A Dry Riverbed That Your Cat Would Love

The Senegalese don’t keep cats as pets. That’s why I found myself on a dry riverbed scooping dirt into a plastic bag using a cut off water bottle as a shovel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For our third day of training at the Center for Professional Training the teachers decided they would like to see an example of one of the interactive lessons that I introduced them to on Day Two. I offered to give a lesson on soil science to show them how to engage the students in the classroom without a lot of expensive materials. I have taught this class many times to Master Gardeners in the US and I can usually find everything I need in my closet. But this time I was going to need to go shopping, so I enlisted the help of Ndiamé, our driver. He seemed like the kind of guy who knew where to find things…

First we stopped at the market. My lesson was going to start with a discussion of the difference in the relative sizes of soil particles. I needed a big ball to represent a grain of sand and something flat and round to represent a particle of silt. A beach ball and a Frisbee would have been perfect, but this wasn’t Miami Beach. I was going to have to get creative. I settled on a soccer ball and the lid of a pan. I had a dime in my purse that could represent clay. The soccer ball had the added benefit of making me really popular with a group of boys who I gave the ball to after the class.

In the second part of the class I show how the relative size of each particle affects water infiltration. Sand was easy enough to find—it was everywhere; in the road, in the garden, in my socks. I gave up on the idea of silt; I didn’t think I could find a pure sample. Clay might be a challenge as well. When I give this lesson in the US I usually use cat litter to show how texturized clay has great water infiltration. I pour a glass of water into a clear water bottle full of cat litter to show how quickly it is absorbed. Then I make like a cat and destroy all the texture to show how working wet soil destroys its capacity for water infiltration.

I was pretty sure Senegalese cats don’t go about their business in boxes, but I had to ask. I described the concept of a litter box to Ndiamé. It’s really a ridiculous thing when you have to put it into words…

Ndiamé showed amazing self-restraint by not rolling his eyes at the crazy things Americans do. He hesitated a second (possibly because I had already confessed to being a cat lover) and said ‘In my village we hunt cats and eat them.’ And just like that I gave up on my search for cat litter. I was going to have to find a natural sample, but where? Hang on, what’s that? —amid sand for as far as the eye can see we passed a dry riverbed with cracked soil- a sure sign of a high clay content. Stop the car! I need some of that!!