Monday, December 27, 2010

Final Transitions

I wish that there were some effective method to prepare oneself emotionally for drastic change. Graduations, big moves, the loss of friends or families--these things are all foreseeable intellectually, but when it comes to our emotions, there is just no way to avoid feeling lost. I have known that my date of departure from the Gambia was not too far away on the horizon for the past year. It was something that I thought I had prepared for, and yet, now that is unavoidably close and there are so many major decisions to be made and good-byes to be said, I feel blindsided all the same.

My first week in The Gambia I felt adrift. The shoots of what would become good friendships with my fellow volunteers had sprouted, but there was no one close to confide in, and home seemed a long way away. We all sucked it up and dealt with it, throwing ourselves into language learning and technical skills, and by the end of training I felt comfortable in my skin and ready to get things started. Since then, The Gambia has been home, and I only occasionally felt short pangs of homesickness. I had friends in the Peace Corps, friends in my village, and good friends and family at home who sent e-mails, cards, and packages.

Now things are unravelling a bit. Many of my friends in the Peace Corps have already gone home to be with their families for the holidays. Several of my close colleagues in village have been transferred, and I don't really have as close a connection with their replacements. And, while I am looking forward to seeing everyone at home, it still seems like an abstract future that is hard to really imagine, despite how near at hand it is. Feeling lost at sea, it's hard to feel close to people who are here, let alone people thousands of miles away across the ocean.

What is keeping me strong is the music project that I have started, and plans for grad school. Although I have been living in Africa for a couple years, it's evident that I am still very American, as I feel alert and focused only when I am hard on a task that I deem worthwhile. I am extending until the early spring to raise funds and finish the recording project, and, while this is a big undertaking, I find comfort in the motivation it gives me to keep striving and doing something meaningful. Once it's successfully completed, I know that it will be a difficult transition back to life in America, but with the research done and a lot of talking and presentations to give, I think the motivation driving me should continue over the Atlantic.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Music Project : Finally a Reality

First of all, I want to apologize for such a long lack of new posts on this blog. With grad school applications, planning out the next few months, and less than stellar telecommunications capabilities, my mind has been on other things. I am happy to say, however, that one of the things that has kept me busy and away from blogging has finally come to a successful head -- my Peace Corps Partnership Proposal for the Gambian Music Preservation Project has been approved, and the website is up and ready to accept donations.

In case you have not been fully informed about the project, let me fill you in on what the project is all about. About a year ago, I had the idea to record Gambian music to make a lasting record of some of the traditions that are vital to traditional Gambian society. Initially, the plan was to record music from all of the major ethnic groups in the country, and to combine all of this music into a computer database for easy access to anyone interested. After speaking to the leadership of the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) in Banjul, I found that there is already a national archive filled with recordings of stories and songs, but that these records are incomplete and kept entirely on dilapidated reel-to-reel and cassette tapes. Revising my original idea, I decided to make an effort to help revitalize the work and mission of the NCAC. Working with Bala Saho, the director general of the NCAC, we decided to get some better recording equipment and focus on recording the musical traditions of some of the lesser known ethnic groups in The Gambia--the Serahule, the Manswanka, and the Bainounka. Our plan is to make treks into the interior of the country to communities of these ethnic groups, and to conduct recording sessions and community forums. The recording sessions will capture these vibrant traditions for current and future generations to see, and the forums will help to raise awareness of the importance of music in Gambian society.

After a few months of revisions and meetings with Peace Corps and NCAC staff, I completed the final draft of the project proposal and submitted it. The proposal was approved by Peace Corps Washington last week, and now is ready to move forward, once funding is acquired. This is where all of you in the states can help. On this blog is a link to the Peace Corps Partnership fund raisings site. To donate to the Gambian Music Preservation Project, simply follow this link and search for my project by keyword (Gambian Music Preservation), by my home state (Iowa), or by my country of service (The Gambia). When my project comes up in the search, simply click on it to donate using a credit card.

I am really excited to get this project started, and will be writing a lot about it in my blog when things really get underway. I am including some photos of Mandinka and Jola music and dance traditions with this entry. While these are not the traditions that the project is aiming to preserve--the ones specific to the project have yet to be documented--they will give you an idea about the vibrancy of Gambian culture and why it is something worth time and money to save. Thanks for your time and support, and look forward to more exciting posts in the future-


Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Hundreds of things I would like to say to the young Western European man on the ferry flashed through my head like a holodeck of exasperation. "Put a shirt on, for chrissakes! Are you blind? Can you not see that everyone around you is completely covered? Do you really think be sweaty and half-naked is acceptable in public anywhere, let alone a muslim country? How do you not know this is Ramadan, the month of pious fasting and self-denial? What the hell do you think your conduct says about not only you, but Westerners in general?"

That last question really sums up the way I feel about the behavior of most of the tourists I see in The Gambia. It is hard for me to fathom the idea of someone spending all of the time and money to come to Africa, and yet to be so willfully ignorant of the culture. I think most people in America feel that being shirtless, as a man in a public place, is somewhat provocative, but in The Gambia it is downright inappropriate. I try to maintain a certain level of good conduct in this country, both to be respectful to Gambians and to be a good representative of the United States. My ideas about conduct abroad seem to be drastically opposed to those of many international tourists, however. I have come into contact with many people whose opinion seems to be that "If I am on vacation, then I can do whatever I want, because it's MY time."

Trying to avoid this type of thinking was one of my top priorities for my parents' trip to Senegal and The Gambia. Obviously comfort and entertainment were also important, but I was determined in planning the trip to never sacrifice being respectful and appropriate. Of course, my parents, being seasoned travellers, were not likely to be crass and disrespectful in the first place. Still, as with any cross-cultural experience, it can be easy to say and do things that are wrong or offensive without knowing any better. Shaking with your left hand, for instance, or asking loudly for a "PHOTO," which, in Mandinka, translates to a certain part of the male anatomy. With my loving guidance, and their own common sense, my parents managed to avoid this pitfalls, for the most part.

One of the highlights of the trip were the cultural programs that my village organized to welcome and honor my folks, the most dramatic of which was the daytime Kankurang program. It started with just an ordinary dance by the women, during which individual dancers will jump out and stomp their feet with a fierce intensity while flapping their arms in the air. This went on for about an hour with my parents and I awkwardly participating at intervals, to the cheers and delight of those gathered. Finally, a cry goes up and children scatter as the kankurang makes his appearance. There are many types of masked kangkurang dancers in the Senegambia region, but the most common for daytime performances in my village is the jambo kangkurang--the leaf forest spirit. His costume is made up of the red bark of the camel foot or "farra" tree and green leaves from another type of tree--often neem. His dance is characterized by a somewhat calm, slow entrance into the dancing arena, after which he throws himself into a frenzy of ducking, charging, stomping, and leaf shaking. In many villages the kangkurang is unpredictable, potentially violent force that is best avoided, especially be women. He is summoned for occasions during which malevolent forces such as witches and demons are prone to attack, especially circumcision ceremonies. In my village, however, the deep and mysterious powers inherent in the dance have faded in favor of its pageantry. Women dance and sing next to the kangkurang and children are afraid in the same quasi-humorous way that children are afraid of halloween monsters.

Besides dances and pageantry, the other primary component of village programs is speech-making. On the occasion of my parents' visit, the speeches were even more numerous and verbose. Old men came out of the woodwork to praise my parents for raising me, for letting me come, for giving some money and books to the school library, for giving some seeds to the women's group. They were declared honorary alkalos (mayors, basically) of the village. To make sure that everyone heard their glowing words, the village people appointed Lamin Danjo, the shopkeeper, as the town crier, and he would bellow the mumblings of toothless village elders. I did my best to translate the proceedings for my folks, but occasionally would miss a detail or try to gloss over a thinly veiled request for money or to help young people go to America or Europe. Karamo, the VDC chairman would quickly fill my parents in on these details.

After four short days in and around my site, we headed to the River Gambia National Park in the Central River Region of the Gambia, where the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Projects is located. One of my shortfalls as a host was that I am used to a fairly low standard of travel comfort after living in Africa for nearly two years. As a result my parents were subjected to a long wait in the car park, a less than pleasant bush two hour bush taxi ride, and a two mile walk with heavy packs over a pretty rough road before we were picked up by the CRP staff and taken to the camp. Upon arrival, however, all of my dad's doubts about this part of the trip were put to rest, as the lodge and facilities were beautiful, and the tilapia and fried rice lunch waiting for us was delicious. Our host, and intern named Karen, made sure we were comfortable and told us that the boat tour would start around four. While living in the Gambia I have come to know that you should never expect to see wildlife, as animals, except for birds, are elusive, few in number, and easily frightened. As such, I was thrilled at how many large mammals we saw in the two hour boat ride, including eight or more hippos, several communities of Chimpanzees, Baboons, and other monkeys. In addition to this we saw countless waterbirds nesting around the island.

The next day, after a pleasant but less eventful boat ride, we caught a car with some other Peace Corps volunteers on their way to Kombo and arrived in the late mid-afternoon. We had done a little bit of research looking at hotels during our previous stay in Kombo before going to my village, but my friend Mike highly recommended the Coco Ocean hotel, so we decided to check it out before making a final decision. It was much more than we expected--well-appointed suites, numerous swimming pools, excellent service, beautiful grounds, and a great beach. My parents decided that, for the money, this was their best option. For my part, I agreed that is was beautiful and that they deserved a little luxury after being tossed about by West Africa for a couple of weeks. I was glad, however, that this hotel was not their introduction to The Gambia. This is, after all, the world of the shirtless man on the ferry. It is the walled-in world where rich foreigners get massages, spend a Gambian's month salary on a bottle of wine, and learn little to nothing about the diversity, the culture, the poverty, the frustration, the beauty and, above all, the people, that are just outside the walls.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


In Africa, I have had many the awakening met by confusion and disorientation. In the first year or so, in my own home, I often awoke with no idea where I was, and no idea what the noises around me meant or where they were coming from. This rarely happens to me now--donkeys, roosters, rice being pounded in mortars--the myriad of morning sounds washes over me with a sense of familiarity. This morning is one of those old disoriented mornings, but in an unfamiliar bed, in a small dark space. The sound that meets me, however, is one I have known since I was very young, and could not be mistaken for anything else; it is the sea.

Saint Louis is in the north of Dakar, on the Atlantic coast, and is something of a hybrid African/European city founded 350 years ago. It consists of three sections--the mainland, an island a few hundred meters off the mainland in the middle of the Senegal river, and a Peninsula that extends a protecting arm to the east, as if to save the small island from the savagery of the open sea. It is the location of an annual jazz festival that attracts musicians from West Africa, Europe, America, and the rest of the world. Seeing as I had a few extra vacation days lying around, and Whitney and I had not yet taken a trip together, we decided to make the journey.

We left Gambia on the 20th of May, and, after an unexpected but not atypical delay that stranded us in Dakar for the night, we arrived in Saint Louis on the afternoon of the 21st. There were four of us. Whitney and myself and Danielle, a newer volunteer, all speak Mandinka. Jasmin, also in my training group, is a Fula speaker. None of us speak French or Wolof, which unfortunately left us at something of a disadvantage in terms of communicating in northern Senegal. I have picked up some French vocabulary words, but little to no grammar, making me sound like a stuttering French caveman.

These language skills, in addition to a lot of flailing and some phone calls to local PC volunteers, got us to a section of beach hotels on the peninsula, the Langue d'Barbarie. We were told to try the Auberge du Pelicain. Which turned out to be a beautiful hotel with a rooftop bar and restaurant. It also turned out to be completely full. The management told us to try the inn next door. The polite matron showed me a reservation list and asked me which was my name. Upon clarification, she pointed down the beach and said to ask for the Auberge Mermoz. Half an hour of searching along the beach later, we gave up on that idea and decided to just ask about the only other hotel we saw nearby- the Hotel Dior. It looked unlikely, as it was a fairly upper-class looking establishment, but there turned out to be a small camping section called "Camping Ocean," which not only had a vacancy right on the beach, but was the cheapest option we had yet found while still being comfortable.

After settling in at the hotel, we headed to town to explore a bit and look for some dinner. We saw a variety of nice European, Asian, and African options, all far too rich for our thin wallets. Finally we stumbled on a small cafe adjacent to an African art gallery. From the place's appearance we all assumed it would be too expensive, but we were surprised to be able to sit down to some wonderful chicken yassa for about five American dollars. What made the place better was the extremely friendly and helpful waitress--an educated young woman who tried her best to speak to us in English. She gave us her e-mail address and invited us to a fashion show at the gallery the next day before we thanked her and went back out into the town. We found a small pastry shop and tried a few of their offerings, including a cup of espresso for me. Every time I go to a French country I am continuously surprised at how intermixed the African culture is with French culture. This isn't true nearly as often with British culture in The Gambia. Whether it is positive or negative that the Senegalese had French culture more effectively thrust on them, however, is a topic open for much heated discussion.

After the coffee and pastries we headed to the mainland looking for a party at a Peace Corps Volunteer's apartment. Once again our lack of any really useful language skill threw us off the beaten path and we had to continuously ask for directions, which just made us more confused, walking down dark and foreign colonial streets. Finally Jasmin called on or her friend in the area and got us back on the right path, after considerable back-tracking. The party was in a location that seemed ridiculously opulent to we humble Gambian volunteers: an apartment at the top of a 5 or 6 story building, half inside, half on terraced-in patios with beautiful views of the river, island, and sea. We socialized with the volunteers in attendance and drank some pretty potent jungle juice, easily losing track of time. When we finally managed to break away it was past one a.m., and we went in search of live music.

While Jasmin, Danielle, and a few of the Senegalese volunteers headed to a danceclub-type venue with a DJ, Whitney and I looked for some music that was a bit more authentically live. We finally found a club by the river that had a band of Africans playing with a white--presumably French--drummer and keyboardist sitting in. They played lively jazz with some African percussion and singing mixed in, and the mood frequently changed as new people sat in, including a Senegalese keyboardist and a stylishly dressed, female, African albino bass player. She seemed to totally get lost in the music--swooning, thrashing her head back and forth, opening her mouth wide while deeply bending a note. The band finally began to pack things up around 3, after which people seemed to be ready to leave, when all of a sudden a new type of music burst spontaneously from four men sitting near the bar. They were apparently part of a gospel choir and began singing Christian songs such as "Go Down Moses" and "This Little Light of Mine" in four-part harmony, accompanied by the intermittent "whoop" of one of them blowing on a half-empty beer bottle. Despite the late hour and the mixed-religion crowd, everyone was re-energized and excited by this sudden outburst of music, so characteristic of West Africa.

I woke up at 2 the next afternoon with the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. My head throbbed softly and my mouth was sticky. I heard the ocean and I wanted to dive into it--clear my head and wash off the sweat, dried in places, pungent in others. Trunks on and I hit the beach, where impatience pushed me to run. I thrashed into the surf and was shocked into something closer to a lucid state of mind. I practiced my usual oceanic ritual of swimming just past where my feet can touch before returning to shore. Back at the hut I changed into a slightly wrinkled off-white shirt, a maroon tie with yellow stripes, and khaki dockers. Whitney finished off the outfit by putting her fedora on me. Not quite haute couture, but at least not ragged.

In town we walked the streets of old colonial buildings while Mauritanians called out deals on silver jewelry and drumming from gatherings in compounds throbbed through concrete and plaster walls. Crudely painted portraits of local cheikhs stared forebodingly from cracking cement walls, surrounded by tattered posters of past music events and glossy newer ones of an upcoming dance gala. We turned a street and run smack into a parade consisting of dancers, singers, stilt walkers, and various other incarnations of the cultural life of Senegambia. I took Whitney's camera and started shooting, trying to capture just a taste the strange and wonderful stimuli this city keeps throwing at us. That evening we met up with some other Peace Corps friends and head for a bar where the albino bassist's band is playing. Our progress was interrupted, however, when one of out number was pick pocketed. She ran after a man she suspected to be the thief and confronts him, but he empties his pockets willingly, removing only his own cell phone. After some consoling she went back to her hotel to get some money to bring to the club, and the rest of us continued on, feeling a little more sober. It's easy to forget sometimes that anything that outwardly implies you have money can make you a target. Unfortunately, in many developing countries, being white is one such attribute.

We all made it to the concert ready for some cheering up, and we were in no way disappointed. The act, "Jac et le Takeifa," was a hyper mix of Senegalese mbalax dance music, American rock and punk, traditional West African music styles, and whatever else they feel like at the moment. We uninitiated toubabs were energized, but we seemed catatonic in comparison with the frenzy of the Senegalese. Ten or more men jumped up and down on a long, groaning wooden table, chanting the words to each song between hits of fanta or flag beer, depending on religious affiliation. Some of the performers from the mainstage jazz festival sat in on a few songs, including a German guitarist with a stunning mullet. All the while the Afro sporting front man and the bassist traded energy back and forth, headbanging, shaking, and throwing themselves into the music. When we left at three in the morning, others at the bar were calling friends, looking for another party to hop to.

The next day I managed to rise before noon. It's easier than before; I suppose that after its initial protests my body resigned itself to a temporary nocturnal state. After another dip in the Atlantic we headed in for our last day in the city. Whitney and I found an art gallery hosting an African art exhibition run by a British man who splits his time between London and Cape Town. It was full of photographs, abstract paintings, and historical information about the cultural connections between African nations and their former colonizers. This, along with the festival and the general atmosphere of Saint Louis made me keenly aware of the lack of such cultural displays in the Gambia. I feel that this should change, that Gambians should value their culture more and display it more proudly. But what they value is not up to me, or to the U.S., Britain, or anyone else. All we can do is give suggestions, and it is up to the Gambians to decide what is best for themselves.

Since it is our last night in town, we decided to splurge a little bit and pay the ticket price to get into the mainstage show. The first act was The African Roots Quartet, comprised of a kora player, a Fula flutist, a sabar drummer, and a French percussionist on a drum set. They played a charged and highly improvisational brand of music, displaying a lot of virtuosity on their respective instruments. They were followed by an ensemble led by Puerto Rican Trumpet player/percussionist Jerry Gonzales. What initially seemed to be a standard latin jazz and salsa outfit quickly became more interesting, as a Senegalese drummer, a Spanish trumpeter, and a Flamenco vocalist all added different elements to the mix. It was interesting to see the entire interaction between Africa, Europe, and Latin America represented on one stage, and the music was exciting and danceable. The closer for the performance was the American saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Despite being in his seventies and playing a set that started at one in morning, he can still wail away. He threw a lot of avant-garde elements into his music, including singing while playing, overtones, atonal passages, and a very free, open structure to each piece. He was a lot of fun to watch, but our group is fading fast, and after about an hour we file out and head for the street to catch a cab.

Before dawn the next morning we were up, dressed, and almost conscious as we took a cab to the car park on the mainland. As I groggily leaned my head against the taxi's window pane, I glimpsed the sea from between the scruffy whistling pine trees poking out of the beige sand in the weak light of the coming day. I could just hear the faint sound of the surf as we crossed the bridge onto the island, before it faded completely. Then we were back into the hustle of the car parks, the cries of the hawkers and beggars, chickens and asses--the sounds that would wake us in the days to come.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Hypothetical situation:
You have gone to nursing school for 2 years after completing high school, and have been stationed a day's journey away from friends and family in a rural village with no electricity, paved roads, or any type of modern convenience. You spend your days trying to help the uneducated population of this village with their myriad health woes, many of which amount to conditions as vague as "my body hurts." Your tools are limited and your training is limited, but you make do, and have become an accepted member of your new community, although you are still supporting a spouse and son back in your hometown. You work hard for that modest, but at least steady paycheck you receive every month. And with that paycheck, there comes the inevitable deluge of phone calls. Your brother - "I have been invited to a wedding ceremony and I need 500 dalasis to buy a gift large enough to impress the family. I am your brother, do you not love me? Do you only love your wife and son?" Your mother - "I am old and only have a few cows and a garden with which to make money. You, my son, are a civil servant. You have more money than you need. Send me 700 dalasis for new bowls and for a bag of rice." And so on. That monthly paycheck is soon divvied up and distributed among your relatives, leaving nothing left for you to save for the future.

I am sure this scenario seems ridiculous to the average American. If your brother asks for money and its not an emergency, you feel under no obligation to give him anything, and no one will judge you for not doing so. Sharing is all well and good, but there is a definite line between legitimate requests and begging. In much of West Africa, however, a request of anything from a relative or friend, if at all feasible, is something that must be given. If it is not, the person making the request will accuse you of being wicked, greedy, and uncaring--accusations that will be spread around the community and may stick. If they do, this will all but destroy your chances of getting any help in building a house, starting a business, or doing any other work that requires another set of hands.

Being a toubab, this aspect of the culture can be extremely frustrating, but at least I have an excuse for refusing most of the time, not being actually related to anyone. This doesn't stop every casual acquaintance from asking me for money for a loaf of bread or for green tea or medicine. Before you furrow your brow at that last statement, wondering why I would deny poor Africans food and medicine, let me explain the situation here and my feelings about hand-outs in the third world in general. Yes, the people here need help. But they have been getting help for decades. Western aid to African since the 60's amounts to more than a trillion dollars, and that has done little to lower poverty rates, improve governance, and generally make life better for Africans. (Check link at left for details) There are a number of probable reasons for this, but the one that is most evident to me on a daily basis is that aid decreases self reliance.

Many the charity or development organization that comes to The Gambia is staffed by people motivated by lofty ideas of building hospitals, saving children, and changing the world. While altruism is certainly something to be admired and encouraged, the main problem with this kind of attitude is that it can quickly turn to selfishness when things in the developing world are not what we expect. When projects fail because of disinterest, poor planning, harsh conditions, or a myriad of other reasons, many western donors and workers lose their patience and pull out. Westerners expect Africans to be humble, hardworking, and grateful for whatever scraps western countries are willing to give them. Often the case is just the opposite--many African leaders, especially men, are highly self-laudatory, lazy, and corrupt. International aid organizations in the Gambia routinely close down operations because of allegations of fraud and theft among Gambian staff members. It is often just too easy and too tempting for people of humble origin, when put in charge of large sums of money, to pocket some of it for themselves. This is especially true when so much financial support is expected of working men and women from their families. Since so much of this money gets siphoned off, more and more of it is needed to maintain projects, and since more of it keeps coming, it no longer becomes a leg up to poor but appreciative people, but an expected allowance that is viewed as an entitlement.

This problem of reliance on foreign aid starts at the top echelons of African societies--the government and educated Africans working in development-- but also trickles its way down to poorer people. NGO's sweep into a small village, do a short and inadequate needs assessment, and then build a school, well, garden, or other generic development project. This project either fails completely within a few years, as do most gardens and wells, or staggers on with little success, crippled by a lack of continued funding and an indigenous leadership without the proper training and/or motivation to run it. After the project fails or is no longer viewed as viable, rather than trying to revamp it or start a new project of their own design the community will sit on its thumbs, waiting for another NGO to come along and throw them some money. When one does, the whole process starts all ove again.

It is this viewing this process which has hardened my resolve to never give anything to anyone in the community that I do not have a strong relationship and understanding with--and even then only after a serious discussion about why its necessary. The old man who asks me for bread doesn't need it--it's a luxury item in Africa anyway. The woman who wants painkillers most likely doesn't have any real pain problems at present anyway--many times they just ask you because they hope to get some free medicine from the toubab. Even if they do have a real need, if I give them something they will be less likely to go through the established infrastructure to get what they need in the future. There is a Spanish NGO that comes yearly to a village near my own that, until recently, gave away medicine for free after a short medical examination given by med students and nurses. That sounds wonderful, until you realize that in the months leading up to the visit by the "Spanish Doctors," very few people go to the health centers unless they are at death's door. They would rather jeopardize their health and wait to get treatment for free in a two months instead of having to pay a nominal fee to get it now. The community nurse in my village had to have a somewhat heated meeting with the Spaniards to explain the system of medical treatment in the Gambia in order get them to help him instead of competing with him.

I realize that my tone up until this point has sounded relentlessly negative about the situation here, but let me just say that after 19 months in this country I still remain motivated and excited to be doing what I am doing. These are daunting challenges which we face if we want to improve the lot of people living in developing countries. Fortunately, I feel that the Peace Corps and a few other organizations are getting at least one thing right--working with people on their own terms as well as ours. Development organizations can not come in and dictate the "right" way for a country to improve itself. This is ignorant and arrogant on the part of western agencies, and will most likely alienate and insult the recipients of the proposed aid. At the same time, developing countries can not make demands on western nations and feel entitled to an unending stream of hand-outs. It is certainly true that European countries have exploited the developing world to a despicable degree in the past, but by hanging on to bitterness and demanding aid instead of building trading and diplomatic relationships the west and their neighbors, developing countries will never make themselves into strong, self-reliant nations.

What I value so far about my service to the Gambia and to The Peace Corps is that, despite a lot of frustrations, I have found people to work with who want to make things better by their own means. We spend two years here trying to build relationships with this type of people. This is may seem like a long time, and it is longer than the terms of most development workers, but it is still precious little time really become a part of a community. And once we find those people and decide together on a project they deem necessary, they are willing to work for it. Maybe they need a little leg up now and again with some training or a small grant, but on the whole, they want to do things for themselves. Working with such people on equal terms and with equal respect is the only type of work I see as worthwhile, and the only work that will have any type of sustainable effect. And hopefully those doing the work will find some way of keeping their relatives' hands off at least some of the benefits.

Friday, April 9, 2010


"Sixty dollars?"
"No one else is gonna drive you for less than that."
"I only have thirty on me."
"You got a card? I have a reader in the taxi."
"Just my personal one. Hey man, sorry, but I think I'm gonna have to pass. I had better give the office a call to see what I should do."
"Suit yourself."

Living in the Gambia has ingrained in me this all-pervasive thriftiness, akin to survivors of depressions, world wars, or natural catastrophes. I pay 300 Dalasis, about 14 bucks, to get from Basse to Barra--about 300 km-- so there is no way in hell I am going straight from that to a sixty dollar cab ride for 15 miles. And why does 40 degrees feel so cold?

The 5A bus gets to the park about half an hour later. It's ten bucks to the nearest metro station, which is a lot more digestible to my tightwad tendencies. A nice guy who is part of some type of Christian group touring the area fills me in on how to get from the West Falls church metro to Rosslyn station, from which I will have to catch a shuttle to the Virginian Suites. I freak out for a second thinking I have forgotten my anti-malaria meds. I find them in a side pocket of the single back pack in which I have crammed all of clothes and personal effects that I will have for the next...week? Two weeks? Month?

The Virginian is nice, but not opulent. Wi-fi, free coffee and tea in the lobby, a shuttle to the grocery store and nearest metro station. My roommate groggily answers the door, as he has not been informed I was coming. We chat a little bit. He was stationed in Morocco, and has been here nearly a month already. He walks with a limp. Some type of nerve pain the doctor's can't quite explain. We get along well.

It's the weekend so I can't get a doctor's appointment until at least Monday. The other medevac'ed volunteers are friendly enough. A girl from Ecuador, who just had some dental work repaired and is waiting on a mouth guard. A guy from China after 2 years in Mauritania who had leg surgery and developed a Staph infection. An older man on his third peace corps term, this time in Georgia, with a badly broken leg. A girl from a Central Asian country who doesn't talk much about her reasons for being there--stress, anxiety, something like that. A girl from East Africa with a stomach issues. My urological issues seem kind of minor compared to some. In the Ecuadorian girl's room we sit and talk about our experiences. The girl from Central Asia asks me about my tattoo. I say it's from East of Eden. "Oh Steinbeck. Don't you think he just kind of vomits on the page?" I don't concur. It's an awkward conversation.

Some of my fellow infirm and I go to Avatar in 3D. In the states I enjoy going to a film at least a couple times a month, but this is my first movie in a theater for over a year. In The Gambia I'm more used to thirty or forty people crowding around poorly dubbed Bruce Lee films on 15 inch televisions with the whir of a generator in the background. This is a bunch of blue cat people on a huge screen in front of me while I wear 3D glasses and drink an Icee that costs as much as my meals for nearly a week in the Gambia. It hurts my head. It hurts my face. But I like it.

In spite of the Thai food, the climate control, the museums, and walking down the street without being noticed, I start to miss the Gambia. Hypochondria starts to take hold. What's this new leg pain? Is my sore throat from the cold or something more sinister? Are the doctors really taking my fears seriously? Should I be taking them seriously? All of my urine tests come back clean, and the Urologist acts surprised that I would be medevac'ed for something so minor. He schedules me for a cystoscopy. It involves fiber optic cable and water-based lubricant.

In the days leading to the unpleasantness, we do some more quintessentially American things. The mall, for instance. I have never actually been in an Apple store, and being in one after a year in a mud hut is like going from Gilligan's Island to Star Trek. The girl from Central Asia is acting a bit strange. She snaps at the girl in the makeup shop. She drops gummy bears over the railing on people on lower floors. She knocks over a wet floor sign and throws a small fit. The rest of us don't know how to react. Is this a result of something that happened to her? None of us had met her before we came here. Who are we to each other?

The cystoscopy is over in less than five minutes. There is no anesthesia, local or general. The urologist talks to me the whole time. It really isn't that bad. But it definitely hurts to pee the rest of the day. My anxiety breaks open again like a scab. My Peace Corps nurse makes an appointment with an internist to check on my sore throat and general malaise. My sister comes the next weekend, and so do two of my friends who are living in Pittsburgh. I can't think of anything that would pick me up more, but I feel like my discomfort hampers some of what we want to do. We still manage to see some of the sights of D.C. and have a couple nice meals before I am alone again. Some new medevacs arrive. One from Tonga, one from Mongolia.

The internalist takes some blood samples, all of which come back clean. They give me some antibiotics and tell me to get more rest and try to relax. Because of some of my discomfort and specific symptoms they set up an appointment with a gastroenterologist in a week. My nurse warns that the more problems we explore, the less likely it will be that I will be able to go back. My mom comes that weekend. I know that I am 25, an adult now by any measure, and should be capable of handling things on my own. Still, it is extremely comforting and reassuring to see her.

We spend the weekend doing as many interesting things as we can, including restaurants, museums, and movies. It's really snowy that week, so walking in my thin West African Converse ripoffs is a bit brutal. One evening we go to a show at the Folger Theatre with the girl from Mongolia and the girl from Tonga. It's a bit strange spending time with my mom and two people we just met, but we have a good time. Later that night I got with the girls from Mongolia, Tonga, and Tanzania to a bar called Madam's Organ--a play off the neighbor hood name--Adams Morgan. There is a latin band playing and the special makes drinking only slightly expensive as opposed to the outright mugging that most D.C. prices are. We have a good time, but I still barely know any of these girls. That Sunday my mom and I have brunch at the only place that serves it near the metro station--a cheap place in the Best Western across the highway. Cheap diner French toast, complete with sealed fake butter packets, those food-industry slide-opening syrup pitchers, and orange juice from concentrate. It evokes the many childhood road trips with my family to the Ozarks or the Gulf Coast of Florida. It's delicious, but for sentimental reasons more than anything. We take the train to Ronald Reagan National Airport and she gets on a plane and I am alone again.

Over the next few days I feel in a sort of snow-induced limbo. D.C. is hit by its biggest snow storm in decades, which closes everything down, including all federal government offices, which includes Peace Corps. As such, I am left in my room wondering whether I will be in The Gambia next week or getting yet more tests. The day before the storm hit, a new girl arrived from Central Asia She is feeling a bit stir-crazy, so we go out into the unplowed snow wilderness that was D.C the day before. It is a strange sight, even for one not used to the city. What used to be traffic-clogged arteries are now venues for community snowball fights, avenues for children to drag each other back and forth on plastic sleds, and dog walking parks. People are friendly to the point of farce, waving at everyone who passes and making lame jokes to complete strangers. "How 'bout this weather?" The girl from Central Asia and I strike up an impromptu friendship. This whole experience has been a microcosm of Peace Corps relationships in general--you meet people, you befriend them out of necessity, and you are often confused about what your relationship to these people actually is. In The Gambia I have figured some of these things out. In D.C., I have no idea.

I see the gastroenterologist, a soft-spoken man in his 50's with receding hair and pictures of his family all over his desk. He asks me a lot of questions I have already been asked, does another very personal examination, labels it a yeast infection, and prescribes some pills and ointment. He says I am clear to go back. I bring this news to my Peace Corps nurse at the office, and she says that's all I need, I can go back as soon as we reserve a flight. The earliest we can do so is Monday, so I have the weekend to fit in whatever else I want to do. Despite the wealth of options, I just kind of hang out. The whole experience has been exhausting. The day of my departure, my fellow Medevacs and I have some excellent Mexican food for my last meal in the states, then head to the airport. I share a cab with two middle aged ladies who are teachers from California, and tell them about where I am going and why. They are interested, but only to a point. The second half of the ride is mostly silent.

One of the in-flight movies is Where the Wild Things Are. It's played on a horrible little screen, but because of the content and my emotionally frazzled state I find myself tearing up. I half read an article on the flight that says everyone tends to cry more during in-flight movies than in grounded ones. I chalk it up to that and try to sleep the rest of the flight. When I can't, I look down on the vastness of the Sahara and wonder if I'll ever go there. I don't talk to the people sitting next to me. I don't really feel like meeting anyone new.

The next day, a world away, there are baobabs near the runway in Dakar, and it starts to feel like home again. One hop later down to Banjul and I start actually recognizing things. Banjul harbor. The ferry at Barra. The coast going south. The plane touches down and I start to think that I can feel normal again. By coincidence my fellow Gambian medevac Jasmin gets into the airport from South Africa at practically the same time. While we wait for the Peace Corps car to pick us up, we get hassled by bumsters. Now, at last, for better or for worse, I feel at home.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Moringa Only

The laughter of Gambian women can be a wonderful, life-affirming, and energizing thing. When a thin plastic rope is cutting into your hand with the other end attached to a full 20 liter bidong of water at the bottom of at well, however, it doesn't do much for the self esteem. These were the circumstances I found myself in a couple of weeks ago in the Barrow Kunda women's garden.

The whole situation began with my TOSTAN facilitator, Mamadi, and me tilling up a garden bed in which to plant moringa one hot and dusty March afternoon. Mamadi of course had to take a smoke break in the middle of the work, leaving me to do most of it, but that was OK with me, as my purpose in the endeavor was twofold. One, to show how easy raising moringa in an intensive leaf production bed is and how many benefits can be gleaned from it. Two, to immerse myself back in the community and to further illustrate to the village women that people of the toubab persuasion, can indeed do manual labor. That I was man working in the women's garden threw a bonus gender discussion in to boot. Once the ground was all chopped up and dampened, I planted the first batch of 200 or so seeds about 10 centimeters apart in rows also spaced 10 centimeters apart. I then had to wait to borrow someone else's rope and bucket to fetch water from the nearest well before I could water them. I resolved to remedy this problem by buying a bucket a rope at the next luumo (market).

In the mean time, I decided to try out the “Basho” watering can design in the appropriate technologies manual we were given during training. I bought a bidong from the bitik, cut the section with the cap out of it, and punched a series of holes in the other side with a hot awl. The resulting watering can is a little unwieldy and takes some strength to hold over a bed when full, but effectively dissipates the stream of water to prevent seeds from being washed away. My plan was to buy a thick rope at the luumo on Monday, and use the modified bidong as both watering can and well bucket. It would be heavy to pull up full of water, but I would only need to do it twice to water the whole bed. The next few days that I went to the garden I was inundated by questions about why I came to the garden, what I had planted, and why I didn't have my wife water the bed for me. While I waited for my turn at the well, I had many the ad hoc health talk.

“Where is your wife, Seikou?”
“She is lost. If you see her will you tell her to come home? Besides, I am a strong man and can do my own work.”
“Well what did you plant? It has not come out yet.”
“I have planted nebedayo” (nebedayo is a corruption of “never die”- another name for moringa)
“And what else?”
“Nebedayo only.”
“That is not good. You should plant kucha. That is sweeter than nebedayo.”
“If you know how to cook nebedayo I think it is very sweet. And nebedayo's power is much greater than that of kucha.”
“But kucha has power.”
“Yes, it has a little power, but the power of nebedayo is greater than that of any other thing in the garden. If you harvest the leaves, dry them in the shade, and pound them into a powder, they will become a medicine. If your children are small and not healthy, you can put the powder in their food every day, and it will make them strong.”
“Hey, that is very good. But Seikou, you can not fetch water well.”
“I am trying, slowly, slowly.”

Luumo day came, but when I browsed the different dealers I found that they all wanted over 150 Dalasis for a length of rope that would reach the bottom of the well. Being the cheap PCV that I am I decided that I would make do with five to six 6 Dalasi lengths of bitik rope. The next day I returned to the garden to show off my American ingenuity. “Hey, Seikou, that rope is too thin!”Several women said to me. “Don't worry, it will be fine, I lift two full bidongs at the well every day.” I replied. I threw the bidong over the side and lowered it down to the water level and waited for it to fill. And waited. And waited. Frustrated, I pulled it up to find that it was less than a third full. I poured it over the bed and went in search of a rock. Finding a suitable one, I wedged it under the handle of the bidong and once again threw it over the side. Success! The bidong quickly filled with water and submerged completely. I reached down and pulled the rope to start bringing the water up.

The good news is that I had not overestimated my own strength. I was able to lift the weight of the bidong without too much difficulty. The cheap rope, however, was a very bad idea. After pulling up the first length, it started cutting into my hands, and if I let go with one hand to reach down and pull up more length, the rest of the rope began quickly sliding out of my other hand. The women around the well, having been watching me intently, erupted in unbridled laughter, which carried on for several moments before a couple of them stepped in to help me, each of us alternating holding the rope and reaching to pull up another length. Once the bidong reached the top of the well, I sheepishly thanked the two women and finished watering my plot. My friend Fatou Tambajang told me that she knew of a compound that had a few small 5 liter bidongs that I could buy for 5 Dalasis. I asked her if she could take me there the next morning.

The compound turned out to be that of the president of the women's group in the village, Fatoumata Fatty. She took me to the back of the compound where several small bidongs were lying on the ground. I picked one up and handed her a 5 Dalasi, note, which she dismissed with a wave of her hand. “You have come here to work for us, and I know I be able to harvest some of the nebedayo from that bed, as you said it was for all of us.” I assured her that she could indeed, and thanked her again. While 5 Dalasis isn't a large sum, the gesture was worth far more than that.

3 weeks on into the project, I have planted 3 batches of moringa seeds, more than 75 percent of which have germinated, totaling in over 300 hundred healthy seedlings, and there is still room in the bed for more. Women in the village have shown more interest in planting moringa and have asked me for seeds more times in the last few weeks than in the rest of my service combined. I have even expanded the program to do moringa demonstrations in a couple of neighboring Fula villages with the help of my Fula community health nurse. It still may be a bit early to call the project a success on the whole, but as long as I maintain the sense of humor that has kept things running to this point, I can at least count on a lot of positive discourse.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Little Love From Africell

Hey everyone, sorry it's been so long since I've posted. I've had a lot of things happen in the last few months which kept my mind a bit too occupied for blogging. I will detail some of it in future posts. To break back into the swing of things I thought I would just put up something funny and mindless. One of the main cell phone carriers in the Gambia is Africell. They sell SIM cards that allow the owner to make phone calls using a system of towers in the country. When you turn on your phone with an Africell card inside, you are given a list of options on the Africell menu. Among more functional features such as checking your credit or calling customer service, there is a feature called "Love Quotes." This is a series of beautiful mini-poems which you can download for the mere price of one dalasi each and send to whomever you love dearest in this world. Here is a sampling of some of my favorites, in their full, unabridged, and uncorrected* glory:

In da morning I don't eat cuz I tink of u,
at noon I don't eat cuz I tink of u,
in da evening I don't eat cuz I tink of u,
at night I do not sleep cuz I am hungry.

Proposing u was my desire
having u is my jackpot
loving u is my attitude
pleasing u is my duty
missing u is my habit
kissing u is my wish
2gether 4eva my filfi

I believe that God above
created u for me to luv.
he picked you out
from all the rest
cos he knew id luv you the best!

like a fallen star u fell into my life.
u made me smile wen thingz werent rite..
if hugz were water id send u the sea
n sail away 4eva jus u n me.

I can't smile anymore, dnt worry about me,
I know what 2 do.
I'll just stare at 1 corner n think of yu.
No one else could make me happy
like d way yu do.

one day the moon said 2 me,
if ur lover makes u cry
why don't you leave ur lover..
i looked at the moon and replied
would u every leave ur sky?

(*Actually, this makes them look more professional, as I put them in stanzas as opposed to just mashing them together in a single text message.)