RIPON - About 5,000 miles away from home, milking cows by hand in rural Senegal, Wisconsin native Nate Zimdars cultivated connections between himself and the citizens, as he explored those between his life and the world beyond it.
Growing up 'ag'
Born and raised in Ripon, Zimdars spent much of his childhood and adolescence on his grandparents’ dairy farm. Multiple times a week, Zimdars would go with his parents as they worked there, sowing that passion for agriculture early.
“Agriculture had always been a big part of my life,” he said. “It was a big part of my early childhood experience, being out on the farm. It gave me an understanding of where food comes from and the hard work farmers do.”
As he grew, he joined 4-H and FFA, as well as took on more responsibilities on the farm, particularly when he began high school.
This interest in FFA drove him to be part of the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau, an organization that is focused on policy development. As he worked to attain his degree in political science, first at UW-Fond du Lac and then at UW-Madison, Zimdars took an active role in speaking with farmers and state representatives about creating policies that benefit farmers.
In doing so, he collaborated with others across the state, particularly through Young Farmers and Agriculturist Group, which works to bridge the gap between consumers and farmers to provide education on where their food comes from. In the process, he has learned more about agriculture in Wisconsin and the different aspects involved in outside of dairy.
“It’s good to have a community you can go to that supports you and broadens your idea of what agriculture backgrounds look like," he said, adding that prior to his experience, he didn't realize that Wisconsin is No. 1 for cranberries, or how organic agriculture is growing in western Wisconsin.
From Ripon to Senegal
Having expanded his horizons in Wisconsin, Zimdars sought to do so even further through a study abroad experience. While he had originally intended to through University of Wisconsin-Madison, but with costs to factor, and the desire to make a difference, he turned to Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s Young Adults in Global Mission program.
The program for adults 21 to 29 began in 1999 and sent 12 young adults to the United Kingdom. Its purpose: to give young adults part of ECLA or connected to it “the opportunity to live in the international context,” Zimdars says, while focusing on accompaniment, or “walking with the people” who are being served.
This year, 93 young adults were sent out worldwide on a yearlong mission. To do so, the youth — Zimdars included — need to raise $5,000 of the $15,000 required to send them. While some take the complete year to raise the money, with the support his church, Grace Lutheran, he raised $6,000, allowing him to help out other volunteers.
With 11 different countries offered, Zimdars picked Africa’s Senegal.
“It was just wanting a new living experience to take me out of everything I was familiar with and that’s what drew me to Africa,” he said. “I wanted an experience that would help me grow in my faith and be connected to the church.”
Leaving in mid-August, the culture shock was immediate when he landed.
Through January, Zimdars lived off $60 a month, with that amount raised to $80 through July. This was done so the young adults could understand what it was like to live at the income level of those around them. It also required budgeting.
“I had to really think about how I wanted to use my money,” he said.
Toppling barriers of language, religion
For Zimdars, the linguistic barrage was one of the most difficult aspects of his experience. While French is the official language of the country, more than 30 are spoken there, with many people knowing three or four. The Senegal Lutheran Development Service he worked with wanted him to learn Pulaar, but the farmers he worked with spoke Linguère, and his host family spoke French.
As many of the people he interacted with spoke French, he too learned that language. Despite the barrier that existed between others, connections were still able to be formed and meals shared.
This was seen, too, with religion. Although he lived with a Christian family, 95 percent of the nation was Islamic. Rather than seeing each other only for their differences, though, the groups interacted and shared with each other. At Easter, Christian families would share their peanut sauce with Muslim friends, while at Ramadan, Muslims would share their food with those who were Christian.
“One of my greatest takeaways was the hospitality and love shown to me by those around me and the respect they had for my religion and in turn the respect I had for them,” he said, telling of the sharing that took place between he and his co-worker Ibou during Ramadan — a time when Muslims fast from sun up to sun down. “He never failed to share his food with me or the water of the juice he had made special to break the fast. It always seemed like such a surprise when people would invite you over or share what they had — they weren’t sharing out of abundance.”
It was not only the people he found communion with, but animals as well.
In 2011, he watched the family farm get upgraded with a milking parlor for 200 cows, allowing them to milk 16 at a time. Stepping onto the farm in Senegal, he had expected to see a more modern setup. However, what he found was 12 cows tied up to trees waiting to be milked by hand.
“It was definitely more intimate,” he said. “It gave me a greater connection to not only the cows, but to the work that went into it. My 91-year-old grandpa was doing it decades ago, and we’re still doing it 2017.”
The experience took his back to his childhood, back through the years and across the globe.
“There were so many times when I was bringing the cows in and I would have a flashback and feelings of nostalgia of walking them in with my grandparents,” he said. “It was really special for me.”
Bringing his background from Wisconsin to the table, Zimdars and his fellow farmers discussed building a milking parlor on the land. As part of his experience, Zimdars' job was to talk with the locals, see what they are interested in developing and help them to do so.
"They have the land and area mapped out where they want to do it, but they would have to get donors," he said, adding that it should be up and running "within the decade."
The largest goal of those there currently was increasing milk production. With a dry season eight months out of the year, natural vegetation deteriorates, leading farmers to look to cows to produce more milk during those months. Through the work of the dairy cooperative, cows were bred with European breeds, driving up milk production by 2.5 gallons compared to the 2 quarts in non-crossbreeds;in Wisconsin, the average dairy cow produces 8.5 gallons of milk per day.
“Compared to dairy cattle we have in Wisconsin, that’s not much, but for them it was a huge increase,” he said. “The farmers who would crossbreed had $400 more a month. That increases access to medication and school supplies and provides more opportunities.”
Cultivating passions at home
Since returning to the United States in July, Zimdars has been working for the ECLA, spreading the word about his experience in hopes of drawing others to it and growing support.
While he is still figuring out his future, he hopes to maintain his connections to agriculture and one day have his own hobby farm. For now, his focus is on finishing his education and living his passion to benefit others.
“The current plan is to find some kind of full-time job in Madison in the capitol. That’s where my passion is and where I am called to serve,” he said.