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.


-      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.
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.  :)