In The Tomato Field

Matthew Travers - Senegal


April 23, 2013

My greatest insights are revealed to me in the tomato field. Knee to chest, hands to ground, root to soil, I spend my mornings alongside what I confidently call my friends, sixteen Senegalese seeds themselves that, through struggle and effort, now bear the fruits of laughter and companionship. Together we plant row after row of cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, and the grand surface of tomatoes, which has come to consume most of our efforts. At this agricultural training center, we learn not with pencil and paper- all but a few of my peers are illiterate. Rather, we learn with hands and feet, study with branches and knives, our exam results shown in the yield of our crops.

Farming, as I’ve come to understand, demands patience and a significant amount time. In the hours I spend on my haunches, I work quietly and reflect. Although I do not envy farmers for the labor they do, they are allowed the small pleasure of time to let the mind wander.

Thumb punctures the top soil to find a softer, more accepting environment. I think about how when I get home, I begin my posh college career and study things like psychology, or art history, just because I feel like it. Meanwhile, other youth here in Senegal, some my age, some more naturally apt, continue to live with their future in the soil beneath their feet and with identity cards that read “Ne pas Signer”: can’t read.

Insert the plant, delicate, in transit from nursery to the grand surface where it will grow to its fruition. I think about the thousands of immigrants that come to my country to work in fields, those who shove shovels and till until their backs give in to the force of gravity and days spent crooked. I think about how I don’t know the source of my fruits and vegetables at home. I reflect on the nuances of immigration laws, my grandmother’s experience working in strawberry fields as a child, why organic is much more than a neo-hippy buzz word, and honors the labor of hard working people instead of machines.

Insert the root gently into its new home, pat it down and wish it good luck. I think about how many years I’ve eaten meat without ever witnessing the struggle of a steer as it walks, horns and hooves bound, to what its instinct knows as death; or the aimless flight of a chicken, frantic and without head. I am reminded of the first 2 AM slaughter at the farm, and the moment at which an animal stops looking like a living thing and is instead a meat to be consumed.

At the end of the row of tomatoes, I stand up from my haunch position and a peculiar thing happens.  At first sickening and then heavy, the blood rushes back to my head all at once. I am weak and my thoughts are lost, overwhelmed by the red blood cells released from my knees. When I come to and realize who I am, where I live, and what I do, I am even more light-headed. Each time, I cannot believe the course of the last four months and my incredible fortune to be able to have lived it all, me, the occupant of this body that teeters as it regains its balance. I look at my friends, each grasping their own bunch of tomatoes, hoping to learn techniques that will change their lives for the better, and I remember the overwhelming humanity I find in each of them. And as quick as I am sober, again I am engulfed in Wolof, in Senegal, in the present moment, and then in the endless field of tomatoes before me, and I move to the next row to start again.

Matthew Travers