Field Notes from Florian Bielser

by Florian Biesler (trans. R. Nisbet) | 2 July 2019
Image Field Notes from Florian Bielser

Florian Bielser is a twenty-six-year-old MSc student of environmental engineering at the EPFL, Switzerland. He is currently on placement as an IRHA field manager. Here’s an edited translation of his Senegalese Field Journal:

Boyard N’diodiom, 25.06.2019

Marc and I arrived in Dakar at dusk on the 24th of May. Our short night’s sleep, followed by a bus journey, left me feeling groggy as we visited IRHA Blue Schools in Senegal’s main peanut processing and trading centre, Kaolack. But the dedication of these schools’ teaching teams quickly impressed me. It is almost a decade since our NGO collaborated with Caritas Kaolack to provide integrated rainwater harvesting, drinking-water and sanitation facilities at the primary schools of Fass Kahone and Kahone One. But these schools’ teachers remain committed to cultivating healthy school environments that benefit their pupils and the wider community. Inspired by IRHA’s drive to promote good hygiene and environmental practices, they have developed complementary initiatives, including a daily litter-picking routine. Each child collects a piece of rubbish from the playground as they come into school each morning. This, my first site visit, showed me the importance of transferring the guardianship of development projects to the local populations benefitting from them. Such acts of transmission ensured the longevity of projects like our integrated WASH projects in Kaolack; thus, multiplying the number of project beneficiaries.

Inspired by our Kaolack field visit, and a subsequent meeting with a local mayor, who had arranged the planting of a protective forest around his town to insulate it from the region’s intense heat, we travelled onwards to M’Bour. Here, we met with our current agroforestry project partners, APAF-Senegal. The coastal city of M’Bour is where joined with Paul Akkerman’s calabash tank building team from Guinea-Bissau. An important aspect of our exchanges with the above parties was allowing everyone time to express their desires and ambitions for our common endeavour. We were also briefed on the criteria by which thirty-five farmers from seven villages had been selected by APAF-Senegal. IRHA also updated our project partners on our policies for area mapping and team communications as we assist our direct project beneficiaries (the 35 farmers and their families) to develop agroforestry islands on their lands.

After these preparations, we headed into the field to meet with the builders selected to construct the calabash tanks (rainwater reservoirs), which will provide drinking water for the families of the thirty-five farmers our project is assisting this year. Six men began our calabash training programme. The commitment of these individuals is important, as they will implement a key part of our project’s rainwater harvesting component. Their undertaking a two-week workshop, to become certified in calabash construction, was an important, first step in our working relationship with these men.

After the calabash construction materials and tools had been purchased (sand, cement, iron bars and mesh), the Senegalese builders were trained by the experienced builders, who had travelled from Guinea-Bissau. Paul Akkerman’s team began to share their expert knowledge, regarding how measure the right ration of sand, cement and water to create a good mortar, how to spread this cement, and how to dimension the tanks built with it. While this was serious work, and the local builders were proud to learn a construction technique that allows them to improve the living conditions of people in their region. There was a good deal of friendly banter on site, too! Operating as two teams, the qualified calabash builders began guiding their students, as they constructed four calabash tanks, using a staggered approach. While the two tanks the teams worked on in the mornings were left to dry, they laboured on in the afternoons, building a further two tanks (one per team). This intense rhythm enabled eight tanks to be built in the space of just two weeks, a significant advance for our project. With thirty-five tanks to be built before the rains arrive in July 2019, we need to combine rapidity and skill in constructing our calabash reservoirs to store all this rainwater!

As I oversee the completion of our calabash project, and begin field measurements of rainfall and soil quality, I’m living with a local family. Experiencing traditional family life within the Serer community, sharing in their meals and good humour, is a real joy. While I mainly communicate in my native French, a language learnt by all local children attending school, I’m also learning some basics of the local dialect, to the surprises of my generous hosts. They have a laugh listening to me, and I have a giggle, working new bits of local lingo into my conversations. If my time in IRHA’s Geneva office, preparing this field visit, was desk-bound and bookish, it also made me impatient to get active on the ground. My initial experience of Senegal, of course, involved a sharp culture shock. M’Bour and my lakeside home-town of Versoix, are worlds apart. But I have found my place within village life in the Fatick-Thiès region, and so has the slack line I brought with me.

With 800 mm of rainfall anticipated in the next three months, I’m impatiently waiting for the rains to arrive. While this region’s communities might be rich in generosity, they inhabit a horribly harsh, dry environment at present. Once our newly-constructed calabash tanks are full of clean drinking water, and the countryside turns green as it soaks up the rains, I’ll be happier though!

Bo Diaf Lakass !

Catch you in a while!


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