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.

The Scoop

     Here’s the 411 on what has been going down.  From Chicago we (the 13 of us also known as the baker’s dozen) flew to Brussels.  We waited in the airport for 3 hours and then made our final journey to Banjul, where we were greeted by a tall Gambian man named Sherrif. We flocked under his Peace Corps sign and then Linda, the Program and Training manager, arrived and calmed any nerves we may have had with a huge hug and a grand smile.  After our greetings our first job was to obtain our luggage.  Standing by the conveyor belt and keeping an eye peeled, I spoke to an airport worker that continued to calm any of my nerves by repeatedly telling us that we were welcome in the country.  That feeling has only grown since. 
     For the past two days we have stayed in the transit house in Fajara.  It has 3 bedrooms, two bathrooms and wireless internet that chooses when it would like to work. The house itself looks as though something you would find in America.  The only thing that sets it apart is the fence that is topped with broken glass bottles to keep unwanted visitors out.
     I have now gone through one long day of training where we were taught things from how to change the tire on our bike to ways to stay safe in The Gambia.  Considering they can’t tell us everything in one day, there are still many things I don’t know.  For instance, I still don’t know what language I will learn how to speak, or what village I will be in.  However, here is what I do know:
     Accessing the internet will not be as easy as I thought.  The Peace Corps Headquarters once had wireless internet, but due to budget cuts, it now only contains 3 computers that allow internet access, which normally have a line for use.
     The mail run has also been changed to running once every 8 weeks rather than once every 4. 
     Here’s the good news… On Monday, we are receiving cell phones that are on a group plan for Peace Corps members.  We can call and text each other for free, and it gets even better…  When we receive calls from the states it is also FREE!  (For us that is).  It will cost on your end.  I’ve heard that Skype is the cheapest way to do so, and when I find out my number I will be sure to share it. 
     Last and certainly not least is how I feel about all of this.  It’s pretty simple.  I feel as though I’m where I’m supposed to be.  Period.  End of Sentence. J  So don’t worry, Mom!  Love you all!