Thursday, January 15, 2009

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.


  1. Hey,

    Sweet blog you've got going. I think it's really cool that you've chosen to serve in the gambia and I hope you have a good time while there. I myself am a gambian currently studying in nebraska however it's been a couple years since i've been home so i look forward to seeing your photos.

    One slight complaint; I believe it's unfair for you to add the comment "living in a muslim country" in your last paragraph as it gives the impression that somehow someone is going to stop you from drinking because they are muslim. This just adds to the negative assumption that muslims are intolerant which I believe is totally untrue.

    Well I hope you have a great time in the Gambia and look forward to seeing more of your posts.


  2. Thanks for your comment, AJ- I would like to say that he is right, in no way have I felt pressure not to drink because of being in a country populated mostly by muslims. I was referring more to the much lower availability of alcohol in the country, and not to any intolerance on the part of Gambians. Thank you, and by all means if you find anything questionable here, tell me about it.