February 21, 2014

Chronicles of Adventure: Senegal

We caught up with good friend and IDEO.org's senior editer Aaron Britt post his recent trip to Senegal to explore the better help understand post-harvest food loss.. He's the writer here, so let's let him do his thing and you can better understand this amazing trip.


After years in the magazine business, a land where editors such as I clamor and salivate for swish trips and tony tourism, I recently cast in my lot with IDEO.org, a non-profit design firm that works on poverty alleviation. It’s a special place where the best really do mingle with the brightest, all to the advantage of the people in the greatest need. 

The brass told me I’d be hitting the road a fair bit for my new gig and nearly from the word “go” started talking about sojourns in spots like Zambia and Pakistan. Rather a significant change from my previous work trips—we design journos are far more accustomed to high-thread-count jaunts from just-so atelier to winsome boutique. We navigate by Michelin star. But goodbye to all that, hello to the developing world and a chance to affect more than what end table gets the most ink. 

First trip: Good old Senegal, once the capital of French West Africa and one of the most vibrant countries in the region. I was rapt! I’d been dreaming of seeing Senegal for years, spurred largely by a sweet pair of Dakarian kids I once taught in summer school. The food, the music, the vast Atlantic as seen from the city’s snaking Corniche! 

The aim of the trip—to understand and put a human face on post-harvest loss among smallholder farmers. 

What the team of four I joined up with in Dakar actually did every day? Head out of Dakar with driver and translator to talk to scores of smalltime farmers about their lives, their crops, their challenges, and how they might fare a bit better. The core of IDEO.org’s process is getting out from behind the desk, sitting down with the people you’re actually designing for, and hearing directly from them what it is they want, fear, aspire to, and need. They don’t call it human-centered design for nothing, and when your aim is to understand how another person experiences the world it’s damn hard not to love them afterward. 

Empathy is a big buzzword around the office, but after seeing my colleagues live it, their capacity to feel with another person unclouded by bias or their considerable expertise, I came to understand why we work this way. At IDEO.org we learn by doing, and I was suddenly very hungry to do. So off we went, zagging from Dakar to distant Fatick, crossing the Gandoul River on a crowded ferry, leaving the highway and bouncing along craters and ruts to a village of two dozen tiny houses to understand what it means to farm peanuts and millet. Baobab trees everywhere, sheep crossing the road as often as people, mosques like castles, village markets so teeming with produce you can hardly believe that they import food here, cloudless days whose bright sun overwarms and overwhelms. 

The stickiest memories: sitting and learning from a master farmer beneath a broad mango tree, his “white house” as he put it; a small boy, maybe two, not much older than my own son, reaching up and holding my hand as he walked me down the dusty street of his village; the churning local jazz at a Dakar nightclub, the best bands not even getting underway until midnight; a sun-blotting thatch eagles down from Europe for the winter circling our hotel as though any of the guests might make for easy quarry; the fistfight that broke out on a busy Dakar street when one shopkeeper tried to steal me and my 3,000 F CFA (about $6) away from another.

Perhaps the hardest thing to see, a devastating reminder of our long and nasty history with Senegal, was Goree Island, last stop for millions of West Africans as slavers packed them off to the Unbrave New World. Now, the island is a large tourist destination with a year-round community and a gorgeous little harbor and beach. Life moves on, even in the shadow of atrocities, and I had the distinct sense that this suddenly weepy toubab (Wolof for “white person”) was taking it harder than the passel of local school kids learning their own history.

What I’ll miss most: the food. Would that Thieboudienne a spicy mix of rice and fish, were our national dish. And the divine onion sauce that crowns a plate of yassa poulet should be mandated for all lunches. 

And though I’m happy to be home with my family, I reflect on this adventure often. It’s become a morning ritual, recalling some hazy car ride or a saccharine sip of Café Touba as I dutifully take my remaining malaria pills. Despite the scary side effect of ominous dreams, I almost dread running out of these small pink capsules, a daily link to ten days of discovery.