Friday, December 18, 2009

How Much Impact?

The Gambia is a long way from Copenhagen, and the distance between the perspectives of the average Danish and Gambian citizen is possibly even greater. Thanks to the BBC World Service, however, the happenings at the environmental summit in Copenhagen are known and discussed by the Gambians who have had at least some schooling. Environmental awareness is not a totally alien concept to West Africa, so many have opinions about what world leaders, especially Barack Obama, should do in the way of legislation, green development projects, and the like. Unfortunately, most conversations I hear are not about what the western powers can do right in the future, but about what they have and are currently doing wrong. It should be taken as a given that Americans, Chinese, and Western Europeans are responsible for the great bulk of the damage that has been done to the environment. There is such a wealth of statistical information on the internet and in print that supports this that I will not attempt to do so here. What my perspective as an American living in West Africa gives me is anecdotal evidence of the attitudes that Gambians have about this discrepancy. The most common one, in my experience, is not anger at the wastefulness of wealthier nations, but envy of it.

Very few Gambian households outside of the wealthy Kombo districts on the coast have the means to consume much carbon, despite the great desire to do so. My district is without a power grid, as is the entire region except for a couple of administrative and commercial centers, which only have electricity about ten hours a day. My village has at most 10 generators, only one or two of which are run any given night due to the price of gasoline. There are perhaps 20 motorcycles and 3 trucks or cars among the approximately 1500 people in the village, meaning that public transport, bicycles, or walking are the only options for most people. There is no indoor plumbing in any of the rural villages and towns, and even in administrative centers such as Basse, toilets are only to be found in NGO and government offices.

As such, the carbon footprint of the average Gambian is very small as compared to the world at large, due almost entirely to poverty. In villages, the idea of depriving yourself of anything just for the sake of the environment would be laughed at, and loudly. Driving a car is always better than walking or biking. Drinking water out of a bottle is always better than out of a well. Something easy in a package shipped from far away is always better than harvesting, pounding, and cooking for hours. It is somewhat ironic that people who are itching to do some polluting are completely unable to do so, while people like the famous "No Impact Man", Bill Nye, and Leonardo DiCaprio are polluting exponentially more while ostensibly doing everything they can to avoid it.

The government in the Gambia is doing its part, in theory, to change the collective mind of the people. The last Saturday of every month, the epic "Set Settal environmental cleansing exercise" is performed across the country with much aplomb. This event consists of women sweeping and men raking all of the litter that people throw indiscriminately for the rest of the month into great piles and burning them, filling the air with dust and fumes from burning plastic and rubber. I have no figures to back it up, but my suspicion is that the respiratory problems caused and carbon released as a result of the bonfires far outweigh any of the benefits of having less clutter in the streets for a week or so.

"So what are you doing?", you may ask. Well, by necessity, I am living the Gambian green lifestyle- pooping in a hole, bathing in a bucket, walking, biking, and being jostled in crowded bush taxis. That's all well and good, but a month after I get back to the states I will probably have made up for these lean two years. Something more useful I have been attempting has been to encourage the idea that planting trees after chopping them down is not only a considerate thing to do, it is absolutely essential if Gambians don't want to live in a desert. The Sahara moves further south each year as a result of deforestation, and as population gets denser and denser, trees get thinner and thinner. In theory this should be easy--every Gambian knows that trees are extremely useful as a source of food, lumber, firewood, and numerous local medicines. They just aren't so receptive to the idea of doing more work than they have to. I did manage, with the help of my counterparts Karamo and Mamadi, to get a large group together to plant a cashew plantation a few months ago. Have they fenced it yet? No. Have goats eaten some of them? Yes. What am I hoping for? I am hoping that, even if every single tree is eaten and fire scorches the plot, that maybe one of the kids that helped plant trees will like this idea, and that when he is a few years older, he will start his own plantation or tree lot. Then his daughter will do the same thing, and on and on, ad infinitum. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won't, and I most likely will never know either way. All I have is my good will and the hope that I've made the right kind of impact.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Hey everyone. Been pretty busy and a little under the weather lately, so no new posts yet, but I put up some videos on a youtube site that are pretty interesting. There is a link to them on the left if you want to take a look, and thanks once again for all of your support-

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mali Journal II : The Dogon Country

We stayed in Bamako just one night before heading to the Pays Dogon, a series of dozens of villages along the Bandiagara escarpment, a 200 km stretch of granite and laterite cliffs in the south of the country. The Dogon are one of the West African ethnic groups that have most successfully held onto their indigenous culture. Although now they are comprised of Muslims and Christians as well as Animists, they maintain vibrant wood carving, cloth weaving and dyeing, architecture, and dance and music traditions. After another day long bus ride we arrived in Sevare, a town north of Bandiagara that is commonly used as a starting point for trips to Dogon. Ian called the guide that we had arranged our trip with previously and he said he could pick us up right in front of the bus station. A few minutes later a large man in a Renault station wagon pulled up to the curb and rolled down his window to greet us. He introduced himself as Hassimi and asked me how we were doing. I said fine, except that it was a bit hot. He laughed and replied, "Ohhh yeah, it's really f***ing hot, dude!"

This response might have seemed crass and a bit off-putting if not for the extremely friendly and jovial manner with which Hassimi addressed us. His English was not fantastic, but certainly understandable, and like most West Africans who speak English he was not entirely aware of the gravity of the f-bomb in the west. He invited us to stay in his compound for free and discuss the itinterary for our trip. We made sure we were all on the same page as far as his rate (quite reasonable) and what we were interested in seeing, and shook hands feeling good about the next couple of days.

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and were on the road by 8 o'clock. The first village we went to was named Banjugu, and as we first saw it the stone and mud buildings tucked into the confines of a rocky cliff rising before us in the distance, we knew that what we had been told about the beauty of the Pays Dogon was no exaggeration. We followed Hassimi into the village while he explained the manner of construction of the buildings, and told us of the legend of the Muslim saint who converted the village to Islam by building a full mosque in one night. The Dogon had fled from the jihads waged by the Fulani to convert the different ethnic groups of West Africa, and lived in the cliffs to protect themselves from attackers. According to Hassimi, unlike the Mandinka, Bambara, Wolof, and other West African tribes, the Dogon muslims were converted by persuasion rather than the edge of a sword.

As we walked around the village, Hassimi pointed out various natural rock ledges and tables that the village people used as meeting places, workshops, and even one spot that functions as a court--Banjugu, the first village to convert to Islam, also practices Sharia law. As we walked through the narrow streets we marvelled at how naturally the buildings fit into the rock formations; everything is built in tandem with nature, rather than in spite of it. What we found remarkable, however, the village residents found mundane. Women continually asked us why on earth we would want a picture of the side of their house, or of children sliding down a slick stretch of rock warn even smother by the repeated friction of their bony behinds. Even the beautiful Friday mosque, build entirely out of mud and sticks, was every day to them. It is easy to let the vibrancy of the lives of these villagers belie the fact that they are extremely arduous. Hassimi showed us to a small spring about half 1/2km from the village on a steep rock path. It was less a spring than a never-emptied puddle of cool, clear water, fed by an underground stream. To get water in the dry season, women have to go to this spring and fill their buckets cup by cup, then carry the full buckets on their heads over that same treacherous rock path and up countless stairs back to their compounds.

After leaving Banjugu we had lunch in Bandiagara before continuing to the actual escarpment--where every view suddenly became a stunning panorama. After a few stops for photos we came to the village of Telli, the first village on the southern end of the escarpment to have the characteristic clay buildings built into the side of the cliff, similiar to the structures at Green Mesa in Arizona. Hassimi showed us the different types of buildings--granaries, stables, fetish sites. He also pointed high up the cliff, sometimes closer to the top than the bottom, where in small cracks there were tiny little mud huts that seemed absolutely impossible to reach. These are the dwelling places of the Tellem, some dating back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries B.C.E. The Tellem were a race of very small people related to the pygmies of Central Africa. Hassimi said that it was believed that the Tellem were able to reach these huts so high up the cliff by climbing vines that covered the cliffs at a time when the area was more lush and green. Some Malians believe, however, that the Tellem had supernatural abilities, including the ability to fly.

We spent the night at a rustic hotel, or campement, in the nearby town of Ende. Hassimi took good care of us, in that every place we stayed was clean and pleasant, and the food was always excellent--cous cous with a chicken stew over it, sheep in a sauce over macaroni, et cetera. The next morning we walked around the village, visiting various textile and jewelry makers. Zach and I both picked up some striking blankets of mud-dyed Bogolon cloth and Dogon hats, which are made of cloth sewed together with three tassels on top, a bit like a European jester's cap. Ian bought a couple of Dogon shirts, which are made of woven cloth dyed with indigo. After shopping, we tour the old Dogon village in the cliffs, and Hassimi shows us the Hogon house. The Hogon is the head chief of the village, who makes all final decisions and has crucial roles in ceremonies. If a Hogon dies, a new one cannot be chosen for three years. New candidates must be the oldest members of a high status family, such as the founders of the village. Once chosen, the Hogon is carried to the house where he will spend the rest of his life. Everything he eats must first be tested by a tortoise--if the tortoise refuses any food, it is not fit for the Hogon. The Hogon can only drink pristine food and water brought to him by a clean woman-a virgin. This is entirely for cleanliness purposes, as the Hogon effectively takes an involuntary vow of chastity when he is chosen.

The next day we moved on to a new campement to park the car, then began a day-long hike, first to a Dogon market, then a village nestled high up in the cliffs. The market was a quite an experience. One of the primary items sold at Dogon markets is millet beer, sold in either plastic bottles or large bowls made out of gourds. Dozens of women with big pots doled the stuff out to men in various states of inebriation. One was wearing a full Santa Claus beard and wig. A young Japanese man approached me to say hello, explaining that he had been on a tour of West Africa for several months, and had been in the Dogon for a week or so. He then introduced me to his guide, who spoke no English or Japanese, and was completely wasted. He kept trying to tell me about Malian politics in slurred French and hinting that I should buy him more alcohol.

We wished our Japanese friend good luck and continued on a trail that went alongside a stream up into the cliffs. The trail was flanked by millet fields and massive acacia and baobab trees, making for yet another spectacular landscape. We made our way behind women from the market still carrying baskets and goods on their heads. How they do this every week is beyond me. We reached the village at dusk, and Hassimi explained that it is divided into three sections, one Muslim, one Christian, one Animist. No section, however, has any type of toilet as their villages are built on solid rock, so certain sections of the village are best avoided.

The next morning we did a tour around the village, during which Hassimi points out small fetish sites in animist compounds where families will sacrifice millet and blood to their various gods. It is very interesting, but we are not allowed to see much, as most of the sites are very sacred and all but the most venerable village members are forbidden. We end the tour in the Christian section, market by a small mud church and, like the animists, numerous pigs penned up in compounds. The last compound we saw had a myriad of hunting trophies mounted on the wall, including drying baboon carcasses, snakes, and the skulls of various other primates. From here, we move on to another steep, rocky path further along the cliffs. After few minutes of hiking we came to a large Animist village once again perched at the edge of the cliffs. Here there are even more fetish sites, including some larger ones that Hassimi told us are forbidden to all but the oldest men in the community, who go there during festivals to sacrifice and eat meat. If any but these elders eat the sacrificed meat, the Dogon believe they will die as surely as if they had ingested poison.

From here we took a long downward path to the village where our car was parked, taking in more amazing views as we went. Things got steeper and a little trickier, with perhaps the most nerve-wracking moment being a crevasse probably 50 feet deep bridged only by the local Dogon ladders--logs with steps roughly carved into them. The couple of cracks serving as mausoleums full of skulls and bones that Hassimi pointed out in the sides of the cliff were somehow less than reassuring, as well. After another hour or so we made it back to the village unscathed.

Once we packed up all our things we got back on the road to Sevare--about a three hour drive. Although we had a great time, there was definitely the sense that we had just scratched the surface of a very rich culture. I sat drowsily in the car looking at the magnificent scenery that sped by, amazed to think I didn't even know this place existed before I came to West Africa, and this is just one very small ethnic group out of hundreds in this region. Living in The Gambia can make the world feel very small sometimes, but you don't have to venture that far away to get a sense of the magnitude of things.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mali Journal I : The Road to Bambako

To celebrate a year in The Gambia and my 25th birthday, I decided to take a trip. Initially I had planned on going to Guinea Bissau, and had looked into travel routes, destinations, and costs, and just about had the whole thing planned. Then the president was assassinated by the military. A few months later, several major political figures thought to be contenders for the vacant presidency were also assassinated. So much for that idea. Instead, I began researching another country that had caught my interest: Mali. Mali is the home of Bamako, one of West Africa's great music centers, as well as the fabled city of Timbuktu, and some of the wider stretches of the great Niger river. It all seemed pretty extroardinary to me, so my friends Zach and Ian and I decided to go on a two-week trip starting on the 17th of October. These next entries are a journal of that trip.
The border between Senegal and The Gambia south of Basse is not exactly a fortress. The large shell of a former customs compound is now left empty save for the daily use of the small mosque built for border guards. Across the road from this tiny house of worship are two drab, dirty concrete buildings which house the few guards who protect the The Gambia from the throngs of Senegalese who are itching to jump the border to...steal peanuts, perhaps? Although peanuts, like just about everything else, are as or more abundant in Senegal.

Upon crossing the border, there is nothing that indicates that you have entered a different country. The red laterite road full of potholes, the scrub brush and intermittent bush mango, baobab, and other tall trees, the white-vested, black crows and vultures--none of these bush inhabitants has any concept of the border created by Europeans with no regards to tribal boundaries transport routes. After ten or so kilometers of that familiar Senegambian landscape, we arrive in Wellingara, the nearest travel hub to the Gambian border. Dispite the fact that Wellingara is about the same size as Basse, it is almost immediately evident that things are more organized here. There are two internet cafes with good connections, there are numerous 2 and even 3 story buildings, and the car park is well organized, with benches, labelled areas for different destinations, and even printed tickets. Many transactions are actually one in French, as well--I rarely if ever hear any type of business done in English in the Gambia outside of the capitol.

We buy tickets for a sept-place (seven seat station wagon) from Velingara to Tambacounda, the hub used for trips to eastern Senegal and Mali. After a few minutes of waiting our car fills, and we embark on the paved road. I can't help but thinking that this can't last--the red, rocky destruction of West African transport will return shortly, but, save for a few areas under construction, the whole 100+km trip is on asphault. And, to boot, once we have passed the Velingara police checkpoints, there are no others. It is the smoothest trip in a non-Peace Corps vehicle that I have taken in a year.

Tamba is quite small on the map, but to our surprise, the town is a bustling little urban center by West African standards, with good multi-lane roads and two large car parks. We spend the night in the Peace Corps transit house, which is very comfortable, with running water and electricity, and eat at decent restaurants, one of which has fast wi-fi. Yet another example of what decent infrastructure can do.

The next morning we continue to the border town of Kidira in another sept-place, and have to take a taxi from the car park to the immigration post on the senegal side. This process is pretty straightforward--a short ride, a passport stamp, and we are on our way to the Malian side. Here, things aren't quite so simple. We ask our taxi driver to take us to the immigration post to buy a visa, but he gets confused and takes us to the police station. We explain again and he takes us where we need to be, but then he wants more money because he went to both places. We finally negotiate him down, but he's a bit pushy while we wait for the immigration official to write out and sign receipts for the visas we will have to get in Bamako. He wants us to pay more than we negotiated, but luckily the bystanders all agree with us, so he has to relent. After all is said and done, we skip the taxi ride back to the car park and jump on a bus headed to Kayes, the first sizable city in Mali.

The bus system is definitely something of a change from what we are used to. The closest thing to a bus in The Gambia is a large gele-gele as full of rice sacks, goats, chickens, and market goods as it is people. In Mali, there are numerous bus companies, some of which even have air conditioning, if you are in the right place at the right time and want to pay a little extra. Goats and sheep are still allowed, but they are tied up in bags and put below with the luggage-an arrangement I am sure they find most comfortable. Our bus is not air conditioned, but we all have more than adequate leg room, and as long as the bus is moving there is a pleasant breeze. Unfortunately, like most vehicles in West Africa, the bus makes frequent stops for seemingly assinine reasons. At one point it seems we stop for twenty minutes so the driver and porters can sit and chat with some people on the road, and the passengers in the bus nearly drown in their own sweat.

We arrive in Kai in the late afternoon, and immediately buy tickets for the next morning's ride to Bamako. We ask what time we should arrive, as we had been told the bus usually leaves at something like 5 A.M. We are told to be there at 3:30. There are a number of taxi drivers standing next to the bus station, and we attempt to explain where the Peace Corps house is- down the block from the prison and near the river. The drivers speak French and Bambara- neither of which we know more than a few phrases. Mandinka is close to Bambara sort of like Spanish is close to Italian, so Zach and I try to explain things as best we can. Zach says the house is closed to where people are locked. I say it's close to where wicked people are. Ian tries saying "prison" with a French accent- "pree-zon," basically. Finally, I point to a scooter and say, "If I steal this, and the police catch me, where will they take me?" "Ohhhhh, "pri-son!" They all exclaim. We sigh and get in the taxi.

After a pleasant night spent hanging out with some Mali volunteers at a local bar, we get a few hours of sleep before getting up far earlier than I think is ever really necessary. We have arranged for a taxi to pick us up, and he arrives right on time. At the bus station, the staff members yell out the name of everyone who has bought a ticket, butchering each of ours in new and interesting ways. The bus has screens, and after upon embarking at 4:30 they begin to show an episode of the American series Prison Break in French. Ian has seen the show and explains a bit to me, but I am fast loosing consciousness, so we both put in our ipod headphones and pass out. When I wake up around 7, the porters are handing out raisin croissants and small bottles of cold generic cola. It seems like a strange combination, but I eat and drink and look out the window for awhile.

The landscape in Mali is a definite change from Senegambia. Before the border and even most of the way to Kayes it had been that same combination of short shrubs and grasses with occasional tall trees. Past Kayes, it slowly becomes more and more like the American southwest- short shrubs with no tall trees except around villages, rocky hills rising in the distance, and sandy, sun drenched expanses of land. The architecture changes as well, with much fewer thatched roof buildings, replaced instead by corrugated iron roofing over clay or mud brick houses. When we arrive in Bamako that afternoon, we are amazed at the large hills surrounding the city. It strikes me as kind of a West African Nashville- a city known for its music nestled in the hills. We have arrived at our first destination, and are excited to get a feel for this whole new country.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Year Approaches...

Every bumster, every pushy salesman, every nosy lady with a flaccid breast hanging out to feed a screaming infant--they all ask me the same sequence of questions. "Which country?" "Are you piss-corpse?" "Can you take me America?" And finally, "How long since you come here?" After I add up the months for this last one and reply, I usually get a flood of praise for how well I speak Mandinka or for how long I have been working for the betterment of Gambians. Either of these might be flattering if they weren't part of a pitch to get money or a ticket overseas. But these exchanges do serve as a continuous count-down of my service, so I am pretty much always aware of how long I have been here. My reply is edging ever closer to that big twelve-month mark, and I have been trying to take stock of what that means to me.

First of all, it means that my term of service is not quite half over. It's funny how it can seem like I should be almost done and that I just got here simultaneously. There is still over a year to try to get new projects done, see different parts of the Gambia, meet new people, and who knows what else. On the other hand, we are no longer the new group in the country, with one education group sworn in and a health and environment group on the way next month. My swear-in group is in a sort of limbo between the doe-eyed rookie and the crusty veteran.

Second, it means that I feel that I am hitting a stride in a lot of ways--like dealing with the various solicitors I meet in the street. I make a real effort not to be one of those angry volunteers who always assumes someone approaching them is a creep only out for money. At the same time, I don't want to open myself up to every person who comes by and end up bitter at being cheated and molested constantly. I try to maintain a certain guardedness without being impolite until I can assess the character of someone new, and then I either open up or say "no thank you" and move quickly on.

One last thing that the year mark is making me consider is, "What I would have been doing if I were in the the States?" The standards for accomplishment in the U.S. are quite a bit higher than here, so in terms of actual, honest-to-God work, I would almost certainly have more hours under my belt. But what about the results? All I did in the year before I came here was sling bagels and coffee and wait tables. This made me a few bucks (which I mostly blew) but provided me with no real lasting accomplishment. All I can chalk that year up to is life experience. Since I have been here, however, I have been involved in a lot of projects that have the potential to change things for the better in a place where change is desperately needed. With village residents, I planted over 500 trees. I taught people about malaria and how to prevent it with mosquito nets and locally made repellent. I helped write vaccination records and weigh babies and child welfare clinics, and educate women about malnutrition.

None of these things is guaranteed to have an impact. The trees could all be eaten by goats. That's not a joke, it's a distinct possibility. The people who heard the malaria and child health talks may or may have not been paying attention. Even if they were, it might not change their actions. I could have done more with the time I have been given. Basically, all of this could amount to nothing. Some of it almost definitely will. But if just a few things take, if just one or two parents start taking better care of their kids, if there are a few more trees in a declining forest, if a few less people get malaria, or a few kids become interested in learning and thinking about things, then that means a lot more to me in the long run than having been a damn good bagel baker.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


New things should be coming in the next couple of days. I just added some new photos to my photobucket site from a TOSTAN declaration in which a number of villages met to resolve to abandon the practices of FGM, early marriage and forced marriage. A variety of cultural groups also attended, performing different types of music and dance. I have been trying to add some videos to my youtube site, but I have had some problems with downloading them that I hope to resolve tomorrow. I will also add an additional blog entry if I have time. As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to drop me a line anytime, online or in the real world.

Cow Oil

I am at a loss for what to do with the bottle of golden liquid gifted to me this afternoon. "Cow Oil," the lady said. If I had been asked what the uses for such a product were before now I would have guessed some sort of ointment for a chapped udder. Now I know it as a cooking ingredient distilled from milk through a method as yet unknown to me. If seems to be pure milk fat. My Fula friend Maimuna Jallow makes a habit of giving me various agricultural products at the end of my visits, but the usual bottle of fresh milk or sack of peanuts has a more mainstream variety of uses.

I was given the invitation for the naming ceremony yesterday morning and promised milk and the aforementioned "ninsi tuloo." I had meant to make a trip to Mana Koto, the nearest Fula village, to check on the one-stringed violin I had commissioned from the local jali anyway so I rode over in the late morning. Upon arrival I made the rounds greeting in Pulaar as well as Mandinka. I know very little Pulaar, but people appreciate it when you make an effort, even if you can't carry on a conversation past the pleasantries. I brought my guitar, which always adds an extra air of prestige to any occasion. Having a toubab jali grace your wedding ceremony seems to be roughly the Gambian equivalent of having a minor celebrity grace your wedding or Bar Mitzvah in the states. I am fast becoming the Gambian Flava-flav.

After managing to turn down two of four offers for questionable food, I eat some millet porridge with sour (a.k.a. spoiled and chunky) milk and fried goat meat with onions and bread. The latter is actually quite good, and I manage to stomach enough of the former to pass for a polite guest. I play a few tunes which are deemed "sweet," and elicit the inevitable requests for lessons and offers to buy the instrument. I finally relent and attempt to teach one of the more polite men a few chords, but after ten minutes of clumsy fumbling he calls it quits. "Thank you, you tried."

As the afternoon begins to heat up the men all sit in the narrow breezeway of the house chatting and drinking attaya. As I usually do at Fula gatherings, I feel a degree more separated than I usually do, as I can only make out tiny fragments of the conversations. Thus I have no idea what is going on when the men begin to file out and walk to a neighboring compound. My former guitar student tells me that lunch is ready in the next compound. "But we just ate." "Now we eat again." A brief walk sees us to the imam's compound, and the meal is initiated again with greetings and then a the mumbling of a small prayer with cupped hands extended to receive the blessings. It is benachin, not particularly bad or good, and I eat a bit more on ceremony. The Imam tries to talk to me in Fula. "Mi nani chet-do."- I speak Mandinka. This does not meet his approval. He is the kind of older, well-dressed gentleman who carries an air of importance around him heavy enough to break the backs of smaller egos. He ruffles like a bit like a bloated rooster and says something derogatory. I explain, to those in the group who understand mandinka, that I live in the nearest village, have lived there for less than a year and have not had instruction in or even much direct contact with their language. I am merely here because I was invited. I ask how many of them speak my native language. None raise their hands. "Language learning is difficult," I say, and that ends the conversation.

After lunch and prayers, I sit and fiddle with my cell for a bit, waiting for lunch to arrive. No reception bars. This village is off the road, and off all but the most detailed maps. Muhammadou, the compound owner, runs up to me excitedly and tells me that a marriage has just been arranged, and in a nearby compound the terms are being agreed on. He and Maimuna drag me over to see "their culture." We come to a hut with a low roof that we have to duck low under to enter. The hut is dark save for the light coming in under the roof and through the curtain that blocks the door. There are two four poster beds of rough hewn wood tacked together and covered with sweat-stained sponge mattresses. There are people sitting in every possible space, or so it seems until an ancient man and middle-aged woman scoot apart to make room for me.

There is a definite air of amusement at the stranger in their midst--the chet-do toubab, or White Mandinka. Maimuna tells them something that makes them all nod and say "Bisimilah"- Thanks be to God, or, in general usage, you are welcome. Then the negotiations begin. The congregation produces a pile of kola nuts and dalasi coins which are placed on a plastic mat in the center of the room, and the mother of the bride and the father of the groom sort through and discuss them. I add two coins of my own, which are met with many nods and grunts of approval. They then place the tribute in a plastic tea kettle usually used for washing hands and, well..."other" bathroom functions. After this a large wad of money is produced and it is contemplated thoroughly by both parties. Once it is deemed adequate it is passed around for all to see so that there can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the transaction and subsequent marriage. The cash is then also placed in an identical kettle, and the two kettles are passed around for some ceremonial reason. When they are passed to me I try to take them one at a time but am hastily told that this is improper, and I take one in each hand as everyone else does. Once they have been weighed by each pair of hands in the room, they are given back to the mother of the bride, who evenly distributes the kola nuts among the congregants and pockets the money. With that, the ceremony is complete, and the crowd disperses.

Back at the Bah compound, lunch is ready, yet for some reason I am placed in a separate room with my own food bowl. I can never quite decide if this distinction is to honor me or if they don't think I want to or am able to eat with my hands from a community bowl. Either way it is strange, as I ate from a community bowl less than an hour ago. My food bowl is enough to feed a family of four, and after eating two breakfasts and one lunch already I am in no condition to gorge myself, though the food is quite good. After finishing and insisting repeatedly that I can't eat anymore, I start to pack up my things to head home. "Wait, wait! Your milk! Your cow oil!" I had almost forgotten. A fanta bottle filled with warm golden liquid corked with a wad of blue plastic and a water bottle full of fresh milk are produced.

The next morning, back in Barrow Kunda, I wake up and make myself a cup of tea on my gas burner. As I sip it, my host brother's younger wife comes to the door with my breakfast of millet porridge. I thank her and take it, putting it on my cooking table, when I notice the golden bottle with the blue plastic sticking out the top. I grab it and go to my door, opening it, and ask my host wife to come back. "This oil, some Fulas gave it to me. What do I do with it?" She stares at it, thinking a moment. "I don't know. I'm not a fula."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Travel Day

I brought an alarm clock with me to the Gambia, but I am not sure where it is. If I had any actual use for it I would probably have kept better track of it. It's probably under my bed or in a suitcase. I wish it was a soft beeping sound waking me each morning, as opposed to the metallic squeal of feedback and a very lo-fi voice zealously chanting the call to prayer at 5 AM. That is how this day starts, but it is different from most days in that today I plan to travel- first to Basse, then on to Kombo.

As the scratchy howl of the mosque loud speakers 30 yards away continues to beckon the faithful, I groggily roll out of bed in the darkness, guided only by the tepid light an LED lamp on the wall. My friend Whitney has been visiting and is already up and packing her things together. I snag a quick drink of water and wolf down a loaf of bread after changing into some relatively clean clothes and grabbing my bag; we both head for the door.

Outside my house the light is not yet visible on the horizon, and the swirl of the milky way and glow of the moon barely illuminate the silhouettes of the sleepy worshippers filing towards the mosque. Whitney and I use the flashlights built into our cell phones to pick out the remnants of the path out of town that has been gutted by the torrential rains of the past couple of months. We join the main road about a quarter mile out of the village and head towards Chamoi - the nearest village in which reliable transport can be found in the rainy season. I listen for the barking of baboons or steady whoop-whoop of hyenas, as I have heard in the early morning on this road before, but only crickets chirping and toads croaking accompanies our footsteps.

After a little more than a mile we reach our destination, and sit by the side of the north bank road in hopes of catching a bush taxi. After about 1/2 an hour - a relatively brief wait, actually- a large van approaches and we barter passage to basse, crammed inside with about 20 other people. As is is Ramadan, those fasting are not allowed to spit, since it is seen as form of relief. About 2 miles down the road an old man mumbles something to Whitney about her seat, and becomes very animated. A passenger to his right explains that the old man wants to sit by the window, and Whitney agrees to avoid any arguments. Once they have switched, the man immediately slides the window open, loudly clears his throat, and proceeds to spit several large wads of saliva and phlegm out the window.

Upon arrival in Basse we head to the car park, where many of the early cars have already left, leaving us few choices. The car that seems the best bet to leave the soonest is an old grey Peugeot station wagon that already has 3 passengers. We negotiate fare and move around to the back to load our luggage. When the driver opens the back hatch a large swarm of flies erupts into the air, having been interrupted from eating the residue on several empty rice sacks that had once conveyed some unknown, pungent cargo.

Another passenger joins our car and we are off, headed for the ferry across the Gambia river at Janjanbureh. Thankfully we are stopped only briefly at the police checkpoint just outside of Basse- just long enough for our driver to give a small bribe to one of the officers. The ride is fairly smooth for the first 20 kilometers or so, after which the road gives way to something that more closely resembles a lunar landscape, filled with bumps and craters caused by rain as opposed to meteors. The front part of my seat has been worn away by the posteriors of countless passengers, so if I lean back too far the small of my back grinds into a metal bar that supports the cushion. Every now and again the driver does not slow down adequately before a bump, and everyone in the vehicle briefly experiences weightlessness before crashing back to earth again.

After a couple of hours we arrive at the ferry to join a queue of about 9 cars. The ferry can only carry two vehicles at once, so we have at least a half-hour wait ahead of us. We quietly buy a couple bags of water and smuggle them past the hordes of fasting Gambians to an idyllic little spot on the riverside underneath a massive silk cotton tree entwined with two small mango trees. Watching the ferry slowly cross the river powered by the combined strength of its passengers pulling on a metal rope, we took this stop as a welcome break from the rigors of Gambian travel. After about an hour our car boarded the ferry and we pulled along with everyone else until we landed safely on Janjanbureh Island.

After a short engine-driven ferry ride to cross the river on the other side of the island, we reached the paved section of the north bank road. This section of road feels out of place with the rest of the Gambia- its is a true highway, like those found in America or Europe, complete with distance markers, dividing lines, and shoulders. Police checkpoints are also more common on this stretch of road, but thankfully today we are fortunate--few stop us and they are content with a small exchange of pleasantries. In Farafenni we stop so a man with a large jug of gas can pour it through a funnel into our tank while swarms of young girls selling bread, bananas, and dates try to push their wares through our windows. As we drive back onto the road, I lean my head back and manage to doze off.

After a few hours of varying stages of consciousness, we arrive in Barra. Barra is a major transit hub for Senegalese travelers as well as Gambians from all over the country. As such, it is also a dirty, smelly haven for thieves and con men. We walk with purpose through the gauntlet of offers of guidance and buy two tickets to the ferry. By some fantastic stroke of luck, the ferry is just about to leave and we are able to walk on just in time, thereby foregoing the usual 1-2 hour wait. On the ferry we climb to the upper level to take in the beautiful view of the river heading out to the sea and the harbor of Banjul at the other side. The sun is getting lower in the sky as dusk approaches, and the water is dappled with gold and bits of red and orange. After 12 hours of travel, the sea breeze and the view feel like a reward, and we land in Kombo with a sense of accomplishment and relief.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Second hand humor

What makes something funny? Is there anything that is innately humorous, regardless of culture? Someone falling down in manure, perhaps? Or someone leaning over and ripping their underpants up the seam? Or maybe in other cultures these things would be seen simply as an unfortunate occurrence--an occasion to console someone, rather than to laugh. I'm pretty sure I would be laughed at by Gambians if either of these things happened to me, and I think that much of Gambian humor is indeed universal. However, there have been numerous occurrences that have resulted in me laughing hysterically while the local populace stared blankly at me.

The primary cause of this private hilarity is the western t-shirts sold on the streets of cities and in every market in the country. Used clothing shipped over as charity from the west is a hot commodity, called "fukajai" in all three main local languages (Mandinkas say fukajai-o, as they have to add an "o" to everything for some reason). It is also slangily called "dead toubab clothes" because no one here could imagine why anyone would throw away perfectly good clothes unless they were dead. I am really not sure exactly how the distribution of this salvation army/goodwill type fare works, but I have yet to see a family in the Gambia that does not own at least one t-shirt from overseas. Some of this clothing is pretty commonplace--polos with company monograms, Gap hoodies, old acid-washed jeans. Occasionally, though, I will round a corner in a dusty African village and be slapped in the face by something painfully ridiculous and/or ironic.

For instance, the small boy with the lisp running around in jellies and kicking a ball of socks around the trash heap probably has no idea what "super girls rule the world" means, or he would take off his pink sequined shirt. The man in the turban reading an Islamic text must not understand that his shirt that reads "life has so many choices" is covered in beer bottles from all over the world. And I have all sorts of questions for the middle-aged man in line at the bank wearing a cheer-leading t-shirt and capri pants. There are some even racier t-shirts whose slogans I will not repeat here, as this is a family-friendly blog. In these cases ignorance, or more specifically illiteracy, is bliss.

But while much of the clothing seen around West Africa had been previously worn by some American who developed either in size or in good taste, a good portion is also made specifically for the region. At least half of this clothing has Barack Obama plastered all over it. I personally have 2 Obama shirts, one a Guinea football jersey with a picture of Obama ironed onto it, the other a stunning portrait of him with the words "sign of progress" and "WEINICE" written below. I also have some Obama flip flops and an Obama hologram belt. Barack shares the honor of being so universally recognized by Gambians with Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Andy Rooney, and other world football stars, as well as numerous American rap and pop stars. Fifty Cent, Nelly, and Britney Spears T-shirts are popular among people of all ages and sexes in all regions of the Gambia, although I have never heard any of their music played in the country.

While this whole concept of cultural leftovers being stamped onto cheap t-shirts, hats, belts, etc. is an unending source of entertainment for westerners living and working in the Gambia, I can't help but feel a twinge of frustration at the attitude it implies. So many things are just dumped on the Gambia because no one else seems to want them or care about them. True, Gambians are glad to have about anything we are willing to send, but it seems as if we're playing a joke on them. These types of clothes are seen as stylish and high-quality by the average African villager, while we see a shirt portraying Nelly sandwiched between twin Britney Spearses as ridiculous, and we would be outraged if manufactured products tore or fell apart as quickly and easily as they do here. Of course none of these circumstances are a result of vindictiveness or the desire to play a joke on anyone. It's actually close to the opposite--they are the result of a profound lack of care or concern for much of West Africa on the world stage, and a lack of education and awareness of the world at large among West Africans. So, while I am here making my modest contribution to the development of the country, I will continue to laugh at the strange incarnations and mutations of American and western culture. But I will also hope that the problems of which they are a symptom will improve.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lost in the Bush of Ghosts

Early March, 2009-

I'm an idiot. I wanted to water my garden and catch the last part of the BBC World Report so badly that I left Jah Kunda at 7:15 PM. That's a 15 minutes or less before the sun usually goes down, and I didn't bring a flashlight. And I'm alone.

The usually ill-defined road quickly becomes almost invisible, as the stars, unhindered by the lights of cities or even small towns, gave only slight definition to the surrounding bush. I forge ahead, blindly feeling out the path with my tires, ruts and tree roots like expletives in braille, jarring me just as I think I've hit a smooth patch.

I am reasonably sure that there is little or no danger lurking in the bush. Still, each shadowy mass begins to resemble a mob of baboons or hyenas rushing me with gnashing teeth and glowing red eyes. My imagination even conjures up leopards perched in trees, waiting to pounce, though their existence in The Gambia isn't exactly certain, and the odds of coming upon one in my district would be slim to none, due to hunting and deforestation.

That's not to say animals in the bush pose no danger. I've heard plenty of stories of hyenas making off with goats and baboons trying to intimidate campers. However, I have never heard of anyone, Peace Corps or native, who has been injured by these animals. It's about the same threat that wolves pose in the states. Sure, they have sharp teeth and could do a lot of damage, but unless they're sick or feel threatened, they generally leave people alone.

The threat in the bush that most gives me pause is that of snakes, which would have to make an impressive display of timing and athleticism to hit someone on a bike. Spitting cobras, green mambas, and puff adders are among the more poisonous snakes in The Gambia--any of them could put you in a very serious condition if they tagged you. Gambians are terrified of snakes, and will gather a mob to beat the last vestiges of live from any snake or snake-like animal they see, no matter how serious a threat it actually is. The prevailing wisdom is that if one snake can kill you, and you're not exactly sure which, why take chances? Not exactly an eco-friendly or humane view, but certainly a pragmatic one.

But these fears extend to animals whose danger would seem much less plausible. Owls, for instance, are believed by some to be witches, and should be killed on sight. Chameleons have two teeth with which they can bite victims. One brings everlasting luck, the other everlasting misfortune. The risk of being bitten is generally seen as one not worth taking. If a toad gets angry it will puff up to several times its size and bite your chest, staying there until you die, unless you go to a blacksmith who then scalds the toad with a red-hot poker. These beliefs are fading as more people are receiving at least some type of education, but I often am witness to something of a "better safe than sorry" attitude among even those who have been to school.

In my current situation, lack of really dangerous animals non-withstanding, riding through the bush at night is not safe, and a decent bike and sense of direction is all that's keeping me on the road home. I finally merge back onto the main road into my village and make out the tall, lonely palm tree rising from the village center, and I resolve to be a bit more responsible in the future. Thankfully, it's a lesson I've learned without any harsh consequences.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Malaria Prevention

Sorry to interrupt this exciting and entertaining blog, but I have a quick public service announcement-

A couple of former PCVs from my region have started a bed net distribution project and asked me to get involved. I think it's a great idea. We are raising funds to buy bed nets at a very low rate, and then distributing them to low income families in the Gambia. Bednets have proven very effective in combating malaria, which has a very high prevalence in the Gambia, and is a common cause of death for children under 5 years of age. Research suggests that for every 20 nets distributed in Africa one life can be saved.

If you would like to make a contribution to this cause you can do so very easily through the site I have set up which there is a link to in the sidebar to the left of my blog. You can make a donation online or via check in the mail. Donations are %100 percent tax deductible, and, most importantly, Peace Corps volunteers in The Gambia, myself included, will be personally distributing the nets, so you know your money is being used responsibly. If you have any questions feel free to contact me or the people at

Oh, and another quick note, I've put up a lot more pictures on my photobucket site, which can be viewed by clicking on the other link in the sidebar to the left. Thanks for reading everyone, and for your continued support-


Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Preface: I have been trying to get decent internet access for over a month now, so now that I have a slow connection for about half an hour and no notebook to write from, I'm going to try to relate a brief event in village. I have several pages of posts that will appear here in late April when I travel to Kombo.


When I first arrived at site visit, I greeted everyone I met, and usually received a reply, even in the case of children. One pretty girl of about 13, however, gave no vocal reply. "Saalaam aleekum." I said to her, all I got back was a questioning arm gesture. She then came right up to me and poked me on the arm, again making the same gesture. I was puzzled. At first I thought she was just very shy, but what shrinking daisy directly approaches a stranger (of a different skin color, no less) and makes physical contact? And why wouldn't she answer me? A nearby woman enlightens my cluelessness: her ear is broken. She's deaf.

Over the coming weeks this girl, named Fatouma Touray, will frequently accost me with wordless questions. Even if I spoke perfect Mandinka I would be at a loss for what she was asking me much of the time. I think that her basic question is, "What are you doing?" to which I usually reply by pointing the direction I'm walking and making an improvised sign denoting sleeping, eating, or reading. When she is frustrated she will make more urgent gestures and sometimes unsettling shrieks and screams, more akin to the snarl of a wildcat than a young girl. Another very common guesture from Fatouma is to cup her breast and make a sucking noise. While in America this would be seen as crude, this is a universal sign for the hearing as well as hearing-impaired in The Gambia for "mother." She wants to know where my mother is. All I can really reply with is an emphatic point over the horizon-- very, very far away.

I came to enjoy these brief interactions for a time, but I started feeling she was a little to persistent sometimes, not letting me leave the "conversation" for some minutes even though no real communication was occurring. I also was surprised at the reactions of others to Fatouma's antics--she is almost universally ignored or told to go away. This changed one night during a music program, when a Jali, or musician, from Mali was playing to a large crowd. Suntu became extremely agitated, trying to rush up to the man for some unknown reason. Perhaps she was enamored with him, or maybe was enraged that everyone else could hear what he was playing and she could not. She became frenzied to the point that several other girls restrained her, and finally her father yanked her, screaming, by her hair, out of the congregation.

A few weeks ago my friend Mamadi and I were sitting, chatting and drinking attaya by my hut. Fatouma came by and started to interrogate me as usual. Mamadi joked with her a little, but then started to become irritated and tried to shoo her off. This had the reverse effect of making her even more bold in her mocking. She made gestures that indicated that she would beat him and that he was no good, and started to do cartwheels around us. Mamadi finally picked up a stick to chase her off, causing her to run to the edge of the compound, but not to leave entirely. There, in full view, she leaned over and proceeded to lift up her skirt. I believe I can safely say that at this moment I had the most surreal thought I have ever had in my life: I am in Africa, sitting next to my own mud and grass hut, and I am being mooned by a deaf and dumb girl.

Fatouma hasn't come by my compound as much lately. Maybe some of her antics got back to her father and she caught a beating as a result. Maybe I'm just boring her. But she still stands out in a community of people who generally conform to societal norms in almost every way. Manner of speech is standardized. Stores carry the same basic household supplies. There is usually at least one person named Lamin and Fatoumata in every family. But Fatouma, apart from her common name, doesn't fit into this framework, and I don't think she will any time soon. What will happen to her when she gets old enough to marry? Who will have her? Can she perform all the duties expected of her? I have no way of knowing and will leave before any of these things become evident. All I can do is try to be at least one person who is willing to give her some type of positive feedback, to show her some respect, when she merits it. And that, like everything I'm trying to do in village, is at least something.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Things of Which We Shall Not Speak

"A British man sentenced to a year in prison in the Gambia for making anti-government remarks has been taken back to court to face new charges."

This short blurb from the BBC, heard amidst intermittent waves of static on my short wave radio, is the only news concerning the Gambia as a nation that I have heard in the last month. I was vaguely aware of the story previously, as we had been informed of it by Peace Corps staff during training and told to be cautious in writing our blogs--the English man and his wife had made their disparaging remarks via private correspondence, and if that type of communication is being monitored, chances are public postings on the internet will be read as well.

Not that I was planning on bashing anyone on this blog beforehand. My work is at the grassroots level in a village many kilometers away from the capitol, and I'm a young American with little or no knowledge of world diplomacy. Anything I would have to say would be ill-informed, and making political judgements in my position would be unprofessional.

However, as a fairly liberal-minded American who has always been able to speak his mind freely, the prospect of being censored is somewhat alarming to me in principle. I once fought a high school teacher tooth-and-nail when she withdrew a controversial story I had written for a student run literacy magazine whose staff had unanimously accepted it. The story was sub par in retrospect, but the idea of censorship was unacceptable to me.

This is obviously a very different situation. I am no radical, this is not a political blog in any way, and the content will change little as a result of the political climate, if it changes at all. Still, just the idea of an Orwellian scenario, with government censors possibly looking over every line I write, just seems unreal to me. Not to say this is a dictatorship-- I've talked to many Gambians who are of the oppositions party and have spirited discussions about the government on a regular basis. I just always remain a spectator.

Still, this idea in the back of my mind that I'm being watched changes things slightly. For the most part I feel quite at ease with life in "Africa's smiling coast." But if future headlines from the Gambia have a similar tone, that may change.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hippo Tracks and the Place of the Dragon, or, Mythical Beasts, Real and Imagined (1/27/09)

"There is a place near here that is very bad, and I have not yet gone there." Mamadi said, before taking a drag on his cigarette. I had nearly crashed into him on my bike when he took this impromtu smoke break on our way back from Sare N'Gai. The sun bore down on the dusty, craggy road, filled with ruts and craters--the faded impressions of a deluge long since evaporated. "There is a waterway there, during the rainy season. The village people say that there is a dragon living there. Two boys were looking for sticks, and there they saw the dragon, and they were being very afraid. So they went home, and one of them died after that and one went blind." I sat on my cike, unclipping my helmet, and chuckled, saying in a playful tone, "So that's why you've never gone there? You think there's a dragon?" "No," he replied, "It is a very bad place, nad I have not ever been going there." This was not a joke.

As he finished his smoke and we continued, I said nothing, lest I betray my surprise at hearing this from Mamadi. He is one of my main counterparts--a TOSTAN facilitator, educating women to combat female genital mutilation and other risks to their general health. He is a fairly educated man. Yet, as I looked at the bush that surrounded us--the wizened, ancient trees with blackened limbsw clawing the relentlessly blue sky, the red dust covering the withering vegetation as if the hard, cruel earth were trying to smother the life that it had previously birthed, and the scraggly, mean-looking dogs, lizards, and buzzards scraping whatever meagre existence they can out of the dying landscape--it wasn't so hard to see why the Gambians saw it as a place of witches, demons, and even dragons.

I had been out on my own in the bush the afternoon before, in search of the point nearest my village where one can glimpse the great Gambia river. I passed through two small villages where gangs of children regarded me with either curiosity or wariness, all the way asking if I was headed in the right direction. Past the second village the road became more of a rough path cleared through the brush, often filled with loose sand, making biking difficult. I was starting to wonder if I had misunderstood someone's directions when the vegetation started thickening, suggesting a water supply nearby. I passed a grove of birds-of-paradise and fields of partially cleared grass, when the path faded out completely, giving way to patches of uncleared grass and brush.

I ignored the lattice-work of scratches forming on my arms and forged ahead, going the direction of whatever most resembled a path. Fields gave way to thickets, and my frustration began to mount, until finally a glint of light reflected off of water caught the corner of my eye. I quickly made a v-line in that direction, and came to a large wetland clearing surrounded by a grove of low shade trees. The scene reminded me of summer in Minnesota--water birds scanning for fish, surrounded by water lilies and pools of greenish much ready to swallow the boots of anyone foolish enough to enter them.

There was one difference between this and similiar American scenes, however. Between the shade trees were trails of hooven tracks ending in large depressions and couple of meters wide. Each of the individual footprints was approximately the size of my head, and all of the trails began at the water's edge. Without ever having seen suck tracks before, it took me very little time to figure out what they were: Hippos tracks. Hundreds of them.

Those who grew up playing a certain Milton Bradley board game or reading Richard Scarry books may not entirely understand the meaning of such a finding. Hippos are the most dangerous large animals in Africa, killing more people yearly than lions, leopards, rhinos, or other big game. They are extremely territorial, and will attack other animals that get to close, attempting to slash the offender with the sharp sides of their teeth. The American equivalent would be to stumble upon hundreds of grizzly tracks. Needless to say, my heart began beating somewhat more quickly- both from fear and excitement. After all, despite the danger, how many Americans get to see hippos in the wild? So, following an urge either fearless or self-destructive (if there is a difference), I began to muck my way somewhat closer.

Thesurface of the water was mostly covered with lilies, making it hard to discern from a distance if anything was lurking there. I stepped gingerly from one grass covered mound of mud to the next, trying to avoid the brackish puddles of stagnant water. I got as close as I was able, craning my neck, but no dice-- all I could see were those same water birds, who seemed to be having more luck in their search than i had had. I headed back to the grove with a mixture of disappointement and relief, and started the ride home.

I certainly have my doubts about the existence of dragons in the Gambia or anywhere in the world. But the hippo, unlike the dragon, is undoubtly a very real denizen of the Gambian bush. And for an American used to sleepy zoo fare when it comes to African beasts, that is as almost as fearful and exciting.

Dancing Like No One's Watching Your Baby (1/25/09)

I've never been a stickler for safety. Screw bicycle helmets (I wear one now because I could literally be sent home if I didn't). Life Jackets be damned. And if I drop food, the 5, 10, or even 15 second rule usually applies. But as I watched the woman in the motorcycle helmet and bathrobe-looking ensemble thrash wildly, resembling a tap dancer having a seizure, one thought came to my mind: is that kid strapped safely to her back? The same went for the rest of the women dancing in the center of the circle, children bound with cloth to their over-worked backs, lit only by burning millet stalks and 11 PM moonlight.

At least at this point I had the luxury of worrying about other people's health. This spectacle marked the end of the second day I had spent in bed with a 1-2 combo of kono bayo (running stomach) and a fres-cold making me feel like someone was sitting on my chest. In the daze of my feverishness I had also stepped on a nail on my way to the bathroom. After mending it and finally reaching the door I noticed that it was completely covered in thousands of ants. I took a moment. I yelled some obscene things. I killed ever damn one of them with half a can of insecticide. Then I went back to bed to contemplate my situation. I wanted someone to take care of me, as pathetic as that sounds. But there is no one here- I'm a day's drive from the nearest medical office, and a day's flight more to dear old mom and a bowl of chicken soup. I needed a savior. I turned to the Coz.

Believe it or not, after listening to the hour and a half or so of Bill Cosby stand-up I have on my i-pod brought me back from the brink. I talked briefly on the phone with the Peace Corps Medical Officer, after which I started myself on the ciprofloxicin and ibuprofen in my med kit. By the evening myt fever had broken and I felt significantly better.

Shyould I have let myself be dragged to the "women and children traditional dance" (my host brother's description) at 10:30 that same night? Probably not. But hey, what the hell- I'm supposed to be integrating and I can sleep in tomorrow. Plus, some part of me would have remained incomplete if I had missed the woman in the button down shirt, pants, and Sorcerer's Apprentice hat (complete with Mickey Mouse ears) stomp the earth with wild abandon, sending clouds of dust into the night sky and befuddling the wide-eyed infant clinging to her back.

As the focus shifts, inevitably, in my direction, all of the hats (including Mickey's) are stacked on my head and necklaces adorned with whistles and pieces of broken headphones are strung around my neck as the air resounds with an an emphatic call: dance! dance! dance! So I do, and my bandaged foot hurts. But not that much.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A short 3 months.

The sounds of scooters, donkey carts, and mobs of children flood into the open door of the small building in which I am sitting. The road a few feet away is bright red dirt, half eroded from the yearly rains. Most of the surrounding buildings don't have running water or electricity. Yet here I am, in a tiny internet cafe, writing on my blog. This can really be a strange world sometimes. My friend Lyn found this small place that has a half decent connection for 30 dalasis ($1.25) an hour. This means that I will be making more regular blog entries. Unfortunately, I left my notebook in my village, not expecting to find any high technology in the bustling, rustic trading center of Basse Santa Su. My thought out, well written (hopefully) entries will have to wait for a couple weeks, but here are some details about what's been happening-

I initially had no bed or furniture, but after a few bike rides, haggling, and a ride on a flat bed truck that was solved, and I borrowed a couple of tables from the local school.

I'm working with a local NGO on adult literacy and numeracy, as well as health topics and women's rights.

I have planted a garden which is sprouting, but is constantly under attack by grasshoppers and ants. I have newfound respect for organic farmers.

There is almost constant dancing, singing, and cultural events in my village, and I have been trying to record as much as I can.

I am doing well, after a brief bout with diarrhea and a fever.

I appreciate hearing from all of you, and thanks again for your thoughts, prayers, ideas, packages, letters and general support!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

3 months this time

So now begins the real thing. Which means I won't have internet service with any kind of regularity. I will be back in Kombo in March or April for In service training, so you can expect to see more then. Until then, I did get a few photos up here and on photo bucket-my username is joeloula. It's not working well w/ our connection, but hopefully next time I'll get a lot more up. Here are a few more of the better ones. Thanks for reading!

Swearing in and Swarms of Bees

It is 9:00 at night, pitch black, and I am completely covered in angry bees. I squeeze the bellows of the smoker to make the swarm more docile while Scott and Tammy pull out comb after comb heavy and golden with honey and larvae. The burning cardboard and the pheremones of the angry bees fill the air with a smoky sweetness that hightens the exhiliration. It makes me laugh that these are the same "Killer bees" that threw gullible Americans into a panic when I was a child. True, a sting from one of them would be painful, and several of our group learns this firsthand. But our guide, Matt, has such a passion for the bees, and the experience is so memorable that any sense of danger is pushed far into the back of my head. The sight of so many thousands of living things working with a completely uniform sense of purpose to make structures so perfect is awe-inspiring. And the honey we harvest, crushed straight from the cones, is immaculate--sweet, tangy, fragrant, delicious. On the van ride back to the transit house, we all silently concur--this was a fantastic way to end training.

The next morning we are up later than usual- most of us getting out of bed around 8 or 8:30. An hour later we are all wearing our Sobe--a variety of different outfits made of the same cloth-- for our swearing in ceremony. We take a short ride to the Ambassador's house, which is enormous, and has a beautiful back yard--the ocean. We mill around for about an hour, chatting with PCVs, Language teachers, staff members, and employees of NGOs. Whitney and I make a little bet about which distinguished-looking middle-aged man is the ambassador--is it beardy, bald guy, or guy with wife wearing a scarf? The ceremony begins with Rodney, one of the associate peace corps directors, introducing us, saying how great we all are, and then giving the mic to the ambassador (it's beardy-I win) for the opening remarks.

I have to admit my mind wandered a bit during some of the speeches. I felt a little bit ragged from the past week and a half of technical training and our final language test. I finished everything and was told during my evaluation that I did very well--both on Language and on technical matters. I have to admit it felt good to hear it, but it created a sense of expectation for the first three months in village and for my service as a whole. It feels like they expect me to be some kind of dynamo, leaving the country fluent in my first language and conversational in at least one other, with a slew of successful projects chalked up to boot. Maybe I can do all of that. Maybe I can't. I really have no way of knowing, as I've only spent 2 nights and a day in the village where I will spend the next two years. But, at least I have a good start.

The ambassador, our Country Director, Mike McConnell, and the Secretary of State for Agriculture all give speeches praising the program and the efforts of individual volunteers in developing the country. We then give our oath to serve the United States and the Gambia unconditionally, and are given a pin and hearty handshake. Then there is lots of singing of national anthems other less stoic songs. On the whole it's a very nice ceremony, and it's followed by a brief meet and greet with food--FRIED food, and mini pizzas and cream puffs and unlimited returns to the soft drink table. I mix a bit and completely gorge myself (15+ cream puffs) and return to the transit house feeling very satisfied.

At the beach an hour later, I am in the water and I am freezing. But I want to be. I want to be jarred awake and living and aware and in the moment. But back on the shore the exhaustion returns and I am out for almost an hour. When I come around I see two PCVs I haven't met, Jenny and Katie, and we talk for about 10 minutes before the bumsters start giving their pitches. One's in a band. One wants to "join our family." One hangs back until his brother "gets our permission," which never happens and he still comes up to flex his lanky but defined body casually while his brother feeds us some stupid lines about harmony and love. A police officer calls them over to ask just what they're doing and we make good our escape.

Back at the stodge there are more people I've never met--lots more. For so long it has just been our training group and occasional Volunteer trainers, and now that the world is opening up it is a bit overwhelming. But each person I meet seems interesting, and aware, and capable. And they make us one hell of a cook out, with burgers, 2 kind of fries, chili, mixed drinks, music, and yard ball. Once again I eat myself into a stupor in a glorious celebration of food American style--and it seems such an underrated cuisine at this moment.

A few drinks later and we are at a Churchill's karaoke bar on Senegambia highway, a region we were not allowed to go to until we swore in. I put my name in for three songs, but the disorganized deejay loses them all amidst adolescent girls mimicking Christina Aguilera and Bumsters and prostitutes belting Bob Marley and 80's R & B. I leave annoyed, but decide to try to salvage the evening going dancing at a nearby club. Aquarius is just an overpriced bar with an empty dance floor when we arrive, but soon everyone is twisting and thrusting and jumping and yelling in a glorius release of built up tension. I've never been that much of a dancer, but I'm off the dance floor for maybe 5 minutes of the two hours I spend there.

The hangover the next morning is actually very mild, more of a result of the bad quality rather than large quantity of the alcohol. I don't have them often and am less likely than ever to have them in the next 2 years, living in a Muslim country. But the night was a good one. A Necessary one. I, for one, feel extremely excited at the prospect of living in my village, the lone toubab, with no schedule, no direct supervision, no expectation and few limitations. It's been an adventure getting to this point, and crazy as it seems, it's all just been a prelude to the real adventure.

Kumliyo- part 2

(Dec. 30, 2008)

Readers of past blog entries will perhaps remember the naming ceremony we took part in the first week in training village. It was a minor affair, but we have often been told of the splendor of the real thing. So Monday, Whitney and I don our full African garb and made the 1/2 hour bike ride over the undulating hills and devastated pavement to Jiroff, where the real thing was going down.

We arrived in the village around 9:30 amid the shouted greetings of children in Mandinka and Pulaar--the language of the Fula people. Jiroff is split down the middle to divide the two ethnic groups a la West Side Story, minus the dance fighting. We came to our friend Jes' hut, but we was bathing so we moved on to Jasmin's place. Her host brother and his friends were sitting outside and we chatted for awhile, wondering when things would start. We had been told 10, but not much seemed to be going on. After Jasmin and Jes had both changed into their Compleats (matching outfits) we hung out in Jes' hut to avoid the mob of children outside loudly yelling for candy, pens, or bottles. At one point I got annoyed enough to try running out and chasing them away, but that, as everything, became a game, and they returned to the door shortly after I went back inside.

Suddenly the beating of bidongs (water/oil jugs) filled the air and we were taken by Jes and Jasmin's teacher, Ida, to a compound in the center of the village. Ida and the girls found a spot on a nearby mat, but I was told to sit with the men. An ancient man in massive sunglasses and a deep blue robe bade me sit next to him. I shook his right hand, noticing it was the only one he possessed, and made small talk in Mandinka as I was able. Sometime during this conversation, I realized that I was surrounded by craggy old men in colorful clothes--one with massive cataracts, another with bare feet mummified with dust, a gaping hole where one big toenail should be. They boxed me in on all sides, leaning against me, and talked loudly and boisterously in Pulaar, occasionally throwing a word or two in Mandinka my way.

Then, things started happening. The drumming and clapping reached fever pitch as teh mother and child were encircled by a mob of singing revelers. A wizened old man in a white hat and purple robe produced a stainless steel razor and began carefully shaving the tiny brown scalp. While this went on, several young men in football jerseys and counterfeit Sean Johns pulled a ram into the center of the compound, just to the right of the clapping, gyrating mob.

Two of them grabbed the beast's legs and pulled them out from under it, laying it on its side, bleating loudly. Yet another old man in deep blue robes approached the animal with a long, sharp knife. Amidst the roar of the dance and the singing of the women, the last frantic shrieks and gurgles of the ram as it's throat is cut are all but drowned out. It attempts to thrash and kick its way out from under the weight of the grown men gradually fade to a series of twitches and a long shudder.

The men stand, releasing the ram, whose last remnants of life are draining out of its body along with the puddle of blood forming under its neck. All the while the chattering of the old men surrounds me, mingling with stamps and claps and cheers from the women. Suddenly, the ram is alive again, its leg rearing back and kicking in a violent reflex action, and an old man is speaking to me and I'm trying to respond and the the one armed man leans over me, his empty left sleeve brushing my face, and the ram thrashes violently again and there is laughter and music and shouting and life in the air and death on the ground...and suddenly the most difficult thing about being here is explaining it to you, because you're not here.


(December 25, 2008)

I've got a headache, my knee has ached since the 3rd K of our now completed 27K hike, Tendaba Camp's food gives everyone the runs, and this white wine tastes like Robitussin. Merry Christmas in Africa.

This is the third time we have all dragged a few of our scattered belongings to this so-so tourist hot spot, and none of us are too sad that it's the last. You'd think after using a hole in the ground for a toilet for weeks, reading by candle light, and taking a bath out of a bucket, running water and sporadic electricity would be paradise. Not so. The schedule here is always so much more stressful than in village, with only a few breaks to let numb minds try to regain feeling after hours of technical training sessions. I usually try to spend a little of the scant down time taking in the beautiful view of the Gambia River, which is easily the best feature of the camp. This same river also happens to be the final resting place of my new cell phone--who new that Gap Khakis had such shallow pockets.

Now just let me say that things are not all bad. We had a great hike through the bush with wildly varying terrain, including mangrove swamps, savannah, and salt flats. I really enjoyed it in spite of the creaky knee, which is probably just a result of the cheap New Balance Knock-offs I bought at a market in Soma. Dinner last night was half decent, supplemented by some Senegalese cookies provided by our Country Director and free alcohol provided by the owners of Tendaba. Some of it might taste like cough medicine, but it is booze, and it is free. To cap it all off, we had a nice boat ride in the mangrove swamps this morning, during which we saw plenty of waterfowl, crocodiles, and a couple of types of monkeys.

The bigger issue, of course, is that it is Christmas, and all of us are thousands of miles from the ones we love, and because of this every minor inconvenience becomes something worthy of snapping over. It's my first Christmas away from home in my entire life, and it has been a bit harder than I thought. Not to saw I'm thinking of throwing in the towel or anything, but those theoretical difficulties that seemed so piddling and distant on paper have suddenly become much more real.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hey! Look!

No luck so far on being able to put up pics. But take heart! My friend Whitney just put some pictures up on here blog which I have a link to here on my site. She was in the same training village as me and saw a lot of the same things, and there is a group picture of my training class. Also, I will post at least two more actual blog entries before I leave for my site.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


(Nov. 30, 2008)

I haven't had any trouble sleeping so far. I like the food, and eat plenty at each meal. The cockroaches have retreated to the pit latrine, fearing my shoe and all-mighty BOP spray. The language is coming more and more each day. Diarrhea and I have remained distantly respectful of each other. Things are going well--But I don't plan on letting my guard down any time soon.

So what are my worries? What are the x-factors that could still derail my service? Integration. Successful behavior modification in those I'm trying to help. Being able to simply function on a day-to-day basis at site. Thses things are all unknowable until after I swear in (assuming I do) and have been at least a month or two at my permanent site.

For now, spirits remain fairly high, save for attitudes regarding some of our Trainee-Directed Activities, which generally involve us doing some type of prescribed activity that will give us moe technical knowledge and push us further into the culture. Some of the activities are short write-ups that require a few questions asked of our family. Others are presentations about health topics given to groups of village members, which invariably make us feel ridiculous. Imagine a group of young Africans coming to your town square, community center, or whatever, and telling you the benefits of hand washing and mosquito repellent using language kindergarteners would find simple. The language studies, as I said, are going wll, but it's still a frustrating process. Given how long we've been studying, we're doing very well. Still, when a Gambian reels off a solid block of clipped phonemes and expects an intelligible answer, it's hard to feel like such a stud.

My family is a bright spot, certainly. They have a great sense of humor, much of which I appreciate despite the language barrier. My host sister Fatou is a great help in everything. She is 14, and speaks very serviceable English, but unfortunately she just has two settings--English or light speed Mandinka. My friend Kasey named a tiny, snow white goat living in my compound Mustafa. He has become a constant topic of conversation. Gambian greetings (which take up much of one's day) often involve asking "where" people are, really asking how they are doing. The prescribed response is "they are there/here." Where's your wife? She is there. Where's your family? They are there. But now, every day I am asked, with restrained laughter, "Where's Mustafa?" He, along with a host of goods, bads, and in-betweens, is right here.