The laughter of Gambian women can be a wonderful, life-affirming, and energizing thing. When a thin plastic rope is cutting into your hand with the other end attached to a full 20 liter bidong of water at the bottom of at well, however, it doesn't do much for the self esteem. These were the circumstances I found myself in a couple of weeks ago in the Barrow Kunda women's garden.
The whole situation began with my TOSTAN facilitator, Mamadi, and me tilling up a garden bed in which to plant moringa one hot and dusty March afternoon. Mamadi of course had to take a smoke break in the middle of the work, leaving me to do most of it, but that was OK with me, as my purpose in the endeavor was twofold. One, to show how easy raising moringa in an intensive leaf production bed is and how many benefits can be gleaned from it. Two, to immerse myself back in the community and to further illustrate to the village women that people of the toubab persuasion, can indeed do manual labor. That I was man working in the women's garden threw a bonus gender discussion in to boot. Once the ground was all chopped up and dampened, I planted the first batch of 200 or so seeds about 10 centimeters apart in rows also spaced 10 centimeters apart. I then had to wait to borrow someone else's rope and bucket to fetch water from the nearest well before I could water them. I resolved to remedy this problem by buying a bucket a rope at the next luumo (market).
In the mean time, I decided to try out the “Basho” watering can design in the appropriate technologies manual we were given during training. I bought a bidong from the bitik, cut the section with the cap out of it, and punched a series of holes in the other side with a hot awl. The resulting watering can is a little unwieldy and takes some strength to hold over a bed when full, but effectively dissipates the stream of water to prevent seeds from being washed away. My plan was to buy a thick rope at the luumo on Monday, and use the modified bidong as both watering can and well bucket. It would be heavy to pull up full of water, but I would only need to do it twice to water the whole bed. The next few days that I went to the garden I was inundated by questions about why I came to the garden, what I had planted, and why I didn't have my wife water the bed for me. While I waited for my turn at the well, I had many the ad hoc health talk.
“Where is your wife, Seikou?”
“She is lost. If you see her will you tell her to come home? Besides, I am a strong man and can do my own work.”
“Well what did you plant? It has not come out yet.”
“I have planted nebedayo” (nebedayo is a corruption of “never die”- another name for moringa)
“And what else?”
“That is not good. You should plant kucha. That is sweeter than nebedayo.”
“If you know how to cook nebedayo I think it is very sweet. And nebedayo's power is much greater than that of kucha.”
“But kucha has power.”
“Yes, it has a little power, but the power of nebedayo is greater than that of any other thing in the garden. If you harvest the leaves, dry them in the shade, and pound them into a powder, they will become a medicine. If your children are small and not healthy, you can put the powder in their food every day, and it will make them strong.”
“Hey, that is very good. But Seikou, you can not fetch water well.”
“I am trying, slowly, slowly.”
Luumo day came, but when I browsed the different dealers I found that they all wanted over 150 Dalasis for a length of rope that would reach the bottom of the well. Being the cheap PCV that I am I decided that I would make do with five to six 6 Dalasi lengths of bitik rope. The next day I returned to the garden to show off my American ingenuity. “Hey, Seikou, that rope is too thin!”Several women said to me. “Don't worry, it will be fine, I lift two full bidongs at the well every day.” I replied. I threw the bidong over the side and lowered it down to the water level and waited for it to fill. And waited. And waited. Frustrated, I pulled it up to find that it was less than a third full. I poured it over the bed and went in search of a rock. Finding a suitable one, I wedged it under the handle of the bidong and once again threw it over the side. Success! The bidong quickly filled with water and submerged completely. I reached down and pulled the rope to start bringing the water up.
The good news is that I had not overestimated my own strength. I was able to lift the weight of the bidong without too much difficulty. The cheap rope, however, was a very bad idea. After pulling up the first length, it started cutting into my hands, and if I let go with one hand to reach down and pull up more length, the rest of the rope began quickly sliding out of my other hand. The women around the well, having been watching me intently, erupted in unbridled laughter, which carried on for several moments before a couple of them stepped in to help me, each of us alternating holding the rope and reaching to pull up another length. Once the bidong reached the top of the well, I sheepishly thanked the two women and finished watering my plot. My friend Fatou Tambajang told me that she knew of a compound that had a few small 5 liter bidongs that I could buy for 5 Dalasis. I asked her if she could take me there the next morning.
The compound turned out to be that of the president of the women's group in the village, Fatoumata Fatty. She took me to the back of the compound where several small bidongs were lying on the ground. I picked one up and handed her a 5 Dalasi, note, which she dismissed with a wave of her hand. “You have come here to work for us, and I know I be able to harvest some of the nebedayo from that bed, as you said it was for all of us.” I assured her that she could indeed, and thanked her again. While 5 Dalasis isn't a large sum, the gesture was worth far more than that.
3 weeks on into the project, I have planted 3 batches of moringa seeds, more than 75 percent of which have germinated, totaling in over 300 hundred healthy seedlings, and there is still room in the bed for more. Women in the village have shown more interest in planting moringa and have asked me for seeds more times in the last few weeks than in the rest of my service combined. I have even expanded the program to do moringa demonstrations in a couple of neighboring Fula villages with the help of my Fula community health nurse. It still may be a bit early to call the project a success on the whole, but as long as I maintain the sense of humor that has kept things running to this point, I can at least count on a lot of positive discourse.