Complete Change in Direction

Well hello again!

So, a slight change: I am no longer going to The Gambia. Today Roger and Meredith told me that they have been very seriously concerned about my health, and after a lot of reflection, they feel that The Gambia is not a safe place for me to go. The past month I have been hearing stories of what its like in Gambia, and I too am on board with this decision not to go.

One part of me is sad and disappointed, and the other part is relieved and excited. I was super on board with the type of project and the work I was to be doing in Gambia, and I was also secretly wondering if I could really handle it. It is one of the most challenging environments to even seasoned international travelers. I was sure determined to try it out though! However, sometimes determination isn’t enough or appropriate. I have a fairly problematic tomato allergy, and almost all meals there contain tomatoes. What happens when I eat them is they weaken my immune system so I get sick, and this is not ok in an environment like Gambia where a weakened immune system is very dangerous. REAP has had many past interns get seriously ill from just the general life there, and they continue to be ill for years upon their return to Canada. They do not wish me to go through that, and rightly so!

I’m not one to hang onto the negative, or pine after things that cannot be. Once something changes, there is no sense in getting upset. Just roll with the punch, and onwards and upwards to the next adventure!

This past month at REAP has been an incredible self-exploratory time for me. I’ve honed my perception of what I would really like to specialize more in (soils and agroforestry), I recognize that I need more time spent in hands-in-the-soils and with people than in front of a computer screen, and refined my conflict resolution and communication skills. So many good things, and I am now looking forward to the other opportunities I can explore.

An analogy I find works to describe how I explore new things is similar to how I get into water for swimming. Unless the water is really warm and inviting, I usually take my sweet time getting in. I slowly inch further along, letting my body get used to the temperature. Finally I’m able to take that last step and swim out, and once I’m in the water I can stay there for a really long time and really come to know the depths. This internship was like jumping into the frigid deep end in terms of shock to the system and experiences. I thought it might be a great thing for me to just plunge into something like this internship, but now I recognize that I need to stay in integrity with who I am and how I do things.

I will admit, a part of me is embarrassed. I’ve been so excited and not shy about showing my excitement, so now that I am not going… its kinda awkard. I recognize that I will be the only one who feels this, but its still a funny place to be. Oh ego… how you do play games. This is also not something I can change, if it were my work ethic or performance being the issue, I would be pretty upset. My physical reality is not something I have a lot of choice in, and I take great cares to learn and abide by my own limits.

So what now you ask? Well! I’ll continue at REAP here in Montreal until Nov 18th like we had agreed, and then I will be homeward bound. As for work, not sure yet, I trust that that door will open when I need it to! I’m still thinking to travel someplace this winter, but for less time and in a less extreme condition for my first international work. I think this is a very good thing for me. Plus… so much knitting can be done now that I will be experiencing winter! Oh god, the projects, the projects! For those who care, Vivian and I will be having a great time.

Thank you to all the people who were reading this blog, supportive of this processes, and excited right a long there with me. Its wonderful to have such awesome folk to call friends. Really looking forward to seeing you all again!


Back on track!

I found a new place! Well, Meredith found the place. Apparently a lot of past REAP interns have lived here. The owner called Meredith to say they had two rooms available, and it couldn’t have been more appropriately timed. I mosy-ied on over after work, talked with my new landlords, they showed me the room, and viola!

I put out plenty of good love and happy energy that a new home would come with ease, plus had all you sending me good energy , and it sure did come fast! So I’m safe, whole, sound, and settling in. It is a great old place, shared with 2 -3 other women and has everything I need. Like a bed. And a dishwasher. One thing I learned with all my years of renting, a dishwasher can prevent many issues that come up with roommates.

This place is even closer in to Ste. Anne’s (before it was 20 min walk), and a 5 minute walk from work. I plotted out a new run along the river and saw a most beautiful fall sunset on said run. My new landlady even brought me dinner to make me feel better. Things are good, I’m happy!

Thank you to all those who emailed and such. Yesterday I was certainly feeling quite discombobulated. Today, I recognize that I was hitting a low and things were just that much more difficult to deal with. Today however, I am on my game! It’s panarchy, I tell ya! Gotta hit that bottom, let it go, and revel in the new opportunities.


And things got a bit crazy

Hello everybody,

Sorry for the long delay in updating; things got a bit crazy around here. Last night my landlady went too far, I called the police, packed up my possessions, and got out of that place.

Part of writing this blog is to keep friends and family updated, but I haven’t wanted to post about the bad things because I feel like I would be complaining, and nobody wants to read that. So I will say that the room I found to rent here was cozy, but my landlandy/roommate was absolutely unstable. I was not able to use the laundry because apparently I would break it, not able to use the stove because apparently that would cause a fire hazard. Essentially, she spoke down to me as if I was a extremely misbehaved child (or animal, hard to know which). She was very condescending, as if I was just too dumb to know to do it her way when it came to everything: cooking food, closing doors, doing dishes, to taking a shower. I thought I could put up with the daily bizarre behaviour, its just two months right? Wrong.

Last night, to make a long story short, basically she verbally and emotionally accosted me. Back up to the night before, I had a friend staying over and I wanted to go home sooner than she did when we went downtown, so I gave her my keys since she was only going to be a few hours longer. I told my landlady this and she had plenty of opportunity to say that she wasn’t ok with that. Fast forward to 3 am and Landlady comes storming into my bedroom, uninvited (side note, she was frequently in my room while I was not there even after being asked not to) and started yelling that I lied to her, and my friend was coming to rob her. Now I had only had 2 hours of sleep, and hadn’t slept the night before, so I don’t remember that part well, but it was mean and completely irrational. She proceeded to call the cops, meanwhile, my friend arrives and we all watch her place the keys into my landlady’s hands. That whole ordeal seemed to blow over somewhat, I couldn’t sleep after the police left at 5:30am, and the day with her in there was awful. I knew I had to get out, but thought I could find another place for the end of the month.

That evening I needed to go out of the house and Landlady still had my keys. So I mustered up my courage, went to her (she ignored me for 15 minutes while she went on and off the phone) and said, very politely “hi Landlady, I need to go out of the house now and need my keys.”

She exploded. I’m trying to find an appropriate metaphor, but I suppose she proceeded to verbally beat the hell out of me. She was condescending and insulting, full of shaming & blaming, highly charged and took it out in the nastiest, most personal way possible. She started ranting and carrying on, and got up in my face about all sorts of really unpleasant things. She claimed to not have my keys, that she was done putting up with this bullshit, and so on. I continued to endure this for another 40 minutes, calming trying to get her to understand that she has the keys and this can be resolved peacefully.

She was completely irrational to the point of insanity, if I may insert personal judgement, she needs to be committed. I could not reach her in that madness and was under a great deal of trauma from the harassment and personal insults. I am not great with conflict, and while nothing she said about me was true, it is upsetting to have somebody in my personal space, in very emotional and heated terms, yell at me for something so very small (keys that she actually had).

At this point I turned to friends here for help, and they called the police. Meanwhile, Landlady proceeded to tell me I was no longer welcome in her home. I was all too happy to start packing my things because honestly, a park bench would have been better than that house. I packed, and all the while she followed me from room to room trying to get me to sign documentation that I received a key from her, that I would pay for her locks to be replaced for the key that I “lost” and to pay for the change in terms of our agreement. She had sort of calmed down, mostly because there were other people around to witness her (I noticed she was very abusive to my female friend, but very polite to the men, very glad to have the two guys there!).

I must say I was proud of my behaviour during that conflict, I was polite, clam, rational, and diplomatic. She was not, so I just told her I will not pay for anything, and ignored her. So she called the police and told them “a person was in her home and trying to steal her property.” She even tried to physically block me from leaving since I wasn’t going to pay her any money. We had no contract, no signed documents, and she just illegally kicked me out of her house. So technically I could sue her.

The police were extremely sweet, making sure I got all my stuff out, and that I was going to be ok. Other than a little bit of hysterical crying on the phone and shaking like a leaf from the adrenaline/ shock of such an encounter, I am ok. I’m just wanting to put it behind me. Let go of this story for sure.

So now I am temporarily at the executive directer’s house and have no idea what the next 4 weeks look like. We are going to get Sitelle out of that house too (she is away at her CIL training), but I’m a little unsettled and uncomfortable. I’m getting used to change, but I didn’t expect major conflict or personal challenge in my Canadian part of this adventure. I am hoping that by telling you all about it, I feel more support and peace with that craziness. Also, if anybody has friends/family with a place I could stay until Nov 18th, let me know!

I recognize that bad stuff will always happen, in Gambia too, and I hope that whatever I share always comes from a mutually respectful place, isn’t about the other person but about my experiences. I realize that through this blog I can reach out to people back home when something is bothering me. I imagine I will slip up and rant sometimes, but I will try not to make those times about blaming the other person.

I’ll post something happy soon, I just have got to get some sleep first! 3 nights of under 2 hours each is not cool. Plus trying to tell the same story over and over is exhausting – this way its all out there and I can stop thinking about it! Hopefully. Love to you all!

New York City in a Day

Since I’m staying in Massachusetts, I decided I would have to go down to NYC. I’ve been once before in 2008 and thoroughly saw the city then, so this time I had two agendas: NYC Botanical Gardens and Occupy Wall Street. One was to satisfy my inner plant nerd, and the other to satisfy my need for connection to a movement I support.

New York City is a remarkably urban environment. Not being a city person, I find in an interesting but exhausting place. People watching there is usually quite excellent, and I am always struck by mass of people moving. It is easy to get lost as an individual in New York, to go about life within a setting without connections, head down, living as an entity among many. Every single person has a story to tell, has history, as has loves and fears. But it isn’t possible to get to know any of them, they glide in and out of my life as they pass in front of me, and I just observe and wonder.

The Botanical Gardens were lovely, we had fantastic weather to wander the 250 acres. Particular highlights to me were the Perennial Border Gardens most resembling a backyard I would love to have with herbs, veggies, and flowers strewn about. I also enjoyed the Maple Collection and the Greenhouses! The leaves are slightly behind MA in terms of turning red, but there were some striking settings, like a lone small bright red tree caught amongst its neighbours still green. Every season I say “this is my favourite” and I’ve now given up picking a favoutire. I enjoy so much about each season, I can look forward to each and enjoy each as my present moments. Autumn for me is of changing colours and slowing of pace.

Perennial gardens: herbs, cardoons, basil, nasturium, crab apples, and more

Occupy Wall Street was an interesting place to spend a few hours. It is one part protest, one part demonstration, one part gathering place, one part community, and probably more parts I didn’t witness in the few hours I spent there. I spoke with many different people there, some who had been staying there since it started on Sept 17, a few who came when they could, and a few like me and just visiting. There were two major groups of people: the youth like me who want a different future than the present is predicting, and the baby boomers whose present is not the future they prepared for.

Heart of the site where occupiers sleep and do what they do.

Conversations were occurring everywhere of what is happening, what needs to be done, and what people envision the future to be like. There was an undercurrent of hope, not disparity. I spoke to some who had identified with victimhood as part of the 99% and wanted to blame and fight. Others were speaking as people doing all they could to be a positive force in the world and the system being twisted and corrupted.

Momma with her Democracy Now sticker

One older man and I had a facinating discussion on how will this movement be unlike any of the others before it. We can look to the surface aspect, how the movement is catching like wildfire, and the aims of the movement in general. We talked about making sustainable change in society, and how do we have resilient response-able governments. Of course I brought up Panarchy and the concept of collapse, and how do we plan collapse and reorganization into governments. We both agreed that things had to change in a dramatic way, and will change,and  I asked him how will we prevent this disparity from happening again? The States were built on solid ideas of hope, reform, equality, and more. Something has changed over the past couple hundred years, and especially past few decades. How do we do things now, how do we change something in our egos so that our system isn’t in the same bind in another couple decades. We spoke of inherent human nature, we spoke of community. Neither of us had any answers, but when I said goodbye I felt like another person had the same cynicism embedded in conviction.

Grey-water system at the Occupy Kitchen. The kitchen was feeding all those who were staying at the protest, I was invited to eat but it was all tomatoey.

As far as protesting goes, I was more watcher than doer. One man handed me a flag and asked me to wave it while he took a break. It said “Debt is Slavery – Revolution Generation” and it certainly sparked interesting conversations. I will still be in the States for the organized Occupy events happening on the 15th, so a hearty “enjoy!” to those going to the protests this weekend.

Me waving the flag. My poor Dad was so worried that I would get arrested for participating!

Giving Thanks

Today was a thankful day. I woke up and went for a 6km run along back country roads and reflected on what I had in my life, and was so grateful to be who I am, where I am in my life, and the journey I am about to embark on. I do indeed have a lot to be grateful for, any many reasons are my friends and family reading this blog. So a big heartful thank you peoples!

Mom, Dad, and Don introducing me to a family tradition - Auction. A card game ridiculously uncool on post-turkey brain to learn, but great fun. Apparently my grama was a "hardcore" Auction player. I got my ass whooped.

Family: Dad, Oly, Don, Kathy, Mom, Me

This year, I am so grateful to spend the holiday with my Uncles Don and Roy (Don was my Grama’s younger brother). We arrived at their old saltbox house to a grand turkey feast! It has been really wonderful to spend time with loved ones.

Traditional father-daughter pie making

Vacation time!

This morning I hopped on the train bound for NY state where I met up with my mom and dad, and my mom’s cousin Kathy and her husband Oly. The train is an 8 hour journey along some gorgeous lake country in full fall colours, and I was super excited for all that uninterrupted knitting time!

Visual of my 8 hours on a train... do I know how to have a good time or what?

This little cutie was often found hanging out on the top of the chair in front of me. He was a happy, flirty little guy. Adorable in wee form.

So now I am at my Uncle Don’s (grand uncle technically) place in Middlefield Massachusetts and will be here until next Sunday. I’m looking forward to having a family thanksgiving, I had thought I was going to miss all major holidays, but I do get some turkey this winter!

Uncle Don's antique store, built in 1812, where we are staying (it is set up like a house).



Just call me Poison Ivy

At the CIL training last week, I was fondly nicknamed “Poison Ivy” – can guess my Halloween costume this year? This was mostly due to the fact that any plant related question or discussion ended up being fobbed my way. The kind of thing that comes up like “Hmm I’ll be eating a lot of breadfruit, what is breadfruit? Oh wait, Ivy will know.”

This past week at work my not-so-secret plant nerd (or geek, but never a dork. Ok maybe sometimes I’m a plant dork) came out in full force. Roger has been working on a report for the South Sudan government as part of their agricultural revitalization efforts. He asked me to research the climate and find out what agroforestry trees would do well there, then compile a reference list and a database on those plants.

You can guess how freaking delighted I was! For those who do not know what it is, agroforesty is generally described as a combination of agriculture and forestry to produce diverse, self-sustainable systems. Much like a permaculture food forest, but missing the deep design and whole systems aspect. For a supremely good video on permaculture food forests, check out Greening the Desert.

Agroforestry is an integration of all systems we need to survive in a more interactive environment, little deliniation between annual food crop, woody fodder shrub, fruit bearing tree, and the animals within the system. In tropical systems, the soil does not hold most of the nutrition like in temperate regions. Most of the nutrition is held by vegetation, and it is imperative not to loose that vegetation because with it gone, the soil cannot grow anything for long at all. Slash and burn agriculture has been effective for thousands of years, and would continue to do so. However, the practice recently has changed where lands are no longer left fallow to recover their vegetation. The same plots are being used for too long with little rest, giant monocultures and further deforestation of intact forestry/parklands. This isn’t working, drought causes famine due to the reliance on only a few crops, soil erosion is rampant and people are becoming more desperate. There are a lot of issues within Africa all wrapped up in one big tangled mess, but I don’t like to focus on what is wrong. I want to talk about what we can do to turn those viscous cycles of land and food degradation to virtuous cycles of food and ecosystem abundance.

Permaculture is one method, which encompasses agroforestry. One thing I learnt through anthropology, is that there are few “just” hunters and gatherers. While groups may not have had agriculture, they certainly cultivated and managed their lands with great knowledge and a view for the next generations. The intention is to revisit traditional knowledge and ways of being, and updating to fit into new contexts: new technologies, more intensive, more diverse range of plants for food security, exports, fibres, wood, dye, charcoal, and medicines.

I spent my whole week studying up on all sorts of new fantastic plants that I didn’t know anything about. The really great part is that South Sudan and The Gambia are really similar in terms of bioregion and climate. So the plants I read about are actively being used, or their use is being supported where I will be going. Here are a few of my most favourites.

Faidherbia albida: Nitrogen fixing tree that has been traditionally intercropped with annuals such as millet and groundnuts (peanut).This tree looses its leaves during the wet season, but keeps them during the dry, which is unusual and important for crops grown underneath. Studies on the microclimate under Faidherbia albida trees demonstrated the beneficial effects of this on cropping. In densities of 20–30 trees/ha, the potential evapotranspiration decreases by 50% during the dry season and 10% during the wet season compared with cropping without trees, and the soil dries out more slowly. Faidherbia albida slightly improves the internal cohesion and porosity of the soil, while soil organic and biological characteristics are strongly improved. In Senegal, increases in total carbon (62%), mineralizable carbon (73%), humus (40–47%) and total nitrogen (50%) have been demonstrated under a Faidherbia albida canopy. The soil exchange capacity,water holding capacity, the assimilated phosphorus, and the biological activity of the soil were significantly increased. Plus the leaves and seed pods make exceptional fodder.

This image of Faidherbia shows that maize under the tree are several meters higher that those away from the canopy

Artocarpus heterophyllus (Jackfruit): This tree is just a medium sized tree, but it produces fruit that range from 10-50 kg (22-110 Lb’s)! The pulp of the ripe fruit is eaten fresh, while the immature are eaten as a vegetable. The seeds are eaten roasted, the leaves are excellent fodder, and its wood is considered superior to teak.

Jackfruit tree with fruit.

Anacardium occidentale (Cashew): This one is just interesting, mostly because prior to this internship I had no idea that cashews produced an edible fruit. What we eat is this funny little seed kernel sticking out the end of a fruit (its actually a swollen stalk structure technically). I’m quite fond of cashews as is the rest of the world which fuels the high demand. In tropical areas they also eat the cashew apple, and apparently you either love it or hate it.

Cashew fruit. The dark things are the shell around the nut, and are very toxic. Processing is difficult, but worth it!

Forgive me Erica…

I cut my hair.

My short (ish) new 'do!

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to some, but amongst my best friends cutting my hair was a topic of contention. Lets just say I had a tremendous support team for growing my hair long, and was strongly encouraged not to cut it. I’ve enjoyed having long hair as it feels very feminine. It is also a gigantic pain in the neck to deal with at pretty much all times. I have fine hair, but a heck of a lot of it. So when my hair gets long, it is very hot, very heavy, and stays wet all day.

I quite recently I found out I will be showering out of a bucket  for the next 6 months while in The Gambia. Side note, would that not then be more of a bucket bath than a bucket shower? Anyways, time between said bucket showers is likely to be protracted. The heat, sweat, dust, and who knows what else would be a tad difficult with my previous hair length. So in a pre-emptive strike, I cut it off!

I like it! So glad to have the weight removed from my head, no more tangly mess after wind, no more bunching up in my neck while I’m sleeping, and nobody else laying/standing/leaning on it and pinning me. Best of all, when I hug men my hair will no longer get stuck in their beard as we move apart. That was always pretty awkward.

So, what do you guys think?

CIL Training

Happy Sunday everyone! I had a busy second week for sure, spending the past 3 days downtown Montreal. A part of my internship with REAP is to attend a Centre for Intercultural Learning (CIL) pre-departure orientation session in Intercultural Effectiveness. These sessions are geared towards individuals heading abroad under CIDA funding and mandate. They put me up in a nice hotel (hello pool) in a very central area, and I got to figure my life out around all the major streets and metro lines. Montreal is a fascinating city, very busy and somewhat intimidating to this rural living anglophone.

The first day of training was an introduction to what is culture, what is our culture, and what is the cultural context of where we are going. I recommend this TED talk for a good look at the stories we create about other areas. The group was very diverse, and we were all headed to very diverse places: Mali, Malawi, Ghana, Bolivia, Peru, Philippines, India and more. The majority of the people there have done extensive traveling in a development context, and our discussions were always very interesting and rich. Our facilitator was very skilled at leading the conversation, but allowing the group to delve into what we needed to cover in our own fashion.That afternoon, Audrey and I were able to speak to a woman living in Halifax but originally from The Gambia. It was wonderful to talk to her, she gave us all kinds of information and deeper understanding of how thing work there and things we should or should not do.

The first day was not necessarily new information for me coming from an Anthropology background where I am usually quite aware of concepts like cultural relevatism, the perils of aid work, and more. However, our second day of training was a new way of framing concepts that had me completely involved. CIL framed these concepts as “cultural tendencies” and reflect the different ways, different cultures conceive of things like Individualism vs Collectivism, Rules vs Relationships and such. This was a very powerful tool for me to visualize the differences between my culture and the culture I’m going to. Furthermore, using these frameworks, we can delve to the heart of an issue coming up in our Gambian lives and bridge the cultural understanding.

One part that struck me strongly was the emphasis placed on relationships rather than policies or timely completion of projects. Here in North America, we value time. Time is money, not to be wasted; in Gambia time is a gift, we have all the time in the world, do not need to rush things as they will happen when they need to. Building on top of this, social relationships and connections are more important than the results. Results are still important, but only when coming from a solid foundation of trust and sharing. Rushed projects not oriented to the community will fail. This translates into taking as much time in the community, connecting with others, learning about them and their families, before I can do any kind of work. It is bizarre because I only have 6 months there and have things to complete according to my mandate, but this doesn’t translate locally.

The third day we talked about culture shock, how to stay healthy, how to stay safe, and other travel advice. What we learned of cultural shock was very comforting. This whole time, I’ll admit I had a bit of ego around how I will or will not experience culture shock. I mean, I expected to encounter some, but I thought I would be strong and integrate well and then can be proud of myself. However, we learnt that those who experience really sharp and severe culture shock end up being the most effective individuals in their host communities. This was a gift to know because I feel released from any kind of judgement by others(or myself) back home and how well I am or am not handling this experience. I expect culture shock (for me it will probably look like a huge appetite and sleeping lots), and know that I will integrate myself better by really just throwing all I am into the community, and learning Wolof  the best I can.

On top of the training, the relationships I formed with the other participants was a gift in itself. I know that in events like these, friends are made quickly and fun is had by a group of people who would maybe have never otherwise met. It is wonderful in its fleeting state, but this was neat because I now have connections to people about to, or already experiences what I will be. It is a whole support team, with the same training, and same intentions as I. We laughed a lot too!

The Gang

So now I am back home, celebrating Sunday with a cup of tea and Honeycrisp apples bought fresh from the farmers market yesterday. The weather is cold, windy, and rainy, and I am so grateful. In 6 weeks I will be experiencing 30+ degree weather, dust, and no rain for 6 months. Hello fall, its nice to see you!

Another Day in the Field

Today Roger, Erik, and I headed out for another field day.

Our switchgrass clipping haul. Wish I had a garden because this stuff would have made really great mulch!

Our switchgrass clipping haul. Wish I had a garden because this stuff would have made really great mulch!

We spent a few hours in the morning at the seed farm (located on McGill property) mowing down pathways for seed harvest that is coming up in a few more weeks. Essentially, Erik and I emptied out the mower while it chomped through 2m high switchgrass.

Erik emptying the mower.

Roger ran around very excited about how the new genetics are doing, basically being the rightfully proud papa of some locally adapted switchgrass.

Then we ventured westward towards another farm experimenting with switchgrass. While the majority of his land was in conventional corn production (those combines are HUGE), Norman had a few patches of switchgrass throughout. I spent my time weeding a newly established patch in the sun. I impressed Roger with my mad weeding skills and finished my sections before Roger and Erik finished selecting plants for seed saving. It was delightful to be in the sun and weeding, a physical task I do enjoy but haven’t had a chance to do in a few weeks. I ended up getting sunburnt, which I’d like to say was my last of the year but considering I’m heading to a tropical zone in a few weeks that is wishful thinking. I’ll have to be more careful there, forgetting a hat and sunscreen will result in heatstroke and 2nd degree burns, here I just get more freckly.

It was interesting to see the differences in switchgrass in relation to proximity to the corn. The switchgrass that was close to the corn was greener and the seeds were not nearly ripe as opposed to the ones farther away. We figured this was due N fertilizer spreading from the corn into those sections of switchgrass.

My favourite part of Norman’s farm was his use of amaranth. Roger said it was just to pretty up the sides of the corn, but  its a lovely way to increase the diversity of his farm (if anything, Norman would have enough amaranth to eat forever).