Saturday, December 23, 2006

Xmas in the tropics

We hope everyone liked the pictures. Please realize how hard it is to get those posted. Otherwise, we’d have many more. In fact, everything here is a test of patience, even/especially in the capital. Slowly, slowly to catch the monkey.
Anyhow, we are doing great. Between school terms we’re in Kombo for 4 days or so before we head back upcountry and we’re not the only white people around, either. It’s tourist season here for a reason. The air is cool, the sun is bright and the palm trees are swaying in the breeze. On the other hand, it's hard to wake up at 7 to go for a run on the beach! This place is bumpin’ with Europeans down on vacation and just as we thoroughly exhaust ourselves we get to go home just in time for Tabaski. Every family who can afford it has a Ram to be slaughtered on that day, so it should be quite the feast. I hope everyone has a great Xmas, Hanukah, Festivus and New Years. Maybe we’ll find some colored lights for the papaya tree behind the PC transit house.

Holidays and such

Posted by Rachel

So this is Christmas and happy new year.... We are back in the capital, hanging out, checking email, and spending some much desired times watching movies and tv series at the Peace Corps hostel. It is a huge place with showers and AC, a stove, a refridgerator, just craziness. I have been eating salads and ice cream!! Carson has been enjoying his couch time. I went out with some girls in my group last night. It was nice to have a ladies night!

It doesn't feel like Christmas, Hannukah, or the New Year, maybe July 4, but not christmas time. There are decorations up and Christmas music in the Christian run liquor stores. We are hoping to do a picnic on the beach for Christmas. So I guess it's not so bad. But Happy Holidays! Know that we are thinking of all of our friends and family alot right now!

So Kerewan is home sweet home these day. Our two room house is working out for us....everyday we are making it more comfortable. I am getting used to the slow paced life in village. When ever I have a busy work day or come to the capital...i can't handle the over stimulation. It is funny...there has been so much to do here in the city. I am so tired and I yearn for a quite day in the compound.

I love sitting around with Aja and kids in the afternoons when I come home from work and right before she goes to the gardens. Lamin is brewing attaya, some other women from the nearby compounds come by to chat. I am sitting with Alu. That baby, puts anything and everything into his mouth. I looked over one afternoon and he was licking the bottom of my sandals. So my sandals have walked throught dried chicken, horse, sheep, and goat shit on a daily basis, plus standing water, trash, and tar from the road construction in Kerewan. No one even thinks twice about it. These kids in this country they must have the strongest immunes systems.

A day in the life:

Posted by Carson

It’s been quite a while since I’ve sat down and put pen to paper… or at least fingers to a keyboard. At many points in time, I remember telling myself, “this is totally worth writing down so you can remember it.” Well, I didn’t and I don’t. So here’s what comes to mind.
The school term is coming to an end. This means that the teachers and I are all busier than usual. More busy than the 8 to 6:30 plus weekends that we usually work. We have to put report cards together and update transcripts… by hand. All I have is a ridiculous callus and probably carpal tunnel to show for it. In addition to the physical damage, there’s the psychological and emotional damage of realizing that 23 of the 40 students in my “homeroom” are failing. And I’m talking GAMBIAN FAILING… as in less than 40%. Of course most of them received the same grades last year and still managed to be promoted. In fact, they’ve been promoted without merit ever since grade 1 which, upon further evaluation, might yield a clue as to why I spend most of my time reviewing the multiplication table and explaining what an atom is than actually teaching High School. Shit. And, in this case, at senior secondary school, the country wide policy of “mass promotion” doesn’t even technically apply. How the hell are these kids in Grade 11?!?!?
I should add that there are some fantastic students here. Maybe 4 in each class. They are diligent and intelligent, though maybe haven’t had the opportunity to develop any real critical thinking skills. And, of course, they’re falling way behind simply because of the slow pace of the class. Actual, home-grown, raw talent is completely being squandered by a broken system. And, while I’m venting about the broken system (really, I’m not usually this bitter) let me tell you all what I think the problem is and what the solution is not. The problem is simply a military government. That’s it. When you have an illiterate leader misallocating all the local and foreign resources and contributing to the ridiculous scale of corruption it leaves little hope for the country at large. Inflation is unofficially at over 6%. There’s limited and irregular electricity, poor roads and we even go for 3 days at a time without being able to get water!!! All this in a provincial “capital” in one of the few West African countries that hasn’t seen a war in 50 years. Even Senegal, with separatist actions right over the border is a marked improvement. They have electricity, paved roads and even water!
The teachers and administrators I work with are excellent. They understand the situation very well and are only passing up other opportunities for extenuating circumstances (family obligations, etc). But here’s the breakdown. The Gambia actively trains teachers, maybe not enough for the entire country, but quite a few none the less. That pool of graduates, representing a large portion of the literate and educated population is offered maybe $90 a month by the state to work a double shift in the provincial boondocks, ie Kerewan and upcountry. By contrast, private schools in the Kombos offer them as much as $200 + to start our teaching a single shift. Add to that a barely functioning State Dept of Education and it’s a wonder any qualified teachers are here at all. Bare in mind that, for a typical Gambian family, there is one “bread winner” providing for as many as 15 or 20 relatives, so that while $90 seems like an alright salary for the developing world, a bag of rice costs about $25. Most teachers work the groundnut fields on the weekends.
The typically proposed solution is to send more money and resources. Initially, upon asking what’s lacking, many Gambians will, in fact, site the lack of resources and funding. OK, so yeah, money’s is scarce and there are not enough textbooks, teaching aids and learning aids to go around, but I would not suggest that as the root problem to address. Rachel and I, as well as many other foreign workers and all of my coworkers have discussed the issue ad-nausium, and generally agree that there are large quantities of donated resources that are not going to good use. They can always use more, but of the stuff usually donated a large portion is outdated (computers), irrelevant (Texas history books) and lost in storage. It’s nice when we can directly hand out some supplies to a few of the teachers we work with but it does little to address the underlying problem of a broken system.
Even money, although the jury’s still out on this one, arguably contributes to a general attitude of dependency. Any truly inventive potential entrepreneur knows that the quickest way to some solid income isn’t through designing a successful, sustainable, business (because of the aforementioned issues) but rather to set up an NGO to solicit funds from Europe and America.
Alright, I might be going to far with this one. The people here are in desperate need of outside assistance, whether it comes from the donations of the developed world or their relatives working the “greener pastures” of Europe and America (usually the case). Either way, they have no means of providing enough food or income to sustain their growing families here. And, until the system is changed, that’s the only thing keeping them afloat. Also, these NGOs that I was so quick to criticize are actually doing amazing work. They’re often the only ones doing it. They are the only impetus pushing things forward. It’s just frustrating that there’s no real self derived momentum for improvement here. Ok, sorry about that, just had to vent a little.

ADWAC planning meeting 14/12-17/12

Posted by Rachel

So I just returned from a four day planning meeting with the Agency for Development of Women and Children (ADWAC). We stayed at the Kinteh Kunda Lodge in Albreda. It was beautiful, right on the mouth of the river. Palm trees and mangroves lined the coast and beaches. Oh and the sunrise, that fiery magenta sun rising over the water, forget about it!

I am really excited to begin work with ADWAC. Fort ten years now, they have been operating solely in the North Bank Division working in the areas of food security, education, women’s enterprise, micro-credit, and functional literacy. I am really impressed with their director and staff. They divided the division into four eco-zones; these are regions that have distinct watershed areas and ecology.

ADWAC is launching a women’s rights and gender awareness unit. They want me to work with Binta Sey, a field worker for ADWAC that is being promoted to coordinator of the unit. At the planning meeting we assessed each sector using a women’s development framework. We found that most sector are meeting practical needs and rights of women, such as basic rights to food, income, and medical care. Also ensuring access to education, training in micro-credit and literacy, legal rights. We agreed that ADWAC has few programs challenging the status-quo of men and women. So the unit will be monitoring each sector to devise a project that empowers women in the decision-making roles, as well as control of their food production and income. We will conduct a baseline survey in two eco-zones, conduct gender sensitization workshops with community leaders, plan programmes for international women’s day, advocate for women’s land ownership rights, and implement a women’s empowerment framework to evaluate ADWAC on the organizational level and amongst their programmes.

I like working with Binta. She is a small fiery woman. She is married with no kids, which is rare for a Gambian couple. She is 26 and wants to get a master’s in gender and development, like me! I am excited to have her as counterpart, she is smart and funny. She will teach me a lot about field work and implement gender awareness programs in a non-western, Islamic, traditional, developing country.

I presented our women’s development criteria analyses of ADWAC’s programs at the planning meeting. I realized that even the men in ADWAC will have a hard time challenging gender roles. I could see their hair stand up. They fried me. At that moment I thought, “oh man what the hell have I gotten myself into?” I looked at Binta and she was laughing. She gave them a stern rebuttal. They reminded me about the religious and cultural context we are working in. I told them that do you see anything in my presentation that talked about changing this? It’s about a women’s right to control food production, to ensure the health of herself and her children. I did not say that a man has to do all the sweeping on the compound now. They thought I was bashing their programs because they do not challenge the status quo. But I talked about how we are working with some of the poorest women in the world and ADWAC is doing a great job of implementing programs to better women’s welfare. ADWAC is helping these women meet their basic needs for survival. They provide loans to women’s vegetable cooperative and construct labour saving mechanisms for women farmers. They all came around and the director said that Liisa and Binta are helping put our “gender lenses on.”

During work meetings, Gambians love to critize every little thing about your presentation, right down to the misuse of a word on your poster. They fry you. It was always a heated debate after each presentation. They are just so painfully honest. But when it comes to explaining how their programs are going, or at the REO how material distribution is going, or at school how people are using the resource center, it is sugar coated and most often times fabricated. They will tell you in a meeting that your report is sub par and your work in general is shitty, but when it comes to talking about it outside of the meeting forum it is sweet as pie. It is a weird dynamic that I am getting used to.

Also ADWAC builds and works closely with nursery schools. So I will work with the education coordinator, Lamin, who also lives right next door to me in Sameteh Kunda. All in all, I am so pleased to find work with this NGO.

Oh and the last day of the planning retreat, we had a bbq. They bought a ram and I witnessed its death. It was traumatizing. Just watching it flinch as the blood poured out of it. We then cut up the meat, separated its organs, and grilled it up all in one day. How’s that for fresh meat!

I am still working with girls club. When I see all the girls around town they yell my name. It is fun working with them. They are a hard group to teach, as Carson has experienced. We have done theatre games and some discussions about confidence and fears. It will take some time to get them to talk fluidly. Discussions are still like pulling teeth, but I am going to a couple of girl’s education NGOs when we go down for x-mas. Hopefully they will provide ideas and support.

A week ago or so, there was a huge football match in Kerewan. There had to be about 2000 people at the field. I saw all my girls and they swarmed around me, yelling Liisa!! They were dressed in their best western clothes, jeans, with their hair done up. Music was blasting, so we danced. They were screaming and laughing when I danced amongst them. It was so electric, such high energy. These girls are so loud, but so quite in the classroom. It feels so great to be accepted by these girls, I hope I can be a good role model for them.

Friday, December 22, 2006

This is one of our favorite pictures of Karamo, all around superstar, having a jumping competition with his brothers and friends in our compound.

Little Alu getting a much needed bath from Aja.

The Nursery School in opperation before Rachel and Bruama recieved funding to paint it.

The boys peeling potatoes for Thanksgiving at McDonal's... that's right, no "D" for fear of copyright infringement... the hostel in the making where we crashed. Thanks again, Modou!

There we are, having a good time at Turkey Day (err, fried chicken day in our case).

The river crossing to Jangjangbure-Georgetown-McCarthy island...
where we had Thanksgiving.

Fatoumata (or just Fatou). 3 years old and given a lot of attention by the previous volunteer (shout out to Nema, though we never met you), this girl is a diva in the making.

School Assembly. Sometimes Carson administers the national anthem, prayers, announcements, a motovational word or two of wisdom, and the anthem again. Not today, though! Oustas(Islamic Teacher) Papa Jassey is large and in charge.

Soccer with the boys. Headballing is Masey next to Karamo, Lamin and Fatou.

School Assembly. Some mornings I direct the national anthem, prayers, and announcements followed by the national anthem again. Not today. That's Oustass Papa Jassey large and in charge.

The lovely shower and toilet area. Actually, this is our entire back yard.

One of Rachel's first and most successful community projects so far. Renovating the Nursury School and renewing interest from the community. The little girl is a student reciting the alphabet and numbers.

Rachel and counterparts at the meeting for, by and in the new and improved nursury school.

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Represent.

Carson at school Kinteh (standing) and Samusa.

Soccer practice with from left Masi, Karamo, Lamin, and Fatou

Jim from Montana doing the damage.

Only the most attractive couple ever.

Yipes! You can hear these guys howling at night. Good things these ones are behind bars.

Here's the dudes at swearing in. Lookin' good fellas.
I think that mustache is illegal in most of West Africa... but Rachel's outfit makes up for it.

Rachel's new haircut!

Ok, we're trying to post a picture that makes the point, "this kid is adorable"

Rachel and Alu. Hey mom, look what we're bringing home... just kidding.

Kids performing a drum circle for kicks

Alu and Carson chilling on the front porch

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Just a Quickie

It's been a while since I've posted, not for lack of something to talk about but more for lack of time and access. Work's been brutal. Not to brag, just to explain... I'm double shifting at Kerewan Senior Secondary School, working 8-6. Also, we have mandatory weekend classes on both saturday and sunday and I'm trying to set up a computer lab and science lab. Don't worry I'll tell all about it in about 2 weeks. The terms coming to and end and once I finish putting all of my grading sheets together... BY HAND... Rachel and I are going to Kombo for Xmas break.
In the mean time, I've found a wonderful computer to mooch off of here at the local Independent Elections Commission. Finally starting to make some connections around here. Hope everyone's doing well. Rach and I are happy and healthy and looking forward to sun and palm trees for Xmas/Hannukah/Tabaski. Happy Festivus for the Rest of Us!! Now let the feats of strength begin!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Rams in the ocean

Posted by Rachel
I came in to the capital for the day to check email and go the bank. On the ferry from Barra to Banjul I saw the darnest thing. Fifty rams in a small wooden boat going to Banjul. At the port, the rams were jumping into the water and swimming to the shore. Against their will of course. Mind you it is chilly in the morning. They were huddling together on the beach, probably in shock. The best part was the man trying to get the stray rams to swim towards the shore and not towards the ferry. Have you ever seen sheep swim? Not me! I was laughing out loud. Toabski is coming soon. Everyone buys a ram and kills it. We get to eat sheep's meet for four days straight! Hmm....
Anyways hope all is well! We are happy and healthy! Sending love and hugs from the Gambia!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Girls Club, Nursery School Open House and Stepping on Toads in Your Bare Feet.

Girl's Club and Women in the Gardens
Posted by Rachel
Dec. 1
I really like doing community work, especially with women. If only I can speak the language better, I can work with these women. I started two girls clubs, one at the middle school and one at the high school. I have about 12 girls in the middle school club and 60 in the high school club. They like to do drama as a means of community activism or sensitisation as the Gambians call it. Issues that they want to talk about are girl's education, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and women's health. This past week we did some theater games, like charades and improve. They were great and funny. This could help with their public speaking skills. Girls in the classroom are so quiet. In this traditional and Islamic society, girls are subtlety taught not to speak in front of large groups or men. I want to them to feel comfortable to talk about relationships, sex, and body issues. We will give that time.

Girl's education is a new thing here. So these girls are the first generation to complete their education. Almost all of their mothers are uneducated. None of these girls have a female role model in their families or in the community. The mentors in my life were and are so important me. I wouldn't be here without them. I never realized that having mentors is yet something else that is a privilege to have.

I hope to find funding for a trip to the capital during international women's week to meet with working women. The Gambia also has a "Bring your daughter to work day," so maybe we can do something with that. I am working with a female teacher at the middle school. Mariama is my age and teaches home economics. We thought it would be a good idea to have a craft project for the girls, this could help not only raise funds for our trip, but teach them about marketing, economics, and managing their own money. Oh I hope these clubs work out…. This is what I truly want to focus on for my life's work.

I went to the community gardens with Aja yesterday evening. It was huge. Aja had two 20 by 20 meter plots. She is growing cabbage, bitter tomatoes, onions, and bananas. There are open wells about 4-6 feet deep scattered every 10 feet around the gardens. Now that the harvesting of the rice is about finished, the women are planting their gardens. This means more veggies at the market soon!

Aja had Alu on her back and I got to carry the bucket for fetching water from the wells. There were a lot of women there, watering their gardens, weeding, burning brush. I felt the sense of camaraderie among these women. They all know how hard each other work to keep their families and themselves alive. There is a greeting that here, I nim barra, it means you and work. When these women say it to each other, its almost asking how are you surviving today. When the men say it, it more out of respect than anything else.

I felt humbled in these gardens. I felt safe. I felt the power of women. I came to watch, but I also wanted to participate. So I went to fetch water from the open well, with a bucket with a rope tied to it. I couldn't submerge the bucket enough to fill it. Fetching water is really difficult. I felt so silly. These women were doing it with their eyes closed and I'm standing there for 10 minutes fiddling with this bucket. Aja was laughing at me and of course I was not helping her situation. She let me try a couple more times. I got it one time, but I couldn't seem to repeat the magic. Aja worked quickly fetching water and carrying it her plot to pour over her seedlings. I thought about our garden hoses at home, our sprinkler systems. Something about the open wells and the garden plots in the midst of papaya and banana trees felt so organic, so tropical.

We walked to the community garden further down the road. The first garden is about 2 Kilometers from the compound. This second garden is another 1.5 K from there. Aja gave me Alu while she tended to her garden. Oh Alu is just so adorable. He is so responsive and loves to cuddle. I think I might have to take him home. But I digress. I saw women walking back from the rice fields with huge buckets filled with harvested rice on their heads. The sounds of their heavy feet, the women in the gardens pattering in between their plots, the sound of buckets splashing in the wells, the gripping of the rope in their hands, all surrounded by the quiet of the bush and the pink glow from the sun set. Another humbling and intense moment here the Gambia. I hope to go to the garden more often. Next time I will bring my own bucket and practice fetching water in my attempt to show I can do some of the work African women do.

Community Meeting at the Nursery School
Dec. 1
Working with the nursery school here in Kerewan is fun and rewarding. We had a community meeting yesterday, like an open house. We invited all the parents, the PTA members, the councilman of Kerewan, the community radio station, the deputy headmaster of the lower basic school. The goal of the meeting was to inform the community about the proposed poultry farm and skills center project, to have parents encourage other parents to send their children to school, and to show off the newly painted walls. We got chairs from the education office and brought in ice blocks to make juice (like kool aid) for the attendants of the meeting. We planned a great program.

It was supposed to start at 10 am. We didn't get started until 11:30, only an hour and a half late, that's pretty much on time by Gambian standards! A third of the parents showed up, some PTA members (but not the chairman), and the deputy headmaster.
So not the best showing of people, but I'll take it! Mostly the mothers came, a couple fathers were there. Two of the mothers showed up in their police uniforms. They looked pretty bad-ass!

Meetings here in the Gambia are always official. We start with prayer, then comes a welcome remark, then the introduction of the high table, then we go into speeches. The master of ceremonies keeps the program going, but also summarizes each speech. Meetings are long and inefficient, but it is just another cultural aspect different from my own. After the welcome remark, Bruama spoke about the history of the school and the poultry project. It is neat to watch Bruama come into his role as a community leader. Then 10 of the nursery school students presented, reciting numbers, the alphabet, days of the week, and readings from the Koran. A PTA member spoke about educating our youth so they can one day be leaders of this country. Then it was my turn to speak. I read my speech in English first, then in Mandinka. Bruama helped me translate the speech the day before. Since this is a community meeting with mostly the mothers of the community, the meeting was mostly in Mandinka. Any English that was spoken was for my benefit only. Oh the beauty of being an outsider. Anyways, I talked about the importance of early childhood education and how the school needs the support of the community to function and sustain. After I finished reading in Mandinka, I got a round of applause and laughter. I think they appreciated my effort. We wanted to have a discussion about different ways the community can be involved, but no one spoke up. So we ended just in time for lunch. Oh and a guy from the radio station came to record the meeting. The station will broadcast the meeting on Saturday, so all of the North Bank Division will hear it. A good day had by all!

Death and Destruction to Anything Smaller than Us
Posted by Carson


A couple nights ago, I stepped on a toad in my bare feet. I squealed and Rachel laughed. Then we realized it’s innards were hanging out of its mouth as it continued to hop around. EEEEUUUUUUWWWWW. On the topic of death and destruction, mice keep eating our peanuts, bread, and tomatoes, not to mention keeping Rachel up at night with their rummaging. After only “catching” one by hand we purchased a gruesome black metal rat trap (probably a little larger than necessary) and have dealt destruction to 6 more. Nothing quite so satisfying as the THWAP of a rat trap in the middle of the night.

M Baa Kang / I am on it (Gambian way of saying work is busy)
Posted by Rachel

It has been a busy weekend. The workshop at Kerr Pateh was a success! I did a session on classroom management. The Gambia banned corporal punishment about five years ago. Schools have been struggling to find and implement alternative discipline measures. Teachers are split down the middle about this issue. Some still advocate that it is the only means of disciplining students, others understand the need for change. So I got up there and talked about preventive measures to help minimize misbehaviors. I talked about rules and classroom procedures. I talked about how to make rules effective. I offered some alternative means of discipline. I also talked about positive versus negative reinforcement. The whole idea of positive reinforcement is fairly new to the Gambia. Teachers are not afraid to humiliate students. I went on about creating a safe space for students to take risks. I felt like such a hippie! But I stood my ground against the several male teachers, one very loud Nigerian, who claimed that negative reinforcement works better than positive.

It was definitely a learning experience. We had good discussion. It truly was a venue for us teachers to exchange ideas. It was exciting to be a part of. One teacher presented the importance of group activities. We did one in the workshop and it was a blast. Another teacher presented learning games in the classroom. It will take time for the Gambian teachers to move totally away from chalk and talk. It will also take time for alternative discipline measures to talk hold. Teachers need more support from the administration as well as the community.

The next day, I went to the Nursery School here in Kerewan for another workshop. We spent the entire day making teaching and learning aids. I explained to the two teachers the importance of positively stated rules, as well as classroom procedures. I also made a fantastic daily chart that includes the day, date, and weather! Bruama, the head teacher, was able to organize the admistrative end of the school, while Sherifo, a 5th grade teacher who came to help out, wrote out nursery rhymes with beautiful drawings. We had fun. It is great to work with such motivated teachers.

Communication is difficult at times. During both workshops, teachers could not understand my accent. I try to alter it, but it presents a challenge. I am grateful that English is the official language, but it is still 10 times harder to communicate my ideas. My phrasing is different, I pronounce my “r”s, I don’t speak in the verbose Gambian English. Eventually we get on the same page, but barely. Not only is my accent foreign, but my ideas are as well. Hopefully I will learn Gambian English. Even the word “rules” gets lost in translation. So we do a lot of back and forth. “Roll?”, no “rules like classroom rules,” “yes the roll, it is here, we have 70 students.” So I give an example, like “no fighting or keep your hands to yourself.” Eventually a third party comes in or I figure out the word in Mandinka. It can wear me down at times. But we are all trying.

Another funny example of lost in translation was with Bruama. He wants to start a poultry farm in order to generate income for the Nursery School. Schools fees are not enough for staff salary, let alone maintenance, school materials, and other costs. Since the school is community managed, it needs a sustainable form of income, aside from outside donations. So we are applying to the Self-Help program at the American Embassy for money to implement this project. We decided to get the application done before Christmas. So I say “we will work this next month to complete the application.” Bruama says, “No, can we start on it now so we can get it done by Christmas time?” “Yes, this coming month until Christmas we will work on it.” “No, I think we need to get it done before the Christmas time.” So, realizing that our ways of thinking about time were different, I tried to explain that I meant this month before Christmas. We then just agreed we will start working on it now and in shallah in will be completed by Christmas.

I am still thinking small scale successes. I can’t expect this nursery school to operate to the standards of its American counterpart. Bruama is still an unqualified teacher; he hopes to attend the early childhood education course held at the Gambia College. Slowly, slowly the school will improve. We are having an Open House for parents to come in two weeks. Bruama also expressed interest in a sister school back in the states!

Everyday seems to be getting easier. But everyday also brings new challenges. Working eight hour days here takes everything out of you. It is humbling to try to live here. Yesterday I was pounding coos with Danke, she’s 6 and could pound much better that me. The women at the water pump could see me. I looked over to see 10 of them laughing, almost rolling on the ground. In Mandinka, they were saying look at Liisanding, she is trying to pound! I am always glad that I am good

One chilly morning…. Welcome to the cold season!
Posted by Rachel
13/11/06: When Carson and I awoke to the prayer call at five this morning, we were fishing for our sheet! The morning was cool and we had to cuddle for warmth. We crawled out of bed for our morning run. I put on a long sleeve shirt! We didn’t start sweating until halfway into our run! The breeze was crisp, the air felt clean and refreshed. As we rounded the corner to our road returning home, three men sat huddled around a fire wearing winter hats. We estimated that the temperature was a brisk 70-75 degrees. We are hoping that the cool season is here to stay…. For the next two months or so.

16/11/06: Oh these past couple of days have been delightful. This morning we were legitimately cold. I was chilled while running. We boiled our bath water and we were still cold taking an outside shower. This morning, I was cold on my walk to work. I am sitting in my office without the air conditioner on. I could get used to this! It is cool and dry. Granted it still heats up during the day. The sun is hot as hell. But the morning and night, things cool off. The humidity just switched off. My heels are cracked and my lips are chapped. I had to fish out my chapstick and lotion this morning!

This fabulous change in weather makes the day easier to get through. We are not walking around in a puddle of sweat. The heat and humidity is so oppressive. Just walking around town took so much energy. It was difficult to get comfortable at night. We were just uncomfortable all day. But now, the Harmatan wind blows throughout the day, our sweat evaporates, and we sleep with a sheet at night. Yes, enjoyable indeed.

Life is rolling along…
Post from Rachel

The days are beginning to go by fast. Work is back in full swing from the Koriteh holiday. Baby Alu is getting big; he is clapping his hands, standing up and making sounds. I watch him sometimes in the evening when Aja fetches water. We sit outside the compound and watch the people and motorcycles go by. Some women come by with large buckets of water on their heads. Some men are coming home from work. Some elder men are out for their nightly walk counting their prayer beads. One night this woman walked to and from the water tap eight times. It takes a lot of water to wash, cook, and bath an entire compound. By the sixth time she passed, we were already joking about how women work all day.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Living in a male-dominated society

Posted by Rachel

This past Sunday, Carson’s work mate, Saikou Samusa, invited us to have lunch at his family compound. He lives a little walk off the main road. His compound was so peaceful. There were no kids running around and screaming everywhere. No motorcycles whizzing by. There was a big garden and fruit trees scatter around the compound. In the corner he built a bright yellow cement home with glass windows. We met his wife and five children, who were all very welcoming and respectful.

So it was Carson, Saikou, Bruama (my counterpart at the nursery school), and myself sitting under the cashew tree. They brought out the spread! Bananas, guavas, attaya, juice, cold water, and groundnuts. Mr. Jallow (one of Carson’s fellow teachers) and his friend came by later. We had Benechin and cow’s meat for lunch. We felt as though we were being spoiled. Their hospitality was fabulous. We had genuine conversation about the Gambia, the US, development, gender roles, teaching, our favorite foods, you name it. We were among friends with them. It was nice to feel at home in a way.

The entire afternoon it was the men and I, while Dramane, Saikou’s wife, cooked and served us. Even when they were talking about family planning and gender, Dramane was running back and forth with food, water, etc. She reminded me of my Jewish grandmother. She kept coming with more food!

Being a white woman, I am an honorary man here in the Gambia. It is a male dominated society. The men work outside of the home, they speak good English, and rarely do any domestic chores. I work with mostly men. All of my counterparts are men. Men dominate the education sector and every other sector for that matter. It’s the boys who come knocking on our door at night for reading or homework help. It’s the 20-something year old men who stop by our home to chat with Carson and claim their friendship. The boys and men here are forthright, mobile, and demanding. The girls are shy and very seldom do they initiate or ask for anything from me. The women are vocal, but busy working in the fields or in the compound.

I miss having a support network of women. Most women my age do not speak English and already have 4 kids. It is the men who want to have intellectual and analytical conversations. My language skills are not at the point yet where I can express my self, where I can talk about life in general, the past, or the future. But also, I can’t be my total self with these women. I can’t talk about what I want to do in life, my career, or my marriage. The reasons being a) the women who did not go on to high school or even go to school, do the same work day in and day out, b) their marriage is at the bottom of their priorities. Women here are a tight nit group. Most of their husbands work in the city. Even if they are around, I never see displays of affection of any kind between a husband and a wife. They are all in the same boat. I never see any one of them cry or obsess about how they work everyday. They just go. I am here wanting to talk about how I miss my family and friends, my home, salads and ice cream. The women do gossip. They talk about anything and everything that happened the day before or on the present day. They are affectionate with each other. Even men show more affection towards each other than any husband or wife.

So I finally realize how hard it is to be a women in an Islamic, traditional, and rural African society. My goal now is to seek out women I can relate to. There are a couple of female teachers at the lower basic school that speak good English. I also want to find ways to spend more time with the women. Maybe go to the fields with them. Find a way to work outside of the public sector. I guess I’m just feeling the isolation of being in a culture where I don’t quite fit.

The true meaning of In-Shallah (if God wills it): Understanding patience in the workplace

Posted by Rachel

I was busy last week preparing for the workshop at Kerr Pateh. I had all my teaching aids made and rounded up some books and other donated materials wasting away in the storage room. I had the night before jitters. I got up early on Saturday morning. I overloaded my bag with books and biked 20K there. Passed the construction crews on the way. Many of them declared their love for me. Some yelled out “Liisa!” I must have met them around Kerewan sometime. The road to Kerr Pateh is sandy now that the rains stopped. So I trudged through the sand as fast as I could to escape the kids running after me.

I came to the school and found Mr. Jarra there. He told me that the assistant principle has the keys to the school with him. I asked where he was. I quickly learned that he left the night before for “an emergency meeting.” And he did not leave the keys with the principal. So the workshop was cancelled. I honestly was not surprised. Mr. Jarra felt so bad. But we had a nice chat over egg sandwiches and tea. He is very committed to development. In fact he wants to go back to school for Gender and Development. I told him that is my interest as well!! So we talked about gender roles here in the Gambia, the plight of women, and polygamy. It was refreshing. So not all was lost. I went to Kerr Pateh yesterday to observe the teachers and In Shallah, we will have a workshop this coming Saturday.

Observing yesterday was interesting. The headmaster, Mr. Jarra, treated me liking an honored guest. He brought me sodas and watermelon. He brought me bean sandwiches and juice. I just don’t know how to tell him that his motivation and commitment towards developing this school is enough to impress me. I hate feeling like a celebrity every where I go. I am here working just like them. The last thing I want them is to spend money on me. I never know when it is an insult to not except showing of hospitality.

I sat in most of the lower basic classes. A couple of teachers did some great child-centered activities. The students were engaged throughout the class period. Other teachers had a hard time managing their class. They just started teaching, no introduction to the subject of the class, no context for these kids. The students were not paying attention and being disruptive. The teachers yelled and even hit some students on the head for acting out. I do not want to bash these teachers but rather, try to understand the best way for the Gambian education system to move away from this “chalk and talk” method. My whole idea of rules and classroom management I learned from both being a student and a teacher conflicts with what I saw while observing. They banned corporal punishment about 5 years or so back, but never introduced alternative methods of discipline. The teachers here are underpaid, under-resourced, and not respected. Sound familiar? Even in the states this is true. But there are more incentives in the US like health insurance, retirement, legitimate professional development, even funding further education. So why should teachers here take the extra time and effort to incorporate new methods of teaching? I just hope I don’t sound too ridiculous at the workshop talking about classroom management.

I’m trying to think of a way to provide teachers the motivation and confidence to do great things in the classroom. Maybe a regional competition, whereby teachers demonstrate a child-centered lesson. The teacher that wins receives a reward as well as a reward for their school. That’s a rough idea. I have been talking to some cluster managers here at the REO and they say that workers here in the Gambia are being underutilized, that’s why it can not develop. Maybe we can think of something!

I am working with a teacher at the Kerewan Lower Basic. We are preparing a resource center. The school had boxes of books for science, non-fiction, fiction, and maths just sitting in their closest room, spoiling. We brought them out and have been going through them these past couple of days. The resources are being donated to the Gambia; it is just a question of figuring out how the teachers can use them to supplement their lessons. The UK has donated bits and pieces of math and reading curriculum, which is great, but it takes awhile to figure out what’s there. It can be frustrating to see books and materials spoiled from termites and other critters. I was organizing a box and found four baby rats! Oh the hazards of the job.

Our first Koriteh! (Oct. 23)

Posted by Rachel

We woke to the sounds of music playing, women pounding, and an excited murmur seeping through the humid morning. We knew that Ramadan was over. We weren’t sure if Koriteh, the celebration of the end of Ramadan, was that day or the next. But alas someone sited the new moon in the capital, so the party began. Everyone goes to the mosque in the morning for prayer. People visit family and friends bringing food and other offerings. The men are dressed in their Kaftans, a floor length robe almost but more shirt-like, and the women in their Komplets, a head scarf, lavish shirt and wrap-skirt. The children are dressed in their very best. Some boys were wearing brand new western style cloths; a collard shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Others in Kaftans. Some girls wore little prom dresses or Komplets, with fancy dress shoes.…they all looked so grown up and nice! For a second I forgot that these were the little terrors running and rolling around the sandy roads of Kerewan.

Koriteh is almost like Halloween for the children here. They go around the entire village asking for “Salleboo.” People usually give then one Dalasi or a piece of candy. They came in packs all throughout the day. I rushed to the bitik and bought a big bag of candy because we forgot to save our Dalasi coins. The teenage girls did up their hair. They looked gorgeous, as though they were going to a prom.

Aja was busy cooking in the morning. We greeted all the elders that came to the compound. Finally it was time to have our big feast for lunch. We ate with Aja and the kids. They had at least five bowls of food. We had chicken and loads of veggies over bennechin (like fried rice) with a tasty hot garlic sauce. They started brewing attaya the minute lunch was over. Oh the Gambia is back! I put on my Komplet and we walked around to visit neighbors and work mates. They all said I was pure African in my Komplet.

There is no holding back for holidays here in the Gambia. On Koriteh, I was in awe of how beautiful and new everyone’s clothes were. I felt shamed in my old Komplet and dirty sandals. If someone came to visit the Gambia for this one day, they would never know that kids wear torn and tattered clothes or that meat is a rare to see in the food bowl. It was a showing of abundance on Koriteh. And the big holiday is yet to come! Tobaski is on Dec. 31st I believe. They slaughter big rams and eat meat all day. It is a big all day, all night party!

We travelled into the capital the Saturday before Koriteh. That was a big mistake. Imagine the malls right before Christmas. The city was packed with people. I truly think half of the Gambia was in the capital that day. We went in to go to the bank and the grocery store…you know just a quick trip. Oh the naivite! We went into the bank and it was packed wall to wall with people. So we went upstairs to the VIP area to do our banking. We felt so guilty using our Peace Corps and toubab status. But we paid for it waiting for the ferry to cross from Banjul to Barra. (Kerewan in 55K from Barra). We waited three hours for the ferry to come. There are supposed to be three operating at the same time, and should be only a half of an hour wait. But of course, you cannot assume anything as fact here in the Gambia. We waited for three hours. The ferry terminal kept filling up with people. We had to wait behind a gate, so we were all crammed in there. The mobs that were in the capital were now all waiting for the ferry. Each person having bags and bags of new Koriteh clothes, food, and other offerings. We were with two other Volunteers, Becca and Adam. When the ferry came and they opened the gate, it was a mad rush to get on the ferry! Luckily Becca is a lacrosse player, she’s tough and bulldozed through people. I stayed close behind. We reached the second deck of the ferry and looked back to see a sea of people still coming. And of course, don’t forget that it was humid and hot as heck. Oh, the subtle reminders that we are living in a third world, err developing, country. Which one is PC now?

But Happy end of Ramadan! Bean sandwiches are back and I can drink and eat in front of people! Aja thought that I did not drink water. I told her that we came when to Kerewan when Ramadan began, and I did not want to be rude. She is used to seeing white people with their water bottles.

Gambians vote for the Democrats

Posted by Carson

So our only regular source of current events is BBC Africa, giving us news from a very international perspective. In case anyone was wondering, the top story over here is, in fact, the US midterm election. Maybe now that things have gone the way they have back home, I can stop trying to answer the question, “Why does George Bush/America hate the world so much?”

My Linen Pants

My Linen Pants
Posted by Carson

Clothing in the Gambia is a little different. If you want a shirt, you can go to the lumo (weekly market) and get a mass produced shirt with the 50 cent logo on it or some sweet jeans with patchwork guns sewn on (gangsta style) or second hand shirts. In fact, you’ll sometimes see old ladies or little children wearing second hand t-shirts that say “tease” in hot pink or something like “I’m with stupid”, while not knowing what it says. Our 11 year old host brother was wearing a colorful blouse with some nice 80’s style shoulderpads last night. You can also buy fabric by the yard with your favorite designs or colors on it and take it to one of the million tailors in your village (we have one in our family compound). For a new shirt, the process will cost you about $1.50, which is a lot of money on a Gambian (or peacecorps) budget, but still well worth it.
So, now I have my newest, greatest pair of linen pants to wear in the sweltering heat along with my super baggy, colorful and gaudy wax print shirts. Rachel’s had some nice wrap-skirts and equally flamboyant shirts. Wo betiyaata. Rollin’ in style.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Math AND Science.

5 November 2006: Posted by Carson

So, the science teacher at the Senior Secondary school has been accepted to the University of the Gambia to begin a bachelors program in education. Way to go bro.

On a completely unrelated note, my course load has incidently doubled as I take on the Senior Secondary science classes. I'm actually pretty happy that I get to teach something a little more interesting and Rachel's gonna be busy these next couple months too (she fill you in as soon as she gets the time), so it's all for the better. By this time next year we might even have a functional science lab!

What’s this Word?

October 31, 2006 Posted by Carson

English is the official language of the Gambia, and many educated Gambians are excited to improve their comprehension and vocabulary. Today, a teacher at the school asked me to explain a word to her. She leafed through the book, muttering about how nobody has been able to translate it and that hopefully I would know it. With some effort, I was able to explain “MOOSEBURGER” to a Gambian.

Late for school, that's an ass whoopin'

Nov, 23 2006: Posted by Carson

School assemblies are conducted Mondays and Fridays before classes begin. Our fledgling Senior Secondary school is strapped for teachers and space, so we double shift. Grade 11 comes in the morning and Grade 10 comes in the afternoon. That means that, as teachers, we teach from 8 in the morning until 6:30 at night in buildings that have no electricity, let alone air-conditioning. For the next 3 months, in order to catch the students up, we’re also conducting mandatory weekend classes from 9 to 12, both Saturday and Sunday. I can’t really complain, though. My load is pretty light this term, allowing me to spend time on some secondary projects.

Fridays are half days for schools in the Gambia. We start an hour early and finish around 1:30 to allow time for Friday prayers. Showing up for that Friday assembly, an hour earlier than usual, proves a challenge for both students and faculty. Today, for example, at 7:00 sharp, 2 students and myself were the only ones present. Within 15 minutes there were 6 or 7 students present and one of the elder teachers showed up and began assembly.

A typical school assembly consists of the students standing single file in 2 long lines, facing the faculty. It begins with the humming of the national anthem, “For The Gambia, hmmm hum himm himmm….” followed by 30 seconds of prayers and then maybe 1-2 hours of announcements and finished by another rousing rendition of “For The Gambia”. The announcements mostly consist of every teacher giving a “motivational” speech about how the students won’t amount to anything in this life if they don’t tuck in their shirts. Maybe something else about how the girls should not wear lipstick because this is not a beauty contest and if it were, they would loose anyway. Blablabla.

As today’s assembly rolled on, most of the 40-some other students showed up in groups of two or three, wearing their uniforms of burgundy pants and a white button-down shirts with the school’s crest sown on the front pocket. At the end of the session (running well into my class period) all of the late-comers were beaten with 5 strokes of a length of PVC pipe across the palms of their hands or their butts. As they wiped the tears from the corners of their eyes and rubbed their raw palms they came to class. Who’s ready for MATH?!?! HIGH FIVE! Alright, not funny.

Corporal Punishment is a big point of debate here. Technically illegal in the school system, many parents and faculty firmly believe that it’s the only way to instil discipline in the students. A few years ago, a student died after being beaten at school and more students died during the ensuing protests. Now, there are some stubborn opinions on both sides of the issue. Most people are ignorant or sceptical of the concept of positive re-enforcement, lumping it in with “those western ideas”.

The argument goes something like this: American kids have TV and toys that you can take away from them. Gambian kids don’t have these things. They play in the dirt. So, if you want to punish them, you have to hit them. It is therefor the responsibility of any decent parent (and larger sibling) to whoop the shit out of a kid that makes a mistake. Also, as part of the communal nature of village life, friends and neighbors, including the teachers, are expected to help raise the swarm of littl’uns running around and in the process, beat the snot out of them. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

Peace Corps The Gambia Married Couples Newsletter

We are the only married Peace Corps Volunteers in the Gambia. Also, our sitemate, Harinder, the coolest Sikh in town, edits the Peacecorps newsletter and does pretty well at the sarcasm and cynicism that keeps us all going. In addition to writing his own articles, like the recent expose on the KMC (Kerewan Married Couple), he accepts submissions. Here’s our contribution for the upcoming edition.

Peace Corps The Gambia Married Couples Newsletter:
Representing the extensive network of married PC volunteers in the Gambia

Rachel and Carson voted volunteer married couple of the month.

Married PCVs now outnumber single PCVs in Kerewan 2 to 1.

50% of PCTG married volunteers think locally tailored tank top not flattering. Remaining 50% think Carson’s and asshole.

PCTG married volunteers unanimously agree with your host family: Why aren’t you married yet?

Married couple’s double-date with Harinder and Nate a success, Harinder confused.

Married volunteers petition PCTG to provide tandem bicycles.

Gambians at water pump reach consensus: Carson’s an “OK” wife.

Female PCV surprises suitors, backs up claim of already having husband.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rachel at Work

Posted by Rachel

This past month has been a whole lotta of ups and downs. Not even day by day, more like hour by hour. It has taken a month to finally begin to understand how I can fit into the community of Kerewan. With the elections in early September (surprise, surprise the incumbent won…. After he threatened to cut off funding to any village that did not overwhelmingly vote for him) and Ramadan, work at the Regional Education Office has been slow, even by Gambian standards. It has about two months for the schools to get settled into their schedules, acquire the right amount of teachers, and make registrars of their students. So school won’t get into full swing until November.
The first week I did a whole lot of sitting, dancing with the secretaries to Senegalese music and hunting for a counterpart. I was frustrated. I kept wondering what I was supposed to be doing here, what was it that I had to offer. What does a development worker do anyways?!
I decided to change my strategy and attitude. A wise man (Hi Dad!) told me that I should just hang out. And for the past three weeks that’s what I’ve been doing. I chat with people at the office. We talk about work, family, politics, etc. I decided to start going to the primary school here in Kerewan and observe the teachers, and learn about the Gambian school system. The headmaster loved that I wanted to be “a part of the staff.” Truly I just wanted to hang around, but whatever Mr. Joff sees fit. So I chat with the teachers about their challenges, their lives, their students. I watch them teach in a barren room of crumbling concrete with learning aids half eaten by termites on the walls. Students are crammed around tables so high that some have to stand to write. Teachers have only a black board and chalk in the way of materials. The assistant headmaster, Mr. Singateh, said to me the other day: “The white man has done a good job of showing us that Western education is most important. So we have most of our children in the schools, but how can we teach them without any resources? How can we educate them by western standards without resources.” And I can only say…yes, it’s not easy, which is a common Gambian response.
I have made friends with a couple of teachers. Neneh, is a Christian Gambian, she is not fasting so we have snacks together in her classroom. She is funny and a good teacher. She is from Banjul. Teachers here are posted to schools anywhere in the country. They change there posting every 2 or 3 years, often to locations far from their family and home.
At the REO I finally met Mr. Kebe. He is the cluster manager of 10 schools in Kerewan and its surrounding area. I soon learned that the Kerewan primary school is building a resource centre for teachers. Mr. Kebe is pioneering this and I sat down to talk to him about it. He also said that other schools in his area have a need for a resource center and teacher training. Yes, I found myself a counterpart!
At the REO, there is a storage room with boxes and boxes of donated textbooks and learning aids. I learned that they have been sitting there for the past three years!!!! No one at the office is in charge of these books… so I asked Mr. Kebe if I could begin looking through the materials and see what would be good for the resource center. So I have spent hours in the corner of the room dodging spider webs and hornets nest trying to figure out what invaluable curriculum are in these stacks of boxes buried in a thick layer of dirt.
So hopefully, in these coming months I can begin having workshops with teachers. Helping them make learning aids. Exchange ideas. Bring in books and teacher resources.
I also met the head teacher at the Nursery school here in Kerewan. Nursery schools are fairly new to the Gambia and none of them are funded by the state. Mr. Fatajo invited me to the school. There are two classes of twenty pupils in a two room school. The walls and floors need major repairs. The fence needs fixing. There are no learning aids or materials for that matter. Remember our cozy preschool classrooms, with bright and flashy learning aids everywhere; mountains of books and games and crayons and glue and glitter and paper. This school has nothing. I counted 10 books, 2 games, and five learning aides on the wall. Yes, this will be a big project.
We met to write letters to ask for funding for learning and building materials. Once we receive funding, we will work together to make learning aids. Mr. Fatajo is motivated. He wants to paint the inside and outside wall with animals, shapes, trees, etc. It is just so hard to see the lack of funding halt, stifle, frustrate the positive and worthy development that so many Gambians strive for.
There is an education PCV who is writing a Nursery School Curriculum for the Gambia. I hope to work with her more and help implement the curriculum once we can get these nursery schools off the ground.

ADWAC is an NGO based in Kerewan that focuses on the development of woman and children in the North Bank Division. My next door neighbor works there, Lamin Kasamas, where he is the education coordinator. In fact mostly men work there. Small detail. ADWAC recently started a woman’s rights program where the staff went through a gender training workshop. I hope to work more with gender training within the community. I found these great gender training manuals published by Oxfam at the REO and brought them to ADWAC. They are bringing in a new officer of the program in January and they “foresee” me working with her. I’m excited to be able to use my degree!! ADWAC is also focusing on creating nursery schools in their impact area. Lamin asked me if I could help train teachers once the schools are stable and off the ground.

17/10/06 (Official date: one month in site!)
I went on trek today! Mr. Kebeh wanted me to check out the Ker Pateh Basic Cycle School, Grades 1-9. So I rode my bike 18K each way to observe and chat with the Headmaster, Mr. Jarra. The main rode going east is under construction. I ate a lot of dust! The road north to Ker Pateh, the village is about 1 km from the Senegalese border, was a big mud pit in some areas. Imagine me on my fancy Peace Corp mountain bike with a gleaming white helmet leap froging through the mud with a boy driving a donkey cart. As usual, I felt out of place.
After a long chat with Mr. Jarra, I learned that the school has a huge need for furniture. I walked into a Grade one class with 90 students crammed in. There is not enough furniture to split the class in two. The school has the space and another teacher, but no furniture. Do you remember our nice desks and chairs and kidney tables? Or carpet and pillows for the reading area? The children are lucky if they have an intact cement floor below their feet, a wooden bench to sit on with two of their peers, and a narrow table to write. Ker Pateh is trying to form a nursery school, but of course there is no furniture or learning aids.
When I walked into the classes, all the students stood and said, “Good Morning Madam!” I chuckle every time. It is just so wild to be treated either like a celebrity or an alien, or both at the same time. I just want to blend in. I want to be able to ride my bike without mobs of kids screaming “toubab”, running as hard as they can to catch up with me. I suppose I represent power and money, I am a celebrity. I am…let’s say……J-Lo to these kids. So, I must learn that they are not being malicious. While their actions by American standards would be considered extremely rude, here it’s their way of greeting foreigners. So this is my way to reconcile the constant attention….just keep saying to myself “I am J-Lo, I am J-Lo.” Oh Gosh, how ridiculous is that!?
Anyways, Mr. Jarra and I will be leading a school-based workshop together. We will collaborate and plan the program. The previous PCV trained him to lead workshops. It will be in two weeks (in Shallah: God willing). This will be a great way to learn what a Gambian workshop is like! Mr. Jarra is motivated and determined to develop his school. It was refreshing to see. On the ride home as I looked out to the lush green sahel, grass and corregate roofs clumped together in the village up ahead, I had a moment where I was said to myself, oh man I am in Africa! I live here, this is my home, this is where I work. I don’t have these moments as often as I thought, but they are nice.
So I hope I can go on trek more and visit more schools in the area or within a reasonable biking distance. Work is starting to snowball bit by bit. I am finding a niche in this community, yet!

Carson at Work

Posted by Carson

So, I’ve been teaching 10th and 11th grade math for almost a month at Kerewan Senior Secondary School. The school, started only last year, still has a relatively small enrolment, and is confined to a far corner of the Upper Basic School campus (Grades 6-9) until the national government builds an actual school for them. With only two classrooms, we split up the two grades, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Overwhelmingly, I enjoy my job. I love to be in front of the class, especially as I become more comfortable with my delivery and teaching style. The kids are even beginning to understand my accent, or are at least more convincing with their smiling and nodding.
That’s not to say my life is without it’s challenges. As I write this, Ramadan is in full swing, crippling my ability to assign homework and present new material. Can you imagine a class of high-schoolers fasting? It doesn’t exactly lend itself to productivity. Also, the standardized 9th grade test results were just released, meaning that those accepted into grade 10 can begin class… 7 weeks into the official term. And I can’t forget chronic shortage of teachers and lack of available teaching resources.
By far the greatest challenge I face is the general lack of ability of the students. Because of English as a second language, mass-promotion, the culture of illiteracy at home, and the general lack of resources, my students are poorly prepared for highschool level math. They are not stupid. Some of them are incredibly insightful, and show real motivation to achieve. The rest, I assume, have the potential to learn, whether it’s realized or not. They just have not been exposed to, or made to practice, many concepts that I had hoped or expected.
For example, most of the Peace Corps here have been asked several times, by young and old alike, whether we have the moon, stars and clouds in America. The moon?! I’ve always taken astronomy for granted as a sort of motivational science. When many of us were young, we dreamt about being astronauts. Through talking about the planets, I was always enticed to pay a little more attention to math and physics. So, when in model school during training, I tried a 9th grade astronomy lesson and it flopped harder than I ever hope to experience again. Woah, woah, forget the solar system… The Earth is round?!?
So, time and again, I’ve had to take a step back and re-evaluate. Take nothing for granted. After discussing last years course material (nothing new, just last years topics) for 3 weeks, the class average on an un-ambitious practice test was 7 out of 20. Once again, step back and reassess. Recently, I’ve found my most useful teaching aid for 11th grade math to be a 4th grade math textbook donated by an elementary school in Utah. Using that book while veering away from the “chalk and talk” teaching and encouraging student participation and problem solving at their desks and getting them up to the board I’m seeing immediate but modest progress. As soon as Ramadan ends, they’ll even be going home with math homework. There’s a first time for everything.
As the year progresses, I’m committed to co-chair the Science Club and the Current Affairs/Debate Club. Also, after Ramadan, (once again, gotta wait for Ramadan to end) I’ll be firing up the generator and setting up the computer lab. We’ve got 4 Pentium 1 machines yellowed with age and hosting ant colonies right now, though I’m not sure that they turn on yet. Once that happens, it sounds like there’s significant interest in computer classes for adults and teachers and, as a remote possibility in the distant future… maybe even students.
In the midst of all of this, I’ve got to make the point that the teachers and administrators I work with are completely impressive. I know that this makes them the exception to the rule in the Gambia, but they really are committed to teaching well. That’s not to say they’re not as fatalistic as every other Gambian I’ve ever met is, because they are. It’s a sort of necessary coping mechanism. Absolutely frustrating, but definitely necessary. But in many instances, it goes much further than that. So many teachers in this country are under-trained and under-compensated and so much of the administration is apathetic, I’ve been able to sigh a breath of relief that I might be spared that hassle. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but I think my work and other projects will be well received. We’ll see.

Samateh Kunda (Kunda is compound in Mandinka)

Posted by Rachel

Here’s a run down of the people in Samateh Kunda. It is a renter’s compound consisting of several families. The Samatehs own the compound, hence the name.

Aja Njai is the woman who keeps the compound running. She is 28 years old with five kids. She is strong, funny, and just awesome! Unfortunately she doesn’t speak more than a few words of English. She has a sympathetic ear and we actually have some great conversations with her (in our limited Mandinka of course). Aja does the laundry, cooks, cleans, you name it, all while nursing a 9 month old baby. Sometimes literally at the same time. She has become a good friend to us.
Aja’s husband, Faabackary Samateh, works as a fireman in Kombo. He only comes to visit once a month for two days at a time. Mama Sware is Faabackary’s mother. Aja lives with her mother-in-law and her five kids. Mama Sware is old and stubborn. She doesn’t do much work, expect sweep and fetch water. Mama doesn’t bother us much. We talk to her

Re-cap: Aja has five kids and a compound to take care of, her husband’s out of town, fortunately she has her… mother in law?!

Aja’s kids: Lamin, 11; Karamo, 10; Binta, 8; Fatoumata, 3; Alu, 9 months.

Lamin is bossy, a jokester and loves to sing. He is very loving with his baby brother Alu. The previous PCV, Nyima, gave Lamin her discman and speakers, along with a Tupac CD. So on Koriteh, we jammed to Tupac. Lamin and Karamo knew all the words. I tried to teach them the running man and the sprinkler…you know the white people dance. They said it was too hard. So they busted out some Mandinka dance moves. I tried to mimic and of course they laughed.
Lamin walks around the compound singing day and night. He will bust out some dance moves or karate moves randomly. He has a great spirit. He is loyal to his mom. It is sweet to see. School is not his strength. He reads at a first grade level and his math skills are just as low. But somehow he has moved up to the sixth grade no problem. He is good at memorizing, though.

Karamo is respectful, curious, and smart. He is also very loving with his baby brother. He is the brains of the family. He comes to our place at night to read and do homework with Carson. His reading level is not at a fifth grade level, but it is still better than most his age. Lamin, insecure and jealous of being surpassed by his little brother, will usually come in to read as well. Lamin is very pushy and demands attention during these night time reading sessions.
When either of us are reading or just sitting out on our front porch, Karamo will come and sit next to us, hoping to get a glimpse of what is in our hands. Karamo helps us a lot with language. He is patient and eager to talk with us. We will try to explain something in Mandinka and he will always know what word we are fishing for.
A funny story about Karamo.: During the first or second week of Ramadan, Aja, Mama, the kids and I were sitting outside enjoying the night air. They were all stuffed from their break fast meal, but still cranky and tired from the heat of the day. Lamin put on a pot of attaya over the small portable charcoal stove. Karamo was ordered to take off the mat from the bantaba (a big concrete square for lying and sitting). As he took off the mat, he knocked over the attaya pot, spilling all the attaya leaves on the ground. Everyone started screaming at him. When fasting you can’t have any liquids. So you can imagine the excitement of having attaya (a Gambian addiction) after a long and hard day of fasting. You should have seen his face. Aja, Mama, and the rest of the family livid. He ran off so fast. He hadn’t come back before we went off to bed.

Binta is quiet and beautiful. She has the middle child thing going on. Being the oldest female in the family, she helps Aja with the cleaning and caretaking of the compound and family. I started reading with her the first week we arrived. She is in fourth grade and doesn’t know her alphabet. But, she goes to school in the afternoons and is too busy to sit down and read anymore.

Fatoumatah is a terror. She is completely adorable and bright eyed, but already has an attitude. Her entire life, there have been volunteers in the compound, so she’s been partly raised by toubabs. This has afforded her more attention than the average Gambian child. She can identify the parts of her face in English! She has sass and class.

Alu- I love this baby! He is so adorable. His eyes take up half of his cute chubby face! Carson said just the other day, “I can see my entire reflection in his eyes.” He also likes to pee on me. But I don’t mind….because he’s just so darn cute!

Faabackary’s older brother, Kebe, lives here with his wife and three boys. Also, N’Dae and her daughter Adama live right next door to us. N’Dae owns a restaurant and she is one of our favorites, speaking Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, and French. On the other side of us is Lamin Kasamas and Kutu Jarju and their one year old son, Omar. Lama and her four kids just moved out leaving a vacant spot. Njatu, a rare single woman, works at the REO with me, but might move out soon. More on our neighbors later.

What do we eat, anyway?

Posted by Carson

We mentioned the local food. Rice with oil usually constitutes 3 meals a day so we make a lot of effort to cook for ourselves. Though it puts a little more strain on our budget and freetime, it’s been worth it so far. Between the daily market, the small biticks (shops) and our proximity to the capital, we do alright. We get one meal per day from our host family and prepare the rest on our own. We’ve even built a sort of cooking hut in our “backyard” out of corrugate tin, local style, to house our propane tank and double burner camp stove. We’ve also come into some basil seeds, so maybe in a month or two, we’ll have a nice herb garden. Having been sick in one way or another for about half of our total time here (I’ll spare you the details), I’m excited to get down to the business of putting weight back on.

Food Items available locally (some are seasonal):

Bananas, Tomatoes, Bread (there’s actually a Senegalese French style baker’s hut 2 compounds down from us), rice, more rice, peanuts (raw, boiled, and roasted), peanut butter, squash, bitter green leaves (sort of like spinach??), bitter tomatoes, watermelon, mangoes, biscuits, condensed milk, powdered milk, eggs, flour, onions, garlic, tomato paste, green tea, sugar, salt and pepper, chicken and beef spam (gotta keep it Halal), mayonnaise (yeah, from gross to delicious in just 3 months, but how does it keep sans refrigeration??), beans, pasta from Banjul, partially hydrogenated palm oil (Mmmm), and whatever you send us ;^). Oh, and we couldn’t forget our favorite: Chocoleca, an imported and expensive combo of chocolate and peanut butter.

Food items we wish we could get(wink, wink):

Cliff/Power Bars, Tuna in a pouch, Annie's Mack and Cheese(whole wheat and white chedder), a magazine or two, some TP as packing material, and of course, we love surprises!

The Daily Grind

Posted by Carson

So, as mentioned in previous emails, we’re living in the bustling provincial seat of the North Bank, Kerewan. Rachel and I seem to have created some sort of routine amidst our chaotic first month of life here. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, considering we’re in the midst of Ramadan. Every morning, we wake up at six and run west out of town, along the paved section of the national highway (see “northbank road” below). This is quickly becoming our only running route for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it cuts through mangrove and tidal flats so there are no outlying villages where children who don’t know us can harass us (we’ll explain “toubabing” later). This means the only locals who puzzle over our bizarre behavior are the fishermen and bush-taxis. Also, with construction to the east between Kerewan and Farafenni, we can avoid the heavy trucks kicking up dust and rocks. And, of course, it’s beautiful. As we cross President Yaya Jammeh’s bridge (the second bridge in the whole country, donated by Taiwan, but don’t tell him that, it’s his!) and turn around into the sunrise over the tributary, it’s an incredible sight every morning.
After our run, it’s a quick breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and a bucket bath before we’re out the door and on our way to work. During Ramadan, we usually cook lunch for ourselves, then head back to work. I usually start sweating at about 8 in the morning and don’t actually stop until I wake up and peel myself off our foam mattress at six the next morning. That means that the only time I’m dry is the 15 minutes before we work out in the morning. Good thing the hot season’s only 10 months of the year.
Dinner this month is with our family. Gambian food is sometimes really good (Domodah, Niankatango), sometimes not so much, but always consisting of rice and oil with lots and lots of Maggie brand MSG flavoring as well as real salt. Good thing I sweat a lot. After dinner it’s social hour, when Gambians sit around and drink attaya (I’ll explain attaya, too). Actually, they prefer to always drink attaya, but Ramadan sort of gets in the way.


THE NORTH BANK ROAD is one of the two main east-west highways in The Gambia. Think of a two lane country road in the US: no center line with a car passing, on average, every 10 minutes or so. While it’s currently in the process of being repaved, potholes are already forming before the project is even completed. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because it’s a helluva lot better than the southbank road which is so deteriorated that vehicles opt to risk the mud on either side than the actual road. No exageration.

RAMADAN is the Islamic month of fasting. It’s based on the lunar calendar so the dates change a little each year. During this time, between sunrise and sunset, Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink, gossip, fight, show affection etc. While a truly remarkable demonstration of faith, it tends to make work a little difficult, as coworkers and students are often less than productive.

ATTAYA is a West African drink as well as ritual and passtime. It’s chinese gunpowder style green tea sometimes with mint or basil picked locally, that they brew incredibly strong with a lot of sugar. They pour a serving from one shot glass into another and back until a thick head of foam is formed then they serve it as if it were a little cappuccino. 3 brews are typically made from one batch of tea, the first having all the caffeine. The entire process takes about an hour… and repeat.

TOUBABING is a hazard of the job. It’s why we’re paid the big bucks. We are Toubabs (two-bob) as are all non-black, foreign people. For many villagers, the only whites they have contact with are tourists who drive by in safari jeeps and throw candy at the kids. Every gambian child knows 2 phrases in english: “Toubab! What is your name” and “Toubab! Give me minty!” Sometimes, they’ll just sit there in groups of 30 and yell toubab as you walk by. It sounds innocuous, but it begins to wear you down. Sometimes it’s even a little malicious. By now, we’ve got most of the kids in our section of the village to call us by name, so on our way to work we’re bombarded by repeated high pitch shouts of “Lisanding” and “Jalahmang”.

Rachel and Carson in The Gambia: The Basics

Posted by Carson

In the interest of keeping friends and family informed, we’ve decided to follow our best instincts, make good on our vague intentions and actually post a blog. While this should allow those at home to check up on our progress and (mis)adventures a little more easily as well as save us the hassle of mass emails, it should also be a great resource for anyone outside “the loop” who may have been casually wondering, “what ever happened to those two kids, anyway?”
We’re even coming up with a plan to post updates regularly, so these 2 years can fly by and it’ll feel as if we were never more than a click away. So, please, pass on this address to anyone we may have lost contact with. But, of course, don’t let this stop you from writing or calling the old-fashioned way (ahem, ahem):

Rachel Glickel and Carson Bennett or
Carson Bennett and Rachel Glickel (depending on who you love more)
US Peace Corps
PO Box 582
Banjul, The Gambia
West Africa

Rachel’s cell: 220.989.9440
Carson’s cell: 220.989.9441
(sometimes difficult to reach from overseas, so please try again later!)

And, of course, feel free to email us at and

We’ve posted some pictures to snapfish, and have taken many more, but it’s proving a challenge to upload them from our severely limited access to the internet. Don’t worry though, where there’s a will, there’s a way.