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.

A few realities

(November 19, 2008)

We had a funeral today, less than a week into our in-village training.

Up to now, Africa has been only idyllic, only theoretical--almost a novelty. Even the negatives, such as the male sex trade and women's rights issues have seemed abstract, distant--bullet points on fact sheets. The bumsters, who are basically male prostitutes, present themselves so ludicrously, with catch phrases like, "Hey boss lady, it's nice to be nice," delivered between sets of beachside push-ups, that it's easy to forget the suffering and degradation behind the concept.

But we had a funeral today, within hours of hearing the high pitched shriek of a mother with her child dead in her arms.

Does this change things? Directly, no. I don't doubt myself more or less than I did Monday. I had not met the deceased girl, my host family had only a passing connection to her. My service and my life in general continue. But as we crouched behind the mosque and the Imam, both spiritual leader and father of the deceased, muttered a prayer and the tiny body encased in a white shroud was lowered into the ground, something in me felt different.

We had a funeral today, and I wore the new suit of wax-cloth I had had tailored just the day before.

It fit me well, and was more appropriate for the occasion than any of my American clothes. There's something mildly chilling in having a suit made and being given such an opportunity to wear it within 24 hours. The group of trainees met shortly after the ceremony to debrief. As we discussed the issues at hand, in my mind I could still hear the shrieks of the women, feel the stinging of my calves from crouching to pray behind the mosque wall, and taste the chalky, sugary munko rice ball given by the mourning family. As all this swirled in my head, I thought to myself:

We had a funeral today, and if this girl had been American, in all likelihood she would still be alive.

New Names

(November 16, 2008)

Personal time. That's the wording on the schedule. And my assumption was that the meaning would be the same as it was in the states. But not necessarily so. Yesterday was scheduled as almost entirely personal time, but as my village mates and I were to find out, this was "time to be personal with others," as opposed to "our own personal alone time." The day was spent trying to communicate with laughing children and amused old men, and making "panketos"--the local variation on the donut hole.

Familiar names given to new things and vice have been a common theme during our training. There's Guinness, but it tastes nothing like at home or Europe. There's spam, but it's made with chicken (spicken), as pork is forbidden by Islam. And today, I got a new name.

We had been told about the naming ceremony before we had even reached Bumari, our training village, and it's something that I had anticipated with curiosity. Are they going to shave my head, per tradition? Will it be long and awkward? Will I have to dance? Will my new name be Mustafa? These thoughts swirled in my head as I woke this morning and took my cold bucket bath. Soon, I was called to breakfast by my host family. Eating with my hands next to little Kaadi and Ensaa, I looked around at the adults with trepidation. After finishing and washing my hands I was given some traditional clothes and returned to my room. The pants were easily 40 inches at the waist (with a drawstring) and the shirt all but swallowed me up in a sea of light blue embroidery. The hat? Too small, of course. Jarra, my cousin, laughed openly when she brought me my second breakfast of spicken, potatoes, and bread. I'm constantly given more food than I need, and the process of refusing and explaining that I'm sick or not hungry is so complicated that I eat most of what I'm given. I can barely take the spam, so I eat a piece of two and focus mainly on the potatoes as I wait for Bakari, my teacher, to come and get me. He doesn't seem to be coming, so my Maama, my aunt, finally just tells me to go myself.

Upon arrival I greet my fellow trainees and we share a few laughs at our costumes--ill fitting both for our bodies and our skin tone. A large rug covers the rust-colored dirt under the tree in the center of Bumari, and a number of well-dressed men sit on one side of it. I'm told that I will be first, and am directed to the center of the rug. A man in a bright purple "compleat," or full outfit, feigns shaving my head, and recites a prayer. I'm given some party favors--a small baggie of juice, panketos, and kola nuts--and sent back to my seat with my new name ringing in the air: "Seeku Darboe." Whitney, Tammy, and Kasey, my village mates, are soon christened in the same manner.

Once the formal ceremony is finished, the men leave and the dancing begins. One of the girls drums heavily on a bidong, or large jug, as the girls of varying size erupt into laughter and stomping. They call, "Seeku!", and thrust me to the center, where I awkwardly ape their stomping and bird-like arm flapping for few moments to appease them. After all of the trainees had danced, the crowd dispersed, and Only Seeku, Faatu, Saatu, and Kaadi remained, wondering exactly what just had happened.