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.