From the Ground Up

I’ve just returned to London from another successful sunny adventure to our home and farm, Kaïra Kunda, Home of Peace, which I will now transliterate as, “The Sanctuary”.

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Getting to the farm is now super easy from London and you are all so very welcome to come and spend as much time as you like. There’s a daily six hour direct flight into Banjul with Thomas Cook airlines and with luggage, seating and meals being extra, you can get a relatively cheap flight with no frills. The best part was the sunset landing, having come from a pre-winter solstice London, seeing that big bright star in the sky hovering just over the plane’s wings as we landed was a sight to make everyone ooh and awe. I was also bemused that some haughty tourists were unnerved to have had to stand in a line marked for “others” as they ignorantly questioned what was it that ECOWAS stood for. They’ll soon find out as the Economic Community of West African States will be coming to Banjul on if not before January 18 to oust the defeated dictator of 22 years. Not a moment too soon as his bans on encrypted forms of online communication such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber, his outspoken racism towards the country’s largest ethnicity, and his militant enforcing of Sharia law during the Ramadan months have left the otherwise carefree “smiling coast” smothered by corruption.

Following img_0127another exquisite stay at our paradise resort, Lemon Creek, we traveled to Senegal where every morning, my husband and I woke up to blue skies and chirping birds and the slight chill of the ocean breeze. We only coincided for the last day of the Permaculture Convergence where upon I did some impromptu translation, but otherwise Momo and my participation was minimal as we were obsessed with working on our own land. After a breakfast of tea, eggs, and locally baked bread, we’d cycle every day the narrow, sandy paths out to our farm land, sometimes accompanied by our puppy and his bff dog or by others who joined us in the work. With machetes and pick axes, we’d work steadily until about noon or one when we’d have a break for green tea and peanut butter sandwiches. We’d then continue on clearing and basically, quite literally, bush wacking until the sun eased off for our journey home. Then we’d go to the beach and relax for the evening with friends and family until the next day where we’d do it all over again, each day with more animals and humans in accompaniment. Really, by the time our holiday break came on New Year’s Day, I didn’t want to stop. Albeit I was exhausted, sun burnt, bruised from a bike spill, and tore up from head to toe and everything in between by thorn scratches and bug bites, but all the stress, smog, and fatigue of work, the winter, and city life had melted away with the sun and sea.

The great news is also that our farm team is growing to include new members! In addition to Momo, Abdoulaye, and Tanjo, we now have a puppy, called Bamboo (or Bamboo-2 as many of you know my first dog in Peace Corps was also called Bamboo), and Abba Chai, our one-man tree crew. Widely known for his adoration of green tea and his abilities with the machete, his skills as naturalist are not as widely publicised. I’d actually heard quite the opposite, that he is a one man deforestation machine who could decimate a forest to a desert in a matter of mere hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find his handiwork of intricate paths with remaining seemingly inconsequential trees left right in the middle of them.

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Momo digging the roots out of the ground Abba Chai and he cleared before my arrival

I finally had the honour of meeting Abba Chai when he arrived on Christmas to give us a gift: the beginnings of the clearing of a road so that we can bring in well building supplies. He wildly wields the machete he constantly holds, yet he creates an artful clearing with every slash of the blade and in no time a dense forest of spindly thorns becomes a welcome grove. Despite his speed, he will only remove plants that are plentiful in the area and will insist that plans change if a tree is not to be cut down. He also knows what plants will work well in the area and how to grow them. He recommends coconut trees for us along the creek bank. The forest is so lovely I dread even taking any of it out but at least we’ll repopulate it after we’ve established an irrigation source.

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Momo’s insists that, in order to share share the land with the animals, particularly those which are dangerous to us like snakes, and those which are shy of us like deer and monkeys, we don’t camp over night there. The smoke of our fire, the smell of us and the dogs, and our work and conversations usually keep all but the birds and fish away but we see their tracks and prints the next morning.

 

Most farms, or fields as they’re called in Senegal, are open spaces of land in which only a few palm trees remain for the tapping of palm wine. Most farmers grow rice in their fields, flooded in the rainy season and then harvested each grain practically by hand or in bulk by beating the grains off the stalk. Both are intensely laborious and yield less each year due to depleted soils and increasing salt content in the flood waters.

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Meeting the Neighbours

Usually people live in town and then travel by foot or bicycle out to their fields, but in our “neighbourhood“, an undeveloped area in between coastal towns Kafountine and Diannah, a few people have built houses amist their crops. One of our goals was to permeate permaculture farming principles to the local community but when we met our neighbours, we found they’d already set up a raised companion-planted bed, and they run their house completely on solar (including a wide screen tv and speakers)! But even though they’re set up completely off the credits for two years, they confessed to visiting our newly cleared grove at night to just sit and chat among the peace and quiet there.

In my attempts to make “ground rules”, as it were, I have been faced with the choice between idealism and realism. Optimistically, I hoped that we could re-purpose, rather than remove or add anything from/to the existing land.

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In some cases, this is feasible. For example, we are currently making charcoal for cooking tea from a local wood called Kembo, otherwise known as the ‘Iron Tree’. We have found much of the wood already lying dormant on the land. Due to its resistance to termite and rot, we will use it for the backbone of the fence that will surround the farm. The selected trees, bushes, and vines which are to be taken down are then piled to the side of the area or path to be cleared for long term composting. We will commission local artists to carve trees which are dead yet not felled and incorporate them into a sculpture garden. Another special tree we discovered at the site is called ‘Black Rainbow’. We learned that the wood of this tree is currently being exploited in Senegal for sale to China in the making of furniture. It’s wood is especially beautiful, but we won’t be cutting the tree down as it also has medicinal properties. We’ll just use the branches we removed from it for furniture, plates, and cutlery for the restaurant. So far, we have only been using hand-operated tools and only are riding motorcycles to the land sparingly.

One major piece of equipment we are contemplating purchasing is a vehicle. As an avid cyclist, of course I am against the use of cars and other gasoline-powered engines, not only due to the obtainment and usage of fuel on the environment, but also due to the impact of clearing roads to and even within the land. The first picture is of the road leading up to the farm which was cleared and then burnt. The picture on the right is hand cleared with all the brush raked to one side as this is where we wish to start the fence around the land. In fact, the one which is burnt will probably come back quicker than the one which wasn’t. The process of slashing and burning is quick, but it’s negative effects outweigh its positive ones.

Again, the issue is of efficiency and in many cases I am learning the tough choices of compromise. The first thing we will have to have for the garden is an irrigation system. The rains are becoming too short and inconsistent to rely upon and we want to have year-round agriculture. The river which runs along the farm is fresh, but is close enough to the ocean to have become, as my father informs me of the term, brackish. We’ll need to build a well. But a well requires a literal ton of materials to be brought in, if not more, including the solar-run water tank we also wish to install so that we can attach a hose for convenient watering to more distant plots. I can’t imagine Momo and me to carry out 20 50kg bags of cement the 5km sandy path out to the farm! We had flat tires almost daily as it was with just us, the hand tools, and our drinking water.

If anyone has any knowledge, experience, or has used, converted, or operated a FlexFuel or Biodiesel vehicle, we welcome your advice on the feasibility of such a conversion in Africa. I haven’t found anything substantial on the web about it and locals are sceptical but I do see how common their usage is in Brazil so I am keen to learn more!

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