When I first started at Le Verger, I thought I had found an apprenticeship in paradise. My original placement in the school system turned out to be stressful and blinding, exactly what I didn’t want; the only direction I could see was OUT. I asked my host dad and fairy godfather if he could find me a job related to agriculture, and two days after that conversation I was working at Le Verger, the tropical tree and plant orchard just down the road. It felt like my secret garden; with over ten hectares of land and only a handful of employees, alone time was plentiful and I had the space to think. I was constantly finding new overgrown nooks within dilapidated walls, turning a corner to find the resident peacock preening himself, finding new exotic fruit to taste fresh off the tree.
Then, reality caught up with me.
One day I was lying in the branch of a mango tree in a haze of happiness, the next I sat in the same tree crying with frustration. The challenges that come with being a young, white female volunteer in Senegal caught up with me in my hiding place.
I knew things weren’t perfectly perfect from the get-go, but I attributed the problems to communication. My French has become passable and that’s what I am using to communicate with my boss, but at the start of every day he would ask me “what would you like to do today?” Seeing as how I have never been exposed to anything agricultural besides corn, I was at a loss for what work I could create for myself. I lacked both the vocabulary and the background knowledge to be able to dictate my own tasks. The awkward struggle for work went on for too long, so I asked my host father to help me and started a project of my own.
I cleared some land and planted 118 bell pepper plants, and did all the work myself. They have not yet been harvested, but besides watering, the work I need to do for them is clearly over. Again, I have found myself back to the beginning, but this time I have been trying to take matters into my own hands. I have raked, weeded, spent time in the plant nurseries, I have searched high and low for tasks to do. But one day, I made a very grave mistake: picking up a shovel and trying to continue the work of the others; specifically, filling in a hole in the ground with the surrounding sand.
I had the shovel in my hands and was just about to start when my boss rushed over out of nowhere looking highly amused.
“What do you think you are doing?” he laughed.
“I was just going to continue what I saw Abdoulaye doing yesterday. I finished everything else there is to do.”
“No no, you can’t do that. Il faut pas toucher le travail des autres. Le travail des hommes. C’est le travail dur. You cannot touch the work of the others; the men’s work, the hard work.”
“But it’s not hard for me, and I don’t see any men around here. I see me only, and I have no other work to do.”
“Why don’t you go take a nap instead? Or rest? You’ve worked so hard on your peppers, don’t you see how pretty they are? How they are thanking you? Why don’t you see if there are any weeds to pull over there? That is the work of Mame Diarra.”
And that is when I realized that my work there is a joke; my boss tries to humor me with petty projects and at the same time keep me as far away as possible from the real work that needs to be done. Though I cannot figure for which reason I am the laughing stock of the orchard: because I am a woman and therefore weak, because I am white and therefore unused to using my hands instead of machines and gizmos, because I am eighteen and have no expertise in anything besides high school, or because I am a volunteer and therefore robbing the other salaried workers of their jobs (which I have never seen them doing anyway).
All I know is that it is now up to me to move forward or move out, because I refuse to waste any more time. I have three months left in Senegal and they are not going to be spent napping. All my life I have been careful to pick my battles and so far have never chosen any, but now is the time to roll out the big guns (and I’m talking about the ones hidden underneath the sleeves of my t-shirt). I know I can help the orchard progress without robbing the others of the work and salaries that they are there for, but I am now standing up against a barrier built by hundreds of years of sexism and a culture where everything has its hierarchy.
But just because I have lily white skin does not mean that I am lily-livered. I am going to show those gents what I am made of, or my name isn’t Mame Diarra Erica Anderson Diagne.