I often get asked about what my work was like in America. Seeing as how my work here is agriculture, they typically want to know about my experience and qualifications. This is completely valid. This is also probably why Peace Corps urged me to get more agricultural experience under my belt before going into Peace Corps as an Agricultural Extension Agent. It would have probably been a really great idea to do that. But, alas, Park Service pays much better than working for free on someone else’s farm. Not to mention how much I LOVE Park Service work. The 9-month wait for my Peace Corps Senegal service to begin timed perfectly to allow for a summer season (May-Sept).
There are National Parks here in Senegal, but they are typically known as places where they keep the wild animals away from the people and vice versa. Or, usually just referred to as, ‘the trees.’ The idea of working in them is not usually considered, especially where I live. The National Park is in the south, near Kedougou and Kolda region – very far away. So I was describing myself as an eaux et foret agent (the government forestry agents in charge of the distribution and protection of trees) because it was the closest comparison I could think of that they would be able to relate to.
Then the other day I started to realize I could better explain the role of Interpretation, now that my language abilities have greatly improved. I was talking to people now about Interpretation in the Park Service and how being able to interpret the resources to visitors is important so that they will hold the resource in their hearts and be able to feel their importance. If they love something, like a tree, they would see it for more than just cooking wood.
Park Service Interpretation as defined by NPS: “When most people hear the word interpreter, they think of someone who translates the meaning of one language into another. In a museum, zoo, or park setting, interpreters “translate” the meanings of artifacts, collections, events, and physical resources into a language that helps visitors understand these resources.”
I decided to give my friend a more in depth example the other day. This friend happens to speak English so I was able to extrapolate more than I would be able to in Pulaar. Here’s what I came up with as an example of an Interpretation program I would present about the Fouta.
The Land of the Fouta
The Fouta region of Senegal is the southern part of the Sahel Desert. It is primarily sand with scattered trees. This land is like the people who live on it. The sand itself came from other places, long, long ago. It came from Egypt, it came from Mauritania, it came from Mali, Morocco. So did the humans, migrating and traveling, herding their cattle and livestock from place to place, setting up shelter wherever they were. So does the sand. This Fouta sand arrived and stayed here a while. Trees grew and held the sand in place. So, too, did the people take root. Herders began farming, putting physical roots in the ground, like the trees. Then, the Fouta was a fertile place. A beautiful place. The rains brought seasons of plenty. The hot summers were shorter and not too hot to grow abundant vegetables along with staples such as sorghum, corn, and millet. The trees brought the people, enticed by the shade and fertile ground. The trees rooted the people to the earth.
The trees became useful to the inhabitants of the Fouta. The people used the wood from the trees for building, for cooking, for transport. Over the years, the trees have been chopped over and over. That which was once abundant has since ceased to be. With the cutting of trees, the sand storms began. Every year they increase, causing more erosion of topsoil (what little there was) and more dangers to humans caught in these storms. The more the trees are cut, the hotter the Fouta gets. Every year temps increase making living, farming, working, really everything less bearable.
The sand, no longer held by the roots of these trees, is leaving; taking with it people. Those smartest and hardest working are leaving to find better opportunities. Better living conditions. The culture of the Fouta is changing. The people are losing their culture. Losing their ties to the earth. More and more of their money comes from abroad. Less and less can be provided by agriculture, due to heat and lack of rain. The youth are adapting Western culture, Western dress. There are still cultural celebrations, but they become lessened and overshadowed by the desire to ‘be like the Americans/French’. As the trees continue to decrease, so does the esteem and appreciation of the culture, the roots.
Without trees, the Fouta has no life; no culture; no people. It is trees that provide the stability of life. It is deforestation that is causing this gradual loss.