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.