet seeding)

Fruitfully twenty years after

The rain is coming soon (in mid-June).

With the fast approaching rainy season, one of our project objectives is to provide the best available seeds to our village farmers. I visited the ISRA (Institut Sénégalais de recherche en agriculture) in Bambey to buy certified-quality seeds (millet, peanut, cowpeas and maize). French colonials first built this research station. What I like most about this place is that it has many old, tall trees providing beautiful habitat for birds and squirrels. It’s been my third visit so far, and I enjoy immensely (surrounded by trees and birds).

This time I had the chance to visit their citrus orchard. There, I found 20-year-old grapefruit trees, majestically spread over in dome shape, bearing many fruits! What a sight. Even more delightful, I savoured freshly picked grapefruit, and I could hardly taste their trademark bitter taste. It was all (well mostly) sweetness. Now I’m eager to buy a house with a large backyard or better, a farm estate to plant my new grapefruit trees that I purchased in March (in Montreal that is). Twenty years, I can taste the sweetness already!

 

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Pic. 1. Orchard at ISRA Bambey
 
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Pic. 2. Under the tree
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Pic. 3. Bearing fruitfully
 
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Pic. 4. Ripe for tasting!

Garab yi (Trees) Pt. 3

Part III – It’s quite amazing to find such a stark difference in tree population even within the same region in the Gambia.

Case in point – one of the project villages, Njau: the landscape is sparsely dotted with trees – bravely standing against the desert-like climate and environment. On the contrary, the riverside neighbours (less than 15 min away by car) are endowed with nearby water (and its favourable micro-climate) and can host a diverse variety of tree population.

Having a fruit and nut tree in your backyard is the wisest long-term investment for a family in this region. As part of our project work, we will introduce many fruit trees (25,000 trees over the course of four years) in the project villages (cashew, mango, orange, lime, papaya, etc.). However, the challenge is not about the number of trees – the number one problem is how to secure and ensure full protection against the long dry spell and grazing animals (goats, sheep, and cows). Mainly, because animals are roaming free during the dry season, it is almost impossible to keep them away from devouring our young trees. Fencing is the way, but it costs a lot. What to do? That’s my next task! To find a simple and affordable solution. I am still pondering though.

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Pic. 1. Njau village 1
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Pic. 2. Njau village 2
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Pic. 3. Njau village 3
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Pic. 4. Cashew fruit and nut shell

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Pic. 5. Mangrove trees

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Pic. 6. Mango attack!
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Pic. 8. Cedeem tree (local jujube-like berry)
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Pic. 8. Neem tree (grown everywhere in this region)
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Pic. 9. Perfectly trimmed tree line (max. height of grazing animals’ reach)

food in Sénégal

What’s cooking in Senegal?

Indeeki (read in-deeh-ki – meaning breakfast): the locals eat “fonde” (fon-deh) which is millet porridge with sour milk. But I usually eat baguette bread spread with imported margarine and local (unfiltered) honey. There is an excellent local peanut butter producers’ coop in Wack N’gouna, but since peanut and I don’t agree well together (regarding diet compatibility), I keep my bread peanut-free.

An (an-nyuh – lunch): we usually have large portions of rice (seasoned with lots of oil and spices) and fish (mackerel, sea bass, small freshwater fish, etc. – they come fresh, dried, or smoked). The dish comes with some vegetable (a piece of bitter tomato, red pepper, eggplant, cassava, carrot, onion, okra, radish) – all thrown into a big plate-bowl.
This dish is the quintessential “Tiep bou diene” (Jjiep-bu-jen – rice with fish) and we eat it almost every lunch. I eat at my host family, and since I don’t eat meat, fish became my primary source of protein these days. However, unfortunately, I can’t have too much fish either (again with my diet system), which make my daily protein intake quite low.

Reer (reh-err – supper): A smaller portion of rice or pasta with sauce (different kinds of sauce with mango, sorrel, peanut, tomato, or onion), a piece of meat or fish, and some lettuce salad if available. I asked my host mother and sister to cook beans for me, and sometimes I get a plate full of beans for supper.

Personally, I have no problem adjusting to local food – except meat and some ingredients that I try not to overeat (like those that don’t agree with my digestion system). What I find plenty in my diet: loads of sugar (in tea and local juice), carbohydrate (rice, bread and pasta), and oil. What I find lacking in my diet: fresh dairy product, fruits and veggies, and decent dessert. Better find a happy medium.

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Pic. 1. Tiep bu yappa (rice with meat)
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Pic. 2. Rice with tomato & peanut sauce
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Pic. 3. & Pic. 4. Bon appétit, c’est domoda.