Sunday, November 27, 2011

I Believe


     Bruised but liberated, I entered Bansang to meet Seth, an environment volunteer that has been serving in The Gambia since January of 2011.  Seth has been placed in the village of Dobong Kunda, approximately 3k outside of Bansang, where he works with the community on developing agriculture.  We walked along a dirt road next to the Gambia River to his village where I was able to meet his host father, Abu Jaiteh.

     Abu mainly speaks Mandinka, and only “small” Sarahule, but despite the communication barrier, we clicked.  I had come to meet Abu because he is a marabout, a religious leader and teacher of the Qur’an, who has been practicing since 1993.  He makes special jujus for people seeking things such as fertility, good health, and protection.  He is so well known for his talent that he was flown to the Ivory Coast in August of 2011 to help Alassane Outtara gain power when Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.  I was lucky enough to sit down with Abu and see what he does firsthand.
Abu Jaiteh
      After eating lunch that Abu’s wife had prepared, Seth, Bully (my translator), and I entered the backroom to Abu’s recently opened bitik (shop).  Abu took a seat on the ground on top of his mat, while we sat on the bed in front of him.  He pulled out his tattered papers that had obviously been used for many years, as he explained that this skill had been passed down to him through many generations.
Bully, my translator
     It was soon my turn to do the talking, as I explained to Abu why I had come to him.  As Abu kept secrets from me in his process of making a juju, I must keep a few secrets from you.  I didn’t go to Abu for myself, but for others.  I have not been able to give my jujus to them yet, so I don’t want to ruin the surprise.  However, I can share what I learned.

     When making the juju, Abu first listens to the person’s problem or what she is seeking.  He then decides upon a passage/prayer from the Qur’an that fits her needs.  He writes this prayer on a piece of paper and then has the recipient, or in my case the one who has come for the juju, to face east on her knees as he reads the prayer.  Although, I had no idea what he was saying because it was all in Arabic, I was asked to repeat “Amen” as he read his prayer.  I did this, as I silently recited my own prayer for those who will be receiving the jujus.  When he was finished he did a spitting motion over the paper I was holding in my hands making a “phh, phh, phh” noise and then took his two hands down his face as an indicator he had completed his work.


     Next, he folded the paper into a tiny square, and for the juju to work correctly, I was asked to exchange my money with him in one hand while receiving the juju in the other.  I then gave the juju back so it could go on to its final stage. 

     Abu “small boyed” a young man to deliver the juju to Lamin Fatty, the leather worker who binds the jujus.  I was told that we could visit him at night to continue watching the making of the juju.  I kicked myself many times for not bringing my camera to our first meeting.

     When we showed up to Mr. Fatty’s compound he was dripping wet and wearing nothing but a towel.  He placed himself in front of me as he finished his work with the leather.  I held my mag light to watch as he adjusted the size to fit on the recipient’s arm.  He spoke in Mandinka about the “niceness” of my light as I marveled at his creation.  I was so pleased with how the juju had turned out that I stayed in Dobong Kunda a second night to have a another one made.
Abu Jaiteh and Lamin Fatty
     Reading this, I’m sure some are questioning my religious beliefs because I participated in an Islamic tradition, so I’ll go ahead and address that…

     Many times in the past five months I’ve had Gambians tell me, “We are all the same.”  My response is always, “I couldn’t agree more.” Whether we are Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus I think we are all praying to the same God despite the different names we may use to refer to him.  When asked about my religious affiliation, I simply say, “I believe.”  

Friday, November 25, 2011

I’m a Big Girl Now


     Continuing with my firsts, I recently put on my big girl pants and traveled by myself to the city of Bansang.  Bansang is a two-hour gelli ride from Basse, and is just outside of the village of Dobong Kunda, where Seth and his host father, Abu Jaiteh, live.  Abu Jaiteh is a marabout and was the reason for my travel.

     Excited to meet a marabout, I woke up at the crack of dawn to get ready for my adventure.  I arrived at the car park in Basse around 9, ready to go, but instead began the process of waiting, which is a norm in this culture.  50 minutes later, the gelli to Bansang was filled with Gambians and one toubab (me), and with a running push start, we were off.

     Inside the gelli, personal space became non-existent.  I began the ride with a woman sitting on my right leg, squished next to the metal frame of the seat in front of me.  We shared our two person seat with two others, one of course being the man that screams as loud as he can into his “mobile.” 

     Half way through the ride, our gelli stopped at a police checkpoint.  I’m never quite sure what the police are looking for, but at most checkpoints they will ask to see identification from the passengers.  There were a handful of Gambians that were asked to get off because they didn't have an id or papers to show, and I realized I needed to make myself comfortable on the steel bar that was driving into the back of my legs.  It was going to be a while.

     As the police officer escorted the Gambians lacking ids off to who knows where, a man with a motorcycle approached the gelli wanting to join in on the fun.  Only problem was that he wanted to put his motorcycle on top of the gelli, which proved to be a difficult task.  The men looked as though they knew what they were doing.  They tied rope around the front end of the motorcycle, a few men got on top of the gelli, while others were positioned below and it seemed as though they were trying to wheel it up the side.  I watched three men try to show their strength by lifting the motorcycle, but defeat quickly set in, as they realized it wasn’t going anywhere. 

     About 10 minutes of this nonsense and the Gambians that were still on the gelli started to get furious.  They were shouting things I couldn’t understand, but were obviously fed up and threatening to find another ride as they filed out the back.  The driver, seeing money slip away, quickly made peace with his passengers, and had the motorcycle man put an end to the shenanigans.

     As the passengers boarded back onto the gelli, I heard bits and pieces about the police trying to get money out of them.  I guess it was a “give me money and I won’t waste your time” type of situation.
The one good thing about everyone filing off the gelli is that people gave up their seats.  No longer did I have the screaming man and woman sitting on my lap next to me.  Instead, I now had a 60 to 70 year old man on my side with his arm around me, touching my shoulder with his hand, his cane tucked between his legs, looking rather pimpish. 

     The screaming man became the laughing man as the ride continued.  He had moved to the seat positioned across from mine and was watching my face with every bump we hit.  I went airborne a few times, banged down on the steel rod seat, and winced with pain.  He found this hilarious, but would kindly ask after laughing, “You okay, man?”

     Despite the discomforts, I couldn’t help but to smile the entire way.  Not once was I frustrated by our stop at the police station, the old man touching me, the whiplash I encountered from the poor condition of the road, or the woman sitting on top of me.  I was traveling by myself in The Gambia for the first time, and loving every minute of it.  However, my journey had only begun.   Stayed tuned for my meeting with a marabout…

Thursday, November 10, 2011

There's a First Time for Everything

     October and November have provided a number of first time experiences for me.  I would love to be able to write about each experience individually, but instead I've decided to compile a list of firsts to keep you up-to-date with my adventures.

In somewhat of chronological order:

I dodged dive-bombing bats, and slept on the floor of a classroom for 3 nights in Badari.
I taught about HIV/AIDS prevention to a group of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders, in which I mentioned words like vaginal fluid and semen more than I have in my entire life.
I modeled my first lesson for a teacher.

I was tested with how I'd handle witnessing corporal punishment, and realized I'm not one to just stand by.  I stopped it, immediately.

I traveled across the country in a gelli.

I learned why you don't stand next to animals while waiting to get off the ferry.

I shook hands with the president of The Gambia, and then topped that by dancing with him.
After much debate back and forth with myself, I decided to watch the sacrifice of the ram on Tobaski.  Little did I know that I would get to witness not one, but ten rams meet Jesus.

I tried liver for the first time, which wouldn't be such a big deal had the ram's dead body not been lying in front of me as I ate a piece of its liver.

I was flashed by a crazy man while walking down the main road in Basse, and couldn't think straight for the rest of the day.


That pretty much catches you up on what has been going on in my world.  The past two months have been a bit of a roller coaster with highs of celebrating our 50th anniversary and lows of dealing with corporal punishment.  If you'd like to hear about any event/first in more detail, please feel free to write and I'll gladly tell you everything.  I hope this post finds all of you well and making many firsts of your own.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Day Worth Writing About


     “Isa! Samake! Dinka!” Mariama skipped the usual morning greetings as she excitedly told me about a big snake.

     “Mina?”

     “Doke,” she said with a pointing finger.  I gritted my teeth and scrunched my face while shaking my head to show I wasn’t a fan. 

     “Ma laahi samake.”

     “Samake karra,” she said sticking out her tongue and slitting her throat with her finger.  This motion is done any time they tell me something has died, even if it’s a person.  Relieved the big snake was dead, curiosity took over; I wanted to see what is considered a big snake in Africa.  I was not prepared for what I saw…

     The snake was bigger than big.  Its length was well over my height.  I’m guessing it was a good 10 feet or so… definitely the size of a snake that belongs in a zoo.  As I took in the size of the samake dinka in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder where in the world it was found.  Asking, I found out it was captured and killed near the mosque.  Where’s the mosque?  Right behind my house!  Oh, dear Lord, please help me…

     Snapping a few quick photos, I had to be on my way so I wouldn’t be late for the 8:20 start of school.  The energy that was created in the morning from seeing the snake was carried throughout the day as I observed in classrooms and realized how much work I have to do.  Contemplating how to introduce alternative methods of discipline, I made my way home.  My night was like any other until I went in for bed.



     Needing to reflect on all I had seen that day, I sat down to journal in my dimly lit hut.  Just as I was recording the size of the phython-wanna-be-anaconda snake I had seen that day, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye.  Frightened, I shined my headlamp in the direction of the movement.  I’m not sure what the noise was that came from me, but I was sure that I saw a mouse.  I flew off my chair and ran for the front door. 

     Now, I know that I am much bigger than a mouse, and I shouldn’t be afraid of them, but those suckers are fast and their movement is completely unpredictable.  Thus, I went to find my host father to take care of the job.  He was no where to be found, but luckily I ran into Mohamed, a 24 year old and one of the only 3 English speakers in my compound.  He came in with an attempt to save the day, but the mouse was smart and ran behind my bookcase into a hole and out of reach.  

     Exiting my hut with Mohamed, he said we could try again in the morning, and that he hoped I could sleep through the night.  Offering him no reassurance, I slowly entered my hut, cautious of where I stepped.  I could feel the presence of the mouse, and quickly gained sight of it once more.  It was on my chair!  “Okay, that does it,” I thought to myself.  The mouse was crawling up my stuff, and I’d had enough.  Reciting, “I’m a big girl,” in my mind, I developed a plan.

     I noticed the mouse would take off anytime light was shined in its direction.  Turning off the lights, I hopped on my bed (for some reason I felt safer up there), propped open my back door with my bamboo stool and waited.  Sure enough, the little stinker snuck out the back, and I shut the door behind him with a feeling of triumph. 

     As I tucked my mosquito netting around my bed, I couldn’t help but to laugh at myself.  It had been quite the day.  My giggles soon faded as it dawned on me… snakes eat mice.  Saying an extra prayer, I was able to drift off, ready to take on whatever Africa had in store for me next.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My First Day of School


7:00 a.m.  My un-needed alarm goes off.  The 5 o’clock call for prayer from the blaring speakers attached to the mosque directly behind my compound had already done the trick; that and the screaming donkeys, crowing roosters, and women pounding.  Good morning, Africa.

7:10 a.m.  I fire up my gas stovetop to make my daily cup of oatmeal.  After reaching the perfect consistency, I add a little peanut butter and honey, and think to myself that I can happily eat this for two years.  It’s heavenly.

7:40 a.m.  Time for my first day of school outfit.  It’s nothing too fancy, just a flowered wrap skirt I had made in training village with a matching tika (head wrap).  I put on my new necklace that was sent from my cousin.  It’s leather braided adorned with a globe next to a peace sign.  World Peace.  I love it.  I’m ready.
"World Peace"  Thank you, Lauren!
8:00 a.m.  I make my way outside for my morning greetings turning more heads than usual in my yirame (wrap skirt).  “An wujam.  Hotora ma wuyi?”  Here we go…

8:10 a.m. I notice Bintu, my 16-year-old host sister, pounding and wonder what the deal is.  Just yesterday she had told me she was going to school, and that she was going to be in grade 5.

“Bintu, I thought you were going to school,” I say with a puzzled look on my face.
“I have no uniform.”
“You can’t go to school without a uniform?”
“I don’t go.  I have no uniform,” she repeats.
“Why don’t you have a uniform?”
“Money.  The money is no good.”

Hmm… I know this isn’t the case.  I see Bintu get dolled up on a nightly basis to make her appearance at the football games.  Then they serve free juice with condensed milk to the football players at half time.  They certainly have enough money for a uniform, and Bintu is always the one coming to me with a notebook asking me to teach her, so I know she wants to be there.  I need to get to the bottom of this.

8:15 a.m. Those in uniform gather around me. ONLY FOUR OF YOU!?!?!  What?!?!  There are a bizillion kids in my compound and only four are going to school???  
Nyima, Binta, Mo Mo, and Hawa, my siblings
8:20 a.m. We arrive at school and the kids take off in different directions as I go to greet the 3 out of 12 teachers that have reported for duty.  I’m informed the head master has not arrived.  This has been an on-going issue. 

The headmaster, who I met at the supervisor workshop and who I’ve been in touch with the most has been moved from Demba Kunda to another school by the ministry of education.  He doesn’t want to go, nor does the community want him to leave so he is trying to fight it.  However, in the meantime, this means that no one is in charge at the school.  I’m not sure where the headmaster that was assigned to our school is, but he’s not here, so that means it’s more like a zoo than a school.

8:25 a.m. I unlock the library to retrieve a chair to sit down next to a second year teacher who is finishing his credential so he can become a qualified teacher.  As I’m exiting the library another teacher makes his way over to peak in, and then says, “Isa, come.”  He wants me to know that I should keep the windows locked when I’m not there or else kids will reach in and tamper or possibly steal the books.  Something about the way he states it makes me become a bit defensive.  As I look over to the currently locked windows I tell him, “Yes, I know that’s why I have them locked right now.”  He responds, “Yes, but you being a woman, you might forget.” 


8:35 a.m. Students form lines in their grade levels from shortest to tallest and the morning assembly begins.  Most of the children are glancing at the strange toubab in the back rather than listening to the facts that there is no headmaster, and that there are only 3 teachers.  After they briefly introduce me, the strange toubab, the students are instructed to make their way to their classrooms and help clean up the filth that has collected over the summer.  I watch kids take off in all directions, and can’t imagine that this going to go well.

8:45 a.m.  I peak into the ECD (Early Childhood Development) classroom to find 30 plus 4 year olds unattended.  Holy chaos.  Some are crying, probably because of previously being whacked by another, while others climb on the limited furniture in the room.

9:00 a.m.  Children are littered all over the place.  One teacher sits as another directs the older schoolgirls to start sweeping the courtyard. 

9:15 a.m.  The second year teacher walks over to me and says, “Isa, let’s have breakfast.”  I politely decline his offer.  I already ate breakfast.  In America, we generally do that before we come to school, unless our school is on a special program where the students eat breakfast in school, but that’s not the case here. 

9:20 a.m.  With children still wandering all over the place, I glance down to the world peace necklace my cousin sent and sigh.  There sure is a lot of work to be done in this world.

9:35 a.m.  Boys start joining in on the cleaning by weeding the garden beds.

9:45 a.m.  I’m elated to see Amara and Fatoumata, two more children from my compound, show up.  I ask Amara to show me his classroom by reaching for his little hand and showing him I want him to lead me.  He takes me to the ECD classroom, and I have to fight every urge in my body to get the class together and start teaching them.  I’m here to observe.  I don’t want to step on any toes, and I need to talk to the headmaster about my role in the school before getting down to business.  If only we had a headmaster…
Amara
9:48 a.m.  It sounds like someone is tearing something down in the grade 2 room.  I hear loud banging noises coming from that direction.  I’m afraid to go see what’s happening.  I see the second year teacher walk back onto school grounds.  He must be done with his breakfast.

9:52 a.m.  The teacher that led the morning assembly rings the school bell and orders the students to return to their classrooms.  A mad rush is made by some, while others take their time making their way back to their room where no one awaits them. 

10:00 a.m.  The second year teacher and the other 2 teachers that have reported to school begin their classes.   Grade 5 and 6 are combined into one classroom since the grade 6 teacher isn’t there.  The two rooms of ECD students, grade 1B, and grade 2 and 3 are still unattended. 

10:20 a.m.  Maha, Amara’s father, shows up on his motorbike and decides to take Amara home since school isn’t really going on.  He doesn’t seem surprised or upset by this.  He is certain that tomorrow there will be school.  I inquire about Bintu and it seems as though not having a uniform is not the problem.  From my conversation with Maha, I gather that Bintu’s role in the compound is to work, so although she has the desire to learn, she is stuck pounding, sweeping, and cooking.  

10:30 a.m.  I decide that I’ve seen enough.  I head home contemplating my next steps.  I’ve certainly got some adjusting to do, but can clearly see that I can be used here.  Up next... choosing battles.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Desire to Understand


     My curtains are up, my mat is on the floor, and my pictures of the home people (meaning you all in the good ol’ U.S. of A.) are hung.  I’m all settled into my thatch roof hut, and oddly enough, it feels like home.  With only a little over a week under my belt, I’ve already made a few trips to the school, visited the hospital, attended 4 football matches, traveled to Basse multiple times, and done my best to become a part of the Sahoneh family.

     In attempt to understand my overwhelmingly large family better, I started to create a family tree.  I know that I still have family members missing from my tree, because I’ll see someone and have no idea who they are, but from the 60 that are accounted for I have found out many interesting things.  For instance, my host mother, Chao has 8 children, 5 whom live in the compound.  I also was informed that she and her co-wife, Binta, are widows.  When I asked the name of their husband, I was barked at by a 20 some year old boy in the compound who told me not to write down his name.  With my head nearly bitten off, I didn’t ask any more questions about their deceased husband, so I have no idea how he passed, and I imagine it will remain that way for a while because my Sarahule is fairly limited.

     I also learned that many family members, at least 18 that I know of, live outside of the compound, which is relayed with a pointing finger and a word that starts with s.  These members range from husbands to wives to children.  Again, with limited Sarahule I’m not sure if this means they live around the corner, in another village, or another country. 

     For the most part, I take the language barrier with a grain of salt.  I’m able to express my basic needs such as n laahi jii, translated I need water, and I can tell my family where I’m going and when I’ll be back, but there was one day that I found it particularly frustrating that I couldn’t understand.

     After I had made my round of morning greetings to all 60 some members saying, “An wujam (Good morning). Hotora ma wuyi (How did you sleep)? Hotora sun tiya (Hope there is no trouble). Maajam (Peace only),” repetitively, my host-mother and sister, Fatoumata came to my door to say they were going to the hospital.  As they stood there, I realized this meant I was going too.  Locking up, I didn’t know if we were just going to see the hospital, but noticing Fatoumata was carrying a bowl of food on her head, I could only assume we were going to visit someone.

     The hospital was like many depicted on tv… crowded rooms, flies buzzing all over, no doctors to be seen.  As my heart started to sink, it full on plummeted when we made our way to the back room to find a 10 month old baby boy, the reason for our visit.  His eyes were sunken in, the skin was sagging off his tiny legs, and his spine jetted out from his back.  His baby belly poked out displaying his malnutrition, as I read the doctor’s chart, “Severe anorexia, high fever, lesions in mouth.”  It was followed by a list of medical terms, foreign to me, and that’s when the wish to understand washed over me.  I sat quietly for most of our hour visit, taking in as much as I could.  Chao made an attempt to explain to me what had happened to the child.  I heard the words “kombo,” meaning breast, and “suggu” meaning to suck, so I inferred that for one reason or another the little guy was suffering because his mother was unable to breast feed him.  BUT WHY!?!?!

     I asked Hawa, a 16 year old identical twin who was moved from the Bronx by her parents when she was 14 (their story is a blog post in itself that I will have to okay with them first), if she could ask Fatoumata about the boy, but she was unable to relay any new information to me.

     The desire to understand is what drives me each day.  From education, to the dynamics of the family, to football, to the language, to the American girls, to the health care, I want to understand!!!  As I learn more, I will be sure to share my findings.  If there is anything you are interested in learning, please don’t hesitate to ask.  After all, we're in this together.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Phase One is Done

The 13aker's Dozen and our PCVL, Jen, at the swearing-in ceremony.
     The babying and hand holding is over!  As of September 2nd, the 13aker’s Dozen may no longer be considered trainees.  We’ve become true, legit VOLUNTEERS!  (Yeeaaaaah Buddy!)  So what happens next?  Here’s the answer:

     On the 5th, we will again take the bumpy ride in the land cruiser across the country, and we’ll be dropped off at our permanent sites to fend for ourselves.  We have been assigned a 3-month challenge to stay at our site as much as possible and have been given various tasks for each month. 

     In September, we are expected to turn our houses into homes.  This has different meanings for each of us considering some are placed in city houses with electricity, and others (like myself) are out in the middle of nowhere living in round mud huts.  So while Eduardo is hooking up his refrigerator in Brikama, and others are plugging in their fans, I’ll be trying to figure out how to hang a mosquito net from a tree to create an outdoor sleeping area.

     After making our homes livable, our next step is to venture out and get to know our communities, meet the leaders, and find our go-to’s.  The Peace Corps has stressed time and time again the importance of building relationships.  If we want to create sustainable projects, we must become one with our communities, make friends, gain trust, show them we care and that we are here to help. 

     With the community on our side, we then get to the good stuff… SCHOOL!  During the months of October and November, we are asked to take in as much as we can, observe everything and access the school’s needs while we search out our future counterparts.  The Peace Corps doesn’t want us to start any projects during this time, because history has shown those who do don’t end up carrying out their plans.  It makes sense… the more thought you put into something, the more likely it is to succeed.

     I can admit that I am nervous about all that is to come, and the pressure I put on myself to succeed does give me spells of anxiety here and there, but I’m excited too because I finally get to see things for myself.  For the past two months, we’ve been told many things about culture, education, and the way things are done in The Gambia, but I’ve held off sharing those facts because the majority of them have been second-hand.  Now, I can tell it like it is, and you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth!  My hopes are that this blog can be less about me, and more about Africa.  May we all learn together.  J

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Site Visit

     Overwhelmed, shocked, confused, alone, curious, lacking, humbled, content.  Welcome to my emotional rollercoaster of my site visit to Demba Kunda. 
     
     It all started with a seven and half hour drive in a Toyota Land Cruiser.  There were a couple of points where I was sure we wouldn’t make it.  Jon, our driver, was blazing through potholes the size of Sudan at 80 kmph, each one feeling as though it was part landmine.  I was sure we would lose a tire and end up stranded on the side of the road, but I’m guessing there’s a reason land cruisers are always featured roughing the terrains through the unknown.  Closing in on my village (aka the middle of nowhere), I came to find that Jon didn’t know where he was going when he asked me to call my supervisor and get directions.  Mr. Manneh didn’t answer, so we went the old fashioned route asking community members along the way where the Sahoneh’s compound was located.
     
     Pulling up, children swarmed the car, as the women and men sized me up from the side of the road. School committee members were seated and ready to greet me, but Mr. Manneh was rushed through introductions by my LCF, who was ready to be on her way.
    
    The town paraded to my compound, where they showed me where I’ll be living for the next two years, a round mud hut with a thatch roof.  Not quite what I envisioned myself in when I pictured my home at the age of 30, but it will do.  15 elders filled my hut, ignoring American culture and privacy, as the idea of my own space slipped away.  Refusing Mr. Manneh’s requests to sit down, (I had been sitting knees embedded into the seat in front of me for half the day), I expressed my desire to relax and the need to relieve myself. (Who wants to go in the bush when you don’t have to?)
     
     He said his goodbyes, and left me to my hut and business.  You would think I would have rushed back to my hole in the ground, but instead I rushed to my phone and texted, “Can you call?” to my go-to, my mama.  Aware of the dangers of taking objects to the pit, I waited, but heard no word.  Hmph, “just me,” I thought.
    
     Luckily, the day before I had received the most wonderful gift ever filled with encouraging letters from 5th grade students at Central Elementary (THANK YOU, ANGELA GAVIGAN!), so I was prepared for this.  Joana comforted me by saying, “Don’t give up.  You're the best.  You can do this.  Central believes in you.”  Laysha encouraged me with, “You can make it, accomplish it!”  Milot wrote, “I heard you got homesick, but we will always be with you,” and Luz stated, “I will follow your example.”  Straight to a girl’s heart, I tell ya!  Tears flowed as I read through the children’s comments.  Their sincerity struck my soul.  I wiped away my much-needed tears, and followed Laysha’s advice by saying, “I can do it.  I can do it.”  Angela had inquired about the arrival of the package a week or so earlier, and I really think the big man held on to it a bit longer knowing exactly when it should come.
     
     With eleven year olds belief empowering me, I began the climb on the emotional rollercoaster.  I wish I could go through all of my emotions and what sparked them, but that would turn this post into a novel.  With so much to take in, I thought it’d be better to simply make a list of observations, and then you can begin to picture my village and how I might feel in it.

Observations:

-      My hut is located in the center of the village.
-      My window is located next to where the horses and donkeys are kept.  There is a pile of manure directly below it.
-      My bathroom is next to the main street of the village.
-      Crickets live in thatch roofs, so do spiders, and who knows what else.
-      6 houses and families make up my compound.
-      There are too many people in the compound to count.  It is somewhere between 60 and 100.
-      Intermarriage is present.  (Cousins are married.)
-      I make children, under the age of two, cry hysterically.
-      There is a tap next to my compound.
-      The market is across the street.  They sell bananas!
-      The school is on the edge of the village. 
-      There is a clinic near the school.
-      The mosque (which means loud speakers that call for prayer 5 times a day) is located behind my compound.
-      The compound across the main street has current! (Electricity!)

     Sorry for the lack of detail, but that’s just me adjusting to The Gambia.  Things are much simpler here. J
My new backyard

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"It's a hard knock life"

     Yesterday was a really tough day for two reasons...
     Here's the first:
     The morning had started off great.  I had walked over to Ida's to find a baby kitten that couldn't have been more than a few weeks old.  It was ADORABLE!  After admiring it, petting it, holding it, and of course taking pictures of it, I started to realize that this kitten was left to fend for itself.  Meowing fervently in search of its mother, and despite our attempts to feed it rice pouridge, it would not eat.
     Ida saw that the kitten was beginning to distract us from her lesson, spouted off some words in Mandinka to her house mother, and the kitten was swept away and chucked over the barbwire fence into the neighbor's compound.  My jaw dropped, my heart sank, as I continued to listen to the poor thing meow it's little heart out.
The kitten that stole my heart

     I wish I could say the episode ended here, but it continued... After lunch, we took a break and I walked back to my compound to use the facilities.  During my walk I heard something rustling in the bush.  "KITTEN?!?" I meowed in hopes to hear a response, and later regretted doing so.  The tiny kitten meowed back and peeked its head out as it struggled to climb over a log.
     Seeing it was still battling for its life, I ran back to Ida's compound to get a chicken bone from our lunch bowl.  I conferred with Casey on whether feeding the kitten was good or bad considering no one else would, but knew its little meows would haunt me if I didn't.  Taking Casey and the chicken bone, I walked back over to where I last saw the kitten.  Again, I meowed and it called back.  Following the meows, I located the kitten.  In only a glance, I saw the back half of it mangled, and quickly turned my head while setting down the chicken bone.  Dying inside, because there was nothing I could do to help it, there is no vet, and Gambians (in general) do not care about cats, I turned away with a broken heart, only to have it shatter more when coming across yet another kitten fighting for its life along the side of the road.  I, again, ran back to the food bowl to grab some more chicken and fed the white matted ball of fur while swatting at the hovering flies.  I was pleased to see it eat the remaining meat off the bone, but knew it would probably be the last of the kitten's meals.
     As I was on the verge of tears, Casey quickly recalled an article he had read about soldiers who would play games after traumatic situations they had encountered.  Studies had shown that soldiers who would play games after the trauma were less likely to suffer from PST.  Not wanting the poor kittens' cries to haunt us, we returned to Ida's compound for an hour of our usual card game with a naughty name (I'll call it poop-head since I'm unaware of my audience), and we tried our best to get lost in the cards.
     The second:
     That same night, I returned to my compound to sit outside with my family as the sun disappeared and the stars littered the sky.  Nema, Isa, and I started singing our compilation of English and Gambian songs and we all sat enjoying one of our last nights together.  Little did I know that during this time, anger was brewing in Mariama.  It all came out as she shouted furiously at Isa in words I couldn't understand.  Isa's smile disappeared, as she suddenly became still in her chair.  Moments later, Mariama's open hand met the side of Isa's face with such force you would have thought that Mariama trained with Manny Pacquiao.  Isa sank her face into her hands, as shock took over me, and silence settled into the rest.  I couldn't imagine what Isa could have done to deserve such a blow, and after a conversation back and forth with myself about my place in the family, I decided to ask Papa Foday what she had done.  He informed me that Isa had been asked to wash the bowls, and had neglected to do so.  Guilt set in as I realized she was probably trying to soak up one of her last nights with me.
     In the same day, I experienced two things that are the hardest for me to deal with... the treatment of animals and the disciplinary actions used toward children.  As I sat underneath the African sky trying to make sense of it all, I witnessed my second shooting star, and thanks to Michael Stanley, remembered to make a wish.  My wish:  God to use me to model how animals should be treated and alternative ways to discipline children, to stay with me in these difficult times, and to guide and lead me to know when to speak up and when to keep my mouth shut.
     

"Isa, you no eat."

     Since the beginning of August, the start of Ramadan, my family has tried to fatten me as if I were a turkey they were preparing for Thanksgiving.  Every morning, I am fed a loaf of bread that is at least a foot long.  It usually contains one of four things: mayonaise, butter, fried eggs, or pasta with potatoes.  Butter and mayo are my least favorite fillings, but the other two are pretty darn good.
Starch overload!
     At lunch, a food bowl is prepared by a cook that is paid by the Peace Corps.  This is typicaly the best meal of the day and when I eat the most.  Casey and I first ate like the Gambians by using our hands, but we quickly grew tired of being a mess and reverted back to using spoons.  Some of my favorite lunch dishes include: Benechin (a spicy rice dish), Domada (a peanut sauce over rice), and Chicken Yassa (a oniony tangy sauce served over noodles or I'm sure you can guess... rice).
Chicken Yassa 
     While I'm eating my weight in rice, my family is fasting.  They wake up at 5 a.m. to eat breakfast and don't eat or drink again until the sun goes down.  7:40ish is when they will break their fast.  Although I'm not fasting this year, (I feel as though leaving America, my family and friends was enough of a statement of my love for God for 1 year) I am still served as though I haven't eaten since 5. 

     First, I'm given half a loaf of bread with one of the stuffings I mentioned earlier along with a cup of tea that is loaded with so much sugar that my tooth is now "paining me."  It isn't rare for mangoes to be served with the break of the fast, which would almost make a complete meal in my world, but definitely not in the Gambian realm of things.  An hour later, I'm served a bowl full of rice that comes with a variety of sauces (the tastiest is an onion sauce, that my family doesn't seem to have a name for.)

     It is standard that I will eat exactly half of my bowl and then take it back out for my family to finish.  As I walk out the bowl is covered, and I'm automatically greeted by, "Isa, you no eat!"  I say, "Yes, I did eat.  Look!"  They uncover the bowl, shake their heads in disapproval and again say, "Isa, you no eat."  A hint of frustration overcomes me, and my Gambian English comes out, "I eat," or "I do eat," spills out of my mouth.  I puff out my stomach to make the biggest food baby possible.  This makes them laugh, and they give in by accepting my leftovers.  I make my way to my room saying good night to all.  Nema tells me to sleep well, and I tell her sweet dreams, even though I know she doesn't understand the word dream, yet.  I cover my bed with my princess like mosquito net, and go to sleep with my food baby to wake up and go through the ritual once more.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Top 10 Changes I've made since living in Africa

I read many books before coming to Africa in order to prepare for the many changes I would have to make.  Because there are too many to mention, I decided to make a top ten list...

10. I eat rice for lunch and dinner, every day.
9.  I ride a bike when I need to get somewhere.
8.  I wash my clothes by hand.
7.  I haven't washed my spoon once.  I lick it clean every day.
6.  I conserve water like nobody's business.
5.  I go outside to get cool.
4.  I travel 3 km to use electricity.
3.  I use a light attached to my head to see at night.
2.  I let spiders live in my house.
Alfred
and number 1...  I accidentally pee on my foot at least once a day.

So, I may be exaggerating a bit on number one with the once a day business, but it does happen, and I don't enjoy it.  Any suggestions on how to pee straight are welcome.  :)

Friday, July 29, 2011

They're lizards!!!

I am relieved to report that rats are not dancing on my roof.  They're lizards!  I saw one for myself!  As I came into my room and opened my backdoor to let some light in, the little guy scurried up my wall and back into the ceiling.  There is this weird plasticy papery material that hangs from the ceiling, and I swear it is their dance floor at night.  Crazy lizards.  For some reason, I feel better now that I know they are lizards and not rats.  Now, I can sleep in peace. :)

Monday, July 25, 2011

"That's just the way it is, baby."

     After living here for almost a month, I had gathered a small amount of trash that I had no idea what to do with.  I asked Isa what I should do with the trash, and that led to a parade of my host siblings and I out to the trash heap across the dirt road that leads to our compound.  As I started to dump the contents of the black plastic bag, I watched my brothers' and sisters' eyes light up.  They quickly dove for the plastic containers that had previously held my mosquito-be-gone bands, as well as the poppy packaging that surrounded the water filter I received from the Peace Corps.  What was I THINKING?!?! Even I loved popping those things!
     This scenario quickly made me readjust my ideas of trash.  If I have something that I don't want children to get their hands on like the floss picks I use every morning, then they are tossed in my pit latrine.  However, this again, makes you rethink the products you use.
     Unlike America, you actually see where the trash goes, because you put it there, and that's where it stays.  I had been holding onto a Coca-Cola can that Ida's husband brought as a selefando (traveling gift), because I couldn't make myself throw it on the ground.  Again, I asked Isa what to do with it, and in minutes it was transformed into a musical toy that made echo and crinkly noises. 
     When you walk the streets of The Gambia, you will see them littered with trash.  I watch, brokenheartedly, as our trainers will eat a piece of candy and without thinking throw the wrapper over their shoulder.  This is what they were brought up doing and is simply how things are done.
     I asked Ida, my LCF, to explain the trash system to me, and she told me that in the cities the municipal council is responsible for collecting trash.  They should collect trash at least once a week, but I've yet to see this or a trash can for that matter.  She also informed me that there is a National Environment Agency that has set fines for littering, but those are obviously not enforced. 
     In the villages, there is a designated pit for trash.  You can burn items that are flammable, but the rest just sits there.  I still have a couple of items sitting on my shelf that I haven't been able to place in the pit; an aluminum insect repellent spray can, and  a recyclable plastic pill case.  I'm hoping that while I'm adjusting to the Gambian lifestyle, I can help a Gambian or two make some adjustments in this area as well.  It only takes one...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Good Day

     Yesterday had to be one of the best days ever.  It all started with word from my mom that my aunt is planning a trip to Barcelona in December.  I woke up thinking, "5 months and 1 day.  You can do this." My day continued to get better when Casey, my fellow Sarahulligan (nickname courtesy of Duncan), returned from the med center.  He had a 102 degree temperature and a bacterial infection in his throat that gave him a ticket to air conditioning, a hot shower, and the luxury of watching multiple movies and Simpsons episodes back to back.  With him gone, I got a little taste of what it will be like in my permanent site when there are no "toubabs" (white people) around.  Quickly, I realized how much I enjoy having companionship.  Although I was able to read an entire book in a day, I was delighted to see him come back and even more happy to see him carrying chocolate! 
     It was my first fix since being in Africa and it was A-MA-ZING.  Nuts and all!  That could of made my day alone, because after all, it's the little things, but it continued to get better.
     Shortly after going to chocolate heaven and back, my dad called to catch up and informed me he was sending me a package.  Boy, were the heavens smiling down on me or what?!?  He topped that by calling later just to say he loved me, causing me to wear a permanent smile for the rest of the day.
    Feeling loved, I stepped out of my kompe (house) to carry out one of my TDAs (Trainee Directed Activitys) by shadowing one of my host mothers.  At least, I thought I was going to be shadowing her.  Turns out, one of the advantages of polygamy is multiple children who can work for you.
    I started by sweeping the dirt with my host sister, Nema, who is 7.  Sounds silly, but it really needs to be done.  Throughout the day, the family throws anything and everything anywhere they please whether it be the skin of a mango, batteries, or leaves they've plucked from the trees.  After cleaning the mess and depositing it into its designated area, I began to help Awa wash the dishes.

    We had 3 large buckets, one used for washing, another for rinsing, and the last to place the clean dishes.  Awa went to town on the bowls with a device that you would never think could do the job.  It kind of looked like a kitchen lady's hair net gone bad or a lofa that had seen a million and one better days.  But with a bit of extra sand from the ground for scrubbing, she got the job done.  I was the rinser, and watched, a tad disgusted, as the rinsing water turned a murky grey.  Nema had said that's how it was done, so I obliged, and stuck to my job.  Meanwhile, Mariama, the one who I thought I was shadowing, sat, stood a little, and watched.  Thankfully, during her monitoring duties, she came over to tell Nema to bring up clean water from the well to rinse the dishes one last time.  Whew!
     With much relief that the dishes I have been eating off of for the past month have been cleaned thoroughly, I thought I would then get to see Mariama cook.  Instead, translated through Nema, I was told I needed to wait for Isa to return from Arabic school and then Isa would start the cooking.
     Minutes later, Isa came strolling in wearing her black hijab, a smile on her face, and the cooking comminced.  She left the compound momentarily to gather brush to start the fire.  She neatly placed it between 3 large rocks, accurately positioned to support a pot, and lit 2 matches to get it burning.  She added salt to the water, which made me smile, realizing somethings are universal.
Family Kitchen
     The rice was done in no time.  Isa drained it a ladel at a time, and then we sat in plastic lawn chairs and followed our nightly routine of singing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," "The Hokey Pokey,""Do Do Somondola,""Ela Ela ee,"among many others.
     As I looked up at the African sky filled with stars, I couldn't help but to feel blessed.  My day was filled with love and enlightenment.  Here's to hoping they all are...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Purpose

     Sunday, July 9th was our naming ceremony.  We were taken to the alkala’s, or the head of the village’s, compound.  As we were sat front and center, women and men gathered around and watched a man take a razor to our head.  In normal naming ceremonies the baby’s head is shaved, but not to worry I’m still rockin’ golden locks.

     I was the last to go out of the 5 volunteers stationed in Mariama Kunda.  Many knew their names ahead of time, however my papa chose to keep it as a surprise.  With much anticipation, my papa announced that I will now be called Isa Jammeh, after my host sister.  Apparently, I was not the only one who had noticed our connection. 
     
     Isa is just the first of many people I am connecting with in The Gambia.  Connections are one of the most important aspects of Gambian culture.  It has been reinforced many times that if we want our work to be successful here we must first build relationships with the members of the community we live in.  Speaking of… today I found out where I will be spending the next two years of my life!  I will be living in a Sarahule community called Demba Kunda, about 10 km south of Basse.  I received a site profile that gave me this information:

Job description:
-       work with teachers to develop more interactive teaching methods
-       work with early grade teachers, in particular developing their skills in literacy, but with general    
     support to other subjects
-       observe teaching and learning situations, give feedback
-       co-plan and co-teach with counterparts
-       organize staff development and teaching and learning aid development sessions
-       promote positive discipline and classroom management methods

Comments on location:
     A small, well kept LBS (Lower Basic School) located south of Basse in a large Sarahule community, although few children from this tribe attend school.  The village is large but barely visible because it rests in a small valley.  Basse is close by and there is a medical clinic with an ambulance in the village.  The school has young, energetic and active leadership with clear direction to improve the school.  The classrooms are full of teaching aids and they have some very good ECD (Early Childhood Development) resources.  The DHT (District Head Teacher) is the ECD teacher, seems to be doing a good job, and could be a good counterpart.  There is a library that the previous volunteer did a great deal of work to develop and showed teachers how to integrate the library and its resources into their teaching.  The site development team noticed a few sticks in the classrooms, so alternative discipline is a topic that the PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) could work on with the school staff.
           
     When speaking with Linda, my program manager, she told me that she knew my placement was not going to be easy.  Education is not valued or looked at as a priority in the community, so it will be my job to encourage children to attend school and get them excited about learning.   She also informed me that I was chosen for this community with another project in mind.  In May, two 15-year old girls, who had been raised in the Bronx, were moved by their parents to live with their family in Demba Kunda.  Experiencing similar culture shock, they are hoping I can reach out to the two.  One is said to be having a much harder time with the transition than the other. 

      On a daily basis, I remind myself that this is not about me, and I hope that my family and friends understand that.  If my life was about me, I’d be right next to you all.  Going to lunch with my mom, taking fishing trips with my dad, visiting my aunt in Wichita, camping with my brother, rocking out at concerts with my cousin, watching movies, eating El Mez with Missy and Lex, playing beach volleyball with my friends in S.D., teaching at Central, sitting in air conditioned buildings, putting ice in my drinks, and how could I not mention sitting on a toilet rather than squatting over a hole in the ground.  All of that sounds pretty fabulous, but I feel as though I have a duty to fulfill here in Africa, and it’s really nice to finally see that laid before me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

"It's been one week since you looked at me."

     I woke up in the middle of the night from another mefloquine induced nightmare.  This time Hannibal Lecter was out to eat me.  I could still hear, "Hello, Lacy," in his satonic voice, so I closed off all my windows and connections to breeze and light and again curled up in bed.
     The day before, my host father, Papa Foday, asked me how I slept.  I told him there were a few noises that kept me up at night.  His response, "Oh... the rats."  THE RATS!?!?  It sounded like A PERSON was walking on the roof.  I have yet to see one, and I'm hoping it stays that way.
     While rats are my least favorite animal here, baby goats are my favorite.  Walking down the streets you will also see dogs, chickens, donkeys, voltures, guinea hens, lizards, pigs, and a few cats.
     I do enjoy being surrounded by wildlife, but I have to admit when I was first walking up the dirt road to my compound I had a near breakdown.  "What in the world am I doing? Am I crazy?" and "I want my MAMA!" all ran through my head.  Thank God, for my fellow volunteer Casey.  If it wasn't for him I would've broken into tears.  We cleared our minds by playing cards and fetching each other's water together. 
     When I was finally ready to return to my compound the children's smiling faces put me at ease.  Isa, my host sister who is in 4th grade explained in broken English how happy she was to see me walking up.  My thoughts immediately changed as I began to brainstorm ways I can be a benefit to her.  As I taught her the hokey pokey and sang, "That's what it's all about," I focused on service.  THAT IS what it's all about. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Let's Twist Again.


Casey and I had a little twist thrown into our day…  We learned that we are the first permanent class in Sarahule, thus there isn’t a Sarahule training site yet.  This means that he and I are going to be staying with a Mandinka family and traveling to another village during the day to practice our Sarahule with a different family.  This also means that we’ve been given the challenge of learning two languages!  We won’t have to learn Mandinka completely, but enough to communicate with our training host family.  

Other exciting news is that we received our mode of transportation… bikes!!!  We will be biking back and forth from our training village to Yuna in order to have training sessions with the rest of the volunteers.
It all starts tomorrow… and the only thing I can think is, “Here we go now, here we go now…”  (A little Naughty by Nature for those of you that are wondering. J)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Y.M.C.A. (Get it? The Village People.) :)


We learned where we will be going for our training villages today!!!  I have been selected to go to Mariana Kunda along with one other volunteer, named Casey.  Up until this point we have been learning Mandinka (spoken by 40% of the population), Pulaar, and Wolof (the other common languages spoken throughout The Gambia), but Casey and I will be learning Sarahule and starting from scratch!  He and I are taking it as a compliment and are ready for the challenge! 

And so the journey begins…

Break it down, break it dow-oooown


     The past few days have been quite eventful to say the least.  The morning after my malaria pill induced dream we arose to be injected with rabies and hepatitis vaccines.  Shortly after, Baboucar, a Gambian LCF (Language and Culture Facilitator) and a mini Dave Chapelle, taught us how to bathe with a bucket and how to use a pit latrine… sound effects and all.  Apparently, it is important to lock your screen door when doing your business.  If someone from the village calls for you, you should make a loud noise as though you are clearing your throat and that will let them know that you are busy.  Ohh… the fun I’m in for. J 
    
     Finishing the training day off we discussed norms and values in each other’s cultures and common misconceptions.  The Gambian trainers were sent to a room to make a list of their concepts of the U.S. and we were sent to a room to do the same for The Gambia.  A few of their concepts of the U.S. were worth mentioning…

All Americans…
- are highly educated
- don’t lie or cheat
- can swim
- are Christian
- are on facebook
- have guns and may use them to fight if you mess with them
- are spies
- like people to do things their way.

Laughs were had all around, but I’m pretty sure they hit the nail on the head with the last one. 

     After being enlightened in more ways than one, we loaded up the bus and headed to Yuna, our group training site, aka a piece of heaven.  There is much to love about this place… the cashew trees, the oleander blossoms, the vibrant yellow and blue lizards, the mangoes, the snails the size of your hand, the torrential downpours, the sounds of crickets and birds being the only sounds, that vegetation is the only thing that obstructs the view of the sunset, and the people I’m with.

     They are fabulous.  As I told you, there are 13 of us, and yes, we call ourselves the Baker’s Dozen, or BDTG 11 just to add another acronym to the thousand existing in the Peace Corps.  We range from our 20’s to 40’s and come from many different backgrounds, yet we share a few things in common.  1) We all are here to help. 2) We have a hunger for growth and knowledge.  3) We like to have fun.

     If you had a chance to look at the pictures I posted on facebook, you may have seen the third commonality in full effect.  Ms. Cat went balls to the wall and decided to shave her pretty little head.  Being a group event, we each took turns slicing off hair here and there.  Cat took on many personalities in the process. I could see her dancing on stage with Bruce Springsteen when her hair was transformed into a mullet, being a heavy metal groupie with her mohawk, and last being hired as Demi Moore’s backup in G.I. Jane when she went 2 blade style and got completely buzzed. 

     Cat is not the only one that is buzzed.  We all, in fact, are rather buzzed, or maybe the more appropriate word is high.  High on life that is… Everyday we learn something new and exciting and it doesn’t stop.  We have the next 9 weeks scheduled to a T, which is why I’m taking the time to write now. 

Here is an overview of what we will be doing:

Week 1:  Move from Yuna to our Training Villages.

Week 2:  Extensive language training, practicing language with our host families, and our first language test on Saturday.

Week 3:  Our permanent site announcement, a shopping trip to Brikama market, and continued training across the board (technical, health, first aid, government, gardening, sexual assault awareness, etc.)

Week 4:  We have our mid-training evaluation and take a field trip to Gambia College.  Training seems to switch from language, cultural and survival to the technicalities of our assigned jobs.

Week 5:  Our second language test, and “Tech Blitz” days, where we configure lessons, discuss classroom management and team teaching strategies, as well as anything else that involves the technical side of our assignment.

Week 6:  We apply what we’ve learned in a model school.  Kind of like a practice run before doing the real thing at our final sites.

Week 7:  We meet our soon-to-be supervisor and get down to the nitty gritty for a few days and then have some fun in the marathon march (a long hike through the land/a reason to get incredibly dirty).

Week 8:  Visit our sites and have our final language test

Week 9:  Swear-in and become a Peace Corps Volunteer!!! Woot, woot!

     With all of that said, I have absolutely no idea when I will be able to access the internet again.  Considering there is no electricity in our training village, it will be quite tough to upload pictures to facebook.  However, they will come.  If there is one thing that anyone knows about me, it is that I am a documenting queen.  So please be patient, and in the meantime, rest assured that I am having the time of my life. 




Friday, July 1, 2011

It's 3 a.m. I must be lonely.

     I'm not really lonely, however it is 3 a.m., so those just happened to be the lyrics that popped into my head. Those of you that have spent any time with me know that this happens quite frequently.  Now, why in the world am I up at 3 a.m.??? DREAMS!  Or rather nightmares...
    
     First, let me describe my current sleeping situation.  I am in a 12 by 12 room that is lined by 4 sets of single bunk beds.  I called a bottom bunk.  On this bottom bunk, a slim floral mattress is covered by a lime green mosquito net.  The bunk above me is probably 2 feet away from my face...
  
      I find myself in a dark hole and I'm growing claustrophobic.  Struggling to get free from the presence that is suffocating me I manage to squeal, "Where am I?"  I feel a comforting hand coming towards me, as if it will free me from all that is tying me down.  I hear something... my name.  "HELP!"
    
     Laughter breaks through as Deb, my 42 year old colleague from Boston untangles me from the mosquito net, and my body shifts from being implanted into the wall.
    
      My interpretation:  The side effects of malaria pills are no joke, people.