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Latest maunderings from Senegal.....


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5 May (and after)

Nature's intelligence shows in the ripening of fruit and lizards changing colors

What do ripening cashews and the colors of a lizard's tail have in common? I am watching the changes happening in this season preceding the rains.

Overcast skies force me to conserve solar-panel-won energy a bit more than a month ago. Cashew apples with fat cashews, still in their caustic-protected shells ripen on the trees and heavy mangoes begin to show some rose blush over the green.

Weaver birds – at least those males who are slated to be swains – are changing their dowdy, brown plumage for brilliant yellow and black mating garb. Colors that shout, “Hey, baby! Hey, baby! Look at me!!” And the male agama lizards that will be in the breeding crew have suddenly, and startlingly, changed from dun brown to orange-spotted slate-grey with purple-tails and yellow-headed Saturday Night Fever duds. A bit over-the-top for my taste, but very African.

Why now? Why, at this season – as my old English professor at Penn State, the poet John Haag so aptly put it – “this din of procreation”?

It is not, as in colder climes, the subsidence of winter. After all, Vermont lambs dropped in January would freeze. Above the Tropics, it makes obvious sense to await gentler air for producing young. Year round there is no problem with frosts here. So what's the catch?

The catch is water. Each year, as the sun tracks south, in an area called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, it is followed by a change in the prevailing dry, off-shore winds from the Sahara to moist on-shore winds from the Atlantic. Moist air gathers; skies grow leaden. One can feel the humidity. Clothes take longer to dry on the line. Still, the rains are distant and the water table continues to drop forcing more and more hand-over-hands drawing buckets up from ever-deepening wells. At some point, probably in June, the climatological see-saw will tip and what will become three months of daily, torrential rains will begin.

The cashews and mangoes are ripening waiting for just this: for their seeds to drop and be inundated by the rains. Wet seeds sprout. OK, I admit. That's a no-brainer.

But what about the lizards and birds? Why do they pick this particular time to be steppin' out? The weavers will begin to build their architecturally delightful globular nests; a different design for each different species. The Senegal parrots, too, and dozens of other species of bird, reptile, amphibian, will choose this time, as well.

The answer is... food. With the onset of the rains comes an explosion of life across every facet of the food chain, from microbes to plants to insects to small reptiles and amphibians to larger ones and on and on. Something for everyone! Lots to munch on for energy to build with, energy to gestate, energy to feed babies.

The parrots and other seed and fruit eaters will take advantage of this bounty to dine, and nest, and make more parrots. And I expect the local crocodiles will take the same advantage. (Just let them take advantage far from me!)


And while on the subject of procreation, the village teems with children. There are herds, hives, swarms, flocks, hordes, murders, pods, schools – yes, schools of children everywhere from infants on mother's backs or at the breast, to stunned-looking toddlers immobile in the middle of the path as I try to maneuver past on my bicycle. Little boys kick soccer balls...and each other. Little girls play a complex version of jump-rope or work with their mothers at cleaning and laundry and cooking. Young siblings look after younger siblings, and they all roam around free as elves.

I don't know the percentage of the population under 25 but I'd bet it comes close to 50 percent. And I'd be willing to bet nearly two-thirds are under the age of 15.

In pre-technological society, due to high infant and child mortality, it used to be that for the population to remain static, a woman had to average 5 children throughout her fertile years. With improvements in public health the child-mortality rate has dropped dramatically. This results in an increase in the juvenile population as well as the over-all population.

Children have always been insurance. In societies without retirement or social security or pensions the kids are the ones who will support you in your dotage. In patrilocal societies, like these, girls are traditionally considered a poor investment in the long run. Sure, they work hard for a decade or two, but then they are married off and move to the husband's family, where that family benefits from their labor and they labor to produce children to increase the husband's family.

Boys, on the other hand, will hopefully become workers or wage-earners and bring wives into the family along with the labor of those wives and their offspring. (Mind you, I am not advocating, just reporting!)

So, female children will tend to be adopted out if possible – this is the main reason why I have become surrogate father (or grandfather) to three little girls and a teen-ager. Their families are more than happy to have Awa and me feed them and keep them during the day.

Back to the issue at hand. With all this plethora of children, the amount of arable land, however is not increasing, nor is the supply of water, nor are jobs. There is a constant stream of youth moving from the villages to the city, seeking employment and an easier and more attractive life than what they see as agricultural drudgery. Most of them are young males and what they find is joblessness and poverty.

The conundrum is that each technological and social success places greater strain on both the environment -- including those other creatures with whom we share this fragile spaceship – and on ancient social systems that have evolved in tandem with the environment.

Nonetheless, I'll keep trying my best to keep those babies alive; their parents, too. I'm glad I don't have to make the decisions.


This place is so much different from living in America. People tend to be friendly. African women, especially, are kind. Mungo Park, the celebrated Scottish explorer wrote about the hospitality and kindness of African women after his expedition to find the source and outlet of the Niger River in 1795. The men are a more varied quantity, but the vast majority are still hospitable and friendly. A few of the younger men have a chip on their shoulder, but that's not much different from anywhere else. Testosterone does what testosterone does.

So what's so different? Damned near everything, is what. People live in extended family groups. Family is the basic economic and social unit. There is no social security. No unemployment compensation. The family is sustenance, parachute and safety net.


A visit to someone is considered a gift. Witness a recent short conversation I had with one of the security men at the hospital where I used to work. We hadn't seen each other since I left The Gambia in 2010. He reminded me that I came to his village for his son's initiation (circumcision) and said, “I want to come visit you in Kafountine. You have always been so kind to me.” Visiting = repayment.


Latest Reading:


For those of you who have never read Natalie Angier, let me recommend you do. She is the delightful, Pulitzer-winning science writer for the New York Times as well as other journals. She is scary-smart, literate, skeptical, funny, and lots of fun. Her book, The Canon, about the basics of science should be required reading in all schools...and elsewhere. Five stars!


On Killing. by Lt. Col. David Grossman, who is active-duty Army and also professor of psychology. It begins by pointing out that it is not easy to train soldiers to kill other people. That, happily, the preservation of life is ingrained in almost all of us. Research done after World War II found that only about 20 percent of American soldiers involved in combat actually fired their weapons, even when fired upon and in fear of their lives. The armed forces took note and changed their training. By the time Vietnam rolled around that figure had changed to 95 percent. Much of the change was due to the same sort of training used in video games….that millions of children are playing every day.

The difference, he points out, between military training and video games is that training to shoot a weapon in the military is highly controlled and there are severe penalties for misuse. In video games there are no such consequences. Our youth are being trained in the same automatic-kill techniques used by the Armed Forces and police agencies, but without the intense supervision, control and consequences. Combined with the amount of graphic violence on television, he points out that we are raising a generation of killers.

The book explores far more. Grossman writes in depth about the psychological consequences of putting men into a killing role in wartime, about what used to be called “shell shock”, later, “combat fatigue”, and now PTSD. About the relentless demands of our ongoing wars. About the need for debriefing, deconditioning, helping returning soldiers to work through the things they have experienced.

If we continue to send men and women to war we have the responsibility to understand them and their experience. (And that means you, too, my liberal friends!) Even if this sort of thing is way out of your usual orbit it is worth reading. In fact, every adult American should read it. If we choose to have a government which pursues what von Clausewitz referred to as “politics by other means”, it is incumbent on all of us to understand as fully as possible what that means.


And finally, I just finished The Guns at Last Light, the third volume of Rick Atkinson's superb trilogy focusing on the US Army's role in the European theater in World War II. The first volume, An Army at Dawn, was about the African campaign. The second, The Day of Battle, Sicily and Italy, and the third and final volume: from D-Day through the capitulation of Germany. He explored the rivalries and frictions between the Allies and their various commanders and the way they were victorious. I learned what an intensely difficult task Eisenhower fulfilled – and the toll it exacted on him – driving an often contentious team of thorny, egotistical personalities like Montgomery and Patton, as well as some very difficult allies, like De Gaulle. And he made ever so clear the suffering and incredible sacrifices of both civilians and the common soldier. Highly, highly recommended. (Francois Dumas, are you reading this, my friend?)


Next: Goethe's Faust.



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Maunderings? I don't think so. (I admit, I had to look up the word first.)


Thanks again, Doc. Once again, wonderful observations and writing about life in Senegal. Very interesting stuff. And thanks for the reading recommendations.


Curious, how is a visit considered repayment? Is the visitor obligated to bring things, or perform work, etc.?

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i will pick up and read On Killing.

Another good book to consider is "What is it like to go to war" by Karl Marlantes. He too is a veteran who has grappled with this subject.

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I've read Marlantes' book. Excellent! Thanks for mentioning it.

Chris, a visit is just that: a visit. Just coming by, making your presence (not presents) is considered honoring someone. Taking the trouble to come see someone.

At least, that's my interpretation. I'll discuss it with some of my African friends and explore it further.

Things sure are different here!

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