Wednesday, June 25, 2008

We are home! Our experience already feels like a dream. Our trip to Ireland was absolutely gorgeous. It was 60 degrees, green, and the Guinness made you feel lucky to be alive. It has been pretty easy settling back into our comfortable lives of luxury: supermarkets, high-speed Internet, strawberries, avocados, driving, malls, credit cards, HBO, and sleeping in the A/C.

We are thankful that we have this blog to keep our memories alive. We feel as though we are still straddling two worlds, and The Gambia is fading fast. We called Aja a couple of days ago. It didn't feel like we were an ocean away. Just chatting about the weather, the kids, and how much we already miss each other. We hope our Mandinka stays sharp...

It took us no time to adjust to the cool mornings of 70 degrees. Whenever we are hot, it brings us back to those painful afternoons in Kerewan. I have no tolerance now for it; if I'm hot I run to the A/C, because I can! And don't tell the greenies, but I took the longest, most glorious hot shower!

With this adventure behind us now, we are in awe of how we made it out and still like each other. As we left, many people told us that we are the exception: a married couple completing a full two year service. A tough situation just makes a good couple great. But we couldn't have done this without the support of our family and friends. We want to take this space to show our deepest appreciation for your support, patience, listening ear, and humor. We can't wait to see all of you in person or hear your voices on the phone! It's our relationships that make all of this matter, so cheers to you!

Christmas in a Whorehouse

Jan. 13, 2008

by rachel
After the scars, we went way up river to most eastern city, Basse. It’s the wild west of The Gambia, where, even in the cold season, the afternoon is a blazing hot dusty mess. The main street is full of people, full of life, full of “others:” Sierra Leonians, Guineans, Nigerians, Senegalese, Jahonkas, Mauritainians. So we walk through the bustle in peace, in peace as just another “other.” We ebb and flow with the chaotic energy that cuts the exhausted sandy haze. We stop for delicious meat pies and frozen yogurt, true gems worth traveling 300 km up river for. MTV videos featuring beyonce, shaggy, 50 cent blare from the small TV perched on the counter next to the meat pie box. We watch, hypnotized by the flashy, loud, sex-ridden images – bombarded and overloaded.

The vibe of this far away town in tiny Gambia is refreshing, inspiring almost. It’s not until we walk just past the outskirts of “downtown,” that we get barraged by Gambian children, yelling "Toubab!: The peaceful daze cut short.

We came to Basse for Christmas and to hang and visit our fellow PCV, Evan. Saying he’s a cool guy is an understatement. We chill in his round thatched roof hut during the day, moving as little as possible to evade the heat. In the evening we set off to the main drag, about a 2 km walk. He leads us on a detour to one of the three hills in Basse. A hill! It was glorious to walk on an incline more than ten degrees. I looked down and saw corrugate roofs dotted with trees and mobile phone towers sheathed in the dirty haze laying low on the horizon. I felt the unfamiliar: elevated, far away, hidden.

Later we stop to eat chicken and spaghetti and then head to one of the local bars. So there we were, Christmas Eve, me and the guys, drinking the cheapest brandy, gin, and local beer, so cheap you feel a headache coming on before you even fall asleep. The place was crowded with middle aged men and much younger women. The bouncer was a stern old man with a stick. We sat, chatted, raised our glasses to another holiday that doesn’t feel like the holiday should.

During the dry season fires in the distance are common, but as we looked up to a mushroom cloud of black smoke coming from the market, we knew this wasn’t the usual trash fire. This one was close and grew fast. A mob of people filled the pot-holed streets and sprinted towards the action. We got up, left our drinks, and joined the rush; anything for some unscripted excitement. The fire blew through a cassette shop, the next store over, and then to the open air stalls just behind. We stood there right in front, mesmerized with the flames, as the firemen hastily dug in the ground for more water. But it’s the dry season and everything is crisp and parched, even under ground. I kept asking how the fire began. Arson? A cigarette? The pummel of flames reflected a deep orange in the stunned faces. We then stopped to think for the first time since joining the mob running towards an out of control fire late at night, and immediately got the hell out of there.

We sauntered back to Evan’s place, shivering as the frigid cold of Basse’s nights in the cold season fell upon us. For us, it was so cold as we attempted sleep, that even jeans, socks, and a sweatshirt covered with a sheet couldn’t stop the heat from the day escaping our bodies.

Christmas day did not feel like anything special, except phone calls from home. We met up with other PCVs who were around for the holiday. We ate potatoes, turkey, some salad, and then Evan took us to a whorehouse. It was just a bar in a compound three blocks from downtown. We had no clue what nice little surprise Evan had in store, but as we sat down with our boxed wine, we noticed six rooms in a row. Some with doors open, some with doors closed. Young women and older men came in and out. It was all very matter-of-factly and understated. The bar itself was nice with truly cold beer and soda. Women and men were dancing to Shania Twain and other country greats, followed by reggae and other Bob and 50 cent wannabes. (The local music here is cool with the kora over some latin like beats, but when they try to copy “the west,” it just atrocious!) So there we were laughing, chatting, singing, all the while soaking in the comforts of a local whorehouse on that saintly day of Christmas.

The Snake, the Prostitute and my Mobile Phone.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mom, don’t read this.

Sorry guys. I wish more than any of you that I had a single story to encompass the whole title. Instead, here’s a few of the more entertaining incidents in what I would otherwise maintain is a quiet life.

The Snake

I almost stepped on a snake. It could have been a spitting cobra, but I can’t make that claim. I was running on a pretty wide utility track through the bush just as the sun set low. Almost to my turn-around point, I looked down to see the ground move. There it was, 12 inches from where I planted my right foot - a snake. Maybe two and a half feet long, slate grey with an orange underside; much like the spitting cobra on our “Harmful Snakes of The Gambia” poster.

As a rule, Gambians hate snakes. When they corner one in a clump of grass, everyone picks up a stone or stick and makes mulch. Consequently, there aren’t really many snakes around us. The last and only other time I saw a live one was during training when our group came upon a Beauty Snake (non venomous) eating a lizard. We all leaned in closer and closer until all of the sudden it decided that the threat of us outweighed the benefit of its meal. It uncoiled, hissed, made a wide circle and slithered into the grass faster than we thought possible. Everyone in the group jumped back but I jumped straight up and screamed, in a really high pitched voice, “Shit Monkeys!” Honestly. I think Rachel might have stepped forward to defend her helpless husband. Life and death situation and that’s what I yell: shit monkeys. This time around, on my own in the bush, with not a single other soul to witness my proximity to DEATH or bear testimony to my courage, and I calmly stepped away and breathed a manly, “Woah!” Honestly.

The Prostitute

I was at the main office a few weeks ago, taking advantage of the open computers late at night. It was 10:30 and time to eat. I stepped out onto the quiet street and walked a short way to one of the Lebanese owned fast food places on the main strip. As I walked in the door, an attractive waitress snapped at me “Ki Fii!”, Wollof for “Come here.” I don’t speak much Wollof, but I still want some credit for knowing a local language, so I replied with the Mandinka equivalent, “Naa naa bang!” “No, you come here.”

So it began. I quickly ordered my shwarma as the three waitresses gathered around testing my language. Flirting doesn’t really work for me. In fact, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. This was compounded as I realized that I was the only customer in the place and so there were no potential distractions to pull them away from me. Amidst the interrogation, I briefly wondered, “why are so many waitresses working when there are no customers?”

The Lebanese owner who was manning the grill walked by, completely ignored me, grabbed the first waitress by the arm and whispered something in her ear. She walked back to me and asked if I was interested in something-something. Like I said, I don’t speak Wollof, but somewhere in my head a slow, heavy gear made a quarter turn with a loud clicking sound and some dim understanding dawned. I hate awkward situations so my eyes scanned the room. Shwarma almost done, check. Exact change in my pocket, check. Clear path to the exit, check.

“I don’t know what that means,” my voice cracked as if I were thirteen.

“Do you want sex” she coolly clarified.

“Ummmm, no, not today, but thank you for the offer,” I stammered as I less-than-deftly stood up, strode to the grill, snatched my food from the Lebanese pimp just as it hit the bottom of the bag and left my Dalasis in mid air. The next day my girl (her name is Kadi) waved amicably to me and Rachel and asked our friend if I was married. Thank God.

My Mobile

My mobile was stolen on the ferry on Saturday. How many times have I felt hands probing my pockets. One of the busiest travel days of the year leading up to Tobaski and I don’t bother to put it in my bag. Sheesh.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Allah dorong (God only)

Babies are adorned in a web of jujus (animist charms). Little Lisa wears four necklaces: one for healthy teeth, one to ward of sickness, one to prevent vomiting, and one to provide fragrance. On each ankle she wears an anklette: one to protect her from genes and one for good fortune. Other babies wear their jujus on their waist, five to eight small charms tied to a black synthetic rope. All charms come from the Maribous, the traditional/animist healer. Some charms are Arabic writings from a Maribou that provide protection from any ills, good fortune, or the ability to not be harmed by a bullet or knife (for adults usually), wrapped in leather. Others are a piece of a root or plant, while a few are special beads, cowry shells, or coins.

Aja’s Baamutar wears a single leather charm around his waist. The only time I noticed it was when she was putting a cloth diaper on. He glistened from freshly applied baby oil, smooth and untangled from the lack of jujus. I asked where his others where. She looked at me with her hard caring eyes and chuckled, “Mothers put these on their babies to keep them from getting sick and dying, but they still get sick, they still die.” She paused, perhaps to think about her lost child, Jaa, who died at the age of three (most likely from Malaria). Aja pointed her finger towards the hazed sky, pierced her face to clarity, “Allah dorong. God only.” Baamutar wiggled spastically as she tied that last of diaper. She picked him up, pushed his face to hers, stood him on her tired and stretched stomach, and let out a smile meant only for those moments for mothers and their newborns. Her eyes are the most hopeful when she plays with Baamutar.

The week leading up to our last moments in Kerewan involved many tears, prayers from Allah, and traveling gifts. Like a baby in its first year, we were tangled in the Gambian ceremonial goodbyes. The Saaba and Kerewan nursery schools gave both Carson and I full outfits. All the Kerewan nursery school staff cried and cried as they were thanking us for our work. Carson and I looked at each other shocked at the site of Gambian men and women crying. Grown men bawling, like my counterpart Bruama. I have always been told not to cry from Gambians and now I have seen enough tears to last another year.

In between the emotional send offs and from community members along the road, were the granting of Allah’s prayers. May God grant you a long and healthy life. May God allow you to arrive home in safety and good health. May God grant you a healthy family. God will repay you for all that have done and will do. God will protect you. Every prayer sung to us wove the fabric of our community for these past two years, a keepsake of their majestic acceptance.

Two words capture how one will miss you. The frequently used famo means I miss seeing you. But we heard a new one as we were saying goodbye. “Moo kidoota!” they kept saying, “People in loneliness.” It was quite ironic response when we told them we were leaving in a couple of days. Kerewan, like The Gambia, is full of people, too many people. I have never felt physically alone here, never truly able to be alone. But they meant loneliness in the emotional sense. The first I have heard of this notion here. They will miss us; they will miss the emotional connection however small or big. Or perhaps it is like the rehearsed prayers, the habitual response to some leaving for a long time. When Aja said it, I knew she referred to the former.

At midday the white Peace Corps SUV pulled out of the compound and I kept crying. That was it, we were going home. The whole neighborhood was in our house as we loaded up our bags and metal trunks. Aja just stood there against the wall and started cry. I tried not to look at anyone around me. I was about to loose it. When the car was all packed up, it was time. After two long years, it was time. I hugged everyone around me, my toma, Dabo, all the kids, Fatou who was bawling, and then lastly Aja. We looked at each other, crying too much to say a word. I gave her a hug and could only say, “M bee kumandi ning m bi taa fly la. I’ll call you before I leave on the plane.” I held her hand tight and Carson pulled me on the car.

My stomached dropped. I cried for Aja. She’s my person. Carson whispered to me, “We’ll be back, you’ll see her again.” As we drove over the bridge and further and further away, my readiness to go home came over me. But I kept going back to Aja’s pointed finger upward and her determined face to look through all of the jargon and superstition around her, seeing only God. To trust only what she has seen and done in her thirty years of back breaking living. She pointed to what keeps her living.

Life’s little pleasures (Part III)

Each year, Kerewan celebrates the 24 hour reading of the Koran, Quoran karango. This year the holiday was held in May. I assumed this as a truly religious day, where people go to the mosque, sit, and listen or recite the holy Koran. What I say was yet another aspect of this culture being corrupted by western and hip hop culture. All relatives come back from the city or aboard. They come in their flashy cars, SUVs, Jeeps, BMW and Mercedes sedans, wearing their flashy jeans and sneakers, talking on their flashy sleek mobile. The women wear the most expensive fabrics and embroidery with metallic gold or silver pointy heals and matching clutch. All to just go to the mosque for a couple hours, undoubtedly to show off their wealth. Yet another day of prayer corrupted by materialism. The funny part of this all was:
Seeing four 60-70 year old men wearing their Muslim kaftans, with the traditional Muslim cap, riding in a gleaming gold Jeep Cherokee blasting gansta hip hop music.

Muhammed, the five year son of city relatives walked around the compound hold a skinned, sheeps head by its nostrils. It oozed fresh blood and the eyes balls were still intact

While judging the regional girl’s scholarship pageant, the DJ blasted Britney’s, “Toxic,” for the intermission. At that moment I looked over and saw twenty men performing their five o’clock prayer.

On yet another interminably hot afternoon Carson says to me, “Don’t rub my back, it’s sticky and it will chafe.”

Our twelve year old host brother comes to the door asking, “Where’s the book of Obama?” In reference to the Newsweek with a picture of Obama on the cover.

Seeing a baby donkey just after birth trying to take its first steps while walking to school.

Having to stop for the herd of cows to cross while on my morning run.

Seeing a Fula nomad, wearing a turban, chya pants, and all walking his cow over the bridge while talking on a razor phone.

Play fighting with Amie while fetching water at the pump. This time her three year old son, Moo Lamin, came up defending his mom by kicking me in the shins and spitting on me. It was hilarious!

The first rain on June 1st! Carson and I ran out with the kids to play in the rain. We jumped in puddles, let our feet squish around in the mud, and eventually were soaked to the bone. Of course all the adults in the compound thought we were crazy… again. That day it was brutally humid with the temp spiking at 110. When the rain came the temperature dropped to 80 degrees and we were freezing!

Watching Carson come alive when he’s out of the stifling heat. It’s like Popeye after popping a can of spinach.

Thanks to Carson, our host brother Karama has memorized his multiplication tables. Most grade twelve students don’t even know them.

Lying on the cement bantaba (like a gazebo without a roof) at night with Aja and the kids watching the stars. The kids around me are almost all asleep with the bit of relief the night brings after yet another hot day. Sometimes I wish they would turn off the outdoor light so I could soak in all the constellations. But why turn off a light with the town’s power station is on?

At night on the bantaba Aja and I talk about anything and everything. Just a couple of days ago I explained how fast planes fly: rather it taking six hours to get to Dakar from Banjul, it takes only a half hour. It takes six hours to get to Europe, and another twelve to get to America. At the moment she understood how far America truly was. For an uneducated women, she is so smart and sharp.

Why Gambian men are sometimes creepy:

I received a call from a man I used to work with in the beginning of service at the elementary school. He was very difficult to work with and made me very uncomfortable. He then texted me this three days ago after not talking or seeing him for a year and a half:

Text number 1: “I’m not difficult to work with. My reason is that, I love you in every way. Since very day I saw you. I just don’t know why? And you are married. I was afraid of inconvenience in my own community.”

Text number 2: “Lisanding know that I have never seen a woman who won my emotion as you did. I just don’t know why? AND you are married. Both of maintain the respect we deserved. I, an ideal main of divine mission. My loving you is natural. Whether you like it or not. Greet me family back home.”

Text number 3: “Have patience. Be reassured that I’m one of the most trustworthy, faithful person you’ve ever met. Know that we all have a believe. BUT I love you in every way. AND I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU STAY IN MY HEART WHEN YOU KNOW THAT YOU ARE MARRIED.”

Monday, June 09, 2008

We're Outa Here!

Rachel and I are on the LandRover. Peace Corps is done. Not an hour earlier we were saying a tearful goodbye to our family and friends but all of that gradually gave way to the realization that we had just accomplished what we'd dreamed of three and a half years earlier when we first decided to join the Peace Corps together. It's been a truly remarkable experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Lisanding! Hear Her Roar!

This... is Rachel's namesake, Little Lisa (Rachel's

Gambian name is Lisanding). To pass the time I like to count her fat rolls.

Mamud and Me

Mom, Dad, look what we're bringing home! I wish we could. Mamud is the most hyper active but entertaining little kid in the world.

Here's a great pic of Rachel and Karamo in front of the Samateh's house.

Painting the nursery school in Saba was the last project that Rach and I took on. It was also a lot of fun. We painted a really good alphabet with pictures on the front wall, the months of the year and days of the week on the side and this mural on the back. It was such a great experience and the staff was so supportive of our work. A big thanks to Mr. Balajo, Sarjo, Awa and Kaddi.

Mbaa Suwareh and Rachel

This is Rachel with her surrogate grandmother, Mbaa Suwareh. This woman was so amazing to us throughout our service. I can't explain the depth of the relationship and understanding between these two.

Mathematician in the Making

Karamo is smart. He's really smart. In fact, he was the one saving grace of the "year of May". Despite being at the top of his grade 6 class, he still hadn't mastered his multiplication tables. In fact, many of my grade 12 students haven't. So, Karamo and I spent some quality time understanding not only multiplication, but fractions too! This kid's gonna kick ass.

Aja and Rachel are standing in front of our door as we were loading up the Peace Corps LandRover with the whold compound and half the neighborhood standing around. I think everyone was crying and they had just wiped their eyes for one last photo. Transitions are never easy and this was harder than most.

Fatoumata and Alieu

This is a really beautiful pic of Fatoumata. Alieu is out of focus, squirming around on the bantaba in the background.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Vacant and full of gems

posted by rachel
June 3rd

I sit panting in the suffocating heat as it sits stale on my overheated skin. This is it, our last week in Kerewan. We’ve been waiting for this moment, ever since arriving late Thursday night to the sandy, incomplete, irrelevant city of Kombo two years ago. The secret to getting through this experience is knowing that you will be home in two years. So we all just stick it out, ride this complicated and uncomfortable adventure.

It hits after just six months here, when you realize that you will never truly be able to tell your story so that everyone you love and know will understand. It’s not shitting in a hole for two years or living the “authentic” Africa experience, it’s understanding that we, the donor franchise, the voyagers, the white people, the romantics of “development work”, our position on this continent is “irrelevant, impotent, and a contradiction” (quoted from George Packers The Village of Waiting). We spend the next year and a half trying to justify our existence in this country, to create a lifestyle that doesn’t feel fraudulent or absurd. In that time, while trying to do something that is “sustainable” and “builds capacity,” (all words that are used to revamp the flawed franchise of development, to somehow eradicate the dependency development has created on this continent), we are the ones who have truly developed.

Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. I feel vacant, as like The Gambian youth’s spirit and creativity is beaten out of them at home and in school, my spirit and idealist hope has suffered the blows of realism and defeat. The incessant harassment that never failed to remind me of my white privileged skin - whether it be children wailing Toubab, young men following me and asking for marriage, entitled educated men embodying every aspect of a sexist pig, women asking for the clothes off my back, and the constant charade of praise and love for the white person that in the end is sad and mocking - chipped away that na├»ve isolated idealistic liberal from Boston into a hostile, cold realist that would support a complete pull out of all NGOs on this continent to finally give Africa a chance to develop itself.

I get a nervous shiver up my tired spine every time I am left alone with my thoughts here. My entire world view has been turned upside down. I want to throw rocks at tourists who stampede through villages passing out bowls of rice to help with the food crisis, when if they stopped to think, seeds for dry land rice would have been an incomparable better idea. But there I go blaming others for my own discomfort in my skin.

In this jarring, mundane, depressing, dulling experience the gems kept my appetite for compassion and humility satiated. As I say over and over that I am ready to go, that it’s time, as I ride this glorious wave to home, I fail to let myself understand what leaving these gems truly means. Aja and the kids, my toma, Dabo, Mbaa Suwareh, the girls in girls club loved me for me, and not my white skin. They are my friends, my anchors to approximate normality in this absurd place. Their relationships allow me to feel less of a fraud or a charade, but a person who is living in a strange place in need of a family to trust and love. They were the only aspects of this experience that reaffirmed one of my core beliefs: true relationships make somebody matter in this world.

I recently figured out why this country works the way it does and it made me appreciate my gems even more. Accountability lacks in every corner that I look here, thus corruption both insidiously and blatantly seep into everything. No one held anyone accountable and passed blame on to anyone but the self. But I realized I only looked in the places where Americans hold accountability: the public life of work. Here, it is the exact opposite. Accountability exists inside the family. If a taxi driver does stop to greet and/or eat with his wife’s family as he passes through their village with a van full of twenty overheated passengers, then he is shamed and has to answer to his father-in-law. A teacher, posted 100k from her Mandinka village to a foreign Wollof village, misses weeks of work to attend a family ceremony or to take care of family business doesn’t even consider time off from work. Her family holds her accountable not the parents or community in the alien Wollof village.

When western development imposes accountability in the public sphere, Gambians laugh at such futility. One is a good worker if they sit all day or initiate after school homework clubs. Fulfilling the expectations of your family is work in itself. In America we don’t have to share our monthly pay check with twenty of our extended family members. Our individualistic society allows us to invest in our future. Gambia’s communal society never lets anyone fall through the safety net, but doesn’t let anyone pull ahead either.

This is not to justify corruption and inefficiency, it’s merely my belated attempt to understand it. Why here and not there? Why does an inept dictator steal the governments money to build fancy hotels and a zoo in his hometown? Because his home people will hold him accountable. Why are my attempts at teacher training met with plastic smiles and inane nodding of the head? Because since when does the white girl hold the man of the Sanneh family accountable?

With accountability in the corners of walled compounds, the culture of blame blankets the big fat notion of progress. When men can’t bring in enough money for the family, they blame the wife for being wasteful and stupid. When a women becomes pregnant outside of wedlock, her family disowns and curses here while the male impregnator continues without having to act the least bit responsible. The women bear the brunt of all societal ills, yet no one every stops to truly hear what they have to say. And the charade of “development” goes on in quarterly reports and fancy white NGO SUVs, while the people wait.

People in America tell me that I am so brave for doing all this. But, I am the one who can just wisp in and out of here free from the waiting game, with only my conscious holding me accountable for my actions. The brave ones are my gems who protected me from the defeats that they absorb daily. When I was being bothered, they were the ones who stood up for me. When I had a problem or needed to figure out a situation they were there to help. When I was in over my head, they were there to bail me out. They sympathetically listened as I attempted to hold full conversations in Mandinka. They looked past my inability to say the correct phrase and understood my compassion for them. They are the brave ones, because they did all this in face of familial accountability. They stood up for me to their relatives, to older men, for me. Now, for the first time I feel and understand the quiet female solidarity that exists in pockets here. I do see women blaming other women just like the men, but it’s the brave ones who risk empathy for the otherness.

I worry about this country. I worry that it won’t exist in fifty years with the rising sea levels. I worry of this culture in limbo between the desire to embrace all that is western and traditional culture that roots Gambian in a sense of place and history. As traditions wear thin to hip hop culture and accountability to the self, will The Gambia become like Nigeria, where no one and in no aspect of society is held accountable? I worry that the desert will over take my home here in the next ten years and forcing everyone to leave for a dwindling forest to the south. I worry about how no one here believes in this food crisis. When in six months the price of a bag of rice will be over 1000 Dalasi (half of an average civil servants monthly salary), people will finally believe in the crisis but it will be too late. I worry that the donor enterprise will come in and save the day per usual and Gambians will never learn to solve their own problems.

I want to somehow honor Aja, Mbaa Suwareh, Dabo, my girls club girls, my toma and her mother. I am humbled by their tenacity and sheer strength. I worry about them, and worry that when I go, I will vanish and be sucked back into the American bubble. For Aja is my person, my best friend here in The Gambia. She is the only one who truly understands my plight here, she gets my needs. I am indebted to her understanding. She kept me alive. Her and her six children, Lamin, Karamo, Binta, Fatou, Alieu, and Baamutar brought light, beauty and encouragement to this difficult experience. Most of all they brought me security. Mbaa Suwareh was like my Grandma here. She filled a void in me that I have had since my last surviving grandparent passed on five years ago. Her slow, crippled walk and her adorable lived face warmed my heart every time I saw her. She was the one who berated any child who dared to disrespect me. Funding her false teeth is one of my most proudest accomplishments. Dabo is the hardest working Gambian women I have seen. She is reserved and talks in circles. But when I came home crying from the gardens because the girls were harassing me, she took care of it. From that moment on no one every bothered me again. Havibg little Lisa in my life here brought a sense of belonging, though somewhat still marred by being an outsider, it was enough to keep me going. She is the fattest baby I know, but whose smile of recognition every time she saw me, makes both of us shine. My girls taught me to love every part of myself (although that is still a work in progress), how I look, what I do or say. Everything. As I advocated for their rights to empowerment, success, financial independence, and safety, they taught me how to appreciate mine. Their resilience and inklings of hope for their future, in spite of all they are up against, rekindled my hope and idealism for girls all around the world.

As the dark cloak of this big picture we have come to figure out snuffs our optimism leaving room only for frustration and angst, we cling onto our gems. They come in all shapes and sizes, all shades, each for different purposes. Some of my other gems include relaxing over a couple of beers and ice cream with our close Peace Corps friends, like Becca or Todd, Jim, Dan, eating cookies with Carson after yet another attempt of cooking dinner in the bush while waiting for BBC’s News Hour to come and racing to guess if it's Julian Marshall or Owen Bennett Jones’ voice that comes in after the trumpet fanfare, waking up to French pressed Pete’s coffee, and that first night of sleeping in the A/C in Kombo after months of hot interrupted sleep. We come to the end exhausted in every way possible, feeling as though we aged ten years too soon. But we lived through the raw absurdity of this place and never felt more alive. Now, holding those bag of gems close, it’s time to go home.

Questions from Mr. Smith's Six Grade Class!

Mr. Smith is a good friend of ours. He had his sixth graders create creative and artistic letters to us talking about what they have learned from reading our blog and asking two questions. We were overwhelmed by their writing ability compared to their Gambian counterparts. Each letter/card was a work of art taking shapes of Africa, The Gambia, geometric shapes, some were interactive or 3D. We love reading them! Thank you all for your insight and good wishes. We are touched. Here are most of the questions asked. There were a bunch so I hope I got most of you. If you have anymore questions, feel free to email me! Also, you each are very lucky to have such a creative and enthusiastic teacher like Mr. Smith.

Life in The Gambia

What does a Dalasi look like? -Sarah

Notice the five dalasi that is shredded in the corner! Money here has a much longer life and will stopped being used only until it nearly crumbles away!

When crops go dry, do Gambians get water from the river? –Beckett
Half into The Gambia, the river is still salt water. So people don’t use it to water their crops. Where the river is not salt water, Gambians use it to water crops, do laundry, wash dishes, and for bathing. Here in Kerewan, there are deep wells, some as deep as 20 feet. Women fetch water from these wells to water their gardens during the dry season. But in the rainy season (June to September), Gambians rely on the rain to water their peanut and millet farms.

Do they have lions down there? –Beckett
One hundred years ago, lions lived in The Gambia. But now they either moved south or died because their habitat is gone. The Gambia is one of the densest countries in the world. There is no room for wildlife such as lions, elephants, or leopards. (There are still monkeys, bush pigs, and lots of birds.) Another reason why the wild animals are gone is desertification. Gambians need wood to cook and build houses, so they cut down trees. Now there are not many trees left. When that happens the land becomes like a desert. Dry with very few plants. Without trees, there is less rain. With less rain, people can’t farm. When people can’t farm, there is less food. So it very important to preserve and plant trees!

Were the children you taught English to enjoy you being there to help them or did they think of it as a pain? –Emy
English is very difficult for the students in all grades here. Imagine if you were raised speaking English, but you were taught only in Spanish at school. Very frustrating I bet.

Why is Gambia sometimes called The Gambia? –Naomi
You know, I ask myself that same question. Perhaps it’s because the country is named after The River Gambia. Let me ask you: Why is it The United States of America and not just United States of America?

Who is Alieu? –Victoria (who drew an amazing picture of Alieu), Issey
Alieu is my host brother, or host nephew rather. He is about two and a half years old. He is the son of my host sister, Aja, who has five other children. He is so cute and is now starting to talk. He says my name with such excitement whenever I walk into the compound.

What languages are spoken in the Gambia? –Aaron
There are 10 languages spoken in The Gambia: Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, Serer, Serehule, Johanka, Manjago, Jola, Aku, and the official language is English.

How do you live with those bugs? –Megan
Eventually you get used to it. It was difficult at first to see cockroaches coming out of our latrine at night or termites eating at our door frame. But now it is just part of life here. Even the flies and mosquitoes don’t bother us as much. When the mosquitoes come out in the summer in Boston, it bothers you at first, but you get used to it.

What are your favorite places in The Gambia? –Amanda
Our site, Kerewan, is near a tributary. In the evenings we like to walk to the river side to watch the sunset. Our small two room house is like our mini-America. We like to go to the city and eat at our favorite restaurant that serves crepes, pizza, and ice cream. We also like to go to Kartong, which is a deserted beach where you can sleep in tree houses at a local hotel.

How much of their language did you know before you traveled there? Can you speak fluently with them? –Ben
We didn’t know any Mandinka before we came here. The minute we arrived we underwent 10 weeks of intense language and technical training. We had language classes for four hours everyday. Now we are very proficient, not quite fluent.

Will you stay in touch with the people in The Gambia? –Lily
Yes! I can call my host family and some of my work counterparts have access to email.

Insight into this experience and Africa
What is it like helping people you don’t know? –William
At first, it was very difficult for me to work with people who are very different from myself. But as I learned the language better, their perspectives, and customs I was able to be successful in some projects. The real learning process for me was leaving my American ways of approaching or judging a situation to the side and truly understanding and valuing The Gambian way of solving problems.

Do you ever wish you were in the USA? –Megan
I have a moment everyday when I wish I were home in the US. I miss my family and friends. I miss eating salads, berries, cheese, ice cream. I miss be able to walk outside and not be a celebrity like I am here. I miss the cold weather and my bed at home. But then I realize that this experience is not forever, just two years out of my whole life. I then start to think about what I like about living here, like my host family, eating delicious mangoes, and taking a bucket bath under the stars.

How did it feel having your parents come from halfway around the world to visit you in Africa? –Sam
I felt so loved! It was so special to have my parents come here to see what my life is like. Although they have both done Peace Corps and traveled the world, they have never been to Africa before. It is so cool that I got them to come over here.

Do you like it better in Africa or here in America? Are there any reasons why? –Issey, Dan
I get asked this question everyday here. They say, “Jumma le diata, America woronto Gambia? Which is more sweet: America or Gambia?” I tell them that I like both equally. They then look at me in disbelief and go to tell me all the reasons that my country is more sweet. The main reason being more money, flashy cars, just a better life. The women like America because they hear of all these machines the wash dishes, clothes, iron, and cook food. I agree with them on that.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself. That said, there are some things that I like about The Gambia. I like how everything you do here is such an adventure. Traveling in an old, almost-ready-to-breakdown bush taxi, bartering at the market, teaching thirty nursery school kids how to line up, or planning a two day program with ever speaking English. These moments I feel so alive and humbled at the same time. I don’t get that in America. But America is home, and home will always be the best place for me. I love to travel and won’t stop after this experience ends. I appreciate America so much more now. I appreciate our public transportation system, food, health care, universities, A/C.

What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment? –Dina, Lilly
Wow, what a great question! I have been thinking about this lately, as we are leaving soon. Personally my greatest accomplishment is doing and completing this adventure with my husband,, Carson. This has made us stronger and a better team. Another personal accomplishment is the caring relationships that I have fostered with Aja and her six children and my neighbors. I have learned their language, customs, and social norms in such a way that they have accepted me into their community. I hold that very dear to my hear.
Professionally, my greatest accomplishment has been my middle school girls club. Once a week I meet with thirty ninth grade girls to talk about setting goals, their role in their community, sex education, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy, decision making, and their right to safety and empowerment. The girls create skits and put on debates for their school. We also have an annual two day leadership camp with another girls club from 60k away. The girls raised the funds on their own with luncheon sales and raffles. I am so proud of them. Now they know how to stand up for and want their right to education, making their own decision, making their own money, and choosing their own person to marry. All of which girls like you in America have the opportunity to do. So don’t let anyone and anything stand in your way. Girls around the world have the right to follow their dreams and be who they want to be!

What are your opinions of current day Africa in general? –Simon
This is a complicated question for me. The Africa that I know is somewhere in between those newspaper articles about the latest African dictators or the horrific images of a continent stricken from HIV/AIDS, malaria, famine, war, and genocide. The Africa I know is women carrying plastic buckets full of water on their heads for laundry, washing, or cooking. Women are the life of this place, they keep everything going. The Africa I know blames women for just about everything while the men are held accountable for very little. The Africa I know is fatherless homes, where men go to the city, to another West African country, or even to America or Europe to find work; because according to them, “anywhere is better than here.” I see a country in limbo between the traditional culture of thousands of years and the modern western culture permeating since colonization. The Africa I know are communities in waiting for something better, something they know as ‘development.’
Africa is dynamic, complex and difficult place. I have found such beauty and warmth in the people I have meet while living and traveling in Africa. Africa has been horribly mismanaged by the colonizers and now the current governments. The result of this is governments who cannot provide basic necessities for their people, like electricity, good roads, and proper education. Another layer added to all this is that Africa is developing in a globalized world, meaning their standards of development have to be just like the US and Europe. This is impossible. The US developed on its own terms, it developed its own way. Now Africa, whose societies are more communal and less individualistic that ours, is being forced to become something that it is not.

Do you think there is any need for America to step in and help the Africans? –Simon
Another great but complicated question! Honestly, I think the only time America should step in is in a time of great crisis, such as war, genocide, or massive famine. Any other time, Africa should be left to develop by Africans. There are so many foreign groups and organizations here that are giving so much money without any accountability, meaning no one is holding anyone responsible for how the money is spent. Now The Gambians are dependent on these foreigners for all sources of income and ways to solve their problems. I would never have thought this before I came here. Now I see that all that food aid, old clothes, and just loads of money have a good short term solution but a long term negative effect.
I feel that sponsoring someone’s education is a great way to help here. With education, you, Americans, Gambians, Africans, can grow and develop themselves. Also fighting to stop global warming is another good contribution. The effects of global warming will most likely hit poorer nations before we truly feel it in America. With desertification, drought, floods in Africa, people will not be able to farm and therefore not be able feed themselves. So do what you can locally, in Brookline, to stop global warming. Buy from the local farmers market, walk or take the train more. Ask about solar power and more efficient ways to use energy. What is your school doing to use energy more efficiently?

Are you treated any differently there because you are white? –Max
That is very insightful question. Yes I am and I hate it to be honest with you. I am treated like a celebrity. A white person is called toubab. So every time I travel or even step outside my home children and adults alike scream, TOUBAB! at me. So countless times a day I am reminded that I am different because of the color of my skin.
In my workplace, people assume that I have loads of money to give away, which makes sense as Gambians see hordes of white people passing by to shell out huge sums of money. This stereotype is all they know. So I have been working these past two years to educate people that I am here to transfer skills and be a part of the community. I am not just another white person coming in to tell them how to run their school, town, or country.
Culturally, I have an honorary male status. This means that I can eat with the men or join their circle during holidays. I prefer spending my time with the women. After this experience, though, I feel that I have a little more insight into how it is to be in the minority. It has been very tiring, maddening, and frustrating for us here in that sense. I can’t wait to be home to my family and friends who know me just for me and not just another “white person in Africa.”

Is the prominent religion in The Gambia Islam? –Max
Yes. Eighty five percent of the country is Islam, and the remaining 15 percent are Christian, which are mostly in the city. Look up The Gambia on the CIA fact book online to find more accurate figures.

How does teaching in The Gambia differ from teaching in the United States? -Jacob
In The Gambia, there are very little resources. In America, there is an abundance of resources in the classrooms, namely computers, paper, copy machines, crayons, glue, learning aids, textbooks, furniture, electricity. Here, teachers make do without any of that, and only a blackboard and chalk. Also, the majority of parents care about their children’s education. Parents are involved in the school and their children’s progress from the very beginning. In America we have a culture of literacy. So teachers in The Gambia have a lot going against them and do the best they can.

Is The Gambia one of the poorer places in Africa? –Eli
Yes it is. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 155 out of 177 countries for food insecurity. Go online and find some other facts about The Gambia’s economy, GNP, infant mortality rate, illiteracy rate and then compare it to other African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Egypt. Then go on to compare those numbers to America, France, England, or Germany.

Does the weather change quickly and how many degrees did the temperature drop? What do Gambians wear in the colder seasons? –Fred
The cold season does come quickly. The Gambia does not have middle seasons like spring or fall. It happens in one day when the wind picks up and changes direction. The humidity is gone and the nights are cool. The coldest it gets at night here in Kerewan is 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Now compared to American winters that is very warm. But compared to the hot season where the temperature rises to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 degrees is quite cold. In the mornings I see Gambians huddled around fires wearing big puffy ski jackets. But during the day it sill gets very warm, sometimes up to 90 degrees. I have gotten used to the hot weather, so I also wear my fleece when it gets that cold. I wonder I will survive in a real Boston winter!

Peace Corps
How and why did you decide to do Peace Corps? Is it hard work in the Peace Corps? –Aaron, Emily, Mary, Erik, Joshua, Mikaela, Michelle, Beatriz, Ilana
Both my parents were Peace Corps Volunteers way back in the late 1960s. So it has always been a part of my life. Both Carson and I new we wanted to do Peace Corps sometime after college. So after we got married we applied! We were attracted to Peace Corps service because it was an amazing opportunity to live in a country, amongst the people, learn the language, and help out a bit. We knew we would have the chance to truly understand the world from a totally different perspective. It is difficult work to live in an underdeveloped country for two years. All those physical challenges, such as the bugs, heat, and no electricity fade away to the emotional challenges of being an outsider and being far away from what you always knew to be normal.
I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I have learn so much about myself and this world. I have been forced to react to situations I would never have in America, and because I this I am a stronger and more confident person.

Do you get paid for going to the Peace Corps? –Naomi
As a volunteer, we do not get a salary. We do get a living stipend each month to be able to pay for rent, travel, and food. Upon completion of our service you get a readjustment allowance which, I believe is 6,000 USD before the government takes out taxes.

When you leave The Gambia will you not be able to be in the Peace Corps again? –Lily

You can extend your two years of Peace Corps service to up to four years. Many choose to go to a different country for the other two years. I know of people who have served in four countries with Peace Corps throughout their lives.

How long do you plan to stay in The Gambia? How long have you been in Peace Corps?–Libby, Sappho, Jacob, Lilly
A Peace Corps Volunteer serves in their host country for two years. Carson and I will be leaving in three weeks! I thought these two years would feel like forever. But time goes by wherever you are. To be honest the days go by more slowly here, but the weeks melt away.

Do you think that this experience will help you later in life? –Bela
Definitely! Graduate schools and employers look very highly to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). Peace Corps also has scholarships for RPCVs at a lot of graduate schools around the country. Personally, I am more confident and know that I can work with groups of people of who are different from me. I will have more patience and sympathy for when things don’t work or in difficult situations. I also know that I want to work with advocating for girls education as a career.

Where are you going next? –Jasmine
We are moving to Washington DC. Carson will be attending Georgetown Law school and I want to work with an women’s or education policy organization doing research or advocacy.

How many places have you traveled with the Peace Corps?/Have you traveled anywhere else in West Africa –Ilana, Jacob, Jewel
Carson and I traveled to Ghana and Senegal. Ghana was beautiful. The roads were better and the bush taxis were more efficient. They even sold ice cream on the streets! Senegal is more developed than The Gambia. Dakar, the capital city of Senegal has skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, bakeries, and an ice cream parlor. It is like the Paris of West Africa.

Were you teachers before you joined the Peace Corps? –Aidan
I was a second grade reading tutor in southeastern Ohio for Americorps and Carson was a chemist. Upon arriving we had an intense technical training about teaching in The Gambia.

How old do you have to be to join the Peace Corps? –Bela
You have to have a college degree to join. I have fellow volunteers that are over 60 years old.

Why did you choose to go to The Gambia? –Mary, Sappho, Sara
We did not choose The Gambia. When applying we request a region that we would like to serve in. The region we choose was Africa, so there were many countries we could go to. Peace Corps matched our skills and availability with what a specific country requested, so that’s how we got to go to The Gambia. We had to look it up on a map when we got our invitation letter to serve!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

As usual, it's been a while since I've posted anything. Today seems like a good day to break the silence because it's been a very good day. Rach and I are doing well as we cruise into our last few days of service. Among other things to look forward to, we're planning a few day lay over in Ireland before rushing home to see the families. I can't wait to wake up in a B&B, walk over to the cafe, drive, run, hike and walk around the small towns and countryside before settling into a pub for the evening. Until then we're busy preparing to leave. There are so many relationships and friendships that we'll be leaving behind and so many jobs and obligations to finish and a few things to pick up to remember our time here. It's been a hard month for me, not so much because of all that but because of the heat, so I don't think sentimentality's going to hold me back from pushing people out of the way to get on that plane... but I will miss the mangoes.

Today, however, was the perfect end to my service... and it was a surprise. I coerced some students to enter an essay contest sponsored by the American Embassy. Five of them hand-wrote the most substantial piece of writing of their lives: a three page essay on African American or Gambian history. I didn't do much, just read over them and typed final drafts for submission. It was a great exercise for the students and I encouraged the Embassy and Peace Corps to offer more of these national competitions. That was that.

Then one of my students, Binta, was selected as a finalist and invited to the Embassy in Banjul for a ceremony. I didn't feel comfortable chaperoning a female student alone (though she's married with a two year old son) so I made Rachel come down with us. As we were sitting under the pavilion in the Embassy with a table of beautiful American snacks nearby, they read the 3rd and 2nd place essays and then.... Binta WON!! A stack of books for the school, a stack of books for her and an envelope with some serious money inside. They interviewed her on national TV (it's a small country, but still!), we took her to buy a mobile phone, printed out some photos at the shop across the street and called it a day. Heck yeah.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Here's Fanding, our favorite bitick (shop) owner in Kerewan! Look at all the the fabulous buys. The blue tub in front is mayonaise and the one next to it is butter...

Rachel carrying little lisa while waiting for water at the tap. The next day my back was killing me. I don't know how Gambian women carry their children on their back while at the gardens or rice fields. Absolutely humbling. I got some pats on the back from the neighborhood women, which felt good.

Rachel carrying little lisa, who is not so little, on her back while fetching water. Yes, it is not easy, deh!

Here we are at Bamutar's naming ceremony. He's almost three months now! Time goes!
January 2008

Dan, Rachel, Blair, and Carson walking in bush on Jonjonbureh.... I think we were trying to look cool, but it just ended up being a bunch of goofy dorks!

Almost ready to exhale...

posted by rachel

So here we are, a little more than a month to go. We just had our Close of Service conference. It was great, talking about resumes, evaluating Peace Corps, and hanging with the group. As I traveled down to the city, I kept thinking how surreal it will feel, being at that conference. But the minute we got started, it felt deserved. Our group of 18 are all ready to go home, move on, get a job, go to school. We are not extending, or trying to hold out one more year as a PCV in another country. We are ready. I don't know why our group is so focused. Maybe its the 9 to 5 work week being a teacher, maybe its our determination, maybe its our resilience.

While eating fabulous meals, some of us realized how drained we felt. How we feel as though we are running on low. Two years living in Africa will do that, I suppose. The weekend leading up to the conference most of us went to Kartong, a beautiful beach south of the city. We slept in tree houses, grilled some burgers, and just partied without a care. I loved the beach because there was not one bumster on the beach, there was no one in fact, just your stray cow or two. The peace was refreshing and empowering.

Tomorrow Carson and I will head back to Kerewan for a mere four weeks and then its homeward bound. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to the family and the people who truly love and take care of us. But, it feels natural to being going... to be going back to our families. I know I will be able to call, but I also know that sometime down the road we will lose touch.

I worry about leaving just as the food crisis hits. A bag of rice rose 25 percent in a month. It will double not too far down the road and then only the very rich can afford it. Who knows how Gambia will handle this. Perhaps they will go back to growing their own rice, instead of relying on cheap imported rice, because now its not so cheap anymore.

I thought I would be asking myself questions like: "how do I say goodbye to all this." But I feel a sense of calm and readiness. I am not wondering how I will react or how I am supposed to feel. I remember before coming to Gambia, I was all kinds of flustered, not knowing how I should feel or what should I expect. It is quite the opposite right now. We have to pack up the house, finish up work, right a bunch of reports for Peace Corps, and say goodbye to our loved ones. There will be feelings of loss and sadness, but I know once we are on that plane home, we can exhale. It sounds so narrow and cold, but perhaps this is how I have learned to deal with such transitions.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Here's us with the Director of Peace Corps Worldwide, Ron Tschetter. He and the director of Africa region, Lynn Foden, came to visit us in little ol' Gambia! Carson and I were a part of a small group meeting with the the director. Tschetter and Foden were motivating and affirming of our service here. Lynn almost had us almost convinced to continue with Peace Corps in Rwanda or Liberia! But, don't worry folks stateside it is for a little while yet. It was such a treat to talk to such a big wig.


A white blaze mantles the blue sky. The sun is a pale shade of cement gray from morning to evening. It is light without texture or color, simply lighting and heating the day. The sun’s insidious rise and fall all but burns the arid insipid landscape, leaving nothing for an on looker’s imagination. No autumn golden light at sunset, no sparkling sunrise over a crisp cold morning. Such trite descriptions melt in the dingy glow of this April sun. From top to bottom it is a palate of drabness, stealing color schemes from a 1970s rug, parquet floor, hospital wall, school cafeteria, trash can, laundry mat, warehouse, grandma’s bathroom, and basement cubicle. Uninspired backgrounds that slow time, staling all energy and creativity that make a day possible.

Perhaps, the women and men wear such bright, textured color to clash against such a lifeless background. A splendor of flowing, sequenced, patterned, bold fabric paint the landscape with Monet’s brilliant strokes. Beautiful botanical gardens and water lilies sway and rise as women banter at the market or wait in line at the hospital. The true show of color comes with the ceremonies. Women and men replace their everyday clothes with cloaks of royalty as they stroll to a naming ceremony or gather for Tobaski. To be trite, they shine and inspire brilliantly like the golden autumn sun igniting the yellow, red and orange maple leaves.

Life’s little pleasures, continued...

Carson and I were taking care of Bamutar. He was crying of course and we couldn’t calm him down. So in comes his namesake, an old, petite, fiery man, who wisps Bamutar from my grasp while switching his cigarette from one corner of his mouth to another. His grace and silliness shine as he attempts to calm his toma with hums, clucks, coos, and reprimands. We watch in speechless awe as he undresses the baby, changes the diaper, and baths him. Cigarette still in mouth, he walks back to his mud bricked house with a smiling, quiet baby. Clearly my maternal instincts have a long way to go.

Janke, the co-wife of my toma’s mother, told me that I looked bigger. Apparently living in Kerewan for two years has served me well she explained. Rather than taking it to mean that I have gained weight, as Americans would of course, I took it as a compliment. I am stronger, wiser, and aged-gracefully.

Mamud uses Carson as his climbing wall on a daily basis. Carson flips, throws, twirls, that little guy for a good half an hour. Mamud could go all day.

The shyest girl in my neighborhood, Binta, always perplexes me. When most kids are in our faces for whatever reason they seem pertinent, she simply says hi and walks away. But when we are passing the football with Alieu and Ehmed, she comes charging through. Always the first one to the ball, kicking with force and intensity. She leaves all the boys in the dust.

Carson eats an average of five mangoes a day. Every morning I am reminded of his overabundance while he labors over the pit latrine. Ask Carson exclaims, “Consequences be damned!” (Kaboom...)

Carson and I making a list of all the must have items in our apartment come August. Olive oil, dark chocolate, and brazil nuts to name a few.

Being ok with talking all about the near future. Reading all about DC and Georgetown, jobs that I could apply for, is helping us get one foot out the door. We are ready. We are ready to go home.

Alieu stills scream bloody murder when Aja gives him a bath.

Karamo coming in to use our laptop. I teach him how to write while he learns how to type.

Buying fabric in the city for tailor made suits that will come out to cost less than a third of the price at home. Carson getting six shirts tailored, because this is the first time he has shirts that truly fit. (And he can’t stop talking about it.)

After realizing that his facial hair is a similar texture to that of African hair, Carson took a hint from the local barbers, coupling a razor blade with a comb, to trim his beard. He’s super jazzed.

Figuring out that we can make humus here!

Going to open our door in the morning just after waking up and finding Ehmed squatting across the compound. I ask him what he is doing and he replies “Buwo, buwo,” (taking a crap). The next morning, Ehmed was out again doing his business when Alieu stumbled out of his house. He walked four feet and squatted. While both took their morning crap, they conversed in their two year old gibberish, clearly talking about the troubles of the world.

Carson’s boss telling him to omit the existence of his first wife to convince a white woman to come to The Gambia just to marry him.

A girl's right

Girl according to The Gambia:
A girl is a female between the ages of 9 and 30. A girl becomes a woman when she marries and bears children. This could be at age 12 or 26, 16 or 19, rarely are girls over 27 not married with children. If a girl 23-35 is not married, it is strange. I am still called a girl, even though I am 26 and married, because I do not have children. Womanhood comes with motherhood, period. A girl lives in the family compound until she marries. Then the girl goes to live with the husband’s family where she will become a woman. That is usually the only change expected by girls.

Fifteen years after the government began providing free education for girls, life is beginning to change. A girl gets outside of the compound to learn with her peers. She has the opportunity to complete school to grade 12 free of charge. If she has good grades and exam scores, she can then go on to university. The opportunities are available for girls and it is now becoming the norm for families to send their girls to school. But if the girl fails her grade nine exam, she perhaps goes to a vocational school, where she learns tie and dye and soap making. Or her family marries her off since she will not keep going on with her schooling. I usually see single professional women in the city. When I see them working and living here in Kerewan, I am thrilled that they can be a different kind role model for the girls. Genders norms are beginning to change. For the first time here in The Gambia, the next generation of girls will have mothers who also went to school.

Girls will be Girls (Part 2): Girls’ Club Two Program!
Girl’s all over the world have the right to live without harassment and the other ills of sexism. That’s what thisu program was about, showing them that they don’t have to put up with it, that they have the will and ability to stand up for themselves and their friends. In teaching the girls about their bodies, sex, and being assertive we hoped to foster a dialogue and framework for the girls to value and protect themselves. To in the end learn how to stand up for their rights to a safe future.

So we pulled it off, a second girl’s club sleepover program. Becca brought her club to Kerewan on Friday, April 11th. We had a two day program held at the Kerewan Middle School titled, “Our Bodies, Our Minds, Ourselves.” Fifty energized girls attended, two amazing Gambian women, and three of my favorite women in Kerewan cooked four meals. Mary Louise Sambou, a teacher from Becca’s school and Isatou Bah, a leader in the Youth Action Movement and employee of ADWAC, joined us in facilitating the program. Becca and I felt more prepared than the previous year’s program. We knew how to talk and relate to the girls better. We knew what issues surrounded them everyday. We both fundraised with our clubs by raffling off soccer balls, holding luncheon sales, asking government and NGO offices for donations, and personally contributing.

We planned four sessions between getting to know you and trust games, meals, relay races, football, volleyball, and basketball. The first session was having the girls get to know each other and their place in the community. Becca had the girls write a “Day in the life” calendar for both girls and boys. What we all found was that girls did more chores and boys had more time to play football, study and hang with friends. This affects the girl’s ability to exercise, study, and be with their friends. Isatou immediately stood up and told the girls that they had to change the attitudes of their parents. Show them that they, the daughters, deserve more time to study and exercise. As an outsider I couldn’t say this, and that’s why having Isatou and Mary Louise part of the program was so crucial to its success. After the program, one of the Kerewan girls, Tida, said, “Now I can differentiate between what boys do and what girls do. Before I couldn’t.” Kaddy added, “I see the difference. Girls cook. Boys don’t cook. We all go to school. Boys play football, but girls don’t.”

That evening we played sports. I attempted to play volleyball (the girls call it volley volley). The girls laughed at me, but some weren’t that much better. We didn’t care, it was just us girls. I stopped to look around the school compound to see all the girls playing sports, talking, walking, just free to be teenage girls. Becca’s girls played basketball. Some girls passed a soccer ball around the circle of them. Nyimasata came in and out of the circle while washing and putting straightening cream in her hair. She’s a firecracker.

The Kerewan club raised their own money for a DJ. Having a dance party at the school is a big deal. All the girls got decked out. They mostly wore western club clothes. Tight jeans, cute tops, and skirts above the knees. A bit scandalous, yes, but girls will be girls. They were beautiful and confident, dancing from the minute the music began. They glowed, laughed, chatted, ran from one group to the next. Becca and I insisted on a girls only dance. We did not want boys to come and harass the girls. We also didn’t want to be responsible for any unwanted pregnancies. The girls didn’t want the boys to come either. Kaddy said, “ I don’t like it when boys are at the party. They chase you and call you. When you don’t come they insult you. I get angry.” Kas commented that the boys are “tough, tough, they are not serious.” Tida went on to confirm, “I like that, no boys. They will disturb us. Tell us this and this.” Denying the boys entrance proved to be was one of our most difficult life experiences.

We stood behind the faded red iron doors in the shadows of the street lamp. The two oversized doors served as the main entrance for the school. There was no clasp, nothing to ground the metal sheets to the soft sand. The doors were a simple tease, a mere symbol for protection. Stones pounded the already battered door creating familiar sounds of a blacksmith molding a spade. Stones came through the lacking doors, soaring through the middle opening as we let the girls enter. Sticks whipped our fingers as we closed the doors against the weight of the mob. Leaves and dirt putter down over our heads from the walls next to the doors. Verbal abuse and mocking ricochet against the lifeless door permeating the tense dead air. We looked at each other and said, “So this is what happens when boys and young men are told ‘no.’” Those doors never did come to life, swallowing the angry male mob. Those doors just shriveled away, failing us, refusing to tell the male mob no. We were the only ones. The boys and young men wanted to come for the dance party, we told them no, girls only. We told them no. So they, as young as eight years, attacked.

Becca and I were on the fronlines, protecting the girls’ right to a safe space. The male population just couldn’t believe that girls can enjoy themselves without them. We were stoned standing up for these girls’ right to be, for their right to be free of sexual harassment, their right to have fun, to dance without boys lurking around trying to touch girls inappropriately. Girls need to know that they have the right not to be touched when they don’t want to be. Eventually at midnight, we couldn’t hold the male mob back. They had been jumping over the fences and hiding in the shadows. With an hour left in the program, Becca and I walked away from the door. Isatou and the Kerewan girls came over, worried and upset that the boys were being to rude and awful. I remember Tida saying, “Liisa, let’s go, come and dance, these boys will always be rude. I don’t want them to hurt you.” So we reluctantly pulled back. We still walked around keeping the boys away from the girls. But the girls didn’t even talk to them, they just stayed with each other. Luckily it took forty-five minutes for the boys’ shyness to wear off. Fifteen minutes later we turned off the music. There was a moment when Becca and I simultaneously pounced a boy who touched a girl’s butt. We looked at each other as we finished reprimanding the boy and said, “Since when did we become the chaperones of a middle school dance?!” We plopped down feeling like the older, responsible adult that we never thought we could become.

We managed to get some sleep between the girls chatting and the heat. The next day we had a packed schedule. I knew it would be tough with the lack of sleep and the oppressive heat. We began with relay races to get everyone’s blood flowing. Isatou led the second session of the program: Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health. She talked all about STIs and pregnancy prevention. The biggest issue she emphasized was “proper use of condoms,” not just use of condoms but proper use of condoms. She knew that some of these girls were already sexual active, so why only talk about abstinence. Isatou is a true progressive here in The Gambia! We did a proper use demonstration – checking the expiration date, putting it on, putting it in place, disposing of it – with my hand (too wide and not long enough, but it worked). Nyima reflected, “I liked the session with Isatou about STIs and properly using condoms. I learned that sperm makes a girl pregnant. I did not know that before.” Other girls echoed this. Nyima continued, “I learned how STIs and HIV/AIDS are transferred.”

We then covered the reproductive system. I led the group in a body mapping activity. The girls traced each other’s entire bodies. They then had to label the parts they knew. Some girls even labeled their breasts and vagina. I asked what made us girls, they shouted out hips, breasts, my privates, one even said hair is certain parts. I then placed a picture of the reproductive system on one of the bodies. We learned all of the parts and what their functions are. Isatou had a great diagram of a penis entering the vagina. It just helped make everything more clear and available. Tida explained, “Now I can label all the parts of my reproductive system. Before, I could not label it.” Binta said, “I learned about my body, my… internal body.” I enjoyed teaching sex education to the girls. Knowing our bodies empowers each of us to know how to protect and keep ourselves safe and healthy.

The third session was about the myth versus truth when it comes to sex, pregnancy, and STIs. Some myths include pregnant women can’t eat eggs, if you wash yourself after having sex you can’t get pregnant, oral sex can’t give you an STI, you can’t get pregnant before your period, and so on. The best part of the session was Isatou and Mary Louise validating that these myths were crazy and should not be taken seriously like many other Gambians do.

Our last session talked about being assertive and making the right and safe decisions. We wanted the girls to know and fight for what is best for them. I wrote up some secenarios where they had to make decisions about whether to have sex, walking alone with a boy, how to be assertive, stand up for oneself, and what strategies they can use to stop abuse or avoid unsafe situations. They can’t say no with a smile. They have to say it with power, say it like they mean it.

When I talked to a couple of the girls a week later, we talked about why it was good to not have the boys at the dance party. Kaddy stated, “Boys, they disturb us… telling us I love you.” Tide interrupted, “We say to them an assertive ‘no!’ No! No! NO!” Tida’s clear and steady voice grow louder and more powerful. I smiled and thought to myself, “this is the greatest moment of my service.”

By the end of the last session the girls were spent. The heat seeped into our muscles. We ate lunch and cleaned up the classrooms we slept in the night before. While cleaning, I realized that my mobile was stolen. Who knows who stole it, people walk through the school all the time. My club immediately went and searched the other girl’s things. Then Becca’s girls got offended. So it was a little dicey as we wrapped up the program and said our goodbyes. My girls were just protecting me, it was really cute. I hate that it was at the expense of offending others, but it was what they do, protect your family.

I look back to being stoned. Neither of us were seriously hurt, but boys were throwing stones at us. I have never been so disrespected, so under attack. So whenever I hear the devastating reports of women under attack all over the world, being raped, assaulted, stoned, murdered, disenfranchised, undermined, I will know that Becca and I truly stood up for these girls. We played our part in the fight for a girl’s and woman’s freedom to be.