Calabash Construction as Rainwater Hospitality

by Florian Biesler | 30 September 2019
Image Calabash Construction as Rainwater Hospitality

After three months working in our agroforestry project in Senegal, I’ve returned to Switzerland. My fieldwork has allowed me to experience this country’s extremely arid environment. In the Fatick region, the seasons contrast starkly. Normally, the rainy season, spanning the months of July to September, is when crops are planted in rural areas. However, 2019 proved to be an exceptional year, with the rains arriving extremely late. The first real rains only fell in the last week of August. This shift demonstrates just how vulnerable local farming populations are in the context of a warming climate, associated with more extreme weather events. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to plan a productive agricultural year. These farmers, living at the southern limit of the Sahel, generate the majority of their food reserves between July and September. A poor harvest will likely result for this rural community and others in the region, with the growing season dramatically shortened by lack of rain. Given the precarity of this community’s food supply, our project, designed to improve their management of scant water resources, generated a lot of interest from the neighbours of project beneficiaries.

When such rural families can produce food, the communities to which they belong function well, with cultural practices reinforcing their strong social ties. I found the generosity and hospitality that I received during my visit to be remarkable. These positive traits are cultivated by interweaving habits of generosity and hospitality within daily rituals. For example, meals are served on big communal plates, and tea is also brewed in a communal pot to reinforce the positive value of sharing with others. Visiting rural villages in the Fatick region showed me that these communities’ solidarity is essential to their wellbeing. Family ties are very strong; they bring households together.

Preventing conflict is important in this cohesive society; cultivating peace between people is imperative. I discovered this while working with the team of masons, who were training to construct Calabash-style rainwater cisterns. There was a collaborative atmosphere as soon as our workshop began. Laughter was king. Annoyance had no place. 'Amule problems! Pas de problems!’ was the catchphrase onsite ('no problem, no problem’). Things were always settled with a smile and without people raising their voices. Calm and respectful communications with my Senegalese colleagues were very productive; I found it was possible to say whatever needed to be said, so long as I adopted a considerate attitude. The word I discovered to be synonymous with my experience of Senegal is Taranga. It describes a spirit of hospitality and a tolerance of difference, which is cultivated by social customs.

After participating in the first two weeks of cistern construction work with local masons, I became familiar with the technical requirements of building this type of rainwater harvesting reservoir. During the following three weeks, I was able to organise and plan the further construction work in consultation with the builders. Drawing on their expertise and giving place to their expectations was important in optimising the Calabash construction programme. We were in a race against the clock; when the rains arrived, we’d have to stop work. With 35 Calabash cisterns scheduled to be built in 2019, we had our work cut out. We laboured with hardly a day off. The masons rapidly became skilled, with the five men, who were often helped by teenagers from the villages, soon being able to construct four 5000 litre cisterns within a week.

One of my main tasks in Senegal was to facilitate and ensure the training of these local masons in Calabash construction. At present, nineteen reservoirs have been built and the team of builders are now working as farmers and tending their own crops. The masons, like most if not all of the rural population in the Fatick region, grow millet or peanuts to feed their families. After the harvest is completed, the work of building the remaining sixteen cisterns will recommence. This will be in January 2020.

I’m very happy to have had this opportunity to participate in a project that reinforces the food security of communities that are experiencing the full force of anthropogenic climate change. I look forward to the remaining 51 cisterns being built in our project (16 in January 2020, 35 more before the next rainy season comes). I know there are still many trees to be transplanted, and that many other challenges remain for our project. But 'amule problèmes’! My time in Senegal has led me to question our Western lifestyle, where production and profit are the guiding values for hyperactive, hyper-consumers. In returning to Switzerland, the value of Taranga is what I plan to retain.




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